Developing empathy by caring for shelter animals

Developing empathy by caring for shelter animals

ENGAGE has teamed up with the Montreal SPCA to provide children between the ages of 8 and 14 the opportunity to look after rescue animals.

July 16, 2019 By Julie Matlin

This summer, the corridors of the SPCA are alive with the sound of children’s laughter. Three days a week, companion animals waiting for homes will spend their days playing, exercising, and learning new tricks, thanks to their young handlers.

As an extension of their year-round activities, ENGAGE has created a summer program called Animal Allies, featuring 3 thematic days to encourage youth to get involved in animal welfare: Dog Heroes, Small Pet Protectors, and Cat Champions. During these sessions kids learn how to interact respectfully with animals and participate in the daily tasks required for their care.

Emelie Luciani, one of ENGAGE’s educators, explains their mission: “We know that a lot of issues today stem from a lack of empathy. Working with vulnerable shelter animals is a great way to practice empathy.” ENGAGE believes that children have an active role to play in society, and an experience like this one empowers them to play that role.

A win/win

Emelie acknowledges that the animals at the Montreal SPCA are already well-cared for. “They’re fed, housed, walked, cuddled, and they have full access to veterinary care,” she says. But it’s not just about the basic necessities, it’s also about creating quality of life. To that end, the animals’ lives are enriched through various programs, including this one. “The children provide the animals with mental and emotional stimulation, while at the same time getting to know each animal as an individual,” Emelie says. “They keep the animals active and engaged, which is essential for the animals' mental and physical well-being.”

Learning empathy

Emelie stresses the initiative’s focus on empathy and civic engagement. “A program like this shows children that they have the power to make a difference today—right now—not just later when they’re adults. By going home and talking to their parents and friends about animal welfare, they’re acting as agents of change. And this is knowledge and experience that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

Safety is paramount

For ENGAGE, safety is a priority both for the kids and the animals. Before interacting with the animals, all children attend an animal behaviour workshop. “There is a lot of supervision,” says Emelie. “We have a high educator-to-participant ratio to make sure all animal interactions are properly supervised. And we only interact with animals that would benefit from being with us. We don’t work with fearful, injured, stressed, or potentially dangerous animals.”

ENGAGE has been running similar programs for a while. My own children, 11 and 13, participated in one of their workshops last fall. They spent an evening with rescue dogs and cats and came home raving about the experience. We’ve had dogs in the house since our kids were born, but this was the first time they were able to clearly identify body language. It’s not uncommon for one of my kids to now say, “Look how Zoe’s licking her lips. I wonder what’s stressing her out.”

Bonus for teens: Many high schools now require community service as a condition of graduation. The hours spent at the SPCA count towards fulfilling that requirement.

ENGAGE is a non-profit organization which finances the Animal Allies program exclusively through registration fees. The Montreal SPCA was the first animal welfare organization established in Canada and is now the largest animal protection organization in Quebec.

Credits: Engage: Éducation en bien-être animal

Cover: Photo Eva Blue

Photo 1: Eva Blue

Photo 2: Engage

Photo 3: Claire Vessot

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