Don’t Be Cruel

Ending animal abuse starts by teaching the children well

By Trisha Gurley

As I write this, 2009 has faded away. It has not been a banner year for the animals of this city. Yet with every new year comes renewed hope and maybe a renewed sense of empathy and compassion for animals and people. In that vein of compassion, we can help raise a generation of people who not only would never engage in animal cruelty, but also will actively fight it.

My cat, Milton, is my only child so far, but most of my friends are parents, and I am an aunt to two young nephews. Back in October, the photo of a starved dog named Justice was plastered on every newscast and in the newspaper—which is good in that it brought attention to the horror within the Memphis Animal Shelter. But it was so sickening for me to see, and the image is forever burned in my mind. How would such a picture affect a child? In this age of violence in TV, movies, and games, would it affect them at all?

It’s commonly known that people who grew up to be violent criminals often started out torturing and abusing animals. Jeffrey Dahmer, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, and Ted Bundy are the more popular examples of ones who abused animals before they turned to people. Studies have found that homes in which animal abuse occurs also have a high rate of child abuse as well. Most abuse of animals, of course, stemmed from a parent, but about a quarter of abused children will turn their pain and anger towards animals—the only beings more helpless than themselves.

While I still can’t fathom why anyone would mistreat an animal, I could not even begin to understand it when I was a kid myself. Stories of animals in pain, even fictional ones, would put me in tears (I still haven’t watched Dumbo or Bambi in their entireties). I’d think most concerned parents try to prevent their child from seeing or hearing about animal cruelty, be it in real life or depicted on TV. But what can a parent do when a child either hears about or inadvertently witnesses an animal being treated poorly?

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has several guidelines on their website on how to discuss animal cruelty with children. Of course, you know your child best and can discern what he or she can tolerate on the subject.

  • Children as young as two can be taught that things they do can make people—and animals—sad. Three-year-olds can start learning how they would feel if someone treated them the way they treat animals, in both good and bad ways.
  • Children around four and six are learning basic concepts of morality and fairness. They can learn that animals depend on us to be kind. Acknowledge that animals can be hurt, but do not go into details of just how a person can hurt them.
  • Ages six to ten can handle a deeper discussion about why some people hurt animals, but again, the more vicious details don’t need to be included. Ask them how witnessing violence towards animals affected them, and reinforce that it is the wrong thing to do. Encourage them to report any animal violence to you, another trusted adult, or a police officer.
  • Children from 10 to 14 are still strongly affected by violence. This is a vital time to model compassionate animal behavior to kids. Tell them what you would do in a similar situation. Encourage them to stand up if they encounter others abusing animals, ensuring them that they have your full support. Peer pressure is heavy during these years, and your child’s assurance that they will have your support can make all the difference in stopping animal violence in front of friends.

Direct your younger children to the ASPCA’s website for kids, It features positive advice, resources, kid-appropriate stories, and interactive games about animals and those who love them. Let’s make 2010 the year of compassion!


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