Animals or people? it’s a mistake to compartmentalize compassion

Aug 25, 2009

I found this post on the Vancouver Sun Community of Interest Blog. It is posted by Peter Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society. I think Peter did an exceptional job addressing the thought process of people who criticize those that help animals – “why help animals when there are starving kids in Africa? Sounds similar to our parents cohercing us to not leave any food on our dinner plates because “there are starving kids in Biafra.”

The Vancouver Humane Society’s (VHS) recent campaign concerning the Calgary Stampede provoked some interesting responses, especially from the Calgary area. My favourite was: “Leave it alone, you self righteous, tree-humping, granola-swilling, flannel-wearing, jack-ass hippies.”

The stereotyping I can live with, but there’s another genre of complaint that gets under my skin. It goes something like this: “How can you be wasting your time on animals when there are children starving in Africa.”

Variations on this theme include angry instructions to clean up the downtown east side, address B.C.’s drug problems, save the unborn or solve homelessness – all issues that apparently must be dealt with before paying any attention to animals.

Aside from ignoring the fact that VHS is an animal charity with no mandate to address social issues, these complaints suggest there are some strange hierarchical ideas about philanthropy held by at least some Canadians.

A quick check of the facts shows just what a low priority animal welfare is in Canada. Out of all charitable giving in Canada, less than two per cent goes to animal charities (most goes to religious organizations). Public funding for animals (dog pounds, grants to SPCAs) is of course virtually nothing compared to the massive domestic health and welfare system and foreign aid budgets funded by taxation. In terms of a share of national wealth, animals get the change under the sofa cushions.

Yet some people look horrified if you tell them you’ve made a large donation to an animal charity or even that you’ve paid a big vet bill. “What a waste,” you can see them thinking, “What about those starving African children.” But tell them you’re taking a luxury cruise and they’ll smile with approval and wish you bon voyage. No one ever wags the moral finger when you go out for an expensive dinner or buy Champagne. The African children somehow just don’t come up.

We have a standard reply at VHS for those who chastise us for allegedly putting animal welfare before the hungry or the homeless or the sick: “And what do you do for this cause?” The embarrassed attempts to answer usually reveal an armchair pontificator who does very little to help anyone.

Choosing to help animals is a personal decision and although not everyone will feel motivated to make that choice, it should be respected as part of a continuum of compassion that has helped drive civilized behaviour forward. It is a little known fact that William Wilberforce, the man who led the campaign that ended slavery in the British Empire, also founded the first SPCA. He didn’t feel the need to put artificial constraints on the breadth of his compassion. The same was true of Gandhi and Einstein, both of whom believed that kindness to animals is integral to the advance of civilization.

Contrary to media stereotypes, it is common to find animal advocates who care deeply about other issues – and they put their time and their money where their hearts are. Most ‘animal people’ are concerned (and active) about environmental issues, as they affect both animals and humans. Personally, I know one devoted animal lover and ex-VHS staff member who is currently in Uganda helping war-ravaged villages re-integrate child soldiers. And I know of another senior member of a well-known animal rights organization who’s leaving to teach deprived children in a big American inner city.

Maybe the important thing isn’t which cause you choose to support. Whether you foster a cat, campaign for safer crosswalks or donate to starving children, what really matters is to do something that just might make this planet a safer, kinder, gentler place for people and animals.