Be Kind to Animals: Encouraging Compassion through Humane Education

Book Links: October/November 2002 (v.12, no.2)

by Jeanette Larson

"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men." --Saint Francis of Assisi

Studies have shown that children learn cruel and violent behavior from those around them, and that animal abuse often precedes violence toward other people. Indeed, in almost every major act of violence, from the Columbine massacre to serial killings, authorities have found animal abuse in the perpetrator's background. This common origin of violence perpetrated against animals and against people makes it imperative that we teach compassion and demonstrate concern for all living things. By the time young people exhibit cruel behavior toward animals it is often very difficult to change that behavior, making it essential that adults in every part of the community help children learn to treat animals with kindness. While not every child who is cruel to a pet grows up to be a criminal, there is a strong correlation between cruel behavior toward animals and lack of empathy for human beings.

Fortunately, there are plenty of good books that offer opportunities for kids to feel empathy toward an animal, that allow them to read about helping animals, and that provide springboards for classroom discussions about compassionate behavior. Keep in mind that most abandoned-animal books for children have a happy ending-a pet is adopted from a shelter or a wild animal is saved from danger. Supplement this with a reality check by using nonfiction books and support materials from animal welfare organizations. Organizations like the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education provide curricula, support materials, and resources that encourage humane education in a positive manner yet demonstrate the realities of animal welfare and the continual need to improve how we interact with other species. Encouraging children to care about animals does not mean that we all must become vegetarians or shun leather. Rather, it means exploring topics that are already of interest to many young people: care of companion animals, animal welfare, respect for nature, humane heroes and activists, ethical farming practices, and responsible citizenship. Creating an environment that teaches compassion and builds kinder communities means providing resources that promote these qualities. Humane education reinforces tolerance, empathy, responsibility, and compassion-for all creatures. Fortunately, storytelling and reading are excellent ways to teach this. While Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's ever-popular Shiloh may be the best-known book dealing with animal abuse, as the titles below show, many other books offer opportunities for kids to feel empathy for and care about animals.

Picture Books

Best, Cari.
Goose's Story. Illus. by Holly Meade. 2002. 32p. Farrar/Melanie Kroupa, $16 (0-374-32750-5).

Preschool-Gr. 2. Meade's torn-paper collages grace this story of an injured Canadian goose that eventually loses a leg. The young narrator understands that the goose is a wild animal that must learn to survive on its own, but her empathy is authentic and tender, and the goose's perseverance will win reader's hearts.

DiSalvo-Ryan, DyAnne.
A Dog Like Jack. 1999. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1369-1); paper, $6.95 (0-8234-1680-1).

Preschool-Gr. 2. A family adopt an older dog and then must deal with their grief when he dies. In this tender story, they remember the happy times they shared and imagine moving beyond their sadness enough to welcome a new dog into their home.

Fleming, Denise.
Mama Cat Has Three Kittens. 1998. 32p. Holt, paper, $6.95 (0-8050-7162-8).

Preschool-Gr. 1. Using her own cats as models, Fleming creates lush, richly colored illustrations that allow readers to appreciate the sheer joy of kittens and their antics. The sparse but strong text employs repetition to excellent effect.

Frost, Jonathan.
Gowanus Dogs. 1999. 48p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $15 (0-374-31058-0).

Gr. 1-4. With grace and kindness that belies his own predicament, a homeless man helps the stray mother dog and her puppies that he finds under the Gowanus Canal Bridge in Brooklyn. Happily, both the man and the dogs eventually find food and shelter-and a fresh start in life. Double-page black-and-white etchings capture the often harsh city environment in fine detail.

Graham, Bob.
"Let's Get a Pup!" Said Kate. 2001. 32p. Candlewick, $14.99 (0-7636-1452-1).

Preschool-Gr. 2. Even though Kate and her family want a puppy, it's hard to leave an older dog behind at the animal shelter. Eventually, they decide that two dogs are better than one. Graham creates a warm and heartfelt tale that describes how animals can pull on our heartstrings.

Hill, Frances.
The Bug Cemetery. Illus. by Vera Rosenberry. 2002. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050- 6370-6).

Preschool-Gr. 2. The neighbor-hood kids stage funerals for bugs, which they find to be great fun. But then one boy's cat dies and they experience the sadness of true personal loss. Hill deftly handles the subject, as the kids realize that their play might not have been appropriate and that "funerals aren't any fun when they're for someone you love."

Lasky, Kathryn.
She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! Illus. by David Catrow. 1995. 40p. Hyperion, paper, $5.95 (0-7868-1164-1).

Preschool-Gr. 3. This is a fictionalized account of the two women who established the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896 in reaction to the fashion trend of hats on which stuffed birds were perched. Ink-and-watercolor illustrations depict the fashionable ladies as caricatures and poke fun at the absurdity of the fad.

McNulty, Faith.
The Lady and the Spider. Illus. by Bob Marstall. 1986. 48p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-06-443152-5).

Gr. 1-4. Even the smallest creatures need help-so when a lady finds that her garden salad has been the cozy home for a spider, she finds the spider a new home.

Meggs, Libby Phillips. G
o Home! The True Story of James the Cat. 2000. 32p. Whitman, $15.95 (0-8075-2975-3).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Because he is wearing a collar, everyone assumes that a stray cat has a home. But after he survives a harsh winter, a family realizes that James needs a new home and adopts him, in this story about our need to belong.

Newman, Marjorie.
Mole and the Baby Bird. Illus. by Patrick Benson. 2002. 32p. Bloomsbury, $16.95 (1-58234-784-0).

Preschool-Gr. 2. This tender story opens with Mole taking home an orphaned baby bird. Despite his parents' admonishments that the bird is not a pet, Mole decides to build a cage and keep it. Eventually, Mole learns that loving his bird means letting him go. Benson's expressive art perfectly portrays this endearing tale, which will strike a chord with younger readers.

Rand, Gloria.
A Home for Spooky. Illus. by Ted Rand. 1998. 32p. Holt, $15.95 (0-8050-4611-9).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Based on a true story, this book tells of a young girl who eventually gains the trust of a bedraggled and starving stray dog. After keeping Spooky a secret from her family for a while, Annie realizes he is getting sicker and that she must go to her parents for help. Photos of the real-life Spooky support the book's message about helping animals in need.

Rylant, Cynthia.
The Cookie-Store Cat. 1999. 40p. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $15.95 (0-590-54329-6); paper, $5.95 (0-439-07331-6).

Preschool-Gr. 3. A baker finds a tiny kitten near his shop; he cares for her, while customers enjoy both his cookies and the cat. This companion to Rylant's
The Bookshop Dog (Scholastic, 1996) concludes with seven delicious cookie recipes.

Simont, Marc.
The Stray Dog. 2001. 32p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-028933-3).

Preschool-Gr. 2. A scruffy dog endears himself to a family out on a picnic, but the family members must leave him at the end of the day. In this simple tale of puppy love, they later return to the park to adopt the dog (whom they barely save from the dogcatcher), and Willy gets a name and a home. Simont's expressive illustrations ably show the range of emotions the characters experience, from joy at finding the dog, to sadness and regret for leaving him, to, ultimately, happiness when bringing him home.

Smith, Maggie.
Desser the Best Ever Cat. 2001. 40p. Knopf, $14.95 (0-375-81056-0).

Preschool-Gr. 3. A girl shares a wonderful life with her beloved cat, Desser. When he grows old and dies, the girl selects another kitten from the pound, knowing that while the new cat can never replace Desser, they will make new memories together.

Viorst, Judith.
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney. Illus. by Erik Blegvad. 1971. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $15 (0-689-20688-7); Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-689-71203-0).

Preschool-Gr. 2. During a backyard funeral, a boy remembers the good things about his cat. In this children's classic, Viorst deals honestly with the difficult issue of death, which, for many children, is first experienced upon losing a beloved pet. Also see Robie H. Harris'
Goodbye, Mousie (Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, 2001).


Cox, Judy.
Third Grade Pet. Illus. by Cynthia Fisher. 1998. 80p. Holiday, $15.95 (0-8234-1379-9).

Gr. 2-4. At first, Rosemary thinks Cheese, the classroom pet rat, is creepy. But she soon comes to love him and creates havoc by taking him home to protect him from the class bully, in this funny farce. Also see Cox's Cool Cat, School Cat (Holiday, 2002), about a boy who hides a stray cat at school.

Harlow, Joan Hiatt.
Star in the Storm. Illus. by Wendell Minor. 2000. 160p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $16 (0-689-82905-1); Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-689-84621-5).

Gr. 4-7. In 1912 Newfoundland, 12-year-old Maggie hides her dog, Sirius, when a new law makes it illegal to have a nonshepherding dog. Sirius proves his worth when he is able to help save the passengers of a stranded ship. Filled with authentic details about life in a remote area, this book will appeal to dog lovers and adventurers alike.

Hart, Alison.
Shadow Horse. 1999. 240p. Random, paper, $4.99 (0-395-80263-0).

Gr. 5-8. Thirteen-year-old Jas lives in a foster home whose owner oversees a farm for rescued animals. There, she cares for Shadow, who helps her to deal with her grief over the mysterious death of her own horse, Whirlwind. Supporters of animal rights will appreciate the frank discussion of both the positive and the negative aspects of horse shows and riding competitions, and all readers will enjoy the satisfying mystery.

Himmelman, John.
The Animal Rescue Club. 1998. 48p. HarperTrophy, paper, $3.95 (0-06-444224-1).

Gr. 2-3. Whenever there is an animal in need-from a possum trapped in a drainpipe to a goose that swims in circles-the kids in the Animal Rescue Club are ready to help. With the help of a wildlife rehabilitator, the club members aid animals in their neighborhood, in this I Can Read chapter book.

Kehret, Peg.
Saving Lilly. 2001. 160p. Simon & Schuster/Pulse, $16 (0-671-03422-7); Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-671-03423-5).

Gr. 3-6. After learning about the cruel treatment circus animals often receive, two sixth-grade students convince their classmates to boycott a class field trip to the circus and instead raise money to buy a mistreated elephant and send it to a sanctuary. The end may be tied up a bit too neatly, but the story is engaging and the characters are believable. A note on animal welfare and the real-life elephant sanctuary depicted concludes the book.

Mills, Claudia. Standing Up to Mr. O. 1998. 160p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-34721-2).

Gr. 4-7. Twelve-year-old Maggie's refusal to dissect a worm in her seventh-grade biology class pits her love of learning and her desire to please a favorite teacher against her convictions. Mills presents a balanced argument on the issue, with all viewpoints receiving equal discussion. The book, admirably, does not offer a pat solution.

Spinelli, Jerry.
Wringer. 1997. 240p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-024913-7); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.50 (0-06-440578-8).

Gr. 4-7. In Palmer LaRue's rural town, 10-year-old boys are given the job of wringing the necks of birds wounded but not killed in the annual pigeon shoot. Palmer doesn't want to participate (especially after a pigeon flies through his bedroom window and "adopts" him), but he doesn't know if he has the courage to refuse the role of wringer. The juxtaposition of the tender relationship Palmer has with his pet and the macabre town festival is thought-provoking.

Woods, Shirley.
Kit: The Adventures of a Raccoon. Illus. by Celia Godkin. 2000. 96p. Groundwood, $14.95 (0-88899-375-7).

Gr. 2-4. This story follows the life of a young raccoon from birth into adulthood as he faces natural and human threats to his well-being. This thoroughly researched title will entertain young readers as much as it informs.


Calmenson, Stephanie.
Rosie: A Visiting Dog's Story. Photos by Justin Sutcliffe. 1994. 48p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-65477-7); paper, $5.95 (0-395-92722-6).

Gr. 2-6. Calmenson uses her own dog's work as a visiting dog to demonstrate how animals can make a sad person smile or help a lonely person feel connected. Excellent photographs show Rosie at a hospital, at a nursing home, and in her own home.

Dewey, Jennifer Owens.
Wildlife Rescue: The Work of Dr. Kathleen Ramsay. Photos by Don MacCarter. 1994. 64p. Boyds Mills, paper, $9.95 (1-56397-762-1).

Gr. 3-6. Dewey describes the daily rescue work at a New Mexico wildlife clinic where injured birds, bears, and other animals are helped before being returned to their natural environments. The dedicated Dr. Ramsay is an excellent role model for students interested in wildlife conservation.

Goodall, Jane.
The Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World and Ours. 2001. 80p. Scholastic, $17.95 (0-439-21310-X).

Gr. 4-7. The most famous advocate for chimpanzees and other primates documents their emotions, family relationships, and other "human" qualities and explains the dangers they face. Attractive color photographs and extensive back matter comprising additional factual information, maps, and information about Goodall's organization Roots and Shoots (whose local chapters sponsor student environmental preservation activities) round out the title.

Goodman, Susan E.
Animal Rescue: The Best Job There Is. 2000. 48p. Simon & Schuster, $15 (0-689-81794-0); Aladdin, paper, $3.99 (0-689-81795-9).

Gr. 2-4. John Walsh, a member of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, loves his job! Three of his efforts-helping animals rescued from a flood, an earthquake-damaged building, and a war-torn zoo-offer a look at the variety of ways to help animals.

Jackson, Donna M.
The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes against Nature. Photos by Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski. 2000. 48p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-86976-5); paper, $4.95 (0-618-19683-8).

Gr. 3-7. Special scientists track down those who commit crimes against wild animals, including poaching, killing elephants for ivory, and stealing sea turtles for soup, in this engaging title. Color photographs clarify the text, which reads much like a mystery novel. Another title from the Scientists in the Field series, Project UltraSwan by Elinor Osborn (Houghton, 2002), follows scientists who are trying to help trumpeter swans relearn migration routes in the eastern U.S.

Johnston, Tony.
It's about Dogs. Illus. by Ted Rand. 2000. 48p. Harcourt, $16 (0-15-202022-5).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Short poems and bright illustrations provide insight into an amazing assortment of canine companions. From silly wordplay ("My dog's name is Mutterly. / He makes my heart melt, butterly. / I love the mongrel utterly.") to sly cultural allusions ("Who knows what pilfered prizes / lurk / in the yards of men? / Shadow knows."), this collection will have broad appeal.

Lasky, Kathryn.
Interrupted Journey: Saving Endangered Sea Turtles. Photos by Christopher G. Knight. 2001. 48p. Candlewick, $16.99 (0-7636-0635-9).

Gr. 3-6. After one Kemp's ridley turtle's voyage to the Sargasso Sea goes awry, dedicated volunteers ensure it remains protected until it can resume its journey. Dazzling photographs show these awe-inspiring creatures in their beautiful ocean environment.

Leedy, Loreen.
Measuring Penny. 1998. 32p. Holt, paper, $6.95 (0-8050-6572-5).

Gr. 1-3. Lisa learns about mathematical measurements and dog care when she uses standard and nonstandard units of measure to calculate information about her dog, Penny, and other canine friends. Leedy uses an innovative technique to help explain the concept of measurement-something that kids often find difficult to master.

Murphy, Stuart J.
Pepper's Journal: A Kitten's First Year. Illus. by Marsha Winbom. 2000. 40p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-027618-5); HarperTrophy, paper, $4.95 (0-06-446723-6).

Gr. 1-4. In this book in the MathStart series, Murphy uses events in the first year of a kitten's life to introduce calendar concepts. Readers learn about both time and how we measure it, while learning facts about cats and caring for them.

Swinburne, Stephen R.
In Good Hands: Behind the Scenes at a Center for Orphaned and Injured Birds. 1998. 32p. Sierra Club, $16.95 (0-87156-397-5).

Gr. 3-6. A 16-year-old volunteer helps to rehabilitate birds at the Vermont Raptor Center, where orphaned or injured birds of prey are cared for. Solid information on rescuing these birds accompanies a poignant story of volunteerism.

Swinburne, Stephen. R.
Once a Wolf: How Wildlife Biologists Fought to Bring Back the Gray Wolf. Photos by Jim Brandenburg. 1999. 48p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-89827-7); paper, $5.95 (0-618-11120-4).

Gr. 5-8. Swinburne chronicles 25 years of work by dedicated people to reintroduce the gray wolf to Yellowstone Park and other areas of North America, a controversial issue in the field of wildlife conservation. The gray wolf has long been seen by ranchers as a threat; the book's protagonists attempt to show the gray wolf's value as a part of nature.


  • Hold a Plush Pets Animal Parade for favorite stuffed animals. Give prizes for longest tail, cutest nose, fluffiest, and other fun categories.
  • Research your state and city laws regarding cruelty to animals. If laws don't protect animals, children can write to local leaders to ask that animal welfare laws be passed or strengthened. Ask a speaker from a local animal welfare organization to talk to kids about what to do if they witness animal cruelty.
  • Contact a local animal shelter and ask for its wish list of desired items. Have students create posters and fliers to solicit donations; maintain collection bins; sort the items; and deliver them to the shelter.
  • Ask the school cafeteria to include healthy vegetarian alternatives in the lunch menu on a regular basis.
  • Celebrate events that focus attention on the needs of animals. These can include Spay Day USA in February, Animal Cruelty Prevention Month in April, Be Kind to Animals Week in May, Adopt a Cat Month in June, or the Blessing of the Animals in honor of St. Francis of Assisi's Feast Day in October. Check with local shelters and humane organizations for specific dates and activities.

Web Connections

  • The National Association for Humane and Environmental Education (NAHEE) publishes
    KIND (Kids in Nature's Defense) News. Subscriptions are available online at and include a teacher guide with calendars, lesson plans, and reproducible materials. Other information includes lists of books, movie reviews, research, and other resources.

  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Web site at offers tools for teaching humane awareness, including teacher tips, activities, information on animal welfare laws, and more. The children's bibliography section features a searchable database of excellent animal-related literature for kids, as well as information about the Henry Bergh Award, an award named for the organization's founder that honors books "that promote the humane ethic of compassion and respect for all living things."

  • The Be Kind to Animals (BKA) Contest is an annual event sponsored by the American Humane Association (AHA) to honor young people who make a difference in the lives of animals. Nominees are divided into two age groups (6-9 and 10-13). Winners of the BKA Contest are announced during Be Kind to Animals Week in May. Grand-prize winner receive a $5,000 college scholarship. Contact the AHA at 63 Inverness Dr. East, Englewood, CO 80112-5117; 800-227-4645; or visit its Web site at

Jeanette Larson is the youth services manager for the Austin Public Library in Austin, Texas. A vegetarian for more than 15 years, she shares her home with several rescued dogs and cats.