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Should You Tell Your Child about Animal Abuse?

After getting off the school bus, my 9-year old checked the mailbox before coming in the front door. I heard the school bus beeping, which is my cue that Jordon is home. Jordon likes to check the mail. So do I. We both like getting letters–remember letters?

***Warning*** the next sentence is gravely upsetting.

He riffled through the envelopes, and came to one with bold blue type that read, “Dogs are bludgeoned to death, and cats are strangled and boiled alive.” He read it aloud, and with anger in his voice read it again.

Jordon has learned to love and respect animals.

Jordon knows that I write about animals. However, I try to focus on the positive side of animal welfare. I strongly believe that by reporting on the good that people in the movement are doing, I can educate readers about the whole issue.

Jordon was quite upset, and I calmly had to explain that many people in the world treat animals cruelly. He knows a lot about animal welfare, rescue groups, and the heroes I choose to write about for Pet News and Views.

The letter came from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). I used to be a member, and I honestly don’t mean to pick on PETA. They have done some good alerting the public about animal abuse. However, when I first joined PETA their letters came with warnings on the outside of the envelopes about the notices inside. This time, however, there was no warning. Clearly for all to see on the outside of the envelope–for shock value–was this awful announcement.

The second paragraph in the PETA letter reads, “The facts in this letter may shock you, but I implore you to be strong and read on.” I have fewer objections to what’s inside the envelope. My son doesn’t open my mail.

The contents of this letter made me feel guilty that I cannot help every single animal. A friend of mine said she “hates being guilted into taking action.” She also said she has become desensitized to a lot of the writings and images because she sees a lot of abuse on TV. I don’t know how that is possible. She says it’s overload.

I don’t watch a lot of television. I also spend a lot of time with my heroes–many of you who are working to make a difference in the world of animal welfare. Your stories inspire, and I rather learn that way than through disturbing images and sound bites.

So now, I ask you, should we shield children from these messages, and if not, how do you talk to your child, niece or nephew about cruelty?

29 comments to Should You Tell Your Child about Animal Abuse?

  • I don’t have children so I have no practical background in handling this situation. Still, I think teaching children about the realities that exist, for better and for worse, better equips them to cope. Of course, gauging their preparedness is key as a parent and the bad news can come incrementally with age, but your explanation that animal cruelty stems from people who don’t see animals as thinking feeling beings like we do is a good place to start. After that, be prepared to answer the rapid-fire questions from a mind that cannot fathom the insanity behind the pain. In fact, can I get in line? I still don’t understand.

  • I think children need to be aware that animal abuse happens, and they need to be cautioned to inform responsible adults if they see or hear of it happening. But just like anything else with raising children, some adult wisdom and discretion needs to accompany the discussion with the child. Information needs to be couched with a dialog about values and good sensible treatment of animals.

    Children, particularly younger ones, do not need to know the details of animal abuse, nor do they need to see graphic images to understand the importance of the issue. Indeed, giving those details can be traumatizing and actually harmful to the child.

    I am very concerned about animal abuse and I actively work with local charities to aid animals in need. Yet I cannot stomach some of the images that get sent my way. If people post graphic images or overwhelm my social media feeds with horror stories, I hide or block them. You do not have to abuse me to alert me to an issue that is already near and dear to my heart.

    I agree with you Michele. Animal welfare groups need to consider the impact on the intended and unintended audience of any material they disseminate before putting it out there.

  • Let me preface what I’m saying with the fact that I don’t have kids. However, I know a lot of kids, and I know that most kids love animals and don’t mean to hurt them, even though they sometimes do just because they don’t know better. I think that the most important thing we can do is teach children to be heros. What that means to me is a)teaching them the proper care and handling of animals, beginning at a young age, b)teaching them that adopting an animal is a VERY good thing to do, but that they should always think thoroughly about bringing an animal into their lives because it is a looooong commitment, and c)teaching them to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, which includes animals. All of these lessons are positive and will help children become leaders.

    I think its fine to talk with teens about abuse and neglect, but I would leave things on a positive note, as you said, Michele, for the young ones. I will keep my opinions about PETA to myself, except to say that it seems to me their tactics are often more hurtful than helpful.

  • Tiffanie

    I really dislike those types of letters. Its objective isn’t to educate but to jolt you to attention with visual images that cause instant anger and distress. That is not something a little kid needs to read or visualize. They have this brand new power to gain information through literature and I worry that a jolt like that could create a level of fear rather than enthusiasm in a child towards reading. If I saw a letter like that in my mailbox, I’d be so angry at the scare tactic; I would most likely throw it in the trash without reading it.

    I definitely think we need to educate children about animal cruelty. My thoughts would be to use examples that a child can relate to and comprehend without being terrified or mentally scarred. I’d explain to my sister/nephew that abuse to animals is the same as abusing people. We don’t hit, kick, bite, or be mean to them and if they see anyone doing any of that to an animal they need to come tell me or a policeman, etc. I would try to keep it as simple and easy to understand as possible because we all know that as we get older we become more exposed and aware of just how dark the human mind can be and how terrible people can be to one another as well as animals. There is no need to force that knowledge on a child. They just need enough information to understand that what they are seeing is wrong and someone needs to be informed about it.

  • Suzanne

    I think we should shield children from messages that are too graphic. As other have stated, a parent or other adult can educate children about the fact that abuse happens. But each child is different, and has a different ability to understand the information. Only a parent or other close adult can know what and how much a specific child can tolerate at that time. I would have been furious if my daughter had picked up and read the piece of mail Jordon did. It is up to me to determine what to tell my child about the bad things that happen to people and animals. A graphic message like that can leave a child with images they aren’t equipped to process. I agree with your approach, Michele, of focusing on the positive things people are doing to protect animals (especially at this age). That educates children that not all animals are treated well. The full extent of cruelty to them is not something my daughter needs to know about. Nor do I.

  • I don’t have children either. But Emmett and I work with a lot of kids, kids who have come from abusive families and have seen animals be abused, or even abused animals themselves. We talk a lot about compassion and empathy and why you need to be kind to animals. One little girl, about 9 years old, told me that when she used to hit a puppy it was because she didn’t know it was wrong. Yes, these kids are extreme cases. But I think it’s critically important to educate kids about animal abuse – in terms appropriate for their age, of course – so that they can know that it exists, understand why it’s wrong, and, most importantly, know who to tell if a classmate or friend does something abusive.

  • Many animal abusers “graduate” to children and/or spouses. Kids live in a dangerous world & parents will not always be there to protect them.

    I never placed horrific images in front of my son, but when I took him traveling, he would see the state of street cats/dogs; when we visited shelters in 3rd world countries, he saw that the world was grossly unfair for many humans & animals; & when we did not eat meat, I did have to explain why we were vegetarian.

    Today at 28 he is quite well adjusted, still a vegetarian, & loves animals. The ironic thing is I discovered 10yrs ago that he had been allergic to cats all these years! God’s little joke!!

  • Assuming the child is old enough to understand, I think you should tell them about certain realities in the world. If you don’t wade in with your viewpoint, and early, they’ll pick one up elsewhere. I think you want to be in a position where you can control the delivery of the message, not react to counter or explain what they already heard.

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  • I do have a child, who has been brought up with animals – dogs, cats, fish, hermit crabs and a rabbit. She knows that animals are living beings with feelings just like her. She has learned that first-hand by living with them. I have talked to her about animal abuse taking into consideration her age and ability to comprehend. It’s been a learning process over many years not something that occurs in a single conversation. I would have been very upset if my daughter had received that letter, but I would also have viewed it as another opportunity to have a conversation with her about animals and animal abuse.

  • I agree that children should be aware of animal abuse. Their age and ability to comprehend should be considered but I also think this is true for adults. Not their age, but their ability to comprehend.

    When stories are posted with graphic images and horrific details, people will experience psychic numbing. Most people are caring and will exert themselves to help, but when a situation is overwhelming, most will experience a sort of paralysis, become forlorn. Desensitized as your friend stated.

    I try to balance the content of a post so that the message is heard but the reader does not feel hopeless. I don’t mean to imply that the messages should be shrouded, just that it should be tempered so as not to cause the reader to withdraw. For example, a cat was beaten by kids with a baseball bat. We try to keep the focus on the good work of the rescue workers, the vet clinic and those people donating for the cat’s care. We try to discourage ranting about how awful the kids are that beat the cat. That is a given, the message is clear. We lose our momentum if we focus on the bad and not on helping the cat.

    Mother Teresa said “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Too much overwhelms, small amounts of information may lead the reader to think they can make a difference. I can’t save all cats, perhaps I can help save one.

  • Kudos for introducing this topic!!

    In brief – yes. We absolutely should talk to children about animal abuse. Here’s why:

    Animal abuse is a strong predictor for domestic violence. Raising a child’s awareness about how adults and children abuse animals may help keep your kiddo safe. Your child should feel comfortable talking to you about any acts or threats of violence a peer (or their family network) may have made.

    Perhaps you can talk to your child about marketing, as well. Depending on your lifestyle and household values, you may have a great opportunity to explore how different commercials and ads make your child feel about junk foods, video games, etc…Educating your child about advertising can go a long way!

  • AW


  • s sureck

    Education, both for adults & children is imperative. Children do understand compassion for animals, but should also be made aware:
    Any human who tortures or mistreats or neglects an animal causing pain and suffering, dismemberment and/or death, participates in authorized or un-authorized research, with or without federal funding, withholds food & water and/or medical care is guilty of animal cruelty, an offense punishable to the absolute maximum permitted by law.

  • Valerie Wehmueller

    We have a teenage daughter who knows what horrible, cruel things some people do to animals. I do NOT hide the facts from her, nor have I ever. We have always had pets, I was a veterinary assist., & we are strong animal advocates. You should be able to screen graphic images from young children, but, PETA is not the only one who is guilty, &, they shouldn’t be singled out. If any wish to send shock messages, yes, they should have warnings on them. But, we, as responsible adults, owe our children the truth, &, should NOT hide it or sugar-coat the awful facts. After all, our children ARE the future, THEY are the future voices for animals, they are the future animal advocates that will take our place someday. Children MUST be taught to respect ALL life, & if they are upset, angry or sad, then we teach them how to help, & how to CHANGE things.

  • Veronika Egli

    as a teacher I explain this so: This peoples are in some kind of sikness of the soul/heart, it will be so much nessesary to heal them!!!! And of corse, we have to stop them immediately! I explane this of corse more detailed etc.

  • Elgrit B. Russell

    All children from the youngest age must be taught that animals should never, ever be harmed by anyone and that they should be respected and cared for, etc. However, the degree of explaining abuse would depend on their ages. One thing I think must also be stressed to them from early childhood is that THEY MUT NEVER JOIN OTHERS WHO ABUSE THEM and explain why it is wrong and that it basically makes them (the kids) bad and it is better for the child to be kind and good to the animals, etc.

  • I also focus on the positive aspects of animal stories and when there is an abuse story get the happy ever after follow up. Normally the local papers only go as far as the abuse. We have had some horrific events here and just passed a House Bill making bestiality a felony. Finally. I’m sure that was a tough subject to broach with kids. While we live in a typical suburban /rural area the villages in Alaska are a different story. Off the road system and remote from outside eyes life for animals is much different. People live by subsistence, hunting and fishing there is virtually no agriculture due to the climate. PETA does not go to the villages. It usually spends some time in Anchorage protesting fishing and will phone in a complaint every year after the Iditarod sled dog race. One bright star is http://www.canine-comfort.org in Aniak, Alaska. Three women tired of the neglect and abuse are making a difference and training kids to care for animals properly.

  • Mercedes De Windt

    Children must be prepared for real life they need to knolw what is going on out there, so they can help and do something about it. Here is a nice quote: “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.” from Bradley Millar And whayt about this one: “To close your eyes will not ease another’s pain.”(Chinese proverb)
    It is so important for a child, because that child might teach some other children and maybe even ADULTS not to abuse animals.
    To fight the issue of animal abuse one needs to know about it first to understand it and to address it properly.

  • Mercedes, What a beautiful saying. Michele

  • Meryl

    I have trouble when anyone decides what is “right” for someone else. Honesty is obviously a good path, but teaching age-appropriately is paramount. That does not only mean chronological, but emotional and intellectual as well. We are not all the same (thank goodness). I believe parents should have the “right to choose” how and what and when we explain these parts of human behavior. I sure would not want to support hurting an animal, nor would I want to traumatize a person. My son for one, would be terribly disturbed, frightened and worried about our dog and his stuffed animals and his friends pets and even…himself. Good chance he’d be terrorized by images and words that he cannot grasp yet in his young life. I believe that should remain on the “inside of the envelope.”

  • Judy Boone

    Yes kids should know just as they know about sex predators they should know to report this to an adult and adults should teach chuldren to be kind and caring to animals

  • Anne Roberts

    I have two girls now in their twenties. They have from the begining been loving careing people and always help animals. Even when small whould bring strays home to save. I did tell them about the subhumans that harm creatures and I believe it is important to prepare them as they grown up to be ready to fight against all cruelty. If asked they say they were thankful I told them when young.

  • Shirley Plummer

    All children from an early age should be taught about animal welfare and the mindless cruelty that goes on

  • Bellona

    When my son was just a toddler he came to me with a small scratch on the back of his hand demanding that Trouble (our cat) be punished for hurting him. As I swabbed the scratch I asked him what he did to Trouble and he told me he pulled the cat’s tail. I told him that trouble was defending himself you should never ever be cruel to an animal whether you mean it or not. That toddler has lived with cats all his life and he even carries bugs outside so they won’t be harmed. I think children can be taught at a very early age what is cruelty and what is acceptable behavior. The thing is as so aptly pointed out in previous posts, the child must be taught and then see that behavior followed through by the parent.

  • Thanks so much, Very helpful……will pass this on

  • Such an amazing topic. I have to say it really depends on the child’s age. I wouldn’t want to cause nightmares, but the world is a bad place (with lots of good in it). I recently spent time with the Rescue Ink guys and they spoke to kids in the elementary school grades, the wee ones. They had to change what they showed from graphic images to images of themselves locked in cages and call the abusers the “bad guys.” But truth is truth and by starting young, teaching kids to respect animals, yes I do believe they need to know to some degree.

  • zelime Matthews

    OF COURSE YOU SHOULD! EDUCATE! EDUCATE! EDUCATE! I cant believe this question was even asked. You can tell a child everything in ways that wot traumatize them. Progress and change starts with the power of VOICE!

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