Animals Teach Kids about Empathy

Written by Vicki Stringfellow Cook

It has been established that animal cruelty, child abuse, and domestic violence are related.  But what can we do to address these connections? Teaching empathy to children is one strategy that is gaining support among experts.

Research has clearly shown that when animal abuse occurs, women and/or children are also frequently at risk.  According to FBI profilers, psychiatric professionals, law-enforcement officials, and child advocacy organizations, people who hurt animals may eventually direct violence toward humans.

Evidence has also shown that a child’s attitude toward animals can predict future behavior.  Reports about several highly publicized school shootings indicate that the young killers had abused or killed animals before turning on their classmates.

Cruelty to animals is considered one of three symptoms that predict the development of a psychopath, and it is included as a criterion for conduct disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

People who are capable of such acts have a severely underdeveloped sense of empathy – they lack the ability to comprehend or care about the distress or agony that they are causing.  Without empathy, it is easy to think of others as unfeeling machines.

Teaching kindness and respect for animals is the first step in teaching children empathy.

Many animal welfare organizations promote the concept of teaching children empathy.  In 2007, the Doris Day Animal Foundation published a report entitled The Empathy Connection, which states that empathy is a basic skill that every child deserves and needs to learn.

Other organizations that promote educating children about empathy and compassion toward animals include the American Humane Association, the ASPCA, and the Humane Society of the United States.

Empathy training is also becoming more common in schools throughout the country.  One program initiated in Boulder, Colorado by Ellen Mackey is modeled after Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program.  The concept of the Roots and Shoots program is that every individual can make a difference and all people need to work together to foster respect and appreciation for animals, people, and the environment.

Another program offered by the Humane Society of Arizona uses the Six Pillars of Character from the Character Counts program to teach kids about having empathy and compassion for animals – and for each other.  Dr. Kris Haley, Manager of Humane Education, believes teaching children kindness and compassion toward animals leads to a greater understanding of their relationships with others, and he feels that understanding this connection can be used by schools to address the problem of bullying.

Programs such as these proactively address the issue of violence toward animals and people, and they are an important component in an overall strategy toward reducing the number of future incidents by helping our youth build their capacity for empathy and compassion.

Dog Wars: Just a Game? Really? That’s how you PLAY?

If engaging in brutal simulation of an illegal activity against animals is your notion of playing, then you are not likely to be reading this. You also are not likely to be reading this if you think there is any value in pretending to be engaged in dog fighting. My usual readers do not fit these descriptions.

Since you are reading this, you are probably as appalled as I am that Android, owned by Google, is allowing a virtual dog fighting game app to be available for download in their system.

Owners and users of the game Dog Wars defend the app, saying “It’s just a video game.” I beg to differ. Finding pleasure in such a virtual game would have to suggest that the user has an acceptance of the activity in real life. And that would suggest some serious concerns about that individual.

Child abuse and animal abuse are clearly linked by substantial research. Do I need to spell out the conclusion? I didn’t think so.

Defenders of the game also claim that there is no difference between it and the popular game app Angry Birds.  Such a rationalization is ridiculous. Angry Birds is a farcical fantasy that in no way has you engaging in any realistic illegal activity. Dog Wars, on the other hand, has its players engaging in very real illegal dog fighting activities. Sure, the images are cartoonish, but the activity is very real. Not so with Angry Birds.

There are links here if you are interested in voicing your displeasure to Google about this.

And just to give fair warning, if any Dog Wars users have found their way here, no comments defending it will be allowed past my moderation. This is my blog, and I do not have to be democratic about it.



Helping humans and animals in domestic violence situations.

This blog’s authors stand upon the premise that a direct link has been established between animal abuse and domestic violence. It has been established through credible research.

We also stand upon the premise that aiding animals in domestic violence situations is important, and it is an activity that needs more attention as a community service activity. More families are likely to seek safety if they know that their pets will be safe too.

We recognize that some women jeopardize themselves by remaining in dangerous situations when they cannot find safety for their animals. We also recognize that some women will prolong their own exposure to violence, and also prolong their children’s exposure to violence, for a lot of reasons. One of these reasons, sometimes, is worry about the welfare of their animals.

Although we recognize this circumstance, and although we see it as a reason to promote more awareness for the care of pets in domestic violence situations, we do not advocate that anyone put the welfare of humans at risk FOR ANY REASON. Even for the welfare of the pets.

Any child in danger must be brought to safety IMMEDIATELY. If your child is in danger, or any child that you know is in danger, PLEASE take proper action to secure the child’s safety, even if there are animals at risk who cannot be rescued immediately.

It is an adult’s choice about his/her own safety, however, we do not recommend that you risk your own safety for the safety of a pet. When it comes to a child, however, THE CHILD’S WELFARE MUST COME FIRST.

Recently, I was asked to aid in an effort to find homes for two dogs who were being displaced because of domestic violence. I had little information about the situation. All I knew was that a woman and her 9 year old daughter were leaving their home where there was an abusive man, and they were asking for assistance in finding homes for their dogs. They were afraid that the dogs would be abused by the man in their absence. Statistics about abusers also abusing pets suggest that their worry was legitimate.

I did not know if the woman was waiting to secure herself and her daughter until the pets were safe. My queries to the person who asked for my help suggested that she and the daughter were being aided by a community service organization in their area.  I have to accept that this is true, because even if it is not, there is little that I can do. I was only asked to help the animals who were beloved by this family.

My posting about the situation on Facebook prompted some comments about the welfare of the woman and child. By seeking help for the animals, was I condoning the possibility that this woman was waiting to secure herself and her child until the animals were safe?

That certainly was not my intent. I simply was putting forward the request for help for the animals. I was not asked to help the family in any other capacity. My hope is that the woman was responsible in finding safety for herself and the child regardless of the pets’ situation.

Domestic violence is a very insidious issue. As a counselor for 19 years, I faced many situations where I knew people were making unwise choices in regards to violence in their homes, but there was little I could do to intervene unless there was immediate danger. We simply cannot fix other people’s lives for them. We can only offer them opportunities to get out of bad situations, educate them about those opportunities, and offer support.

That is why this blog and the entire Okey’s Promise initiative promotes awareness about the connections between animal abuse and domestic violence and child abuse. By being more aware of the connections, we are more able to recognize the dangers to both humans and animals, and we are more able to develop services that can help both out of bad situations.

Because everyone deserves safety and peace of mind. And communities that care about animals are communities that care about people.



Meet Vicki Cook, New Okey’s Promise Contributor

BZTAT Vicki Cook BlogPaws April 2010
BZTAT and Vicki Cook at the first BlogPaws Conference in Columbus, OH April 2010

My good friend Vicki Cook has been a big supporter of Okey’s Promise from the very beginning, and she continues to send me links to stories with relevant content to the project’s mission. Vicki is a great writer, is involved in animal welfare initiatives, and has some professional experience working in social service organizations. So I decided to ask her to be a contributor to this blog.

Vicki was a bit surprised that I asked her, claiming that she has no expertise for the topic. In my mind, though, this is a topic that we all need to know about, and it takes no expertise to share what is general knowledge. It simply takes a passion for animals and a passion for people who are vulnerable in our world. Vicki certainly has that.

I asked Vicki to write an introduction for us.  Here it is. I look forward to more great posts from her in the future.

From Vicki Cook, New Okey’s Promise Contributor

I originally met BZTAT on Twitter about two years ago when we connected through a group of animal lovers, who got together on a regular basis to have fun and raise money for animal shelters and rescue groups all around the world.

Over time our friendship moved offline and into the real world when I visited her at her studio in Canton, Ohio.  BZTAT is actively involved in the growing arts community in downtown Canton, and I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – just a few hours away.  I took my teenaged daughter there for a weekend to meet a ‘real live’ artist and tour of the art galleries.

The following year we both attended three pet blogging conferences – BlogPaws 2010 in Columbus, Ohio; BarkWorld Expo in Atlanta, Georgia; and BlogPaws West in Denver, Colorado.  In addition to writing Okey’s Promise, BZTAT has her own blog Bztat Studios and helps her spokescat Brewskie Butt with his blog Just Meowin’.  I also have a pet blog called Bunny’s Blog, which is inspired by my rabbit and twitter alter ego Bunny Jean Cook and focuses on animal shelters, rescue groups, and other animal-related causes.

Most recently, BZTAT and I spent a weekend together in Cleveland, Ohio at the headquarters of Embrace Pet Insurance, home of the newest BZTAT Studios gallery.  BZTAT volunteered to do a 24-hour paint-a-thon in support of the 24-hour blog-a-thon that our friend Dr. V at PawCurious and several other pet bloggers were doing that weekend.

During the paint-a-thon BZTAT and I had a conversation about the connection between animal cruelty, child abuse, and domestic violence. BZTAT commented about an article in her local paper, which addressed issues at the local animal shelter and implied that caring for abused animals is not as important as caring for abused children.

Now in addition to being a talented artist, BZTAT is also a licensed clinical therapist who works with women and children in crisis. She noted that many times when animal abuse occurs, there is a likelihood of child abuse and/or domestic violence. She also stated that the child welfare movement actually grew out of the animal welfare movement.

Shortly after this, BZTAT set up a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to help underwrite Okey’s Promise, a public art project to increase awareness about the connection between animal cruelty, child abuse, and domestic violence, and she established this blog to further address those issues.

I also feel very strongly about these issues, and that is why I am so honored to be asked to contribute to this blog – especially because this month is Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month.

Every April, the ASPCA urges their supporters across the country to Go Orange for Animals in honor of signing their charter in 1866. This year is their 145th anniversary, and you can help support the ASPCA’s efforts by learning how to recognize and report animal cruelty.  For more information on the connection between animal cruelty and domestic violence, please click here.