Educator Jennie Warmouth is helping students learn about animal welfare and how to connect with animals, one child and one lesson at a time.
When educator Jennie Warmouth was a child, she saw Ivan the Gorilla, a famous Washington State primate who lived in social isolation for much of his life.
“He was inside of a cement enclosure with a television and a tire,” she recalled. “I just cried and cried…that image of him, alone in that enclosure, always stayed with me.”
Years later, Jennie studied education at the University of Washington, where she graduated with her undergraduate degree in 2000. Jennie, who has been a teacher since 2000, recently completed her PhD in educational psychology, where she examined the psychology of human-animal interactions. Her thesis, “Widening the circle of empathy through humane education: a qualitative study with diverse and at-risk children,” dovetails beautifully with the population that she works with today.
Jennie works at Spruce Elementary School in the Edmonds School District, a Title 1 school with a diverse population of students. “There are almost 600 kids, including refugees and victims of abuse,” Jennie said, “and they speak 39 different languages.” Jennie knew that she wanted to find a powerful way to impact their lives, and championing an animal welfare-based curriculum was one of the most effective ways that she could teach her students.
“When I was a young teacher, I was struggling a bit with the standard curriculum,” she recalled. “I wanted to find a connection and significance for my students. All children, regardless of their language level, were enthralled by stories and images, so that was my point of departure.”
Jennie began by teaching the children about money – and she created a penny fundraiser for local animal welfare organization PAWS.
“It was so engaging and exciting for them,” she recalled. Jennie built upon this success by having her children work on writing up biographies for adoptable animals. “We chose the animals who were harder to adopt, whether it was due to physical differences or behavioral limitations,” she said.
Her students analyzed and re-wrote the biographies, and then the class came together to pull together the strongest ideas out of the collective draft.
“We’ve helped adopt out 500 dogs and cats,” Jennie said, “and it’s really impactful because the new guardians will often email our class via the shelter. Sometimes, the animal is adopted shortly after we submit the bio, and the children get to see the immediate impact that they’re having.”
Jennie has had many experiences working with children who have been victims of abuse and neglect, as well as diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities. She has tracked the children’s social and emotional development and behavior, measuring their engagement over time. “They become more engaged as they realize that their work is helping another,” she said. “They learn to write about animals from the animal’s perspective, and see that that animal is going through something difficult, as well. Some of the kids come in with a much less-developed sense of ‘other;’ some come in at a four-year-old’s level when they’re seven, and that has to do with neglect, abuse, or trauma.”
While truancy is always an issue, Jennie has noticed that attendance is always better on the days that she brings a therapy dog to the school.
“One of the most rewarding days of my life was when all of the volunteers at PAWS knew that I was coming, and they released the children into a courtyard with puppies,” she recalled. “The kids just felt so empowered and important. It’s important to provide children with qualitative human to animal and human-to-human experiences, and for some kids, it’s a little bit easier to begin to exercise empathy toward a nonhuman animal than to a human friend. Sometimes, it’s easier for them to assume the perspective of a dog or a cat.
“Naturally and early on in the process, they give voice to the animals instead of just saying, ‘This dog is,’ they’ll say, ‘Hi, I’m Dozer and I think about this’ or ‘I hope for this…’” she explained.
Jennie is proud to partner with PAWS and her humane education program is called the “PAWS Project.” She believes that with the proper support, it can be replicated so that other schools and teachers can have humane education programs, too.
“I integrate it into the curriculum, and teach animal welfare principles two hours per week,” she said. “It’s not at the cost of something else that I need to teach; it coincides with other topics. For example, animal and human studies ties in with science and social studies.
“On another level, they’re so young and this is their first experience with internet-based communication. They’re beginning to understand the power of sharing words online…hopefully, they won’t make the mistakes of flippant remarks. They’re learning that words are powerful, and that they shouldn’t say things that are irreversible. I’m hoping that these really guided experiences will help them succeed throughout their lives.”
One average, Jennie has 25 children in her classroom, and so far, 300 children have gone through the PAWS Project. “Of the 300, a significant number keep coming back all the way through 6th grade,” Jennie said.
“Many of the children don’t have pets at home, and this is their first experience with animals. I’m making sure that it’s a powerful one.”