Humane Education in Action: Bringing Kindness to Belize

Colette Case has spent her whole life teaching and working with people about the human-animal connection and serving as an educator and expert to others. When she moved to Belize, she decided that humane education was the best way to use her experience and expertise to help create a kinder world.

Quick Facts:

Current hometown: San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize, Central America
IHE fan since: 2008
Current job: I work with my partner running a photography business.
Your hero: I have so many and they change all the time. Sometimes it is the single mother I know who works every day to ensure that her child has an education. Sometimes it is people like Dr. Paul Farmer. Sometimes it is people like Peter Tatchell. Sometimes it is my partner for making me soup when I’m sick.
Guilty pleasure: Red wine.
Inspired by: Smart, strong and sassy women.
Love about yourself: My uniqueness.
One of your strengths: Critical thinking.
Desired epitaph or tagline: "She was most definitely here."

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

CC: I came from an abusive home and ran away as a teenager. I ended up homeless with my dogs and learned a great deal about how much pets can mean to people through that experience. I ended up going back to school, getting through university and specialising in the field of human/animal relationships –- giving my first presentation at the International Society for Human Animal Interactions in Montreal in 1992. I set up a programme called the Hope Project, which provided veterinary care for pets belonging to homeless people.

This led me to the foundation of PATHWAY, a national multidisciplinary panel in the UK looking at the issues of pets in public housing and the development and publication of Guidelines for Housing Providers on Pets in Housing, which was endorsed by the Department of the Environment. This project was very important to me, because the biggest barrier I had experienced when trying to escape from homelessness had been my refusal to give up my dogs. I learned that there were so many people who were not able to find a home because pets were banned from most rental accommodations. I also discovered that people who acquired pets were being evicted and made homeless by social housing providers who had ‘no pets allowed’ rules for their properties. Many of these people were vulnerable, disabled or elderly and were finding themselves in the awful situation of having to choose between disposing of a much loved companion animal or becoming homeless. Another issue was that women who were trying to escape domestic violence were being told that they had to leave their pets behind, as there was not a single hostel or safe house for women that was pet-friendly. Many women chose to remain with their abusers because they knew that their animals would suffer greatly if they left them behind.

By 1992, the Hope Project had grown too large for me to run on my own; it was assimilated by The Dogs’ Trust, the UK’s largest dog charity, and I was employed to co-ordinate the project and develop the charity’s behaviour department, as well as to train and educate staff. I also served as advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare and was the Dogs’ Trust’s specialist in canine legislation, fighting dogs, and canine aggression, as well as their media spokesperson on these issues

As a youth leader for a London borough, I worked closely with children from the homeless community and ran an annual summer play scheme. I also worked as a dog trainer, animal behaviourist and animal welfare consultant, serving seven veterinary practices in London.

I have also been lucky enough to have the opportunity to teach internationally in more than seven countries on subjects including the human/animal relationship, animal behaviour and welfare and animal welfare legislation. My students have included veterinary surgeons, counsellors, law students, professional animal trainers and those in animal law enforcement. As a result, I’ve been featured in numerous media, with my last high profile job in the UK co-presenting “Test Your Pet,” for the BBC, an educational family programme about animal intelligence. I have also worked as an expert and consultant to animal welfare organisations, the police, the courts, the legal profession, the arts and the media both in the UK and abroad, working on cases ranging from dangerous dog attacks to child sexual abuse involving animals.

So, as you can see, my whole adult life has been devoted to working with humans and animals, learning and teaching about their relationships. When I moved to Belize, it seemed like a natural progression to contribute to the community by using my knowledge and skills. I knew I didn’t want to work in the field of dog training or behavior, and I didn’t want to become involved in the politics of joining groups or sitting on committees, so I looked around to see what was needed and it was clear that humane education would be something I could really get involved in.

IHE: Tell us about your Be Kind Belize program.

Be Kind Belize logoCC: I set up the Be Kind Belize programme in 2007 in my community on a small Caye (island) off the coast of Belize called Ambergris Caye. Having done some volunteer work with the local humane society, and feeling that I wanted to make a contribution using my experience and skills in the most constructive way, I decided to work on prevention through education. So, I contacted some of the wonderful people around the world whom I had worked with and met throughout my career and asked them for their advice and guidance. I developed a basic curriculum based on my research and approached schools. Two schools were particularly receptive, and I started teaching their students during the last academic year. I also set up educational talks in the community and worked with the local press to further disseminate information. We worked together on a number of issues, including the illegal feeding of crocodiles and the poisoning of stray dogs as a means of population control. I also wrote a neuter/spay leaflet for the humane society to assist them with their important work.

After working with the schools for a year I learned that much of the subject matter and material I used, despite every effort I had made, was still not necessarily relevant to children I was teaching. I was still going through a cultural shift myself, getting to know the people and the country where I had chosen to make my home. So, I took what I learned, went away and revised my curriculum.

The feedback from the children and the schools are my measure of success. I have had one teacher tell me that she has changed the way she teaches and has introduced the positive reinforcement methods I use the in programme to motivate her kids. Teachers have reported that they have seen a reduction in bullying after the children have participated in the programme. The kids just seem to love Be Kind Belize and stop me in the street or bring their parents to introduce them to me when they see me out and about. I think that the single biggest success is that the schools invite me back and have asked me to expand the programme this year to include other age groups.

IHE: You recently revamped your curriculum. Tell us about that.

CC: The curriculum is eight lessons long and is designed to be taught in full. It employs behaviour modification techniques to reward children for being kind and for recognising kindness in others. The lessons include:

1. Kind Kids, which explores the concept of kindness.
2. Feeling and Learning, which helps children understand and appreciate empathy for others.
3. Wild Animals, which teaches children the importance of wildlife in their lives, which is particularly relevant in Belize, as it is entirely dependent on tourism and is considered an “eco destination.”
4. Keep it Wild, which looks at the differences between wild and domestic animals and why wild animals do not make good pets.
5. Animal Populations, which investigates human, pet and wild animal populations.
6. Responsibility, which looks at the meaning of responsibility and ways that the children can manifest that in their lives.
7. Dog Bite Prevention, which I believe is so important when trying to deal with human/animal conflict.
8. Animal Puppets, when the children get an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned by performing their own skits using puppets they have created.

The children all get graduation certificates and one child, who has been chosen by their peers as the “Kindest Kid,” receives a prize. There are also other prizes given when the kids cash in their Be Kind Belize Reward Coins, which they will have earned by doing homework, participation and for recognising kindness in others.

Be Kind Belize was designed to complement the Belize National Curriculum, which has made it much easier for schools to justify introducing the programme.

IHE: What are the challenges you’ve found are specific to teaching kids and families and in dealing with humane issues in Belize?

Colette with kids from the Be Kind Belize programCC: There have been many challenges. Firstly, I am foreign. I am not from Belize, I did not grow up here, and so I am learning about the Belizean culture from scratch. While English is the national language, many children speak Spanish primarily, so there have been a few challenges in terms of language. Animal welfare as a concept is fairly unknown by most people. Many Belizeans are extremely poor and struggle to have their basic needs met. The island that I live on is relatively prosperous compared to other parts of Belize, where even basic necessities such as access to fresh water or electricity are not realities for many people. Belize is a very mixed culture. Ambergris Caye is primarily Mestizo, but we have a large (Belizean) Creole population, who generally are the majority in other parts of Belize, a Garifuna community, as well as many immigrants from other countries in Central America. There are also small populations of Chinese and Arab people, as well as North American and European immigrants living here too. On the mainland, the population is even more diverse, with Maya people and Mennonites both being significant members of the community. This gives you some idea of how truly diverse the culture is here and without having some understanding of each individual culture, it is impossible to participate effectively.

In addition to this, as a white “gringa” foreigner, I have had to work hard to gain some acceptance. There is some resentment of white foreigners, as Belize was a former British Colony and only gained its Independence some 26 years ago. White foreigners have been known to exploit Belize and its land, even now, with developers buying up all the good property and building housing that no Belizean can afford. Combine this with the belief that white foreigners care for animals more than they do for people, which is a common belief because of all the fundraising that is done by the humane society -- almost exclusively by expats. Also, conservation work has appeared to many in Belize to have made hunting and fishing more difficult. So, the whole concept of doing anything related to “being kind to animals” quickly raises hackles. Many of the children here live in shacks; they don’t have a bed, they don’t have regular meals –- so why on earth should they be concerned about animals? That does tend to be a common attitude. The lives of animals are cheap here. They are readily available and easily replaced. Abusing them for sport is cheap entertainment for some. Also, all that is required to become a teacher in Belize is a high school education, so I am often working with teachers who are facing their own challenges in terms of developing their skills.

So, I have had to develop my approach with great cultural sensitivity and respect for the way people feel about animals in Belize.

IHE: What kind of community involvement and support are you receiving?

CC: Because I have been respectful in my approach and taken on board all suggestions and criticisms, I’ve received tremendous support. Both local newspapers support Be Kind Belize and regularly publicise our activities. I was recently invited to present a paper at the first national conference held by the Belize Wildlife Conservation Network, and as a result of the conference, I have been working closely with members of the wildlife community and hope to work with a newly forming wildlife institute in Belize to help them develop their educational programme. I have been invited to speak to counseling students at Belize University and have also been asked to appear on the national breakfast television programme. I have become an independent consultant to the Forest Department on the development of new wildlife legislation and was thrilled that when I took a group of children to the mainland for a “Kind Kids Adventure” last summer individuals and businesses ensured that nine children had a fantastic and very educational two-day trip.

IHE: Any future plans, dreams or projects?

CC: I’d like to hold a training seminar for teachers, because the teachers that I have met have been so keen to learn about new things and just don’t have the time or access to the information. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t want to be in charge of an organisation, so I have developed Be Kind Belize so that anyone in Belize can take the curriculum, supported by an Educators’ Resource Pack, adopt a school and start their own programme locally. I suppose my dream is to see it take on a life of its own and become a national programme run by volunteers and available to every school in the country.

IHE: Anything you’d like to add?

CC: I came from a rather unconventional background, having been homeless for many years from the age of 16, when I left my home in the USA and went to London, England. Having that perspective has helped me to understand how important it is not to judge, prejudge or make assumptions. It was the kindness, compassion, encouragement, support and unconditional love shown to me by so many in my life that enabled me to finish my education, get a home, a career and ultimately to live my dream by living on a tropical island in the Caribbean. Through my life, I’ve tried to be honest with myself about my own personal limitations and accept that each individual can only do what they can do realistically. As an individual with the capacity to understand my own impact on the planet and a level of consciousness enabling me to empathise with other living creatures, I am incredibly lucky. I know and accept that not everyone feels this way and I suppose that is one of the parts of diversity that makes us dynamic as a species. I also know that there are others with an even stronger sense of empathy and compassion in their way of life. For some reason, I have a conscience that rests easier when I know that I’ve done my best –- and so I shall continue to do so. I respect and admire all others who are involved in humane education at whatever level and hope that they continue to feel inspired, motivated and energised by helping to make the world a better place.

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