At a recent New Jersey public hearing, the topic was a proposed bear hunt. A small boy walked up to the microphone, said his name was Bobby, and told the officials that shooting bears was horrible. “How would you like it if someone shot at you? You wouldn’t like it, would you?” Then Bobby threw up his arms and said, “But you won’t care what I say because I’m only seven years old,” and walked back to his seat in a dejected manner.
Many parents and teachers have observed that young children are fascinated by animals and care deeply about them. Recent research has revealed that animals are so important to young children that they routinely dream about them. In fact, 3- to 5-year-olds dream more frequently about animals than about people or any other topic, and animal dreams continue to be prominent at least until the age of 7 years.
But as children grow up in the Western world they, like Bobby, find that their deep feelings for animals aren’t shared by the dominant culture.
The rudest awakening occurs when children discover the source of the meat they eat. In a preliminary study of urban, middle class children, one of my undergraduate students, Alina Pavlakos, found that most 5-year-olds didn’t know where meat comes from. They knew they ate meat, but when asked, “Do you eat animals?,” most said, “Nooo!,”-as if the idea were outrageous.
Pavlakos found that children soon learn otherwise, most by the age of 6 or so. She and others also have informally observed that many children become distraught when they learn the facts. As Jane Goodall points out, some children want to become vegetarians at this point, but their parents rarely permit it.
In the years that follow, our culture seems to work in many ways to dampen children’s sensitivity to animals-especially farm animals. Sometimes our language hides the identity of animals as food. We eat pork, not pigs; veal, not calves; meat, not flesh. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out that the English language more subtly distances us from animals by referring to them with the impersonal pronoun “it,” as if they were mere objects. If a young person becomes interested in the science of animal behavior, she will learn to avoid the attribution of any human emotions, such as pain or happiness, to animals. The scientific custom is to view animals impersonally.
In a tour de force, our society has managed to keep the public largely in the dark with respect to factory farms, which produce nearly all the meant Americans consume. Factory farms subject animals to incredible suffering, but most adults know little about it. This, at least, is what another undergraduate student, Srushti Vanjari, and I have found. From December, 2005, to the present, we have distributed questionnaires to undergraduates at different colleges and to adults in hotel lobbies and a senior citizen center in the New York metropolitan area. In these samples, 73 to 90% of the adults rated their knowledge of factory farms as either slight or nonexistent (with a large majority of these respondents rating their knowledge as nonexistent).
Admittedly, our surveys are informal, and some of my friends question the results. They believe that the past decade has witnessed a dramatic rise in vegetarianism as people have become aware of the mistreatment of animals. But the most recent Harris poll, conducted in 2006, found that only 2.3% of American adults chose a vegetarian diet-a figure that is actually down from 2.8% in 2003.
At a time when there is so much emphasis on improving education, the widespread adult ignorance with respect to animal suffering is stunning. I hope educators will rise to the task of eliminating this ignorance. I hope, for example, that educators will introduce secondary school and college students to writers such as John Robbins, Peter Singer, and Jane Goodall, and will encourage discussions on animal emotion and treatment. Perhaps the day will come when the adults in our society, with their blinders removed, will share young children’s fascination and empathy with animals.
Article by William Crain, Professor of Psychology
William Crain is professor of psychology at The City College of New York. He is the author of Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society and the editor of the journal, Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. Dr. Crain advocates for the child’s right to play and for the protection of nature and animals, and is co-founder of the Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Beekman, NY ( http://www.safehavenfarmsanctuary.org ), where children and adults visit animals rescued from inhumane conditions.