When I was a child in Asia, not many of us grew up with pets. It was unusual to show empathy towards animals, but more fundamentally, it was unusual for parents to openly demonstrate love towards their children.
This emotional reserve is common in parts of Asia, and tends to inhibit children from developing social and emotional intelligence, the kind of intelligence necessary to become a responsible adult.
As children, we learnt respect for our elders and for authority, we learnt etiquette too, but rarely was it suggested that we extend any feelings towards animals, or indeed that animals have feelings. And because of this, many children in Asia grow up assuming animals exist to serve us, feed us, entertain us and clothe us; animals are useful ‘moving objects’, a literal translation of the Chinese word for animal.
I co-founded ACTAsia in 2006 with an Asian veterinarian, to support the development of caring societies in Asia.
While many nonprofits were already addressing human, animal and environmental concerns with direct action, I felt the cultural chasm between continents was too great to ignore. We had to accept that change would not happen immediately, and that intervening would cause offense. First, we have to help societies understand the interdependence of people, animals and our natural habitat. Instead of stepping in to criticise, we stepped back and considered the cause. It was clear our biggest obstacle was ignorance, not cruelty.
In China, 82 million people live below the poverty line, and 69 million left-behind children live without their parents, so our first concern was to widen a sense of responsibility and compassion for others.
With the future in mind, education is at the core of all we do. We teach children about respect and kindness, promote responsibility among consumers for the goods we buy, and train and collaborate with influential professionals in government, education, law and veterinary practice.
We believe that a sense of individual responsibility is empowering. Given the chance to understand the truth about life on earth, many people – but children in particular – will choose compassion over cruelty. In doing so, they will develop a keen sense of respect, for each other, for all species and our naturalenvironment, but also for themselves.