Research Summary

Attitudes towards animal welfare in Portuguese students from the 6th and the 9th year of schooling: implications for environmental education

Environmental education should consider non-human centered approaches to teaching for better understanding of animal welfare issues

Environmental Education Research

In general, humans tend to place themselves on a higher pedestal than animals and other living organisms. Because of this anthropocentric view, humans justify certain animal exploitative practices for their benefit, which has contributed to the ongoing environmental crisis. To better combat this crisis, it is crucial that focus is given to a new ethical framework grounded in environmental principles in which the responsibilities humans have to themselves, their success, and the abundance of wildlife is center. This environmental ethic has led to positive environmental and animal movements over the last few decades. While an understanding of animal emotion has emerged from scientific studies, the treatment of animals has not changed much over time. Environmental education (EE) has also emphasized the need to better teach about animal- and species-based discrimination. Both the EE and animal welfare movements are seeking to improve the relationship between humans and animals and attempt to blur the divide. This study surveyed students on their age, gender, pet ownership, and their attitudes toward animal practices to inform a better integration of animal welfare topics to EE.

This study took place across three school in Lisbon, Portugal during the second semester of the 2018-2019 school year. The schools were chosen at random representing low, medium, and medium-high socioeconomic populations. A three-part questionnaire was distributed to 264 students (145 males and 119 females) in the 6th grade, and 199 students (91 males and 108 females) in the 9th grade. The questionnaire was administered by the same researcher in all three schools and took 45 minutes to complete. The students were told that there was no right or wrong answer to the survey prior to completing it. There were three parts to the questionnaire. The first part of the questionnaire asked demographic information such as the student’s age, school, and gender. The second section used the Animal Attitude Scale (AAS) to measure students’ feelings toward animals. It listed 10 statements, such as “It is wrong to hunt wild animals even knowing that it gives hunters pleasure” and “Humans have the right to use animals as they see fit”, and students were asked to respond on a five-point scale from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Each student was given a total score at the end of the 10 questions, with the highest possible score of 50. In this section, the students also were asked to expand on each answer with a written justification. The third part of the survey asked if the student ever owned any pets that were mammals and a question about the student’s diet. The question about diet was meant to be used as a comparison of their diet and their attitude towards animal slaughter. The questionnaires were then analyzed, and results were compared between age groups, gender, pet ownership and meat consumption. The qualitative review of the justifications yielded two main groups: animal-centered justifications and human-centered justifications.

The results that the quantitative analysis revealed in this study only showed those that were statistically significant and are discussed in the following paragraph. The 6th grade students (over 85%) were more likely to disagree with the following activities: hunting, specifically dolphins and whales, the idea that humans can use animals where they deem necessary, and testing for cosmetic purposes. A little over 50% of the 6th grade students also noted they felt it was wrong to use animals for research for medicine, animal dissection, raising animals for their skin, or breeding purebred dogs instead of adopting. Conversely, only 10% thought it was wrong for animals to be in zoos and 12% felt it was bad to raise animals for consumption. As for the 9th grade students, the majority (85%) agreed with the younger students on the negative uses of animals mentioned previously (hunting, using animals however humans see fit, etc.), and more than half felt it was wrong to use animals for their skins, believed it was not right to have animals in cosmetic testing, and thought adoption was better than breeding purebred dogs. However, only 49% disagreed to use animals in medical research and 18% disagreed with animals being confined in zoos. Similarly, 12% disagreed with raising animals for consumption. The older students were more explicit about their opinions on zoos being bad for animals, but many were also undecided.

When comparing gender, girls in the 6th grade group disagreed more than the boys about using animals in medical research, and dissecting animals for educational purposes. For the 9th grade students, girls were more against raising animals for their skins and dissecting animals than the boys. Ninth grade girls were also more against eating meat than the boys. It is important to note that two of the 9th grade students mentioned they were vegetarians.

When comparing results against those who had pets and those who did not, 22% of the 6th grade students who had pets were also against confining animals to zoos. In the 9th grade students, there were greater differences in answers for those who had pets and those who did not on the following statements: 95% of 9th graders disagreed that humans should use animals where they feel necessary, 81% disagreed on the use of animal skin, and 80% disagreed on cosmetic testing. The total attitudes score was not different based on school year but did differ for gender in both grade levels as girls scored higher. Pet ownership only differed for the 9th grade student group, for those with animals had a higher score as well.

As for the justifications in student’s response to the AAS, most responded with animal-centered justifications. Many noted that it can be unavoidable to consume meat. It was also commonly found that when students justified certain activities like eating meat they mentioned their rights to filling basic human necessities. There were also some misconceptions noted for specific topics about dog breeding and using animals for their skin from both 6th and 9th grade students. Additionally, some justifications were given that focused more on the animal issues and the impact they have on nature.

Overall, the students in both grades had mostly positive attitudes towards animals. Many students noted how much they cared for animals. They understood that animals can suffer from pain and have specific needs, as well as how humans can harm animals. When compared with previous studies, there was not a large difference in the attitudes of students from different age groups as previously recorded. The researchers mentioned this may be because of the greater publicity on animal rights and issues in Portugal. The results showed there is a new pattern emerging in attitudes towards animals in society, particularly in the younger generation. Even with these positive attitudes, there seems to still be common misunderstandings about the impacts of some of the issues (zoos, animal testing, breeding, and eating meat) raised in the study survey.

There were limitations to this study. First, the researchers only looked at two age groups in one country, so the results are likely not generalizable beyond the context of these grades and country. Second, the study noted the questions about pet ownership did not differentiate between being a pet “owner” or “caregiver”, which could affect a student’s relationship with the animal.

The researchers recommended that EE practices can be a good place to include animal issues to create a better, more truthful understanding of nature and animals. This will help bridge the gap to some of the misunderstandings about animals and animal activities and help educators teach about animal rights issues. Specifically, to teach on the certain needs of different animals and how animal activities for humans may take away from the value that animals serve. This can also positively effect issues like meat consumption or the role of zoos because it can improve student’s understanding of those controversial issues. Lastly, the justifications from the students in this study revealed some interesting views about animal welfare. These results should inform EE programming that is more responsive to inequities in animal-human relationships.

The Bottom Line

Humans tend to see themselves above all other animals, which can be detrimental to the ecosystem. To combat these issues, it is essential to connect environmental education and animal welfare attitudes. This study focused 264 students in the 6th grade and 199 students in the 9th grade at three different schools in Lisbon, Portugal to measure their attitudes toward issues relating to human-centered animal activities. A survey was administered, and results were compared between age groups, gender, pet ownership and meat consumption. The researchers found the majority of students from both age groups had positive attitudes towards animals and most disagreed with the negative animal practices listed in the survey. There were more significant differences in scores between gender and pet ownership than in age groups. The researchers recommended EE practices should include animal issues and the attitudes around these issues to open the door to deeper discussions on environmental destruction.