karen patterson

I Am a Humane Educator: Karen Patterson

IHE M.Ed. graduate Karen Patterson works as the director of humane education for the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she built their humane education program from scratch.

Karen spent 10 years as an elementary classroom teacher, where she incorporated humane education into her classroom lessons and activities. She and her husband, Bobby, are raising their son, Ethan, who is two.

Karen also lives with her four fur babies – two dogs, Lucky and Charm, and two cats, Milo and Moo Moo. Karen loves to travel, spend time outdoors with family, and volunteer with a local adoption agency.

We asked Karen to share about her humane education work and her efforts to raise a solutionary child.

IHE: What led you to the path of humane education? 

KP: About five years into my teaching career I began to realize that working with animals and caring for our environment was just as big a passion for me as educating children. I knew that I wanted to somehow integrate them, but wasn’t sure how. After learning about humane education, I knew that I had found what I had been looking for.

Humane education allowed me to take my love of teaching children and combine it with my passion for animal welfare and environmental preservation. I was drawn to the fact that humane education could be easily implemented into any classroom and that it could be adapted to include people of all ages. Most of all, I enjoy that humane education not only gives people information, but also gives people the knowledge and resources to make more compassionate choices in their lives.

Karen Patterson and two girls holding a puppy
Karen leading a “Pets and Pajamas” program.

IHE: Share how you’re currently manifesting humane education.

KP: In my work here at HSHV, I have always been appreciative of the wide scope of our mission. Not only do we work with companion animals, but our mission also expands to include the care of all animals, including wildlife, farmed animals, and humans. Our organization has adopted a few policies that support our mission — including being a vegetarian organization (regarding the foods we feed humans), and also only promoting and taking part in events that do not exploit animals.

It has been so meaningful for me to have the support of our organization to be able to provide youth and adults the opportunity to expand their circle of compassion. It is very socially acceptable to talk about the compassionate care of dogs and cats, but challenging our community to include other animals into these discussions has been especially powerful. I enjoy witnessing the moments when people make the connections between the care of our beloved dogs and cats and, for example, a pig who is living a much different life on a factory farm. My department includes lessons that help guide participants to make these connections but to also be thinking about how we can all come together and follow the IHE principle of doing the most good and least harm.

Currently, I am working on educating our community about the ways in which we can co-exist with urban wildlife, such as deer and coyotes. The Ann Arbor City Council has voted to cull 100 deer in our area, and as you can imagine, this is a very controversial and sensitive topic for residents. It has been wonderful to engage in conversations that lead to a deeper understanding of deer and the ways to live with them, but also to challenge others to think critically about our role as humans in the conflicts and to become solutionaries. To me, these kinds of programs and topics are what have been the most meaningful in my work here.

IHE: Share a success story.

KP: It has been amazing how much our program has changed and grown since it first began in 2011. We now run numerous programs, and when I think back to developing our department from scratch in 2011, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the amazing people who have helped us to be where we are today.

One of my favorite programs to teach is our Washtenaw Humane Youth (W.H.Y.) program. We work with youth at our local juvenile detention center and teach humane education programming twice a month. We are told by the center’s staff that this is one of their favorite programs, and we have even had several youth become Junior Volunteers here at the shelter upon their release from the center.

One young man in particular really helped me understand the impact we were having with our visits. In 2013 our organization held a low-cost vaccination day at a community picnic. This event took place in a neighborhood where many of the youth at the detention center reside. A young man with whom we had worked for several months came up to see me and was very excited to bring his handsome white pitbull mix up for me to meet (he used to go on and on about how much he loved him during our lessons and was so happy I finally was able to see him!) After seeing that there were not many people at the event, he took it upon himself to knock on dozens of doors and urge his neighbors to bring their animals over. He ended up staying for the whole event and was assisting people with how to properly size collars, asking them to keep their dogs on leashes and away from others, etc. Essentially, he became a volunteer for us that day and was a big reason that our event was so successful. It was wonderful to see this young man take such leadership and help to educate others in his neighborhood.

Karen Patterson and humane society junior volunteers
Karen and some junior volunteers at appreciation night.

IHE: How have you noticed humane education changing over the years at humane societies and animal shelters?

KP: In the past five years, I have seen tremendous growth in the presence of humane education in animal welfare organizations. I receive calls from several organizations each year who are looking to bring humane education to their community, and it is wonderful to see that more and more people are finding value in this type of programming. I am also finding that many humane educators I work with are beginning to have a wider scope of compassion and are teaching their community about all animals, not just dogs and cats. This has been inspiring to see, and I look forward to witnessing even more growth in years to come.
IHE: What are some of the challenges and joys of raising a solutionary child today?
KP: It has been so wonderful to see the development of empathy and compassion in my little guy, who just turned two. I find joy each day in how amazed he is at the natural world around him. He enjoys going for hikes, and earlier this fall, he helped me rescue a bird who was stuck in our downspout. We save insects together in our home, and we are working to teach him to show kindness to all people and animals. Teaching him about kindness and compassion is a true joy and makes my heart feel full and happy.

Raising a solutionary child certainly has challenges. One of the biggest challenges for us has been finding the balance of helping our son to understand that sometimes others may not make the same choices that we do –- which he feels are the right choices — while preventing him from thinking the other people are “bad” for thinking differently. There are times already in which he has been conflicted.

Recently, one of his day care teachers stepped on a spider who was in the classroom, while at home we make a big deal out of observing the spider and then rescuing him/her if needed. He said to me a few times, “She step on spider.” I knew he was upset, but didn’t quite know how to process the action yet. Teaching him to show kindness to others who have different values, and to be confident of his own, will likely be a challenge throughout his life; but I know that with his amazing heart and a life of humane education he will grow up to be a compassionate, solutionary adult.

IHE: What are your future plans for your humane education work?

KP: I am really hoping to become more involved with IHE and to continue to help spread the word about the great programs they offer, as well as to work with those who have an interest in humane education. I also have dreams of working alongside other organizations to help them develop and design comprehensive humane education programming.

IHE: What would you say to others interested in IHE’s graduate programs?

KP: Working with IHE for my Master’s of Education degree has been life changing. The graduate program has had such a positive impact on my life and has also taken my career on a different path, which has made my professional work more meaningful to me. There are so many ways in which the IHE graduate programs can benefit a person, and for anyone who is interested in making the world a more peaceful, compassionate place to live, the graduate programs are a great way to get started.