New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, whose humanitarian cred cannot be reasonably questioned, last week wrote an op-ed concluding that our concern for animals and investment in them does not come at the expense of human suffering.
In support of this comforting claim, based on his extensive experience in Africa, that saving animals and people go hand-in-hand.
I still have doubts. How does Kristof’s experience inform my rescue and humanitarian efforts? Or yours?
As Kristof writes:
“Yet when I turn sentimental at the majesty of wildlife, I sometimes feel uneasy. I wonder: Does honoring animal rights come at the expense of human rights?
“One study found that research subjects were more upset by stories of a dog beaten by a baseball bat than of an adult similarly beaten. Other researchers found that if forced to choose, 40 percent of people would save their pet dog over a foreign tourist.
“When the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe attracted far more outraged signatures on a petition than the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer, the writer Roxane Gay tweeted, “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.”
“Years ago, I visited a rainforest camp where a couple dozen young Americans and Europeans were volunteering in difficult conditions to assist gorillas as part of a conservation program. It was impressively altruistic — but these idealists were oblivious to Pygmy villagers nearby dying of malaria for want of $5 mosquito bed nets
“So are we betraying our own species when we write checks to help gorillas (or puppies or wild horses)? Is it wrongheaded to fight for elephants and rhinos (or farm animals at home) while five million children still die each year before the age of 5?”
Yes, it does bother me that my dogs have better access to health care — and may even eat better — than millions of the world’s poorest children. And I cannot say that the miles I drive hauling animals from shelters to rescues does anything for these poorest kids, even those living in my community.
Can helping people offset helping animals?
Elionora and I provide food — cat and human — to a low-income family each week. But is that enough to offset what we spend and the effort we put into saving animals?
Kristof concludes that, at least in Africa, the fate of animals and native residents are often intertwined, and that money spent to protect animals creates jobs and an economy that raises the human standard of living, too. Extinction could come to both animals and native communities, in short order, one after the other.
That’s not a claim I can make for pulling friendly pit bulls from a shelter a few hours become they would otherwise be killed for lack of space and adopters.
I feel that what we do for animals does make the world a kinder and gentler place. That everything we do for animals eventually has a positive effect on people. Sometimes this is relatively direct, such as the animal rescues focused on both senior pets and senior humans or programs that provide care and support to both the homeless and their animals.
We made it, we’re responsible for it
By domesticating animals, we became responsible for their treatment. My heart aches when I see or hear about a senior pet, often a hospice case, placed in a shelter after a lifetime with its owner. Sometimes the owner has died, and the situation can’t be helped. But it can be fixed. I won’t say one animal is more deserving than another, but senior animals deserve the same respect we should give to our human elders. Anything less is admitting we just don’t give a damn. The next animal I intentionally adopt will be a senior.
Animals teach our children to care about the world and people around them. And give all of us a connection to loving all four-legged creatures. My concern for farm animals — and trudge toward a plant-based diet — is a function of understanding that pigs, chickens, cows, and other animals are feeling, intelligent creatures not that different from the pets that form my surrogate family. Having reached that conclusion, working to save all animals isn’t much of a stretch.
Yes, I would save my 15-year-old Brittany before a generic “foreign tourist.” I simply would be unable to help myself. And a dog cannot be to blame for the baseball bat attack it suffers. Can the same be said for the human victim? In either case, I hope I’d try to intervene. I also volunteer in human search-and-rescue and maintain my EMT card to be useful to people in need.
Concern for animals and the actions we take to protect them create a better world for both them and us. It’s not a perfect world, and I still feel guilty that more isn’t done for the 5 million kids. That, like the low-income family we help, are best assisted at the ballot box. And by personal action.
Needy animals, however, are a problem that myself and a few friends can often fix. It’s not a perfect solution, and I realize the limitations of this argument, but I try and do what I can, where I can, with what I have. You should, too.
Does this allow me to feel less unease over hungry kids? Should it? You tell me.