As inflation puts cost pressures on pet owners and many return to in-person work, several Canadians are surrendering their “pandemic pets,” which were obtained during the COVID-19 pandemic, to animal shelters. Across Canada, these shelters are now overwhelmed by an increasing number of surrendered animals.
Melissa Logan, director of education at the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), says there may be a way to mitigate pet abandonment through what is known as “comprehensive humane education.”
Logan says this field of education encourages people to consider how their choices and actions impact animals and the world around them.
“We focus on how animals feel,” Logan told Global News. “We encourage students to learn about the specific needs of their animals and learn about how to accommodate those needs.”
“Instead of giving up on animals, we need to be curious about them,” she said.
Logan says she recognizes that many Canadians are struggling financially.
“For those people, we really encourage them to look for support in their family or their community,” said Logan, adding that pet food banks are one of the many resources.
Although financial support could be helpful as a short-term solution, education is a crucial way to help Canadians understand the responsibility towards animals, said Logan.
She adds that pet abandonment related to lifestyle and behavioral issues could be reduced by educational programs that build on empathy, respect and animal knowledge.
What is humane education?
The Institute of Humane Education studies and teaches an approach that “draws connections between human rights, animal protection and environmental sustainability.”
Sandra Scott, a professor at the Department of Curriculum & Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, says she prefers to use the term “ecological justice” rather than “humane education” because the former term is centered around the earth.
According to Scott, having respect for animals is key.
“Because if you don’t have respect, then you’re going to intrude upon their space,” she said.
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Scott says it is important for people to do research before adopting and purchasing a pet.
“This is where the education comes in. If we can incorporate research skills (on getting a pet) into our education curriculum, that would be fantastic,” said Scott.
Scott says people need to think about what breed of dog or cat is appropriate for them, have a sense of how much they are going to eat and the costs that come with the pet.
Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada, says the increase in pet abandonment may have been triggered by the pandemic, during which many Canadians bought pets from breeders with poor track records on health care.
“It is a real concern,” Cartwright told Global News previously.
The news of a rise in pet surrenders comes after many Canadians rushed to adopt or buy pets when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
According to a June 2021 survey commissioned by Purina, roughly 3.7 million Canadians newly adopted, purchased or fostered a cat or a dog during the pandemic.
What does humane education look like?
Scott says parents should act as role models to children, and teach them respect and responsibility every time they interact with a non-human.
Parents should allow children to explore their backyards, take them to parks or read them books about animals, said Scott.
“We can start when children are still in kindergartens, early childhood, this is the time where they still have that sense of wonder,” said Scott. “We can start to develop their empathy by just getting them to connect with creatures in their own backyards.
“If we see a dog, we don’t run up and start petting the dog, we show our children that, you know, we have to give that dog space and then have a conversation with the pet owner.”
Scott says it is easy for many to adopt or purchase a puppy for their homes, but pet ownership responsibility is another challenge.
“I really respect parents who say to their children, ‘No, you can’t have a dog until you can show me that you can have a dog’,” said Scott.
Registered psychologist Kimberly Kreklewetz says humane education should be part of everyday discussions in homes.
“The ultimate responsibility lies with the parents,” said Kreklewetz, who is also a faculty member with the UBC Okanagan Department of Psychology.
“As much as your children promise to take care of the dog … the fallback has to be on the parents,” she said. “When you apply to a rescue for a dog, they always ask and make sure that every family member is on board and that that adoption is going to work for everybody.”
Kreklewetz says for her family, responsible pet ownership means their pets are considered family members.
“They’re with us for their entire lives pretty much no matter what,” she said. “We want to teach our kids that we don’t give up on our pets when things get tough and that we always are giving them the very best care that we can.”
Bringing humane education into classrooms
Margaret Galan, an English Language Learning teacher at a high school in Richmond B.C., says she first started bringing her dog into her classroom casually 25 years ago.
“I believe that every child should have the opportunity, obviously circumstances permitting, to experience the love and compassion of an animal, and form a genuine bond with them,” said Galan, who is also the director of Animal Rehabilitation and Care Rescue Society.
Galan says by incorporating humane education in classrooms, she thinks students can learn how to take care of a pet and the importance of adoption. This, in turn, can reduce more and more pets from being abandoned in the future.
Galan adds that the presence of an animal in the classroom can sometimes be therapeutic for students.
“The pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressure to succeed make students really vulnerable,” said Galan. “Having a pet in a classroom and showing them how relaxed and empathetic an animal can be can give them a huge opportunity to de-stress and at the same time (teach them) to take responsibilities.”
Logan notes that the Alberta SPCA offers resources to teachers about humane education that are aligned with a curriculum but all educators should be aware of all of the responsibilities for bringing pets to school.
Ultimately, parents, caregivers and educators need to think about “what kind of message are they sending to students” — whether animals are treated like “a fun toy or a fun experience” — entirely depends on the adults involved, Logan said.
“I know students could get some enjoyment out of these animals, or there could be some learning, but the first and foremost (thing to consider) is the animal’s well-being,” said Logan.
“If they can be providing that exemplary care, children can learn how to care for animals through that classroom pet.”