By Ipsita Sarkar*
“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
With great power, comes great responsibility and that is true about education as well. It can change people. It can change mindsets and habits. Hence, all the more essential to use this tool wisely!
There is grammar to teach the basic rules of ‘language’; equations and formulae to make you think about Maths and Sciences. Drawings sow the seeds for ‘architecture’ while rehearsals and notations hone your musical skills. Eventually, sharpening these skills and talents make you a better professional. But do they shape you as better human beings, kinder people? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t! What if there were degrees like an MA in Kindness, BA in Compassion or a PhD in Empathy? Would these be saleable? But aren’t children naturally born with these innate values? Then what happens along the journey of becoming an adult? Where do these values disappear sometimes in a bid to become more ‘accomplished’ and ‘successful’ adults?
Just like the other subjects, it is education that can make a difference here again! And that is what STRAW (Stray Relief and Animal Welfare) is doing…creating lesson plans and workshops to encourage children and college students to be compassionate towards animals, the environment, and humans.
STRAW, a Delhi-based animal welfare organization, was started by the husband-wife team of Vasanthi and Dinesh Kumar, whose mission was to build a happier world for voiceless creatures. While Dinesh grew up with a variety of pets around him, Vasanthi was absolutely wary of animals in her childhood and pursued a corporate career in PR. But then she decided to give it up all to start STRAW in 2008. Today, she is a proud humane educator!
Later, they joined hands with CBSE and other State Education Boards, as part of their Compassionate Classrooms programme. They have been providing content to textbooks and teacher manuals on kindness towards animals, care for the environment, and human values. The idea was to boost the values of empathy and sensitivity among children towards animals specifically and the environment at large.
Vasanthi Kumar, the founder of STRAW tells us about its foundation idea, “Children love animals. It comes naturally to them. It’s only the adults who veer them away by saying things like ‘kutha katega’ (dogs will bite), ‘cheeti mar gayee’ (the ant is dead) when a child falls down, etc. So when children are taught to be kind and compassionate to animals, they will grow up to be compassionate citizens of tomorrow.”
With the advent of Covid-19, news of animals that had been confined and not noticed for the longest time, running, walking, waddling on the streets started happening in parallel to news of health disasters across the globe. The oft-ignored topic of environment related issues due to human activities started getting revived. The rampancy of forest destruction, wildlife crimes, and pollution-all to boost the economy was linked with the birth and spread of Corona.
So the question arises, in a global crowd of qualified and successful scientists, businessmen, medical professionals, politicians, who went missing? The carers, the protectors and the lovers of Nature and its creatures. Corona would eventually go away, but it has given us lessons too.
Vasanthi says, “Animals are coming out freely now. Whether it’s the flamingoes in Navi Mumbai or the peacocks on our balconies, we need to learn the simple rule-Live and Let Live.”
Indeed, that is the basic requirement for harmony and peace in society. As per a feature story published in Hindustan Times in 2017, almost 20,000 cases of animal cruelty were reported in Mumbai alone with no arrests made. These cases covered the sadistic torturing and killing of dogs, cats, horses, birds, cattle, and other animals. The legal provisions, such as a measly fine of Rs 10 to Rs 100, have not been strong enough to prevent these atrocities.
In the initial days of STRAW, Vasanthi and Dinesh wished to address every problem related to animals by having an animal shelter, veterinary services, and education all together, but later realized that all animal problems emerge from the same cause, the lack of awareness of what the voiceless animals go through in their day-to-day lives.
Compassionate Classrooms Programme-Kids and Scholars: And then the idea of starting humane education amongst children was born. The goal was to teach compassion and respect towards all living beings and the environment when the mind was at its purest – childhood.
‘Compassionate Kids’ and ‘Compassionate Scholars’ are the two programmes pursued by STRAW under the main Compassionate Classrooms Programme. While the former is conducted for school children, community libraries, and informal study centres for the under-privileged, the latter is for college students. CRPF School, Delhi World Public School, DAV School, Ryan International School, Army Public School, and Deepalaya Library (The Community Library Project) are some institutions where the programme has already been conducted in the National Capital Region. STRAW also conducted a few programs in village schools in Haryana.
‘Compassionate Scholars’ Programme is for college students and the aim is to create awareness about animal welfare issues among them. This is done through documentary screening, presentations, and panel discussions. Usually about 100-150 students are sensitized with every session. Some colleges where they have worked with include Shri Ram College of Commerce, Maitreyi College, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, among others.
A few topics that they covered in Colleges included Caring for the Campus Animal, First Aid for Animals with live demos, How to Avoid Dog Bites, Problems Faced by Elephants in urban cities and Adverse Impacts of Plastic Bags on Animals. Some of the serious impacts of these sessions would be that a committed group of students would take on the responsibilities of taking care of the stray campus animals (dogs, cats, birds) and provide them medical attention whenever required.
STRAW has about six to ten humane education volunteers/teachers who are remotely associated with them; they conduct humane education programmes in schools in their own neighborhoods. Some of the topics that have been covered include Empathy for Animals in Cages, Plastic Waste that enters a Cow’s Stomach, Bursting Crackers during Diwali, and so on.
It was not just a learning experience for children; adults too participated in STRAW’s mission as volunteers and spread awareness about its lessons.
Preeti Singh, a corporate professional and volunteer with STRAW recalls a memory that struck a chord, from a session that she conducted at a community library, “Initially, the children were indifferent towards community animals, but after three sessions, they turned over a new leaf, started sharing stories of saving animals, and felt sorry for pelting stones at them in the past.”
Yogita Gupta, yet another volunteer shares a significant memory, “One of my most beautiful memories was to be able to take my kid, Junior, to Seventh Day Adventist School. The children reacted to him beautifully.”
Ruche Chadha, another volunteer, decided to give a more meaningful purpose in her life while balancing it with her corporate career. She says, “I have conducted an animal sensitization workshop with Tata Teleservices employees and been to schools for animal sensitization session. It has such a super odyssey with Vasanthi and her team.”
A sense of accomplishment would also prevail over Vasanthi when, after one of their sessions on caring for the puppies to remove fear, she received enquiries from a school for adoption of the stray pups.
Raina Krishnatray, the School Principal of Delhi World School in Greater Noida recalls about an awareness and sensitization session for stray and helpless dogs, “Ms Preeti and Ms Vasanthi drove down the virtues of empathy and compassion in a child friendly way and provoked the children to think about strays, to be kind to them, to feed them whenever possible. The children loved sharing their experiences with stray dogs and attentively listened to the DOs and DONTs to be followed while interacting with them.”
However, due to COVID-19 and schools remaining shut, STRAW had to adapt to the new normal and find out out-of-the-box ways to sensitize children.
They conducted online campaigns such as ‘We Are The Sunshine’ inviting children to share how they view the lockdown time through creative activities, ‘Animals & Us During Lockdown’ to sensitize children and adults that stray and pet animals both needed to be taken care of and protected and that the community animals and birds do not spread Corona.
In June 2020, they would also be initiating animal and environment sensitivity workshops for children through the online platform.
In spite of the beauty of the programme, one of the main obstacles that create hindrance in its smooth flow is the funding. People would easily connect to causes such as sterilizing and feeding stray animals and be charitable. However, the idea of donating towards education, teaching children to be kind to animals, environment and humans, is still alien. It would be great if people could invest towards future humane citizens of the world.
Says Vasanthi, “Our ultimate goal is to take the ‘Compassionate Classrooms’ to all the states of India and to sensitize each child in India so that they grow up to be kind and compassionate citizens. They should be able to care for the strays so that there is no need for shelter homes at all.”
You too can be a part of STRAW’s journey and impact the lives of children and animals together! You can write to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Humane Education’ in the subject line and elaborate how you would like to help. You can support STRAW/Compassionate Classrooms project as a volunteer and share your skills and talents with us or simply start your own Humane Education classes from any city or state in a school or your neighbourhood. You could even donate for resource creation for the Compassionate Classroom Program, by clicking on this link: https://www.strawindia.org/donate.aspx
* The author is a freelance Writer, Teacher & Humane Educator from STRAW’s Compassionate Classrooms Programme. She enjoys travelling, trying out new cuisines, and meeting and befriending 2-legged and 4-legged creatures!