Empathy for Animals as We Age


Through my volunteer work at animal welfare organizations around Texas, I found that not everyone values the lives of animals as much as my coworkers and me. However, after being a counselor at a summer camp for children interested in animals, I discovered that they were all willing to learn how they could help and none of them could understand the idea of not wanting to protect animals and give them the same protection as humans. So when tasked with participating in the Catalyst Conference, these realizations launched my quest: What is the difference between adults and children when it comes to their perception of nonhuman companion animals* and the value of their lives? ****Knowing how big the scope of animal rights and animal welfare is, I decided to focus on nonhuman companion animals. This is what most people call “pets”: dogs, cats, etc. I will go into more detail about my slightly different animal vocabulary later.****

Animal Welfare in Texas

In the entire state of Texas there are FIVE animal cruelty prosecutors. These five people have the responsibility of dealing with all of the tens of thousands of nonhuman companion animal cruelty incidents that occur annually. For this reason, most of the aggressors are not tried, and if they are, it is very difficult to get a jury to be on the side of the animals. Below is a case study about a man named Bradley Boley. In 2007, a neighbor found his 3-month-old puppy, Buddy, on a hot stove in his crate. Boley claimed that he placed Buddy, in his crate, on the stove after he went to the bathroom in the house. He also claimed that the puppy, not Boley himself, must have reached his paw through the crate and turned the stove on because Boley “thought the stove was broken.” Eventually, the vets determined that Buddy was completely burned from the inside out and he had to be euthanized. I interviewed the animal cruelty prosecutor for Dallas County, Felicia Kearney, and asked her about her experience working on the case.

Unfortunately, Ms. Kearney’s experience with the Boley case is not one that is unique. In Texas and around the world there exists the perception that the lives of nonhuman animals do not have as much value as human animals. It would be easy to write off the people with those beliefs as heartless or inhumane, except that they are my friends, my peers, my teachers, and my family and I know that they are exactly the opposite of that. So what creates this subconscious belief that a nonhuman animal’s life has less value than a human’s?

  This spring break, I spent some time at the SPCA of Texas as a counselor for their Critter Camp: a program for kids ages 8-11. There, I met children with a wide range of knowledge about animals and the issues they face, however each child was extremely willing to learn and each child was sure of one thing: pets and people should be treated the same way. This, though not surprising, was difficult for me to grasp given my experience with Ms. Kearney and my knowledge of animal law. There is a general agreement throughout the government and the public that cruelty to a nonhuman animal is nowhere near as serious as cruelty to a human, but adults are not inherently less empathetic or compassionate than children. If anything, they should be even more empathetic and compassionate, given that they are more cognizant of the effect of their actions and more educated on the role they play in the world. So what exactly creates this divide between children and adults?

                                   Me with my campers from Critter Camp

Does Age Really Make a Difference?

I sent out a SurveyMonkey on Facebook and I received results that were concurrent with my observations. Though both young and old people agreed that animal cruelty should be punished more severely, those who differed from that mindset were people who either did not have a pet as a child or those who were not exposed to animals at a young age. Upon reflection, I wondered why Critter Camp is for young students and not for adults, as it is adults who make the laws surrounding animals and who vote for the government that can protect the animals. In addition, all humane education programs are geared towards children and it seems impossible that’s by mistake.


So Do We Focus on Children?

What I found was this – that one’s moral standards are developed early and being that children are so impressionable, it is critical that they learn about animal protection as young as possible. Children are also more closely connected to animals and are better able to empathize with them. A pet can be the first friend that a child has, his/her care the first thing they take responsibility of, and he/she can be the one who best understands the child when they are of elementary age. While there are great differences between the thought process of children and their parents, young children, when not fully developed, share many traits with nonhuman animals, making it easier for them to relate to one another, rather than to adults in the child’s life. Children often create “conversations” with their nonhuman companions because of this relationship or they might even value animals over other humans (though some adults probably do too!). Fully developed adults, however, who may not have had this childhood experience (and even some who have), tend to find those conversations naive and innocent, potentially “child’s play.” Adults simply have a more difficult time seeing a being as an equal, when both parties do not share mutual respect because there are unequal voices in communication. Though adults can feel connected to their animals, it is impossible to literally speak to their animals and it can sometimes feel silly to even try. Even if they do attempt to relate to animals in the same way that children do, ultimately, most recognize that they will never be able to share experiences with nonhuman animals the way that they can with other humans. This technicality reduces how much of themselves they are able to see in nonhuman animals and hinders their ability to see them as equals to them. So it is no wonder that our laws favor humans and their proper treatment! How can people be expected to see the suffering of a nonhuman animal as equal to a human’s when, practically speaking, we must make an effort to see their lives as equal to ours?

My Thoughts

Personally, I have chosen to make that effort and to treat nonhuman and human animal suffering as the same. However, I do not believe that the issue is straightforward. I choose to use the term “nonhuman companion animal.” because for me, “pet” reduces the animal to a being without an inherent value and implies ownership; his/her value is completely dependent on his/her use. “Nonhuman companion animal,” on the other hand, recognizes multiple things. First, that humans are animals, as well as cats and dogs. Second, that the nonhuman animal is a companion for the human, rather than owned by the human. And last, that the being’s companionship is only a characteristic of his/her existence, completely independent from his/her value. Now, don’t get me wrong. My intention is not that everyone switch to using this term, nor am I implying that anyone who does not use this is wrong. I simply aim to bring attention to the words people use and the implications behind their words, in order to focus on the subconscious biases they may be acting on.




Which leads me to…   My charge to you: Take this poll and reflect on why you answered the way you did. Comment your thoughts below and continue the conversation! If you feel so inclined, share this with family, friends, and peers, and get others thinking too!

Do you value a nonhuman companion animal’s life (dog, cat, etc.) as equal to a human’s? Do you see their suffering being of equal value?

Yes, they are of equal value.
No, I see the human’s life being of more value.
No, I see the nonhuman animal’s life being of more value.
Not sure.







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