Make teachings of Jainism, Ahimsa open to all

By John Di Leonardo 

Last week, Sloth Encounters — an illegal Long Island petting zoo that subjects sensitive sloths, including vulnerable babies, to grabbing hands, noisy crowds, and ramshackle cages — was ordered to shut down pending further orders from the Suffolk County Supreme Court. Larry Wallach — the exhibitor who owns Sloth Encounters — responded by announcing plans to haul the suffering animals to people’s homes and schools while the court case is underway. The United Federation of Teachers — which represents nearly 200,000 educators — is now firing back, “urging parents and educators to steer clear of a notorious exhibitor with a long history of mistreating animals and endangering the public.”

According to UFT’s Humane Education Committee: 

Exploiting sloths – tree-dwelling tropical animals with sharp teeth and four-inch claws – as props provides a dangerous example to children about taking advantage of more vulnerable beings when we should instead be teaching anti-bullying messages. It is also inconsistent with NYS Education Law, Article 17, Section 809, which mandates that every elementary school provide instruction in the “humane treatment and protection of animals.” According to Rebecca Cliffe, PhD, a Costa Rica-based zoologist who founded the Sloth Conservation Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to saving sloths in the wild, “Sloths don’t like to be touched. They might not show it outwardly, but that’s because they’re a prey species; in the wild their best reaction to a predator is to sit still and hope [the predator] goes away.”  

New York State humane education law mandates that we foster empathy for animals in children, not model for them how to exploit animals for entertainment. Steer clear of Sloth Encounters and consider fulfilling New York State’s humane education mandate with a visit from Humane Long Island – who is leading the fight against Sloth Encounters – instead.  

I often wonder how many people know that humane education is mandated in New York schools, and what would happen if this mandate was actually enforced? Today, New York City’s largest union of educators is promoting my animal advocacy organization, but where would I be if I didn’t take that one college class about Jainism that set me on this path? The most valuable lessons we learn in life, namely the world’s worst atrocities and how to combat them, should not be accessible to only the privileged few who make it to college and happen to stumble into the right class. Everyone should be learning about Ahimsa and how much it differs from the western conception of nonviolence at a young age. Ahimsa is not a passive force but rather implies an active expression of compassion. It’s not enough to simply stop eating, wearing, or otherwise exploiting animals ourselves; we must become activists, or in other words, educators. 

In this vein, I challenge readers to make a small vow, or Anuvrat, to make the teachings of Jainism open to all. Teach your friends, your students, your children, about Ahimsa. Join a protest and educate people on the street or invite me or another humane educator into your classroom or congregation. Steer clear of those teaching children the wrong lessons and work hard to instill kindness in children at every opportunity.  

John Di Leonardo is the founding director of Humane Long Island. He was previously the Senior Manager of Grassroots Campaigns and Animals in Entertainment Campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He has a Master’s degree in Anthrozoology from Canisius College. He also earned a graduate certificate in Jain Studies from the International School of Jain Studies (ISJS) in India. John can be reached at [email protected].  

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