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Kitten killers highlight need for compassionate education

Kitten killers highlight need for compassionate education in our schools

Very disturbing footage of a kitten being stoned by a group of five young people
from Southland in New Zealand has emerged online. The youth are aged between 11 and 16 and animal welfare group Paws Justice called it “one of the worst cases” they had ever seen.

The video shows the kitten being flung on the ground before being stoned to death by slabs of rock. The kitten pitifully tries to find shelter under a nearby bush, but ultimately succumbs to the violence.

It’s graphic, disturbing and upsetting. The mother of one of the children has been quoted as saying the behaviour was “unacceptable”, but that “there is nothing I can do about it now.”

This statement shocked me nearly as much as the kitten killing incident. It seems dismissive and out of proportion to the nature of the incident. I would call a child deliberately knocking over a glass of juice “unacceptable”. I have no words for what I would call the deliberate and callous killing of a kitten. And I would surely find some way of doing something about it.

If that was my child I would be very worried.

Psychologist Jodi Johnston says that since the 1970s research has clearly indicated that childhood cruelty to animals is a warning sign of later “delinquency, violence, and criminal behaviour”. She argues that nearly all violent criminals began their career by hurting an animal.

The question many of us are asking is why? Why would a child mistreat an animal? Paws Justice has said “we can’t even begin to understand why this little soul was stoned.”

Johnston suggests that there are many possible reasons for such an action. In many cases the child has either witnessed abuse of experienced abuse themselves and is trying to regain a sense of power by hurting a more vulnerable animal victim. It may also be an imitation or a re-enactment of violent episodes they have experienced themselves. There may be peer pressure by other dominant children or as part of an initiation rite into a group.

The children who killed this hapless kitten were intellectually mature enough to know hurting animals is unacceptable. Johnston categorizes this as the “Cry-for Help” abuser. She writes, “this behaviour is not due to lack of education, instead the animal abuse is more likely to be a symptom of a deeper psychological problem.” Such a child needs help.

We really need to begin drawing connections between violence in society, in our homes and toward animals. Child Matters states that on average one child is killed every 5 weeks in New Zealand. There were 14,802 substantiated findings of abuse (including emotional, physical, sexual abuse & neglect).

What we need more than ever in New Zealand is a reality check. We can no longer call ourselves a great place to raise children or even a nation of animal lovers. We have serious social issues and we need to take stock of the situation.

I have written elsewhere about the violence in many rural communities toward animals. This is violence that is sanctioned such as school possum hunts where possums are dressed up and their dead bodies paraded. I am not saying that all these children will turn out to be future psychopaths at all. But I am saying that such actions are desensitizing children to animal suffering.

There is no simple solution to this complex social problem. But we do need to begin somewhere. There will be more kittens killed, and there probably are – by people who don’t post the video on social media.

We need to begin to build a better world by giving our children the best possible experiences with animals and nature.

Children need to experience compassion and respect first if they are to extend this to animals and fellow humans. They need to be given the chance to develop their dispositions for empathy and understanding. Compassionate education in our schools which nurtures a love of life and a sense of wonder is the very first step.

I will finish this essay with a quote from early childhood guru Penny Brownlee. "We can’t know what our children will grow up to love, but we can be very sure that unless they have experience of something there is no chance they could ever understand it or love it.”


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