Re-examining the Human-Nonhuman Animal Relationship Through Humane Education

  • Maria Helena SaariEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


In the time of the Anthropocene, the human species’ destructive effect on the planet and other nonhuman species is evident. The socialization process of children plays a significant role in the preservation of a speciesist Western society, as the exploitation, captivity, and instrumental use of nonhuman animals are normalized through the reproduction of speciesist messages in the educational setting, through children’s media and our language use, which all reinforce the idea of nonhuman animals as the other. Speciesism, the underlying ideology that excludes nonhuman animals from the sphere of moral concern and legal protection, is dependent on its reproduction, just as other dominant ideologies. The exploitation of nonhuman animals and human-nonhuman animal hierarchy is further normalized through environmental education and welfare education and the notion of the humane use of nonhuman animals. Can our treatment of nonhuman animals be characterized as humane? What does it mean to be humane? This chapter examines how humane education can refute speciesist messages, as it offers children the tools to identify and critically assess interconnected webs of oppression and thus re-examine the human-nonhuman relationship.


Humane education Speciesism Human-animal relationship 


Nonhuman animals undoubtedly play a central role in the lives of humans; we use them for food, entertainment, and sports, as tools for research and trade them as mere commodities. The exploitation of nonhuman animals is legitimized by their legal status as property – objects for humans to own and use as they see fit. Humans have granted themselves dominion over the planet and all other species, creating a hierarchy in which humans are the definition and measure of everything worthy. This anthropocentric worldview, what Bekoff (2013) considers our “rampant anthropocentrism” can be seen to act as a wall between humans and all other species and the natural world, as we not only ignore nature out of convenience, but in Western society many are also physically removed from nature, reinforcing our mental disconnection and detachment from other species and the destructive effects of our actions. The destructive effects of our actions has led some scientists to call this era the Anthropocene, the age of man, defined by deforestation, water and air pollution, environmental destruction, species extinction, and animal exploitation on an immense scale. Animal and environmental protection organizations have long campaigned for greater protective measures, but the baby steps of legal reforms come too slow and too late and fail to challenge the morality of animal exploitation.

Due to the various, involuntary, roles nonhuman animals have in our lives, the consequent relationship we have with them is of great complexity and controversy. Goodall and Bekoff (2003, p. 18) aptly identify how Western societies appear to be confused about the way we think about nonhuman animals, as many of us are unable to broaden our emotional connection and compassion from our pets to other nonhuman animals. Francione (2004, p.108) rightly echoes this concern, calling our relationship with nonhuman animals one of “moral schizophrenia,” where we claim to care about nonhuman animals, but our actions contradict our words. How has this morally schizophrenic relationship come to be, where we claim to care about nonhuman animals, but shut our eyes to their plight, and allow exploitation to continue?

Our worlds are entwined with those of other species in numerous ways each day even though many of us do not have physical encounters with nonhuman animals. This seemingly invisible entanglement is the most prominent of all, as it encompasses exploitation, captivity, violence, and death on a massive scale, and the most common “interaction” with nonhuman animals can be seen to be when we are eating them (Adams, 1991). Our lives are abundant with representations of nonhuman animals and the human-nonhuman animal relationship is constructed from a young age. Since childhood, many of us are exposed to a variety of representations through different media, but have little contact with real nonhuman animals. The limited connection we have with nonhuman animals is restricted to institutionalized contexts, which we erroneously see as normal and natural, such as the confinement of nonhuman animals in zoos.

The way in which children relate to nonhuman animals (Melson, 2005; Myers, 2007; Cole & Stewart, 2014) and the role education can play in challenging the dominant narratives of human-animal relations in society (Pedersen, 2004, 2010; Goodall & Bekoff, 2003; Caine, 2009, 2015; Weil, 2004, 2016) has recently been increasingly emphasized by scholars from various fields, nonetheless research on these issues has been limited. Goodall and Bekoff (2003) identify the significant potential children have in making a great difference in society, which is often overlooked by adults, echoed by humane educators and researchers (Jalongo, 2004; Weil, 2004, 2016; Caine, 2009, 2015). Pedersen (2004) recognizes the role schools play in normalizing the objectification of nonhuman animals, as they are framed in an anthropocentric and hierarchical discourse, and highlights the need for schools to re-examine their speciesist curricula. Caine (2009, 2015) similarly identifies how current pedagogy and curricular design teach children an anthropocentric worldview where nonhuman animals and the environment are viewed as mere resources for human use, stressing the need for a new didactic to shift the existing paradigm.

This chapter looks at the potential of humane education (HE) in offering a nonspeciesist lens through which to critically examine our interactions and relationships with nonhuman animals. Echoing the principles of interspecies education (Andrzejewski, Pedersen, & Wicklund, 2009), HE offers a comprehensive framework to assess the interconnected forms of social justice and oppressive systems and can instigate a move away from the dominant, sometimes hidden, beliefs of society.

Teaching Children to View the World Through a Speciesist Lens

It can be argued that the instrumental use of nonhuman animals, their captivity, and the idea of “happy” or “humane” exploitation is normalized through a speciesist socialization process, where children are taught to give different value to nonhuman animals based on species membership. The way we are socialized to see the world has great influence on how we act in it and “is broadly responsible for re-creating the social and economic processes that keep people and animals in oppressed positions” (Nibert in Torres 2007, p. 4). Children learn to view nonhuman animals as the other, which serves to legitimize their oppression and distance humans from other species. Nonhuman animals are categorized according to their use and man-made labels and social positions can grant them a life of pampering as a pet or condone them to a life of torment in a laboratory or factory farm, or a fate of hounding when considered a pest. By creating labels and categories, children are encouraged to view nonhuman animals according to their use, resulting in the normalization of their exploitation and instrumental use. For example, circus animal suggests a natural category of tigers, while farm animals and zoo animals create false categories of nonhuman animals where children grow up to view the incarceration of nonhuman animals in zoos as normal and legitimize our use of nonhuman animals for food (Dunayer, 2001, p. 8).

Cole and Stewart (2014) identify how children grow up to view nonhuman animals as either friends or objects of use. Although this distinction is twofold, it is far from simple. The difference between friends and objects of use is not always clear-cut and the boundaries between different nonhuman animals make our relationship with nonhuman animals confusing. Caine (2015, p. 5) is critical of the invisible line we draw between different species and our moral concern, calling it a monumental social hypocrisy and a conflict of moral and ethical reasoning. We deny the commonality between species, such as pigs and dogs, treating one with kindness and companionship and condemning the other to a life of pain and death for our palate pleasure.

It is doubtful that children are born speciesist and that these man-made categories are inherent to them; instead it can be argued that the categorization of nonhuman animals is learned through an anthropocentric and speciesist socialization process. How do children learn to view the world through a human-nonhuman animal hierarchy? How do we create a distinction between nonhuman animals as our friends and those who are not? Language is a crucial tool we use to teach children about nonhuman animals and it can be used to promote and enforce certain beliefs. Speciesist views are reinforced through our language use, which shapes our relationship with, and our attitude towards, nonhuman animals. We use language to classify and denigrate nonhuman animals and to distance humans from other species. Language helps a child make sense of the world as we begin to label the things around us in order to understand them. However, Goodall and Bekoff (2003, p. 41) argue that by labeling and categorizing the world around us, we simplify the diversity of living beings and the natural world. The problem of language begins with the very definition we give the word animal, as definitions, such as “any such living organism other than human” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.) isolates humans from other species and legitimizes “a human monopoly on moral and legal rights” (Dunayer, 2001, p. 2). By differentiating ourselves from all other species, we highlight their presumed otherness. Through our language use, we classify nonhuman animals as objects by using the pronoun it, erasing their gender, and by speaking of other nonhuman animals as one species, we turn “unique individuals into a generic species representatives” (Dunayer, 2001, p. 6). Nonhuman animal terms are also used to insult or denigrate humans, which further legitimize the exploitation and oppression of nonhuman animals, as “negative animal idioms normalise and trivialise violence towards animals” (DeMello, 2012, p. 285). Language portrays nonhuman animals as lesser beings and characteristics are imposed on different species: criminals are labeled animals, someone crazy becomes a bat, cowardly behavior makes someone a chicken, to say someone is stupid we call them a birdbrain, and to call someone a pig connotes gluttony or dirtiness.

Not only is language a dangerous tool, but the false imagery children are exposed to through stories, cartoons, movies, toys, and advertisements play a key role in shaping the way children view and connect with nonhuman animals. A prime of example of false imagery is the representation of nonhuman animals used for farming purposes. Children’s storybooks and toys provide false idyllic portrayals of old-fashioned farms where nonhuman animals enjoy their lives happily. Children are not encouraged to question the practice of farming; instead it is a concept that is normalized and grow up to view a farm as a natural place, never questioning whether it is acceptable to use nonhuman animals for our own purposes or understanding the reality of animals exploited on factory farms. Children’s stories perpetuate the false belief that animals live a happy life, as well as the idea that they must die in order to provide us with food (Singer, 1999). Advertising campaigns for animal products replicate similar idyllic old-fashioned farm seen in children’s literature, using images of happy pigs, cows, and chickens to advertise their own flesh to consumers, grossly misrepresenting and hiding the true nature of modern factory farming. Humans have claimed ownership over their representation and thus can represent them as they wish and create a narrative that serves human purposes.

Anthropocentric Education

Education functions as a subsystem of the total social system, transmitting knowledge that meets the needs of the society, not to address the needs of an individual. Despite the role of education in the upkeep of dominant ideologies, it can also be used to “initiate social changes by bringing about a change in outlook and attitude” (Patil, 2012, p. 205). Environmental education and welfare education have largely failed to address the “animal question” limiting their approach and scope to solely human-centered and speciesist views of the world and have largely failed to challenge the underlying anthropocentric and speciesist values of the human-nonhuman animal relationship. Weil (2004, p. 49) aptly acknowledges how nonhuman animal issues “are generally neglected in education, even in sustainability education, environmental education, character education, social justice education, and media literacy education.” While environmental and sustainability education focus on conservation efforts and environmental and climate protection, the exploitation of nonhuman animals is often overlooked, particularly nonhuman animals used for farming purposes, despite the crucial role it plays in both climate change and environmental destruction. Caine (2009, p. 10) identifies how nature is framed as a resource and “traditional environmental education often prescribes stewarding, managing and controlling nature for the sake of humankind.”

Horsthemke (2009, p. 209) argues that environmental education has flourished in schools because “it has been demonstrated that its cause ultimately benefits people” where nature is framed as a resource and commodity (Kopnina, 2014), analogous welfare education, where the human-nonhuman animal relationship is framed through utilitarian discourse where nonhuman animals are ultimately represented as resources and commodities for humans. Oakley et al. (2010, p. 97) recognize the “curious silence about animals” in environmental education research and the neglect of human-nonhuman animal relations in environmental education, highlighting the importance of blurring the boundaries and fictional divides between “human,” “animal,” and “nature” and the need to question our own animality (Oakley et al., 2010, p. 90). Kopnina (2014, p. 296) identifies the difficulty in surpassing the anthropocentric focus of environmental education and the need to challenge the ethical assumption of human superiority, as even when the interconnectedness of humans and nature is acknowledged, the idea of human superiority remains.

Caine (2009) recognizes the limitations of current schooling, arguing that career building and monetary success are framed as benchmarks for becoming productive members of society, while references to the natural world and the needs of other species are practically nonexistent. The study of the natural world and other species is largely left to the natural science domain, in which humans and nonhuman animals are studied within separate discourses and value systems, establishing a subject-object relation between humans and nonhuman animals (Pedersen, 2004). This subject-object relation, however, is established long before students enter biology lessons, and the objectification of nonhuman animals is established when children are at a young age. Despite speciesist curricula, Pedersen (2004) sees the possibilities of transformation offered by education, as schools can be seen as agents in the reproduction processes of certain ideals and knowledge, and thus have the potential to critically reassess its role in mediating value messages, affirming how the relation between humans and nonhuman animals is not predetermined by force or natural order, but is entirely within the control of humans beings to change the relation. But how many want to change the relation?

The increase in public awareness of animal protection issues has led many animal protection organizations and some governmental institutions to offer forms of welfare education. However, welfare education endorses the idea that the exploitation of nonhuman animals is acceptable, as long as we do so in a humane way, perpetuating the property status of nonhuman animals and demonstrating the difficulty of educating children through an unfiltered lens. Welfare education fails to “demand that we understand the subjugated status of nonhuman animals in our society as related to or concordant with the historical reality of oppressed human groups as well as with the domination of nature generally” (Kahn & Humes, 2009, p. 181). Welfare education assumes human dominance over other species and thus portrays our use of nonhuman animals as natural. The idea of the humane use of nonhuman animals is an oxymoron and it is highly debatable whether our treatment of nonhuman animals be described as humane. The word humane, originally defined as qualities pertaining to a human being, is also defined as:
  • showing kindness, care, and sympathy towards others, especially those who are suffering (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.)

  • having or showing compassion or benevolence (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.)

Showing kindness, compassion, and sympathy may be true for a small percentage of nonhuman animals, such as some we categories as pets, but for billions of nonhuman animals who suffer and die at the hands of humans, the idea of showing kindness, sympathy, or compassion is an implausible concept. Torres (2007, p. 26) points out that humane forms of exploitation as when “we use another being instrumentally, we have denied that being its right to exist on its own terms, whether that being is human or non-human.” Francione (2004) argues that if we are to make true our claim to take nonhuman animal interests seriously is to accord them basic right not to be treated as things and that sentience, subjective awareness, is the sole factor that matters.

Humane Education

The earliest form of HE, the Band of Mercy was formed in Britain in 1875 with an anthropocentric focus, as the aim of promoting kindness towards nonhuman animals was rooted in the idea that cruelty towards nonhuman animals transferred to inhumane acts towards humans (Brake & Demoor, 2009). Members of the Band of Mercy, formed in the United States in 1882, pledging to try to be kind to all living creatures and try to protect them from cruel usage (Unti & DeRosa, 2003). The educational focus of the animal protection movement normally centered on acts of individual cruelty and failed to address socially sanctioned forms of animal abuse (Unti & DeRosa, 2003, p. 32). HE has since extended its scope from its original kindness-to-animals ethic focusing on compassionate treatment of companion animals to a more intersectional approach looking at social justice issues as an interconnected web of oppression (Caine, 2015).

Although HE is often used as an umbrella term to cover welfare and responsible pet ownership programs, it extends beyond these approaches. Many HE programs approach the human-nonhuman relationship through a posthumanist viewpoint, placing “all creatures, both human and nonhuman animals, in a non-hierarchical web” (Morris, 2015, p. 43), unlike welfare education. Whilst welfare education promotes the idea of the humane use of nonhuman animals, HE aims to uncover the immorality and interconnectedness of exploitative practices, aiming to demonstrate how “our daily lives are inextricably connected to institutionalized brutality, injustice, and environmental devastation” (Weil, 2004, p. 49).

One of the objectives of HE is to widen children’s circle of empathy, leading children “to embrace what was previously categorised as other” (Jalongo, 2014, p. xvi) and to build a generation of solutionaries – people who identify inhumane, unsustainable, and exploitative systems that affect people, nonhuman animals, and the Earth and develop practical, effective solutions to replace these systems with ones that are restorative, healthy, and just (Weil, 2016, p. 5). Caine (2009, p. 9) highlights the importance of empathy, as it is the bridge to compassion and understanding the connections we share with nonhuman animals, stating that “if we can empathize with the experiences of other living beings and place ourselves in the shoes (or paws, claws, fins) of a suffering other, we can begin to develop compassion for this other.

In many schools, the discussion of social issues or anything controversial has become taboo (Weil, 2016, p. 18) and many educators lack the necessary training and resources to handle controversial and emotive issues in the classroom, and HE is sometimes criticized on the assumption that social justice issues are too complex or abstract for young children to comprehend, underestimating the intellect and emotional intelligence of children. However, according to Jalongo (2014, p. xi), the thinking of adults if frequently “too limited and developmentally inappropriate to communicate effectively with the very young” and often adults can be seen to stand in the way of educating, as teaching children kindness to all living beings requires a change in perspective of adults and rethinking speciesism connects too closely to the reality of curricula (Oakley, 2011, p. 10) and our everyday lives.

HE aims to provide accurate information that is hidden from school curricula and popular media, covering a vast range of topics, including the exploitation of nonhuman animals, genetic engineering of food, aquaculture, factory farming, species extinction, resource depletion, and deforestation. It also tackles social injustices including racism, sexism, and homophobia. HE reflects the proposed curricula of interspecies education, an approach based on compassion and justice focusing on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms on Earth (Andrzejewski et al., 2009). HE topics can be infused into any subject area, for example, a mathematics lesson on percentages can look at the rates of extinction and provide data on the number of nonhuman animals killed each year in different geographical settings because of hunting, disease, or agricultural expansion (Caine, 2009). Students are encouraged to critically assess how our choices are linked to the suffering of others and reassess practices we are taught to view as normal, as well as re-examine the man-made categorizations of nonhuman animals. HE can help students assess the biased and carefully framed narratives behind corporate funded materials and critically think about what information is not included in school curricula. For example, students can uncover the biases and motivations behind dairy advertising in schools and other corporate funded materials. HE promotes curiosity, creativity, critical thinking with the aim of teaching children “how to scrutinize information with a critical eye and to uncover the hidden links between our product choices and the suffering they may cause to others” (Weil, 2004, pp. 15).

HE aims to nurture reverence, respect, and responsibility to encourage positive action and choices that benefit nonhuman animals, the earth, and other humans. Visits to sanctuaries and refuges are an important part of HE programs, allowing children to have direct contact with nonhuman animals and learn about where they have been rescued from and why these exploitative systems exist. They also allow children to connect with nonhuman animals on an individual level, enforcing the fact that they are sentient beings with individual needs and interests. Visits to sanctuaries are an alternative to the usual visits schools organize to zoos, aquariums, petting zoos, or circuses, which maintain the status quo and enforce a speciesist worldview, enforcing the divide between the human and nonhuman and normalizing the captivity of nonhuman animals. The HE approach introduces children to a range of challenging issues that may seem overwhelming and offering positive choices, and giving examples of people who have made a difference, students see that they have the power to instigate change that positively affects the lives of nonhuman animals, the environment, and humans. Caine (2009) highlights the value of introducing real-world topics into lessons as it can instigate discussion and critical thinking about the ways in which human behavior contributes to species extinction and what can be done about it. Once students are introduced to real-world topics and identify the oppressive systems and how we contribute to exploitation, they can identify ways in which they can make a difference.

HE programs are tailored according to age group and take shape in many forms, including in-classroom instruction, visits to animal shelters and refuges, camps, animal protection clubs, books, and videos, and antispeciesist children’s literature, and various animal protection organizations, and HE providers offer tailored lessons plans. Despite an increase in HE programs, there is limited research on its effects. According to Weil (2004, pp. 43), secondary school students who take part in humane education are less susceptible to media messages, become critical thinkers, take more responsibility for their actions, have increased self-confidence and respect, demonstrate leadership skills, develop more compassionate attitudes towards others, and are empowered to make a positive change. HE programs have reportedly demonstrated an increase in a child’s empathy towards nonhuman animals (Nicol et al., 2008) and an increased awareness on environmental issues, which have prompted schools to create different committees and programs tackling issues such as waste and nonhuman animal protection. According to Weil (2004, p. 43), secondary school students who take part in HE are less susceptible to media messages, become critical thinkers, take more responsibility for their actions, have increased self-confidence and respect, demonstrate leadership skills, develop more compassionate attitudes towards others, and are empowered to make a positive change. HE has primarily focused on younger learners, as children are more flexible in their habits and attitudes (Jalongo, 2004), but the importance of HE reaching older students and infusing HE topics into higher education and teacher training has been highlighted by Gómez Galán (2005) among other scholars.


If children are the future, what should we teach them? Given the current state of ecological destruction and the rising number of nonhuman animals exploited, it is crucial to re-examine the values that govern society and re-examine the human-nonhuman animal relationship starting from a young age. Although the changes we now make will come too late for the millions of nonhuman animals who now suffer and the countless species already extinct, it can help spare the suffering of others (Goodall & Bekoff, 2003). Weil (2004) believes that by educating future generations to be compassionate, we can change the disastrous path we are on and help prevent future suffering. However, the prevention of future suffering depends on reshaping the relationship we have with nonhuman animals and the natural world. HE takes environmental education a step further, extending on the prior’s failure to integrate nonhuman animal advocacy as a serious environmental issues (Kahn & Humes, 2009). HE offers a holistic approach that tackles the interconnected injustices and critically questions the frameworks currently embedded in the socialization process of children and in Western society and offers a platform for cooperation between environmental and animal protection movements through its intersectional approach.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of OuluOuluFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Pauliina Rautio
    • 1
  • Tracy Young
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of OuluOuluFinland
  2. 2.Swinbourne UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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