Bringing Together Conservation and Humane Education: An inteview with Sarah Bexell, Ph.D.

Sarah Bexell has worked in wildlife conservation, humane education, and sustainable development for over 25 years. She holds a B.A. in biology and environmental studies, an M.A. in biological anthropology, an M.Ed. in secondary science education, and a Ph.D. in early childhood education. She is Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, as well as Director of Humane Education for the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. She is also Director of Conservation Education at China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. At IHE, we know Sarah best as our esteemed faculty member who teaches the Animal Protection course in our graduate programs.

IHE: Your background and training are so varied and unique. What made you choose education, rather than wildlife science or ethology, as the primary arena in which you would dedicate your life and work?

Sarah: This is a question that has both delighted and plagued me throughout my career. I grew up during a time when only the scientific world was seeing the extinction crisis amp up, not children. I had certainly learned about extinction – dinosaurs, dodos, Tasmanian wolves, passenger pigeons – but in terms of the human-induced extinctions, I believed these were terrible lessons learned, and that humans surely would never repeat those horrific mistakes. Then I got to graduate school to study primate behavior, and as I learned about each of the world’s spectacular and diverse primates, I was taught that most were endangered. I asked myself: why would we humans knowingly destroy the homes of others, make them suffer, and drive them to extinction? 

I started to think about what I could do in my lifetime to help end the extinction crisis. I finished that degree in biological anthropology but felt called to education. I knew I couldn’t spend my life in forests, studying the behavior of other species, when I felt that I needed to study the behavior of my own species in order to protect those whom we were destroying. I needed to help others understand – through education – what was happening, and how all people on Earth could help. Then I found humane education and IHE, and my path was clear.

IHE: What do you see as the primary opportunities and obstacles for humane education to be fully integrated into schooling at all levels?

Sarah: Environmental educator, David Orr, wrote: “We still educate our children as if there is no planetary emergency.” Our education systems – not just in the U.S. but also in all countries that I have had experiences with – are not situating learning within our current circumstances. I wish I could have multiple careers in my lifetime so that I could also be on the front lines of education reform. 

I ask myself this question: If I had children, what would I want them to be taught? Certainly I’d want them to read and write (in more than one language) and to learn math, but more importantly, I would want them to learn how to use their literacy and numeracy skills to solve pressing problems. I would want them to understand the realities facing Earth, our species, and other species, and I would want their teachers to introduce these issues in loving and supportive ways. 

The barriers to the integration of humane education include the following: 

  1. Our colleges of education are not yet equipped to adequately prepare teachers for the world we live in today.
  2. Our society is still stuck in the paradigm of using formal education to create a workforce that for the most part is perpetuating the problems we face, rather than solving them.
  3. Many people are fearful of changing formal education.
  4. Humans are stuck in their thinking that economic growth is a necessity, and if economic growth is all we are preparing our children to be part of, we are unlikely to have a bright future. 

Given these barriers, we need to ask this question: How can we re-orient our education system to respect, honor, and value health over wealth, true security over material acquisition, and harmony over domination?

Many young people are dissatisfied with what we are offering them both in school and in society. They see the ways in which previous generations have set up human society to prevent a healthy, thriving, safe future for humans and other species. Many are speaking out, and plenty of adults want to support and work alongside them. I see this as the most tremendous opportunity of our time, perhaps our last opportunity to come together as a species to protect our survival and that of most other species. 

We simply cannot fail our young people. They deserve better.

IHE: As someone working both in academia and on the frontlines of wildlife conservation, what are the places and pathways where you find the greatest successes, the most hopeful trends, and/or the most positive changes?

Sarah: I find my greatest hope in working with young people, including the very young, and with colleagues who are open to changing past understandings and behavior patterns, modeling new behavior patterns, and teaching these without hesitation. Recently, I have enjoyed watching many privileged sectors of humanity awaken from what I’ve perceived as a sort of drunken stupor brought on by excessive consumption and the conflation of wants and needs. I hope this awakening continues and quickly turns into action to remediate harms. I also see marginalized human communities rising up to protect their land, waters, and traditional knowledge. I’m noticing complacency slipping away as more people gain knowledge and increase their compassion and critical thinking. 

In terms of wildlife conservation, this is, sadly, not a hopeful time. As our population continues to grow (even while average fertility rates are in decline), other species are suffering and facing extinction. People avoid talking about our overpopulation crisis, and we need compassionate and thoughtful conversations about this issue, which we once had in the 1960s and 70s. If we refuse to address our growing numbers, we will be hard-pressed to protect countless other species from extinction, many of which provide “ecosystem services” that are incalculable and enable life on Earth to thrive. 

I do find some hope in the science coming out on sentience in other species. When I teach about sentience among nonhuman animals, my students experience respect, wonder, and newfound admiration for other species, and they don’t want to cause them harm. This is the power of humane education, and why I’m a humane educator.