Second of three parts
Oct. 27, 2003 – "What's the most important thing?" Darr Conradson asks. "Love," the children answer — but only after he has talked with them, after he has let them see what a wonderful thing a pet can be.
Animals are not targets to throw stones at; animals are here to be loved. Love them, and they will love you. It's so simple. It's the Golden Rule. And yet, there is much education to be done.
Conradson, a Humane Society of St. Thomas board member, is doing his best to spread that message and to help with that education. Teaching children about animals is his passion. He goes into classrooms, and sometimes he has the classrooms come to him.
He takes teachers and their classes on guided tours of the shelter in Estate Nadir. Or he and a shelter employee — usually Hubert Brumant, animal care manager — will take a dog or maybe two dogs into a preschool or an elementary school for show and tell. "In spite of what we have got, it works," he says.
The Humane Society has been headquartered in Nadir for decades, working out of cramped facilities and facing eventual eviction as the government takes over the land for other uses. The society is now in the midst of a fund-raising drive for its planned Animal Care Campus off Weymouth-Rhymer Highway across from Cost-U-Less. (To learn more about that, visit the St. Thomas Humane Society Web site.)
However, Conradson works with what he's got now. "What we really try to emphasize is how much animals are like us," he says. "That is something a child can understand."
He will walk the children through the shelter's canine quarters listening to the puppies and the adult dogs begging for attention. He will ask the youngsters what they think animals need — food, water, shelter, medical care? — and they will agree. "So, you're telling me the dogs and cats need the same things you need," he will say.
"That makes little sparks in their eyes," he says. Next comes the big question: "What do they need most?" "Love," the kids answer. "Yes, just like we do," Conradson says.
Then comes the really hard part. What happens to all those lovable puppies, kittens and grown animals for whom the shelter can't find homes? "Invariably, one of the children will ask what happens to the animals who don't get adopted," he says. "The reality hits them then."
He said: "I explain euthanasia to them. It's very silent."
As Conradson sees it, "If we can touch a few lives, it will make a difference down the road. We're always looking for volunteers whose passion is animals. We always have a call out to educators. My goal is to actually get more schools involved."
The reasons and rationales
Why do people abuse animals? Why do men throw their full-grown dogs off the waterfront apron and "walk" them as they strain at the leash, treading water from Tortola Wharf up to the Coast Guard dock? "To kill the fleas," they say.
Animal experts agree that only result is to exhaust the dog and give the fleas a salt water bath. But children observe this kind of behavior, animal advocates say, and think it is acceptable, unless they are taught otherwise. Education is the key.
Whenever high-profile cases of animal abuse are reported in the media, a common public reaction is to ask: "Why would someone do that?" Burying puppies alive, shooting wild mustangs, setting a cat or dog afire, beating a petting zoo donkey — these and countless other examples offend the public by their seemingly senseless cruelty, says The Animal Spirit. Established in 1999, it is a grassroots, not-for-profit, volunteer-based project dedicated to furthering animal rights and animal rescue through education.
What are the motivations for abuse? A study reported by The Animal Spirit suggests the following:
– To retaliate against other people by hurting their pets or abusing animals in their presence.
– To control an animal (i.e., animal abuse as discipline or "training").
– To retaliate against an animal.
– To satisfy a prejudice against a species or breed (e.g., hatred of cats).
– To express aggression through an animal (e.g., training an animal to attack, using inflicted pain to create a "mean" dog).
For children, motivations include:
– Imitation (i.e., copying a parent's or other adult's abusive "discipline" of animals).
– Self-injury (i.e., using an animal to inflict injuries on the child's own body).
– Rehearsal for interpersonal violence (i.e., "practicing" violence on stray animals or pets before engaging in violent acts against other people).
Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey, one of the few colleges with an animal rights program, set out to get a better understanding of the phenomenon of animal abuse. They interviewed abusers and discovered a number of motivations that may characterize adult cruelty to animals, some of which may also be applicable to animal abuse perpetrated by young people.
Animal rights professor Gary Francione says: "Everyone agrees we ought to treat animals humanely, but all sorts of horrible things still go on. We kill 8 billion animals a year for food, subject them to horrifying experiments and use them for pleasure. The reason it happens is that animals have no rights under the law. They're things. They're the property of people, the way slaves were once the property of owners."
Cruelty to animals, humans clearly connected
The relationship between animal cruelty and other violent crimes has been highlighted in recent times by several highly publicized cases, Paul Chakroff, executive director of the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center, notes. These include Jeffrey Dahmer, who impaled frogs and cats and decapitated a dog as a child. As an adult he murdered and dismembered 17 people. David Berkowitz, New York's "Son of Sam" serial murderer, killed a number of neighbors' pets.
Chakroff, who came to St. Croix last year after 16 years of directing an animal shelter in Columbus, Ohio, is ambitious and optimistic about his work on the island. "I plan to investigate how one changes people's attitudes toward living beings — in my case, domesticated and generally companion animals," he says. "How do we elevate the image or worth of an animal in the mind of a person?"
To answer that question, he says, "I will explore areas of culture, tradition, experience, peer influence and economics."
Chakroff explains that "companion animal" is now the politically correct term for "pet," because the term implies equality, a relationship between people and animals that doesn't involve ownership, forced labor or enslavement. He says this distinction must be made "before we place a dog or a cat from the shelter with a new adoptive family."
He talked about the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence in a presentation before the national Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse Council earlier this year. He cited a study comparing the circumstances of battered women seeking safety at shelters with community samples of women who were not battered.
The study found that:
– 52 per cent of the shelter-seeking women reported that their partners had threatened to hurt their pets, compared with 16.7 percent of the community-sample women.
– 54 percent of the shelter women reported the actual hurting or killing of pets, compared with 3.5 percent of the community women.
– Children of two-thirds of the shelter women reported witnessing pet abuse. In nearly half of the incidents, the father, the stepfather or the woman's boyfriend was the perpetrator.
"We must consider animal abuse not only as an animal welfare problem, but also as an indicator of
other social problems that need to be addressed by many social service organizations and government agencies," Chakroff says. He is in the process of organizing a public-private task force toward that end. Again, education is the key.
Humanitarian Albert Schweitzer writes in "Reverence for Life": "Very little of the great cruelty shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit. The roots of cruelty are not so much strong a widespread. But the time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought."
Next: The law, locally and elsewhere, and what animal advocates say needs to be done in terms of changing it.
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