Section 809 of the New York State Education Law requires that every publicly funded elementary school in the state provide instruction in the humane treatment and protection of animals. Enacted in 1947, the law is among the state’s more obscure.
Meena Alagappan, the executive director of Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers, or HEART, a full-service humane education provider, is trying to change that, and to educate children in the process. “HEART has a comprehensive approach to humane education, which encompasses human rights, animal protection and environmental ethics,” she said. “We encourage students to think about their responsibility to the earth and all of its inhabitants and provide them with the tools to make more informed and compassionate choices.”
Alagappan, a longtime Upper East Side resident, said there’s a “huge lack of awareness” about the law. “In the 10 years I’ve been with HEART it has been rare for me to meet educators who are aware of this law. They are always interested in the mandate though, and enthusiastic about incorporating humane education into their curricula,” she said.
HEART programs are taught in class, during after-school activities and in summer camps. For example, upper elementary students take part in a 10-lesson curriculum that covers topics such as child labor, dog and cat homelessness and overpopulation, factory farming, endangered species, and climate change. This program is often followed by a 13-week service-learning program.
Another HEART initiative is the Caring Kids Program, which takes place after school, weekly at the Animal Haven shelter in SoHo.
Lillian Davis-Bosch began participating in this program when she was 8 years old. Davis-Bosch, now 13, became a Caring Kids Counselor three years ago and now assists younger kids with service projects, and even teaches parts of the program. The precocious teen has been vegan for two years, and wants to work in some animal-based field. “The most amazing thing for me has been having kids say to me that they want to be like me when they get older!“
Chelsea Alonzo, 17, a middle-schooler when she first attended a HEART-run summer camp, has participated ever since, often as a counselor herself. “In our world there are a lot of problems that many children are unaware of but are important for us to know, whether cruelty to animals or child labor,” said Alonzo, who will attend Marist College starting in the fall. “HEART really opened my eyes.”
Both Alonzo and Davis-Bosch are “inspiring young change-makers,” Alagappan said.
Alonzo returns the favor, saying of Alagappan, “All she’s taught me has made me the person I am today.”
For the past two years, Bibi Samad’s 10-year-old daughter, Salena, has participated in HEART’s 10-week program at P.S. 36 in the Bronx. The lessons have led to meaningful change in their household. Samad says they recycle more, but the biggest change occurred just three weeks ago when they planted a vegetable garden in their yard. It will yield eggplants, peppers, spinach, tomatoes and celery later this summer. “I think it’s a wonderful thing planting your own food, and as Salena said, ‘the ones you buy have more chemicals,’” Samad said.
Salena, who recently took part in a food donation project for the elderly, wants to continue to, “grow plants, help the elderly, and keep the earth clean and healthy.”
Alagappan calls positive results from program evaluations “really gratifying” and happily recalls, “some of the most magical times have been on field trips to animal shelters and farm animal sanctuaries where our students had the opportunity to emotionally connect and interact with a variety of animals.”
Alagappan, who lives with her husband and their two dogs Jackson and Margo, concludes, “I am grateful to HEART for allowing me to make my passion for education and animals my career.”