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An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. Benjamin Franklin
I have been very lucky over the years and been given a helping hand in almost all of my endeavours by friends, family and sometimes just acquaintances. They are far too numerous to mention but within the world of dogs, in education and in all other activities with which I have been involved, individual kindnesses have far outweighed the occasional attempt to trip me up. And I have been lucky, too, in the fact that such attempts have mostly rebounded and I have been able to live my life (rather longer now than Emma Woodhouse's twenty-one years) with "very little to distress or vex me".
However regular readers will know that I have the 'scepticism gene' deeply embedded in my psyche and I am seldom prepared to take public statements, whether they be from governments, organisations, bureaucratic public relation companies or through advertisements at face value. It is said that 'interests never lie' and I as I get older I have found this increasingly to be the case in almost every aspect of public life: as a result, the scepticism gene has become increasingly sensitive as it has been honed by experience.
Once we are outside the cosy nest of our family and friends (and unfortunately sometimes even inside it) we can develop a very different, public group persona. In the worst instances it creates the 'mob': in more civilised circumstances it gives rise to the 'spin'.
The reasons are buried deep in our psychology and are complex for it matters not where in the social strata we find ourselves, where we came from or where life is taking us. Neither does our chosen income generating or leisure activity, nor our level of expertise within it, make any difference - we are intellectually and emotionally programmed to do the best for ourselves and those closest to us and all the research indicates that the selfish gene has been the prime driver for the advancement and the success of humanity. That said, our brains have developed many dimensions: dimensions which allow us to analyse, make judgements, be protective, thoughtful, helpful and work together for the common good. This may be partly of course, because the common good benefits us as well, but also because in our climb down from the trees - or out of the swamp - a trait has emerged which we broadly refer to as 'humanity'. The reasons for this are discussed in depth by many philosophers and scientists and two of the best summaries of these ideas are to be found in Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind - both of which I thoroughly recommend.
So, despite the chaos of the world around us, sometimes at home and often abroad, 'humanity' gives us hope that we will eventually achieve civilised balance.
These thoughts were triggered by a recent meeting at the House of Commons of the All Party Group for the Welfare of Animals (APGAW) - there is nothing like the workings of our Houses of Parliament to bring you down to earth.
I have reported all too often about the hypocrisy of the major charities. Most were founded (and their Trustees continue to attempt to administer them) with the best of motives and I am happy to accept that they continue to do some very important and useful work within society but, like government departments and big business, they lose focus and become more concerned with the continuance of the organisation than its objectives - as we saw in OUR DOGS last week in my article concerning the new CEO of the RSPCA. These organisations recognise they have common aims but often find it difficult to work together because of their specific 'interests'. For instance, the Pet Advisory Committee (www.petadvisory.org.uk) does a great deal of good work and has established itself as a useful forum for government and local authorities but some years ago the RSPCA tried to force through its views (specifically on licensing, if I remember rightly) and had to resign (it is now back as an observer, I understand, but not as a member).
I am therefore delighted to be able to report a very positive and valuable initiative by the major animal charities and some associated organisations (one of which is the Kennel Club) which I believe will have significant and valuable long-term effects. To begin with, it was a pleasure to hear David Allen, a senior employee of the RSPCA and a man I have known for many years, say in public, that he saw his role as 'putting himself out of a job'. David has been working with Vicki Craighill of the PDSA on a project which is being supported by seventeen pet related charitable and trade organisations and which is funded largely by one of them - the Pet Food Manufacturers Association. They have come together to form the Animal Welfare Education Alliance and I was very impressed with their presentation.
This project has been two years in the making and is the result of the group, recognising that if pets are to be looked after properly within our society, work needs to be done within schools to help pupils understand society's responsibility for animals and how they should be careful. There is some work done in schools now and much of it is extremely valuable. The Pet Care Trust encourages pet retailers to help schools in projects, particularly in primary schools and there is a great deal of piecemeal information on the Internet but this new proposal has an ambitious twofold objective.
The first is to provide a one-stop shop for information and signposting to useful material for schools regarding pet ownership and pet care. It is also hoped to create specific material for schools so that children understand what their pets need to ensure that they are healthy and happy.
Secondly, and more importantly, they want to persuade the government in their forthcoming deliberations regarding changes to the national curriculum, that knowledge and understanding of the five welfare needs of animals - diet, environment, companionship, behaviour, and health- of the importance of pets to people and that their care and welfare should be an essential and integrated component of the education of all children.
The Alliance believes, as I do, that teaching children about animal welfare from an early age 'can bring about positive change for animals and help shape compassionate and responsible citizens of the future'.
They have done some of their research in the United States (where there is lots of activity but which I think is patchy at best and insignificant at worst) but, in my view, they should turn their attention to Australasia. Such programs are already well established in New Zealand and Australia and the resources available to teachers are superb. They do not just include Teachers Resource Kits but often involve free visits to Primary Schools: there are 65 trained pet educators with their temperament tested pets available in the State of Victoria in Australia alone and they go to hundreds of schools every year. I hope that the Animal Welfare Education Alliance will draw heavily on the Australasian experience, not just because of the resources that State provides and which are available but because the success of the programs ought to provide an important and powerful lever when the group comes to lobby the Department of Education.
Subjects which are already established in the school curriculum such as science, Citizenship and PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) already provide opportunities to incorporate Animal Welfare into lessons. But what the Alliance would like to do is to see is a 'thread' of animal welfare education throughout the key stages of education in the UK, which will help shape responsible citizens who understand how they should care for animals and, of course, why they should do so. Such programmes, which are founded on the reasons why animals are protected and why they are important to people, encompass scientific, legal, moral and ethical issues which are educationally essential and are crucial facets of our everyday lives.
I therefore urge you to write to your MP supporting this group and asking that animal care education be incorporated into the national curriculum. We know that MPs are bombarded with circular letters and e-mails which have been generated by small groups. It is clear where they have come from and they are usually treated as the 'spam' that they are. But this means that an individual letter from a constituent in their own words, carries considerably more weight. So please do not hesitate to put pen to paper or digit to keyboard. The long-term effects on the care of pet animals in the UK could be significantly improved if this initiative goes through.
Initial reaction by some specialists in the industry has been suspicious: they fear that the powerful and well-heeled charities will shoehorn their agendas into the curriculum. This is understandable but my view is modified by my 26 years teaching experience. One of my responsibilities as Head of Department at a large comprehensive school was a marvelous educational initiative called the Humanities Curriculum Project and I know that any such component of the curriculum will be filtered through teachers (who may have their own interests and we have to put up with that), who would not be prepared to simply propagate the specific interests of any interest group. Also, because so many people are involved in the development of this material, which includes the Kennel Club and the Pet Care Trust as well as the National Office of Animal Health and the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, we can be assured that the material will be balanced.
How gratifying it is, when pet animals - and pedigree dogs in particular - are being put under so much pressure from so many directions, to be able to be so positive.