Young people empathising with other animals: reflections on an Australian RSPCA Humane Education Program

Heather Fraser, Nik Taylor, Tania Signal


INTRODUCTION: Empathy is associated with engagement, compassion, social support and emotional sensitivity, and it is a hallmark of good social work practice. Empathy rightfully receives much attention in social work practice, however, interspecies empathy has yet to be included. This article has been written to address this gap.

METHODS: Two main research questions guide our conceptual discussion of young people, interspecies empathy and social work: (1) Why is empathy important to social work with young people? (2) What can an Australian RSPCA Humane Education Programme (HEP) teach social workers about the benefits of interspecies empathy for young people? After our literature review, we examine our illustrative example, which is an HEP offered mostly to newly arrived refugee and migrant young people living in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, whose prior experiences of and/or attitudes towards animals may not have been positive.

 FINDINGS: Social workers are wise to prioritise empathy because extensive research has shown that, across a diverse range of fields, modes of practice in and beyond social work, empathic practitioners are more effective, achieving better outcomes with their clients. From the letters the young people sent to the RSPCA Victoria after completing an HEP, we note their self-reported increases in empathy for animals, including those they had previously feared or shunned.

CONCLUSION: There are many potential benefits of recognising, fostering and valuing interspecies empathy through humane education programmes. However, for these to be ethical, care and empathy must be shown towards the wellbeing of the animals involved, not just the human participants. 


young people, animals, interspecies empathy, refugees, animal cruelty, humane education

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