Bob Kerridge: Old idea has current value

When each new day dawns our daily newspaper exposes yet another gruesome murder, another senseless attack on a defenceless elderly person, another beating of an innocent child, or another abused and tortured animal.

We have good reason to be angry and to question where our world is heading.

The mindless nature of these acts of cruelty at the hands of humans can have no reasonable single explanation but there is no doubt that they are all intertwined.

In our work with animals we witness many acts of cruelty which signal potential abuse to humans. The two are undeniably linked, and the research supports it.

In the United States of all the women who take refuge in a shelter to escape abuse, 57 per cent of them have had a pet killed by their abuser.

The US Humane Society reports: "In homes where animals are abused, children and others, including the elderly and disabled, are at greater risk of abuse."

A moving advertisement featuring a soft toy with its limbs torn from its body was published by that same organisation, drawing attention to the link between animal abuse and child abuse.

Under the poignant headline, "One of the first lessons his father taught him he remembered his whole life", the advertisement went on to state: "The man who beats his wife, the woman who abuses her children, the child who hurts the neighbour's cat, they're all caught up in the cycle of violence."

Of greater concern is the fact that the child who is abused will generally learn to be violent to others, and animals often become their first victim. Research again clearly indicates that the first tell-tale signs of an abuser surfaced in their childhood as a "first taste" which they used as "rehearsal tools" on the way to later human abuse.

So what are the solutions to these transparent symptoms of abuse?

Quite clearly, as many of the origins of this behaviour occur in the home, it is perhaps that environment we should be targeting with education.

A recent observation by Bernadine Vester on this page pointed to a "correlation between the education of the adults in the family [particularly the mother] and the educational achievement of children".

Clearly therefore our role in the use of education to break the cycle of abuse needs to be directed at both the parents and children, and with animals as our focus we can, by teaching compassion and respect towards them, play our part in reducing the level of violence in our community.

Also evident is the fact that sheer ignorance is the catalyst to animal cruelty. In more than 80 per cent of all cases attended by our animal welfare inspectors, ignorance is the root cause of the problem.

This sad reality reflects our inability to reach out to touch those families where this ignorance exists, and ignorance is no excuse for cruelty.

This is perhaps the motivation behind the establishment of the new SPCA education facility in Auckland which is designed to reach all levels of the community including children and parents alike.

One of the messages that will undoubtedly be taught there will be the deepening of the awareness and understanding of the needs of animals - and as a logical by-product the compassion we show them, and our fellow humans. Particularly in the minds of young and impressionable children these lessons will produce a caring respect for all life which will promote valuable life skills within the child with an empathy for each other, and as a result a more caring community.

Hanging in the foyer of the new education centre is a portrait of Lord Erskine, presented to us by his great-great granddaughter.

Lord Erskine, as an eloquent Parliamentarian in England "fathered" the world's first animal protection legislation in 1811.

Erskine observed that animals, like humans, experienced the same sensations and feelings and accordingly should be understood and respected.

In an impassioned plea to protect animals he said, "Extending humanity to animals will have a most powerful effect on men's moral sense and upon their feelings and sympathies for each other."

Clearly ahead of his time, Lord Erskine was observing the core values of all life which in today's world, if taught widely enough, will break that cycle of violence and reduce the incidence of abuse and cruelty that continue to shock and sadden us in our daily lives.

He said that almost 200 years ago and we still haven't got the message!

Perhaps now is the time.

* Bob Kerridge is chief executive of the SPCA.

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