The number of cases of abuse to animals by children has risen 10 percent this year, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Besides the reports of possibly unintended injury, there were calculatedly violent acts ranging from setting animals on fire to cutting off their limbs.These are extreme cases, of course, but the newest research indicates that our materialistic culture may be producing a younger generation in whom casual cruelty and acceptance of aggression are terrifyingly common. A recent study of 1,700 seventh- and eighth-graders in Rhode Island found that 51 percent of the boys thought it was OK for a boy to force a girl to kiss him after a date.
"As if the whole society exists for their pleasure, and if a moment's not fun or exciting, they're entitled to make it fun," writes Fred Gosman in "Spoiled Rotten."
For pets, that kind of "fun" can translate into abuse.
Even children who are not outright injurious to animals may be uncaring of them simply because they're geared to getting possessions and tossing them aside.
And an act of neglect and cruelty to a creature may have long-term psychological impact, say doctors ranging from Albert Schweitzer to Lee Salk. "It seeps into the very soul," Schweitzer wrote. "An act of perversion is never a single, transient episode. It corrodes the hidden values by which we seek to live."
The interesting thing is, despite a lot of evidence and educational literature to the contrary, many parents operate under the convenient notion that kids are just naturally empathetic with animals.
"Compassion is not instinctive. The attraction is instinctive, but kindness is taught," said Susan Gassner, director of education for the Humane Society of Missouri.
The problem is, many parents don't monitor the child-pet relationship.
"We not only have a culture in which kids are used to instant gratification and therefore may not understand the conscientiousness needed to care for an animal, but we also have a culture in which parents have abdicated their supervisory role. That means animals in these households are at risk."
QUESTION: Telling your child "play nice with Rover" is not enough?
ANSWER: Absolutely not. Parents must actively monitor their child's playing with a pet. And if a parent isn't prepared for this degree of supervision, then the family shouldn't get a pet.
I've found some parents adopt a detached position, removing themselves from intervention. Their stance is, "That's my child's pet." Their theory in getting the animal was that the child should have something that belonged just to him or her. They may feel the child is supposed to learn independently through the pet's reactions what is and isn't acceptable.
To allow a child to be cruel and not intervene is as good as saying, "That's what it's there for."
And study after study has shown a statistical correlation between unprovoked aggressive behavior and animal abuse.
QUESTION: But there are rewards in caring for a pet properly?
ANSWER: Oh, yes. The Pets Are Wonderful Council in New York has endless documentation on the benefits to a child's sense of self-esteem and maturation in caring for a pet. And just as a habit of cruelty to animals can have broader social impact, we think that the lesson of kindness to animals is also generally applicable.
QUESTION: Many branches of the Humane Society are sponsoring summer camps for kids. Tell me about it.
ANSWER: The overall aim is to demonstrate what a life involved in working with animals entails. They will observe surgery. They will take animals to nursing homes and learn about the healing they can stimulate. They will see the problem in our shelter. Ideally, when they leave, they'll understand all the facets.
There are a lot of myths children hold: that veterinary work is glamorous, that modern technology can solve every problem, that animal care is always rewarding. These camps are scheduled for June 24 through June 28 and July 15 through July 19. Those weeks are kitten season. We'll be taking in upwards of 150 a day. They'll get a chance to see the scope of the overpopulation and confront irrefutably the need for spaying and neutering.
QUESTION: How do you handle their reaction when they understand what happens to most of your animals?
ANSWER: We try to channel the sadness positively. We tell them, "Now you see the problem. You will be able to make a difference. You can be the spark that ignites the change."