Animal Writes
8 March 2000 Issues
Please Teach the Children Well

By Marc Bekoff - [email protected]

Children are inherent and intuitive curious naturalists. They're sponges for knowledge, absorbing, retaining, and using new information at astounding rates. We all know this, but often we forget when we're helping to develop their roles as future ambassadors with other animals, nature, and ourselves. Some are also future leaders on whose spirit and good will many of us will depend. They will be other animals' and our voices, indeed, voices of the universe. So, it makes good sense to teach children well, to be role models, to infuse their education with kindness and compassion so that their decisions are founded on a deeply rooted, automatic reflex-like caring ethic. If we don't, they, we, other animals, human communities, and environments will suffer.

Recently, I've been fortunate to teach and have mutually beneficial discussions with some fourth-graders at Foothills Elementary School. We considered such topics as animal behavior, ecology, conservation biology, and the nature of human-animal interactions. I was astounded by the level of discussion. The class centered on the guiding principles of Jane Goodall's world-wide Roots & Shoots program, whose basic tenets are that every individual is important and every individual makes a difference. The program is activity oriented and members partake in projects that have three components: care and concern for animals, human communities, and the places in which we all live together.

All the students had actively been engaged in projects that fulfilled all three components. They had participated in, or suggested for future involvement, such activities as recycling, being responsible for companion animals, reducing driving, developing rehabilitation centers for animals, helping injured animals, getting companion animals from humane shelters, boycotting pet stores, tagging animals so if they get lost people would know who they are, visiting senior citizen centers and homeless shelters, punishing litterbugs, and punishing people who harmed animals.

We discussed how easy it is to do things that make a difference and also develop a compassionate and respectful attitude towards animals, people, and environments. One student noted that by walking the companion dog who lived with his elderly neighbor and cleaning up after the dog, he performed activities that satisfied all three components.

Some students had already developed very sophisticated attitudes about human-animal interactions. One thought experiment in which we engaged is called "the dog in the lifeboat." Basically, there are three humans and one dog in a lifeboat and one of the four has to be thrown overboard because the boat can't hold all of them. Generally, when this situation is discussed, most people agree that all other things being equal, reluctantly the dog has to go. One can also introduce variations on the theme. For example, perhaps two of the humans are healthy youngsters and one is an elderly person who is blind, deaf, paralyzed, without any family or friends, and likely to die within a week. The dog is a healthy puppy. The students admitted this was a very difficult situation and that maybe just maybe the elderly human might be sacrificed because he had already lived a full life, wouldn't be missed, and had little future. Indeed, this is very sophisticated thinking that perhaps the elderly person had less to lose than either of the other humans or the dog. Let me stress that all students agreed that this line of thinking was not meant to devalue the elderly human. And, in the end, the students and most people reluctantly conclude that regardless of the humans ages or other characteristics, the dog has to go.

The level of discussion overwhelmed my considerations of quality of life, longevity, value of life, losses to surviving family and friends. But what really amazed and pleased me was that before we ever got to discuss alternatives, all students wanted to work it out so that no one had to be thrown overboard. Why did any individual have to be thrown over they asked? Lets not do it. When I said that the thought experiment required that at least one individual had to be tossed they said this wasn't acceptable! I sat there smiling and thinking, now these are the kinds of people in whom I'd feel comfortable placing my future. Some ideas about how all individuals could be saved included having the dog swim along the side of the boat and feeding her, having them all switch off swimming, taking off shoes and throwing overboard all things that weren't needed to reduce weight and bulk, and cutting the boat in two and making two rafts.

All students thought that even if the dog had to go she would have a better chance of living because more could be done by the humans to save the dog than vice versa. Very sophisticated reasoning indeed. I've discussed this example many times and never before has a group unanimously decided that everyone must be saved.

I also was thrilled by the commitment of the teachers I met. They were dedicated souls, and we should all be grateful that such precious beings are responsible for educating future adults on whom we'll be dependent. The bottom line is pretty simple: teach the children well, treat the teachers well, and treasure all. Nurture and provide the seeds of compassion, empathy, and love with all the nutrients they need to develop deep respect for, and kinship with, the universe. All people, other animals, human communities, and environments now and in the future, will benefit greatly by developing and maintaining heartfelt compassion that is as reflexive as breathing. Compassion begets compassion -- there's no doubt about it.

Marc Bekoff teaches in Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology at CU-Boulder. Contact him ([email protected]) for information about Roots & Shoots programs for people of all ages or go to His father is currently organizing a chapter for "elders," sources of infinite wisdom.

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