Talking calmly about cruelty
Many students who watched Four Corners’ shocking exposé on illegal live baiting in the greyhound racing industry have brought their distress and anger about the issue into the classroom. As teachers themselves struggle to cope with their own horror, many have asked how best to tackle the challenge. Here are some tips on how teachers can help their students discuss the upsetting topic of animal cruelty.
Start calm, stay calm
First, apply some mental health first aid – the footage was shocking and the ABC applied the appropriate warnings before airing it. Revisiting graphic horror makes the trauma of witnessing this worse, so avoid showing the footage, even if some in the class haven’t seen it.
Acknowledge that it’s a horrific topic, and that it’s perfectly normal to feel panicked, desperate, and shocked when thinking about it. If children become upset while describing what they saw or discussing the issue, allow another student to comfort them. Highly distressed students can benefit from a break or time out of the discussion. Only approach the issue when you’re absolutely confident that students can consider it objectively.
Break up the issue into topics you can tackle
Begin by asking students what they want to know about the topic. They may feel so strongly that it’s hard for them to distinguish what they think from what they’re feeling, what they want to say from what they can do.
Class activity #1
Sort out the jumble of thoughts by allowing the class to brainstorm everything – reactions, questions, thoughts and facts – on a big sheet of paper. Then circle each item with one of four colours: red for a reaction; blue for a question; green for a thought; black for a fact. Tackle each one separately, with a different activity (preferable on a different day) so that students get used to applying different mental strategies to overwhelming topics.
Understanding the type of issue it is
Set a mental cordon around the topic by explaining that you’re going to tackle it as an ethical issue. You might need to explain this: Ethics is about deciding what we believe is right and wrong, and so what we want in our society and our personal lives.
Recognising that something is an ethical issue, and applying reasoning tools helps us to understand what our standards and boundaries are. Being able to articulate these makes us very powerful, and when we’re powerful we are able to act to protect things we care for and believe are right.
Here are some ethical questions which help us to get a handle on the problem. Live baiting of greyhounds in the racing industry is wrong, but exactly what bits of it are wrong? All of it, or only live baiting? Breeding dogs to race, or simply to run? Owning a dog or betting on one? Supporting companies which sponsor the industry? These are all separate questions, and must be tackled separately or the whole thing becomes overwhelming.
Class activity #2
Ask students to write down the ‘ethical questions’ (you may have to model forming an ethical question) about the topic, and put them in a list to deal with one at a time, then tackle them like this:
Ask whether something is right or wrong. If it’s wrong, ask why. It’s not enough to say ‘it’s wrong because it’s not nice’. Students should provide the reasons – for example, it must cause harm or degradation, prevent something better from occurring, change a situation without the consent of the participants, or impose one agent’s choice over another’s. If it’s right, ask why and in what circumstances – what are the conditions in which it must be right? If those conditions aren’t met, is it still right?
Some questions and possible answers for students
Is live baiting wrong?
(Live baiting has been illegal since the 1930s. There is a difference between things which are wrong, unjust, and illegal – try to keep these separate for a more rigorous discussion). It seems wrong because:
- It causes pain and death to the bait-animal.
- It primes the prey-drive in the greyhound which trainers don’t then satisfy. Imagine being given chocolate once, and then never again – it’s cruel to wake up a natural taste in the dog which isn’t adequately satisfied.
- It’s also harmful to the people involved. Students may have difficulty thinking about this, but the trainers who bait the dogs have also suffered too. It could be strongly argued that they have degraded their own humanity by behaving in this way and are less than they could be. Humans stand at the top of the predatory pyramid, and since we can survive without having to kill other creatures, it’s up to us to use our power to protect them. When we don’t do this, we’re not being fully human. The trainers who have acted wrongly and illegally have demeaned their own humanity by participating in the pain of others.
Is breeding greyhounds wrong?
This point is highly debateable, so here’s my opinion. Breeding any animal isn’t intrinsically wrong unless the animal is forced, since it’s a biological drive which an animal would likely satisfy themselves. But when a breeder mates a dog and bitch, they deliberately intervene to change the mother’s life and facilitate the creation of puppies either for their own pleasure or for profit. It becomes wrong, if, for example:
- The mother is exhausted by breeding.
- The breeder can’t guarantee a happy life for every puppy they breed. In practical terms, this is impossible to guarantee, so practically speaking, breeding’s wrong.
- The breeder makes a profit from it. Covering costs is one thing, but making a profit from the biology of another animal is exploitative.
- An animal which already exists is deprived of a loving home in favour of an animal which has not yet come into existence. In other words, if a puppy who’s already in a shelter misses out in favour of a puppy not yet bred from a breeder.
In fact, there are so many conditions which must be met that it’s probably better simply to rescue a dog from the shelter. Breeding greyhounds, however, is either for love of the breed or for profit from racing.
Is it wrong to race greyhounds?
Like the question of breeding dogs, many feel that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with racing dogs – some will argue that they’ll do it themselves in the park for a ball. Greyhounds love to run, so they should be able to run at a facility designed for the high speeds they must reach to stay in peak condition. Like athletes, running or racing keeps them in peak condition and makes it more enjoyable for them. It’s the presence of profit which can make the situation problematic:
- The presence of a profit (and there’re huge profits at stake in the greyhound racing industry) means that the animal is often not recognised as an entity with feelings, desires, and non-essential needs such as comfort, companionship, pleasure, and happiness. It interferes with the way many people conceive of that animal as an ethical entity.
- When money enters the situation, the animals become a profit-generating unit in an economic system which is not designed to facilitate compassion. If a dog, for example, is too old or injured to run, it cannot participate in the system and so is regularly removed from it like a worn-out part. Dogs are frequently destroyed, abandoned, or rehomed.
- As with breeding, generating a profit from activity not freely chosen by the animal, and minimally participated in by the trainer (and not at all by the punters who bet at TAB’s around the state), is problematic.
Is it wrong to support businesses which sponsor greyhound racing?
McDonald’s, Schweppes, Bendigo Bank, Hyundai, and Autobarn have all pulled out of the greyhound industry since the Four Corners segment aired. If you find racing morally acceptable, then you can support the sponsors – there’s no inconsistency there. Even if you have a moral problem with racing, the businesses may have a different ethical stance, so if you can see it from their perspective, then it’s probably still acceptable to support them.
Some people may think that sponsoring events which raise animal-generated profits is unhelpful, but may also think it’s only ethically wrong when the businesses directly provoke, collude, or facilitate activities which they know to be wrong. Since Four Corners has made those businesses aware of the real nature of the industry they’re facilitating, they have withdrawn their sponsorship, which many see to be both consistent and admirable.
Class activity #3
Students are the empowered customers of tomorrow. They can remind companies that they expect high ethical standards by writing emails, posting Facebook comments and questions, and blogging links which congratulate them on good ethical actions and complain about bad ones. People who know where they stand on issues and act economically to support their beliefs are powerful!
For happier thoughts about greyhounds, look at these 8 reasons you should think about adopting a greyhound!