This summer, we are beyond proud to have interns working simultaneously at two different animal shelters. Every intern who comes through our program teaches us something and helps us improve our program and we are grateful for that. Some show us where more guidance is needed. Others highlight the humane education aspect of our work in a whole new way. Let me explain.
Our interns go through an interview process just like they would for any job. We talk about their schooling, work experience and their experience with animals. Most of them have had pets as well as other kinds of exposures to animals. Sometimes it is difficult to disguise what I am feeling when young people talk about their personal experiences with animals. When we ask them if they have had pets, most will say they have had many pets. Unlike most of us who have grown up with a few animals who lived out their lives with us, most of the youth that we work with either have experienced an unstable housing situation that led to surrendering their animals to shelters and replacing them when they could or simply a family economic situation that meant their animals frequently were given away to friends or family members who might be, at least temporarily, in a better position to care for them. Each of these stories is moving as we think about how we would feel if our beloved pets had to be given away. Then, there are other times when the humane education element of our mission really comes to the fore.
First, there was the young man who proudly told us he had ten dogs, 8 of them puppies. He said he tried to keep the male and female dogs apart when he knew it was “that time” but he had messed up. He was grateful to learn about programs where could get free or low cost spay/neuter services. Then, there are the more painful stories when it is difficult to keep from wincing. Just recently, we asked one young interviewee about her experience with dogs, and she told us about a relative who had dogs that he kept outside on the lot of his auto repair business. He wanted them to be “tough” so they would provide security for the business so she told us that he beat them “so they would be mean.” When the dogs responded to these ”training” methods by biting a friend, her relative got angry and shot and killed them. She reported this as you or I might report a normal childhood event. She disagreed with what he did and was sad about it but it was an otherwise unremarkable part of her growing up. Another candidate mentioned that she had rescued animals herself. We asked about that and she calmly told us about some neighborhood kids finding a small stray dog and saying “let’s go kill that dog.” She instead talked her mother into taking the dog in, at least temporarily.
This is what we have to work with. For many of our young people, we need to redefine what is “normal” treatment of animals. No, it’s not normal to beat animals as a means of training. No, it’s not normal to shoot or kill animals when they misbehave or you are otherwise done with them. We usually highlight the fact that our program provides better lives for shelter animals and job training for young people who need to get a leg up but it’s times like this that remind us that humane education– –teaching youth about respect and compassion for animals and how to pass it on– –is an equally significant part that mission.