Interview with Ruth De Vere, World Animal Protection

In this interview Ruth de Vere (Global Head of  the Campaign Mobilisation team at World Animal Protection) discusses the importance of education, veterinary cooperation and youth engagement when working to protect animals. She also describes her experience of studying Cross River gorillas in the field.

1. Ruth, your previous roles have included youth engagement and teaching – how important is it, in your opinion, that children are educated about animal welfare from a young age?

I think it is essential. Early-years education should teach compassion because children are born with compassion, they are born with innate empathy for others but also for animals, and they lose it. If you look closely, there is a difference between how children relate to each other and the animals around them and how the majority of adults behave. There is something that happens in society wherever we are, where that compassion for animals is shrugged off as a childish approach to life, in favour of more clinical, mechanistic attitudes. Formally educating about compassion through all school years, nurtures and maintains that compassion and empathy.

Adults are fickle, that’s why marketing and advertising works so well for us. One week we’re shopping at one supermarket, the next week the offer is better somewhere else, so we shop there instead. Our loyalty to these kinds of brands is changeable, we’re easily convinced to behave in a certain way, but it may not be sustainable behaviour change. Especially if the barriers to that behaviour are large obstacles.  If we, for example, change to buying high welfare meat – which is expensive – or remove meat from our diets all together, then unless this fits with a deep-seated values system, this behaviour may not be sustainable if new obstacles appear, such as running out of money for the food shop at the end of the month, or the onset of summer and the inevitable family BBQ.

Your deep-seated values systems are developed in early childhood. There may be occasions throughout your life when your values are subject to change, but one certainty is that childhood influences are incredibly hard to overcome. If you can work to develop a values base in children which includes compassion and empathy, and includes animal protection as the example for that, then you have an adult cohort who behave in ways that demonstrate these values.

2. What changes do you think are most needed in education concerning the protection of animals?

Animal welfare shouldn’t be a stand-alone subject in my view – not until university level where it might be desirable to train to be a specialist in the subject.  But I consider it to be integral to how we live our life, and therefore it should be part and parcel of a wide variety of our curricular subjects. This means inclusion within teaching curricula and in supporting materials like textbooks and lesson resources. It goes beyond biology, it also includes citizenship and geography, and it has implications on the international development agenda, so in my view it should be integrated throughout all curricular subjects.

In addition to this, when it comes to those disciplines that use animals in education and training, there needs to be widespread recognition of the hidden curriculum. This is where behaviour and attitudes of teaching staff unwittingly promote poor welfare, even if the subject is taught as a stand-alone topic.  This is particularly true in veterinary education worldwide where many animals are still used for repetitive surgical practice for undergraduate vets, which may not always be in the animal’s best interest.  I would like to see veterinary faculties enhancing their animal welfare ethos, over and above simply teaching it but truly ensuring that it is enshrined in their policies, procedures and behaviours of staff and students alike.

3. You previously were the head the Education, Veterinary and Science team at World Animal Protection – how do these areas combine to support World Animal Protection’s objectives?

Initially operating as separate technical disciplines within the organisation, merging the departments  meant evolving how we worked as a team, and redefining the role of our professional and technical partners. Forming this merged unit provided enormous strength.  The global team now comprises vets, scientists, researchers and educators.  By combining our varied specialisms and expertise we provided a powerful resource for World Animal Protection - change has to be sustainable and as such it has to be based on evidence and sound science. However, we can’t achieve this by ourselves and so as well as consolidating our internal expertise, we bring with us a diverse array of partnerships which can be further strengthened through this merged approach. My ambition is lofty – I want to bring veterinary professionals together with academics and scientists in different fields to draw strength from each other and encourage collaboration, ‘cross-pollination’ and innovation.  Our scientific, academic and veterinary partners (current and future) will be key in enabling us to make change for animals at a global scale. 

4. As well as having a background in education, you also have practical animal science knowledge as you spent some time studying gorillas in the field as part of your Masters in Primatology – can you tell us about that experience?   

Spending three months at Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary, in the Cameroonian highlands, tracking Cross River gorillas – the most endangered sub-species of gorilla - was, without doubt, the experience of a lifetime. The sanctuary – a small patch of mountainous terrain that is partially farmland – has been part of a project run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for a number of years.  Trackers go out every day to unobtrusively follow the gorillas, record where they nest and count the number of nests to keep an eye on group sizes. All great apes build nests to sleep in, and each night they build a new one.  The nests persist for years, so I was able to use WCS’s GPS data coordinates to find old nests and determine whether there were vegetative and seasonal preferences shown by the gorillas when they build nests, or whether they simply build a nest wherever they are at the end of the day.

Completely unhabituated, the family groups preferred to leave as soon as they heard us coming, resulting in the Silverback male displaying, barking and generally frightening us rigid from somewhere in the undergrowth while the females and youngsters made a dash for it. In the three months I was there, I never came face to face with a gorilla – the undergrowth was so thick that we could be just feet away and still not see them.

I found that there were both seasonal and vegetative preferences shown by the gorillas.  It turns out that they are rather discerning when it comes to resting their head.  The rainy season results in nests in the trees as opposed to ground nests in the dry season.  Additionally, certain slopes, angles and vegetative protection (in addition to building materials) were selected for nest site locations.  My study also provided the newly defined sanctuary the first vegetation map enabling more effective management of the gorilla-friendly habitat, and gradual reduction of the farmland present within its boundaries.  My findings were published in the American Journal of Primatology.


* Any views or opinions represented in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee, and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.