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Where's the Empathy for Animals Killed at the Stampede?

07/17/2013 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 05:12 EDT

The death of animals at the Calgary Stampede has become an annual tradition. This year a steer was euthanized after its neck was snapped during the steer wrestling competition in front of thousands of spectators and a horse died of a pulmonary hemorrhage (a ruptured artery) after collapsing post-chuckwagon race. Animal deaths at the Stampede are not an unexpected event, since 1986 more than 55 animals have died or been injured. Most recently, three horses died in 2012, one horse in 2011, six horses in 2010, three horses and one steer in 2009. So what compels people to attend these events, knowing that they will likely see an animal die?

Recently, Huntingdon, Quebec mayor Stephane Gendron shocked the nation when he made jokes on his radio show about enthusiastically killing newborn kittens and cats with his car. In the aftermath the Montreal SPCA has launched an investigation. And as for Mayor Gendron, he has contritely apologized. Apparently Canadians don't understand his sense of humour. But what brings a person to feel so comfortable saying such deplorable things (even if it turns out that they aren't true) on public radio? What do we as listeners think and feel? What do our children think when they hear such things from elected officials? Is it any wonder that we're seeing the stark result of a lack of empathy and compassion -- rampant bullying -- at epidemic levels in Canada?

It is time for an open conversation about the treatment of animals and the clear correlation to the development of empathy and how we treat and care for each other. David Selby, a professor at University in Toronto wrote a set of principles that such a conversation will require:

1. A life-loving and life-affirming ethic that includes empathy and compassion, respect and interconnectedness, and the ability to make decisions based on the welfare of others as well as ourselves;

2. Recognizing the self-worth and self-esteem of every human being;

3. An understanding that there is no us versus them -- it has always been "we"! Many human problems are exacerbated by false dichotomies of us versus them, local versus global, masculine versus feminine, reason versus emotion, body versus mind, human versus animal. These things cannot be separated -- they are profoundly interwoven.

4. Embracing the democratic principles and processes of inclusion and communicating authentic feelings and experience.

Teaching with these principles has, for a century and half, been called humane education. Today it is often dismissed as teaching kids to be kind to animals but humane education, as Zoe Weil of the Institute for Humane Education puts it, not only instils the desire and capacity to live with compassion, integrity, and wisdom, but also provides the knowledge and tools to put our values into action in meaningful, far-reaching ways.

The idea keeps re-circulating but we fail to learn the lesson. Even in the parts of Canada where humane education is taught, it is often poorly resourced and under-recognized. But now more than ever the technology is there to make humane education wide spread, accessible and ubiquitous. It is time to make a significant shift and imbue everything with the tenants of humane education -- our conversations, our curriculum, our books, our music, our video games, our apps! If we are to find our empathy we need to see it everywhere.