DEAR DR. FOX: I read your recent column about the need to bring more environmental and humane education into schools, and I applaud the efforts of your daughter Camilla with Project Coyote, and the others who are doing this.
I work for Pro Animale in Germany, whose book "Memento" you recently reviewed, and I want to share with you my son’s natural empathy toward animals, which was quite independent of any influences from me during his early years.
Ever since my son started talking when he was 2 years old, I could tell that he had a very special sense and empathy for animals and their feelings and needs. Once, when he saw a just-hatched chick in an incubator at a fair, he did not say “how cute,” he immediately looked concerned and said it was looking for its mother, and we needed to find her. In a wildlife park, he saw two raccoons in an enclosure sitting by the fence and said they looked sad and did not want to be fenced in, but free.
When we were on a boat ride to see seals on a sandbank, the tour operators suddenly let down a net to the sea floor and fished out crabs and other creatures to show to the riders. Yukon, then 3 years old, got mad at the operators and asked them to let the crabs back into the water because they did not want to be taken out. Unfortunately, the tour operators did not listen -- even when I said that it is very harmful for the creatures on the bottom of the sea when they let down a net every time they have a boat ride to the sandbanks. The operators did not understand; they thought that since they put the creatures they fished in a tank with water and later back into the sea, it was OK. When one person said to Yukon, “Look at these interesting animals in the tank,” he responded: “I look at the animals who are in the sea where they want to be.”
I was amazed that a 3-year-old could be more understanding of animals and their needs than grown-ups. I am sure you can tell I am very proud of him. -- S.B., Sennfeld, Bavaria, Germany
DEAR S.B.: Many parents reading your letter will have had similar experiences with their young children’s reactions to animals, affirming my contention that they have a natural affinity for fellow creatures, which is the foundation for empathy and compassion as they mature.
But cultural norms regarding accepted treatments of animals and the attitudes and reactions of adults can either facilitate or inhibit the development of empathy. Indeed, empathy can be a burden, especially when not supported by others and when not expressed in appropriate action or choice.
Your son reminds me of my younger daughter, Mara, who, around the same age as Yukon, said that she was going to a friend's house for Thanksgiving to eat turkey. Her stepmother and I asked her if she knew what the word turkey meant. Since she did not, we gently told her that a turkey was a bird. Her immediate response was one of shock, and she exclaimed that she would never eat a bird or any animal. She later told us that at the gathering, she refused to eat any turkey and was told that it was OK because the farmer had killed the bird. From that time on, with no prompting from us, she decided to become a vegetarian. My other two children, Camilla and Mike Jr., decided at a later age to become vegan for ethical, humane and environmental reasons.
In sum, all children, with rare exception, have the capacity to identify with others and empathize, the absence of which has been linked to a lack of conscience, feeling for others, dissociation and sociopathic behaviors in later life. It is an attribute best guided by example, and enabling the child to make informed choices and to share and question openly, without ridicule, how he or she feels about animals and how they ought to be treated is best for them.
For more discussion, see my article “The Animal Insensitivity Syndrome: Its Recognition and Prevention,” posted on my website, DrFoxVet.net, and the book "Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence" by my former graduate student Dr. Randall Lockwood, co-authored with Frank K. Ascione.
SCIENTISTS EXPLORE EMOTIONAL CONTAGION TO UNDERSTAND ANIMAL-HUMAN CONNECTION
Researchers have increasingly become interested in emotional contagion -- the idea of the spread of emotions between people and animals or among animals -- and they've uncovered evidence that swine, horses and dogs experience physiologic responses to stressful situations involving other animals or humans.
Psychology professor Ted Ruffman says it's a primitive type of empathy that humans likely selected when domesticating animals, and it may explain why dogs can be so effective as therapy animals for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and others.
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