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Blog: Humane Education

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The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics Summer School 2019 - What We Learned about Humane Education

This year, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics hosted its sixth Summer School. The theme was “humane education”, with a range of speakers from around the globe proposing methods for “increasing sensitivity to animals and humans”. I was lucky enough to attend one of its four days of seminars, and thought I’d share some highlights.

The first seminar of the day – ‘“Educate them artistically”: The art of humane education’ – was delivered by Professor J. Keri Cronin of Brock University, Canada. The idea that ‘children who receive instruction in the arts will not partake in deeds of cruelty’ was put forward in an 1869 article published by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Using this as a starting point, Cronin explained that art played a central role in nineteenth century notions of humane education. She posited a connection between giving children the opportunity to make art – ‘capturing images of animals not the animals themselves’ – and their development into kind and humane citizens. On that basis, she asserted that exposing children to art – encouraging thoughtful observation, rather than exploitation of the natural world – is an effective way to foster compassion towards all species, and urged present day animal advocates to take note.

This was followed by a presentation from David Rosengard, Staff Attorney at the US-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. ‘From theory into practice: Animal law pedagogy and practitioner training’ was centred around how difficult it can be to encourage lawyers to undertake animal law cases. In the United States, there are no anti-cruelty laws at a federal level, meaning new rules must be grappled with for cases in different states. This is especially tough given requirements for practitioners to keep learning in order to retain their licenses. The variety of cultures across the states means there is a range of different interpretations regarding which animals matter in cruelty prevention. Moreover, law is a relatively conservative discipline; many lawyers are likely to shy away from being ‘guinea pigs’ in taking on cases in this comparatively new and unknown area of law. Additionally, animal law practitioners face the problem of having to train advocates using the framework of a legal system that treats animals as objects.

Rosengard offered a number of ways to tackle these problems. Practitioners should offer animal-specific resources, and create dedicated spaces for teaching and learning about animal law. He also suggested identifying non-animal related points of interest and linking animal abuse cases to other crimes. For example, cockfighting cases are often linked to drugs and sex trafficking issues as well. Practitioners will be more interested in intervening if they can tackle several problems at once. He also suggested presenting animal issues as issues that affect people, too. It’s in a farmer's financial interest to protect their cows from heatstroke and disease, for example. Rosengard closed with the observation that the best way to encourage lawyers to take on animal law cases is to remind them that we are the only lawyers whose clients are always guaranteed to be innocent!

In another seminar, co-founder of ‘Show Your Soft Side’, Caroline Griffin shared her insights around ‘crafting an effective humane education program’. The non-profit is an American public service campaign aimed at changing the attitudes of young people who seem to view animal abuse as proof of masculinity or bravery, in particular using it in gang initiation rituals. ‘Show Your Soft Side’ launched an advertising campaign featuring male celebrities, including actors, boxers and basketball players, holding their companion animals, conveying the message that compassion towards animals is a sign of strength, not weakness. It effectively identified children’s perceptions of “coolness” and linked it to compassion. The campaign is credited with a significant drop in the number of animal cruelty cases being brought in the states, and has now featured around 200 celebrities across America.

After lunch, there was a roundtable which saw speakers discuss the implementation of humane education and its challenges. Dr. Juliet Dukes from the RSPCA highlighted that a lack of training in animal welfare and behaviour can create problems for researchers hoping to identify causes of animal harm. She also noted that GDPR – which requires researchers to have specific consent to use data for a specific purpose – now presents a significant barrier to longitudinal studies on the effectiveness of humane education on people’s behaviour towards animals. Melissa Logan from the Alberta branch of the SPCA noted that, since teachers are not required to provide humane education, they must be enticed by it on a personal level and feel compelled to teach it anyway. She suggests we do this by using a broad definition of empathy which purports to improve human-human relations as well as animal welfare. The Humane Society’s Amanda McKinnon observed that creating a community of animal advocates online has been key to spreading information and compassion for animals, and that we need to maximise our use of this resource. Pei Su of ACTAsia added that, with technology, such as artificial intelligence, poised to shake up the education system as we know it, it will become important for teachers to teach social skills such as empathy and critical thinking, or else risk being seen as mere conveyors of knowledge and exam technique, a potentially replaceable role. It was raised that teachers aren’t empowered to provide support if their students decide, as a result of a lesson, they want to stop eating animal products. The jury is still out on the question of whether it is ethical to teach students about factory farming when many of them could not afford to adopt a vegan lifestyle, but it is an important consideration. Moreover, does showing slaughterhouse footage change behaviour or does it normalise and desensitise? According to one study: 50% of children have seen deliberate animal cruelty online, and yet we’re eating more meat than ever.

Next, we heard from Professor Kathy Hessler, Clinical Professor and Director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. She shared some of the lessons she has learned from running the Clinic. She commented that the law struggles to address emotion, and focuses instead on rationality, which means it struggles to deal with animal pain and suffering. The law in its current form can, however, provide a mandate for providing humane education, and guidelines and requirements for how to do so. She highlighted the Oregon supreme court case State v Nix 2014, in which a judge for the first time ruled that the animal in question, rather than the public or an animal owner, was the victim of the crime, and that the degree of the crime corresponds to the suffering of the animal. This is promising, she said, and should encourage more practitioners to enter the field. She also emphasised a continuing need for practitioners and academics to ascertain on what basis we grant rights, given that capacity clearly does not equate to rights. Our legal system treats all humans the same, but humans and non-human animals with the same or similar capacities are treated very differently.

The final seminar was entitled ‘The slaughterhouse secret: The misrepresentation of factory farming’, and was delivered by Rebecca Rose Stanton, a Doctoral Candidate at Northumbria University. She asserted that the lives and slaughter of billions of farm animals have been hidden from consumers through the use of romantic images and ideas around agriculture. This is likely to be a significant factor in explaining why one survey found that Americans believe around 40% of eggs come from factory farms, when that number is actually closer to 95%. These misrepresentations have been particularly effective when targeted at children. Disney films, for example, often mislead audiences about the realities of modern farming practices by featuring happy animals (companion dogs and cats are often anthropomorphised, while farm animals rarely are), and romanticised, pre-industrial farms. Most adults have at some stage come into contact with a Disney film or its characters, giving the studio the power to change attitudes on a global scale, depending on how it chooses to represent animals and human treatment of them. Elsewhere, animals are rarely individualised in images, which has resulted in a ‘collapse of compassion’: people often feel overwhelmed by large groups of animals, and become detached, unable to engage or empathise with them. While our legal system makes it very difficult for activists to obtain and share footage of slaughterhouses, Stanton concluded that popular culture and the media have a vital role to play in exposing the reality of factory farming and changing consumer habits.

Overall, my day at the Summer School was insightful, inspiring and full of promise. This year’s conference may have finished but it sparked important conversations that I hope will continue long into the future. Roll on next year!

Alice Mennell
Stone King

We are grateful to everyone who contributes to the Advocates for Animals blog. Blogs should not be taken as legal advice nor do they necessarily reflect the views of the firm

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