Animals help refugees build empathy

A program working with newly arrived refugee children suggests that interacting with animals through humane education programs could help these children build a sense of belonging and overcome adversity.

Empathising with animals and enjoying their reciprocal affection can improve young people’s empathic skills, and help them feel a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar setting, says Flinders University Associate Professor Nik Taylor.

Dr Taylor is an expert in human-animal relations at Flinders University, and co-authored the article with Queensland-based researchers Dr Heather Fraser and Associate Professor Tania Signal.

The RSPCA Victoria program targeted secondary students from Melbourne’s outer suburbs who had newly arrived in Australia, particularly refugees and asylum seekers.

The students were taught how to safely interact with various animals, such as horses, cows, sheep, goats, cats, dogs and rabbits. Facilitators modelled kind and respectful treatment of the animals, and encouraged the children to follow their example.

“The children participating in the program felt more connected to Australia, and more connected to their school community,” Associate Professor Fraser, who is now based at the Queensland University of Technology.

“When people migrate they have many problems and they are sad because they are starting a new life and learning a new language and it is also a different culture. Therefore it is really good for kids if they just spend time with animals to get rid of the problems and to forget the sadness”, said one student after participating.

Several trends emerged from the children’s responses to the program. These included development of empathic understanding of animals, positive attitudinal change towards animals previously frightening or unfamiliar to the students, and the possibility of animals playing the role of friends and therapists to children and young people.

Empathy plays a crucial role in social work with young people, says Associate Professor Fraser, an expert on social work and human-animal relations.

Extensive research has shown that empathy allows social workers to build constructive professional relationships with clients, while acting on and receiving empathy helps clients manage trauma, isolation and mental illness.

Higher empathy is also linked to a lowered propensity for violence against both humans and other animals, she said.

The article ‘Young people empathising with animals: Reflections on an Australian RSPCA Humane Education Programme’, uses the case of a Humane Education Program to illustrate the therapeutic role that animal empathy can play for people from dislocated communities.

The peer-reviewed study concluded that spending time with animals can help young people build their empathy and deal more positively with trauma and isolation.

Article by the Media Centre for Education Research Australia (MCERA), is an independent organisation that provides expert commentary on key issues in education and related research. 

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