Many of the seventh- and eighth-grade science students at the Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Northeast Washington raised their hands when Debbie Duel asked if they had ever seen anyone abuse an animal.

Duel, a humane educator for the Washington Humane Society, wasn't surprised. She sees similar responses almost every day in the city schools she visits to teach humane treatment of animals, using puppets, videos, slides, games and the kindness clubs she's set up.

"Why would a person beat a dog or cat?" Duel continued.

A 13-year-old boy answered, "That person has to express anger." He had just casually recounted to the 20 other students the time he saw someone hit a cat with a brick.

"What can you do when you see such horrible sights?" Duel asked her now-quiet listeners.

"Nothing," was the immediate reply from an eighth-grade boy. "Stop him," a smaller youngster suggested.

"But I worry about you," Duel told him. "He could do something to you."

"Reason with him," was another student's idea.

"Maybe he's wired on drugs," Duel countered.

"Call police, 911 or you," a girl replied. "Good for you," said Duel. "Our job at the shelter is to be kind to animals and to protect them. They can't help themselves."

"Like us they need food, shelter and lots of love. If you see an animal in the cold without food or shelter or someone beating a cat or dog, get involved and call the animal shelter."

People report 1,200-1,500 cases of animal cruelty in the District every year. Ten percent of it is committed by children, reports Duel, adding, "but that's a small percentage. I hear of unreported cases every day in the schools when I speak to kids."

Most children are naturally loving toward animals, according to Jean Johnson, executive director of the Washington Humane Society. "Some neglected children, however, strike out at something defenseless, perhaps because of a troubled family situation. ... Children are victims and then they victimize animals."

Johnson describes two types of animal cruelty. Overt acts, such as stabbing, burning, stoning or hanging an animal is the type psychologically troubled juveniles often are involved with. Passive cruelty -- where animals are allowed to breed indiscriminately, are not socialized and made part of the family circle, and often are not provided with the basics such as food, water and shelter -- is the other type.

"Children brought up in families where animals are neglected will most likely become adults who will neglect animals," says Johnson. "The goal of humane education is to break this cycle."

Reports indicate that violence toward animals is increasing, in part, say experts, because violence toward humans is increasing. "Animal abuse is a signal of other abuse in the house," says Patty Finch, who works in the youth education division of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). "Children are being pushed down the path of violence. We should take animal abuse seriously, for the human who will be the child's first victim, if not for the animal's sake.

Finch says she believes children have no sense of shame in detailing their abuse of animals because, "There are signs in our society that we mistreat animals, such as in zoos, where we confine them in small enclosures, or in other instances, when people desert animals during moves."

In the last decade social scientists and law-enforcement agencies have begun to examine cruelty to animals as a serious human problem linked to child and spouse abuse.

"Reports of slain or injured animals can often uncover animal fighting, satanic cults, child abuse or other serious crimes of violence," says Randall Lockwood, a Washington psychologist and HSUS's director of higher education programs. Children who mistreat animals have "fragile mental health," he says.

The animal shelters in Virginia and Maryland see less severe juvenile animal cruelty cases than the District. Arlington animal wardens receive 20 to 25 cruelty complaints a month, for example, but few concern children "because we're more affluent and suburban," says Marlene Schooler, director of humane education at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.

Nevertheless, Schooler says she particularly remembers an encounter she and her spaniel-terrier, Bliss, experienced in a sixth-grade classroom in one Arlington neighborhood. While she held an empty syringe during her explanation of euthanasia, "The kids wanted me to kill my dog. They thought it would be neat to watch. They were surprised when I told them no and why. It was shocking how callous their attitude was. An animal meant nothing to them."

In Montgomery County, "We can focus on people's ignorance, such as people's not changing collars that grow into dogs' necks so they need extensive surgery, or poodles matted from toe to tail and the groomer has to shave them. We don't see dog hangings," says Mary Eno, director of humane education for the Montgomery County Humane Society.

People are cruel to animals through ignorance, confirms Carol Taylor, humane education specialist for the Fairfax County Department of Animal Control. "They didn't know the dog needed a rabies shot or a puppy eats three times a day." Or, she says, some know better but they don't care. "For example, an educated person puts a pet outside in a windchill factor of 15 degrees and leaves him there for hours. Or in the summer he leaves a dog in a sweltering car."

All children, she explains, will explore their environment and maybe pull the wings off a fly or the legs off a spider, or pull a cat's tail or a dog's ears. "But you teach them right from wrong and stop them {from} escalating their behavior to violence."

In the District, Virginia and Maryland, animal cruelty is against the law. A person convicted of animal cruelty in the District faces a fine of $250, one year in jail, or both. In Fairfax County, which received 506 complaints of animal cruelty in fiscal 1990, punishment is up to 12 months in jail or a fine up to $2,500 or both. Under the civil code in Montgomery County, which received 884 complaints, a guilty person can be fined up to $250, and under the criminal code receive a jail sentence up to six months and a fine up to $1,000. Judges in Arlington often order community service work, including at the animal shelter.

Meanwhile, in Debbie Duel's class, students were shocked by a film slide of Inga, an adult Doberman pinscher that should have weighed 65 pounds.

"She weighed 28 pounds when we got her," says Duel. "She couldn't stand. Her owners admitted they hadn't fed her much. You know why?"

One after another, kids come up with reasons, but not one guesses the real reason -- to make her mean to humans. "But she couldn't move or bark," Duel says. "She licked my face just after I took this picture of her and then she died. Would you have waited so long to call us?"

"No," the class responds.

"Humane isn't a big word, probably a spelling word of yours long ago," Duel tells the students. "Now everyone knows the word means kind, compassionate and merciful. You'll all be humane now, right?"

They agree they will.

"If you show respect to the lowest forms of life you'll show it to the highest," Duel says, emphasizing the lesson. "When we teach humane treatment of animals to children, there is a carry-over effect to all living beings."

Resources

To arrange a presentation by humane educator Debbie Duel, 202-723-2071.

To report animal cruelty in the District, 202-333-4010, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; other hours, 202-576-6664.

In Montgomery County, call 301-279-1823, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; other times, 301-279-7525; humane educator Mary Eno, 301-279-1023 or 301-279-1823.

In Arlington, call 703-931-9241 to report animal cruelty or to reach humane educator Marlene Schooler.

In Fairfax County, call 703-830-3310, 6 a.m.-midnight; Fairfax County humane educator, 703-830-0806.