a girl holding up a small dog close to her face
At the local level, humane education is thriving, despite challenges that include limited resources, the requirements of core curriculum mandates, the demands of program evaluation, the need for teacher training and the politicization of the classroom. Photo by Kris Connor

One of the greatest authenticated anecdotes about the greatest of American presidents concerns his speech advocating kindness to animals, given in a classroom along the frontier in the early 1820s. There is no exact record of his remarks, but one witness recalled that “Abe preached against cruelty to animals, contending that an ant’s life was to it, as sweet as ours to us.”

Abraham Lincoln’s formal schooling lasted only a few months, but I think it’s sublime to imagine the man who would go on to author the Gettysburg Address cutting his oratory teeth with a talk to schoolmates about the need to do right by animals. It’s no surprise that Lincoln has long been a hero for humane advocates, the very model of a kind-hearted person who was nonetheless up to the challenges of governing a nation in turmoil and conflict.  

I’ve long contended that humane education is the single most important element of animal protection work, and tried to reinforce that position through my scholarship as well as in essays and interviews throughout my career. Any movement with vision and aspirations should plan and prepare for the socialization of future generations, who must become the champions and stewards of that movement’s forward progress.

As the fact of young Lincoln’s speech demonstrates, humane education pre-dates the animal protection movement itself.  It came into its own in the mid-to late eighteenth century under the influence of John Locke, whose theory of environmentalism all but created the publishing industry for children. Locke argued that environment and socialization—not genetic inheritance—shape human character, and he gained a large following among the authors and consumers of children’s literature.

When the first animal protection societies formed, most of them had humane education divisions, and this remains true for many local societies today. In humane work, there is no investment of time and effort that pays a greater long-term dividend than that which we make in teaching children the basic tenets of kindness to animals and associated values. To me, it is clear that the future of humane education lies with community-based organizations and individual educators committed to reaching young people. 

At the local level, humane education is thriving, despite challenges that include limited resources, the requirements of core curriculum mandates, the demands of program evaluation, the need for teacher training and the politicization of the classroom. The Internet abounds with examples of good programming being carried out worldwide, and has supported the emergence of a true community of practice, one with global reach. Individual educators employed or working as volunteers with community-based organizations are finding ways to connect with young people both within and outside of the classroom, and I’m certain that humane education has a bright future.

I believe that every animal care and services department, every humane society and SPCA, and every rescue group should have a humane education program in place, however modest. One of the sad truths about humane education is that, while everyone in the field claims to support it, few are willing to pay for it. All too often, organization leaders don’t see the immediate return, and as a result such programs are frequently trimmed back or eliminated when finances are tight.

We must embrace our challenges in this arena constructively and energetically. Today, few national organizations are leading in this realm, making it all the more important that we build and support humane education from the grassroots up. Because it is deeply imbricated in discussions of the moral development of children, the overriding challenge of global sustainability, and the relationship of humans to the natural environment and all of its inhabitants, humane education is profoundly connected to our future as a society. In an era of climate change, environmental threat, unbridled development and other threats to human and animal well-being and survival, we need humane education more than ever.

I’m truly pleased about the continuing progress we’re seeing in the professionalization of humane education, as evidenced by the vitality of the Association of Professional Humane Educators, the Certified Humane Education Specialist program of the Academy of Prosocial Learning, the curriculum and outreach work of HEART and RedRover, and other initiatives. The development of professional cadres is essential to the further establishment of humane education, because it is through their work that we’ll lay the social, cultural and psychological foundations for a truly humane society. It’s one of the reasons that I have committed more and more of my time to speak in favor of humane education, and to train practitioners, at Animal Care Expo, at regional conferences and in other forums.

Make no mistake, it would be better if humane education was a stronger priority for foundations that support animal protection, and for the larger national organizations. But it can flourish even in the absence of such backing, so long as our grassroots and community-level institutions are willing to show the colors. Anyone can become a humane educator or public speaker with a bit of training and guidance.

I can think of many things I’d like to learn about humane education over the next few years.  Can we promote a higher standard for evaluation and assessment, one that vindicates humane education’s longstanding promise? Can it help to unlock the key to children’s developing ideas about animals and the need to protect them? Just how do its lessons and impacts carry on into adulthood?

I’ve said elsewhere that humane education is the ultimate act of faith for the field, investing in the idea that there are young people out there, waiting to hear our message, and to get involved. I once saw a headline in an old HSUS publication, “Tomorrow’s humanitarians are in today’s classrooms.” I certainly hope so, just as I hope to see other animal protectionists take up the challenge of supporting our outreach to those advocates of the future.

If you’d like to learn more about how animal welfare education can be a keystone of community change, I hope you’ll join me at Animal Care Expo in just a few short weeks. I’ll be presenting Building a mission-driven youth outreach program, a daylong certificate course, along with my co-presenters, that will help you to incorporate up-and-coming trends at your organization. 

About the Author

Bernard Unti

Bernard Unti is the senior principal strategist in Communications for the Humane Society of the United States and works on a wide range of strategic, policy, program and communications priorities. With a doctorate in history, he’s spoken and written extensively on the history of animal protection, the evolution of human attitudes toward animals, humane education, animal sheltering and related topics. He’s a keen collector of historical ephemera relating to the cause of animals, he loves to speak to humane groups and he has the best PowerPoint slides.


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