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Are Pets the Cure for Violence?

beagleingrassBy Tatiana Garrett

Violence is a virus, and animals are the Penicillin.

It’s nothing new to look at the violence epidemic in the same way that public health experts look at virus transmissions. We know the problem spreads like a cold—one violent occurrence triggering another until we see a rash explode across the face of a city. Why can’t the cure be looked at in the same light? How do we unlock the empathy and compassion within us all so it can spread like wildfire?

I believe wholeheartedly that pets can unleash the human potential to cure violence. To be humane is to be compassionate. You don’t even have to have a pet to garner these lessons.

I’ve gone into Cook County Juvenile Detention with dogs and seen incarcerated youth open up by identifying with an animal that had been abused. After some gentle petting and gazing into the eyes of a trusting and non-judgmental dog, imprisoned youth have opened up and engaged in discussions about wrongful abuse of power and the importance of helping children and animals that do not have the power to stand up for themselves. I’ve listened to the young men glean inspiration and talk about hope for their futures and things they want to do differently when they get out.

Animals touch the human spirit and unlock some pretty great things. You don’t have to take my word for it: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even has an entire page on the health benefits of pet guardianship. Studies have shown that petting the soft fur of a cat (or dog) lowers your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and increases the chemicals in your brain that make you happy. Having a furry face to come home to that will give you unconditional love also makes you less lonely. In particular, dogs need to be taken for walks and walking is good for human health. Dogs increase opportunities for socialization and exercise. Not to quote Legally Blonde, but “Exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot [people].” Yes, correlation is not causation and people can have pets and still be jerks, but the message is that in general, pets help spread empathy and compassion.

If pets can truly be a catalyst to unlocking compassion—thereby acting as a violence vaccine—what can we do with this knowledge to work against violence?

  • Spread Positive Stories – The media is full of tales of violence. Make a conscience effort to spread positive stories (like this one) more than you share the negative ones. Media outlets can easily see which stories are viewed the most, and if there is more of a demand for “feel good” stories that herald good deeds more positive tales may make headlines.
  • Encourage Youth – There are lots of young people out there that aren’t dealing drugs and being bullies. Whether it’s your kids, nieces, nephews, or a teen in your neighborhood, offer words of encouragement and praise the good deeds that children do. The Anti-Cruelty Society offers an anti-violence after school program for Chicago high school kids. Refer teens to programs like that or support a program yourself by being a mentor, volunteer, or donor.
  • Adopt a Pet –If you adopt a dog, consider working your way up to Canine Good Citizen certification and then volunteering to bring the positive effects of pet contact to those that cannot have a pet (hospitals, hospice care, incarcerated youth, and more).
  • Be Nice! – Empathy can spread just as quickly as violence so choose to infect others with kindness. I’m not endorsing the insurance company, but Liberty Mutual created a couple commercials that show some simple ways kindness can be infectious.

In what other ways do animals teach compassion? Share in the comments!

Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails“ on Watch312.com.

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