Mixing Kids, Animals . . . and Issues : Schools: Increasingly, teachers are discussing lab testing and environmental concerns. Students seem to love it. But critics say they may be hearing only one side.
In Darrell Jacobson’s classroom, the walls are festooned with posters of starving dogs, apes in laboratory cages and whales cavorting near the ocean floor. Near the door, a PETA canister receives kids’ quarters with a loud plunk.
“Why do you care if a product is tested on animals?” Jacobson asked his seventh-graders one recent morning.
“Because it’s inhumane,” they fired back.
“Why?” the teacher prodded. “Support your statement.”
It’s a typical day in health science class at Hosler Junior High School in Lynwood, where Jacobson, who has been elected the school’s Teacher of the Year seven times, is discussing one of his most passionately held beliefs: animal rights.
On public and private school campuses throughout Southern California, a small but growing number of teachers are incorporating animal rights issues into the curriculum. They believe that inculcating children with a respect for animals will help them grow into compassionate adults who will take care of each other and the environment.
So far, the teachers say, most parents and administrators support their informal efforts. But other teachers are wary of politicizing the classroom, and companies that do medical research or product testing on animals fear that impressionable minds are getting only one side of the story.
“Kids have a natural rapport with animals, and it just needs to be fostered,” explains Rhea Damon, whose third-graders at Wilbur Avenue School in Tarzana held bake sales to raise money to adopt a pelican at a Florida wildlife sanctuary.
Her students have also written letters to various agencies protesting underwater acoustical testing that could affect whales and dolphins. Sometimes she worries that she goes too far in bringing her personal views to class. But Damon says she has to be true to herself.
“You take a risk, but I can’t change who I am, and I haven’t gotten any flack from parents, just encouragement,” she says.
Evris Tsakirides, a history and Latin teacher at the private Crossroads High School in Santa Monica, believes that students who empathize with animals will be more sensitive to issues such as world hunger, gay rights and women’s rights. He weaves animal rights issues throughout the curriculum, even Latin class.
“We’re talking about how the ancient Romans treated animals, especially in the arena,” Tsakirides says.
Other teachers also work in the topic where they can. Students in a Latin American history course can do papers on bullfights or the wild bird trade. English classes write to companies to ask them to stop testing their products on animals.
Student letters arrive in waves, confirms Danielle Frizzi, a spokeswoman for Boston-based Gillette. She worries that children aren’t hearing both sides of the issue in the classroom. “It’s always good to expand children’s horizons, but it should be from a balanced platform,” she says. They should also be taught what a manufacturer must do to comply with government regulations in putting a new product on the market, Frizzi says.
The Foundation for Biomedical Research, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes humane and responsible research, also fears children are being fed skewed propaganda by overzealous teachers.
“There’s no question that the animal rights movement is focusing a considerable amount of resources on the schools in all age groups, and, of course, we’re concerned,” says foundation president Frankie Trull. “Children should have access to all sides of the issue and understand that animal models are pivotal to biomedical research.”
Teachers say they do present both sides. Jacobson, for example, makes his students defend their positions. If they say it’s not right to expose research animals to disease in hopes of finding a cure, he plays the devil’s advocate: “Wouldn’t you rather a new AIDS vaccine be tested on a chimp than on you?”
Damon says she does the same. “I’m not telling the children to believe this or believe that. They’re smart enough to draw their own conclusions.”
Pro-animal teaching tools are easy to come by. Groups from the radical PETA--People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals--to mainstream municipal animal shelters disseminate printed material and videos to anyone who requests them. David Meyer, executive director of Last Chance for Animals, a nonprofit group in the San Fernando Valley, says he gets about 10 calls a week from teachers or students seeking information, up from about two calls a month five years ago.
He sees a tug of war developing over the minds of young people.
“It’s a popular concept, and no one has a problem with teaching respect for life,” Meyer says. “But people who have allied themselves against animal rights do not want a curriculum of animal rights taught in the schools. They say it has a political aspect.”
For instance, some teachers distribute PETA’s “Cruelty-Free Shopping Guide,” which lists companies that eschew animal testing.
Gillette’s Frizzi says the guide is misleading. “Those companies [that don’t test on animals] rely on previous animal testing or ingredients that a company like Gillette may have tested on an animal,” she points out.
But that argument doesn’t sway Jacobson. One recent day his students were laboriously copying a letter to Gillette that he had put on the blackboard as a blueprint. It urged the company to stop animal testing.
Jacobson also shows his seventh-graders graphic films of animal vivisection, the de-beaking of chickens and of laboratory chimpanzees infected with HIV.
“It’s never traumatized one person yet in my 15 years of teaching,” Jacobson says of the screenings.
He says he decided to bring his long-held animal rights philosophy into the classroom after a student told him that a neighborhood kid had killed a weeks-old puppy by throwing it repeatedly against a wall. Principal Trinidad Garcia supports his efforts and sometimes sits in on the class.
“These kids are from rough neighborhoods and they’ve seen it all, but I realized I have to start working with them now before they become completely desensitized adults,” Jacobson says.
The tactic worked on Marja Corbin, 13, who took Jacobson’s class last year.
“I used to wear fur and leather, and it’s not in my wardrobe anymore after what I found out,” Marja says. “It’s not right what they do to animals, and Mr. Jacobson is the only one who taught me things like that.”
At El Camino Community College in the South Bay, teacher Diana Crossman uses her public-speaking classes to inform students about vegetarianism and what she says is the cruelty of laboratory experiments. Some of her students have gone on to give speeches against animal testing, and she credits herself as an influence.
“As a speech teacher, you have to pick a subject and give examples, so I take advantage of it and I’ve never gotten a complaint,” Crossman says. “The students are very interested, and I’m fairly well-known around the department as being an outspoken vegetarian and animal rights advocate.”
At the private New Roads School in Santa Monica, principal David Bryan has also taken a stand, instituting a policy to buy office supplies from “cruelty-free” companies. “If you can do less harm to creatures and still accomplish the things you need, then that’s the best way to go,” says Bryan, who also championed animal rights in his last job as dean of human development at Crossroads school in Santa Monica.
He recently enlisted animal rights activist Meyla Caplan, with whom he once team-taught an ethics class, to speak to a group of students. Caplan, who lectures throughout the Westside, brought in her 12-pound, coal-black American Himalayan cat, Egypt, who trundled around on a leash as she discussed the importance of spaying and neutering, and the evils of puppy mills.
She also showed a five-minute video of animals being put to death at a shelter, urging kids to leave the room if they could not stomach the film. Nobody moved.
Should children study animal rights when so many graduate without knowing how to read and write?
Caplan has a quick answer: “Kids today feel so left out that if we can get them involved and engaged in a topic like this, then everything else follows.”
Indeed, the students squealed in delight as they passed around Egypt, who didn’t mind being cradled like a baby. Afterward, they crowded around Caplan to talk. Some vowed to get involved in the animal rights movement and others promised to adopt pets from the pound.
“I always said I’d go to the pet shop to get a pet,” said Adam Blumenfeld, a seventh-grader. “But after hearing this talk, I’ll definitely go to a shelter.”
An exhilarated Caplan gathered her cat and her literature and headed for the door, pausing for one last thought.
“I feel so strongly that if we can reach these kids now, we can make a difference.”