by Marsha Rakestraw

“The line between pet and pest differs depending on where you are on the globe. Dogs are considered pets in Western countries, unclean vermin in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries and tasty entrees in still other places.”

A recent Washington Post article, “Why We Love Dogs and Cats But Not Bats or Rats,” examined some of the contradictory relationships we have with certain species of animals. It also looked at some of the influences (including cultural, psychological, and biological) that direct our preferences.

Whom Do You Pet and Whom Do You Eat? is an activity (for grades 5 and up and aligned with Common Core) that explores why we treat different types of animals differently, and how we can learn to view them with new eyes.

Students are shown several possible categories that reflect some of the relationships we might have with a particular species of animal. For example:

  • Eat
  • Have as Pet
  • Wear/Use Parts
  • Hunt/Kill for Sport
  • Experiment On
  • Watch/Observe
  • Exterminate as Pest
  • Protect
  • Use for Entertainment
  • Leave Alone

Students (alone, in pairs, or small groups, depending on needs) are also given several copies of an image of an animal, such as:

  • Alligator
  • Elephant
  • Snake
  • Ant
  • Bear
  • Gorilla
  • Cat
  • Wolf
  • Chicken
  • Pig
  • Dog
  • Raccoon

Students tape a photo of their animal under each category they feel is appropriate (pet, eat, entertainment, etc.), focusing on the question:

“What kind of relationship do humans have with this animal?”

Students are to tape a copy of the photo only under the category(ies) that they feel accurately answer(s) the question.

Once all students have completed the activity, they have a chance to share why they chose the category(ies) they did.

Students are then engaged in a discussion focused on sparking them to think critically about how and why humans’ relationships with different kinds and species of animals differ and how the choices we make in those relationships are primarily based on tradition, habit, profit, and/or culture.

The discussion then expands to considering questions, such as:

  • What kind of relationship should humans have with nonhuman animals?
  • Why do we treat different types of animals differently? Is that okay? Why/why not?
  • What can we as individuals do to expand our circle of concern and compassion to include animals?
  • What can we as individuals do to rectify some of the inconsistencies in how different species and kinds of animals are treated?

The teacher can then share sample stories of animals seen in other (non-exploitive) roles (chickens as pets, etc.) and with more positive relationships with humans, to give students another perspective on the lives of animals.

Download the complete activity.

(Download the activity in Spanish.)

Polls and surveys repeatedly show that we humans are largely animal lovers and believe that nonhuman animals should have some sort of protections. But our inconsistent treatment of animals reveals a large gap between what we say and what we do. Activities like Whom Do You Pet help students to think critically about these differences and engender a greater desire to increase our circles of compassion to include all animals.