The Coalition for Healthy School Food has launched a new virtual humane education program for kids – and rescued animals are serving as the teachers. In the past, CHSF has taught in-person lessons to elementary school children about the impact human diet has on our health, animal welfare, and the planet; but a transition to virtual learning has created a unique opportunity for children to “visit” rescued farmed animals every week at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, a 150-acre refuge home to over 300 animals in upstate New York. Through virtually interacting with their new animal friends, the children have learned to recognize animals as individuals and developed a love for creatures not traditionally recognized as companions. 

“It has been so rewarding to hear the students talk about the different personalities of the animals – to recognize that it makes Imogen the turkey happy to be held, while Malika the turkey prefers to be left alone,” says Kelley Wind, program director at CHSF. “This is a huge step in the process of seeing animals as our friends, like dogs or cats, not food.”

Kelley also notes that interactions with the animals help children develop empathy, which can help them deal with emotions like anger, stress, and anxiety – emotions especially prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. While kids from all over the country tune in to tour the sanctuary, kids from New York City and New Jersey make up the majority of participants; these kids, as Kelley states, rarely receive opportunities to interact with animals aside from dogs and cats. 

“Children have a natural love for and fascination with animals,” Kelley believes. Using living, breathing animals as ambassadors for their species has proven to get the wheels turning in students’ minds.

Diversity is a social issue often highlighted by CHSF, which also works to initiate conversations about race, ethnicity, gender identity, and more. Kelley believes that teaching children to respect and show altruism towards animals is a stepping stone towards demonstrating compassion towards their fellow human beings.

 “Humane education cultivates compassion for not only animals, but for other people as well – to respect, not fear our difference,” she says. 

Lauren Barbieri, youth program manager at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, leads the virtual tours and answers the many questions excited children have to offer. Just a few of the many popular animal “teachers” include Tucker the steer, Sister Mary Francis the pig, and Christopher the sheep. 

The teams at both Catskill Animal Sanctuary and the Coalition for Healthy School Food hope that a decrease in COVID-19 cases will eventually allow many of the class participants to go on an in-person field trip to meet their beloved animal friends. Catskill Animal Sanctuary is currently closed to in-person tours, but states that 94% of their human visitors claim they will reduce or eliminate their consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy after meeting the resident animals and hearing their stories. 

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