Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
― W.B. Yeats, The Stolen Child
In The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children (Turning Stone Press, 2014), William Crain explores our society’s need to keep children from seeing the widespread industrialized cruelty to animals where indeed, the world is “more full of weeping than you can understand.” The author is a professor of psychology and the founder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, New York. He brings his academic research and his keen observations of rescued animals to this thought-provoking and well-written book, which will be of particular interest to parents, teachers, and anyone engaging with young children.
The first half of this book takes a look at the emotional behaviors of children and animals and their undeniable similarities. Crain tells the story of Mattie, a terrified goat that he saved from a live meat market in the Bronx. At the market he was struck by the fact that the goats and sheep were clearly frightened, yet eerily silent. It was four days at the sanctuary before Mattie made any sound at all. Crain had long been puzzled by the fact that young children often stop talking when they lose a parent or are otherwise traumatized. He notes that for animals in the wild, remaining quiet is a highly adaptive behavior in times of danger, when any noise might alert a nearby predator. And he posits that a child’s silence when she feels unprotected may derive from our mammalian ancestry.
The author makes a compelling case, too, for the similarities between young children and animals when it comes to the ways they play and their resilience in the face of adversity. For me, this section was particularly intriguing and yet, almost self-evident. After all, we are animals. Just a different species. And perhaps to the extent that we deny our animalness, we lose our compassion for other animals.
The author discusses this in the latter portion of the book, examining why and how children lose their instinctive connection to nature and their empathy for animals. For Crain and for most ethical vegans, one answer is clear: our society must teach children to detach themselves from animals in order to be able to eat them guilt-free or enjoy watching them perform in a circus.
Ironically, Crain points out that we have a strong motive for keeping children unaware of the atrocities done to animals because of their great capacity for empathy. Like many parents, I used to read my children bedtime stories in which animals were the main characters. Authors have long recognized that animals are the perfect vehicle for engaging young readers in emotional stories, because the child can identify with the animal and yet still maintain some safe psychological distance. So when Bambi’s mother is killed by hunters, the child can experience sadness, but not be traumatized. After all, Bambi is a deer, not a human. Thus Bambi’s mother can die, but my mother will not. We want our children to care about animals, but in order to fit into adult mainstream culture we don’t want them to care too much.
My kids are now almost grown, so I don’t feel the need to shield them from animal cruelty. But I wish I had done more when they were youngsters to expose them to the world’s realities for animals, before other adults and peers pushed them along in the detachment process. Crain proposes that the best thing we can do is to keep leading our children “to the waters and the wild,” and let them experience animals in a natural setting where their instinctual compassion will blossom. Sage advice that might help us all find a greater appreciation for both animals and children.
Robin Lamont’s most recent novel is The Chain, the first in a suspense series featuring an animal rights investigator. Prior to becoming a writer, she worked as an actress, an undercover investigator, and an Assistant District Attorney in Westchester County (in that order). She now writes full time and volunteers for animal advocacy groups. Visit Robin’s website and Facebook page to learn more.