A few days ago, I wrote a post for this blog in response to a question I heard asked about why a foundation or other potential donor would choose to direct charitable support to an animal welfare organization when there are organizations helping people in need to which the funding could be directed. My previous post provided one of the two valid and persuasive answers to that question; this one will provide the other. The first answer focused on the undeniable and significant human service nature of our organization’s services. This second answer requires that we set aside our self-focus for a moment.
There is no question that pets greatly improve the quality of people’s lives. And, no question that the Richmond SPCA provides a reliable and ethical source for those pets and, equally importantly, it provides the programs and services that allow people of modest means to provide a lifetime of responsible loving care for their pets. But, the fact that animals make our lives much better cannot be the only reason for giving financial support to animal welfare organizations since that would suggest that their lives are without any inherent value and that their suffering makes no difference if their existence is not directly benefitting us. There is an important ethical basis for supporting the cause of animal welfare that goes beyond the purely self-focused reasoning that they help people to have better lives. Seeing the lives and suffering of others, including other species, solely through the prism of how they benefit and serve us is, well, fundamentally selfish. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “We must realize that all life is valuable and that we are united to all life. From this knowledge comes our spiritual relationship with the universe.”
Animals are sentient beings who love life just as we do. They feel fear and pain and misery, just as they feel joy and love, no different from us. For us to deny that we share these emotions and sensations with them is to deny the obvious truth. Anyone who has been greeted by a pet upon returning home has seen that pet’s love and joy and anyone who has seen an animal in fear for his life or for that of his offspring knows that the love of life and the fear of losing it is not the province of humans alone. The sentient nature of other species is not limited to dogs and cats – farm and wild animals have a full range of feelings as well.
By virtue of our superior intelligence, we have been granted dominion over them. Animals are truly powerless as compared with us. We can treat them as we wish and that means that how we treat them is the ultimate commentary on what is our true moral compass. Matthew Scully stated it well when he said: “Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”
I have always believed that your ethics really can be evaluated by what you do when you can get away with doing anything you want. That is why the manner in which we treat animals is the true measure of our decency. Would it be okay to just kill them without concern whenever they become homeless or sick and breed more fresh, new, young ones to fulfill our selfish needs? I don’t believe it would be, and I hope you don’t believe it would be either, but that is where the logic of the first answer would inescapably take us if there were not also the second valid answer.
Let’s be frank, if you take the position that philanthropy is a zero sum game and that there is never a justification for giving money to animal welfare when there are human needs, then you have to be comfortable with knowing that animals will die in our community by the tens of thousands for no reason other than being homeless since this organization is, to a considerable extent, what stands between them and that fate. You must also be comfortable with the idea that only people who are financially well off will be able to have pets and that pets of the less affluent will just suffer and die of treatable ailments or be relinquished at an animal shelter. You also have to be comfortable with the fact that animals will have no voice to protect them from the cruelties inflicted on them. But, in this moment of frankness, if you should feel a sickness in the pit of your stomach when you think of homeless animals being taken to their deaths in government shelters, and if you recoil at the idea of your ever having to actually witness that process, then you must acknowledge that your heart and your gut tell you that this outcome is morally wrong. As Schweitzer said, “Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”
And, so, this second answer to the question that I heard asked requires a bit more introspection and soul searching. If we are going to allocate every dollar that we give to charity to the things that we perceive as benefitting us alone, we may actually in that process be losing what distinguishes us humans – the ability to act not on pure self interest but on ethical and moral principle. Again, the words of Albert Schweitzer are compelling : “We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”
Whatever deity you may worship and whatever spiritual principles may move you, it is impossible to escape the understanding that our creator created all of us and entrusted humans with the power and the duty to be compassionate stewards of the earth that we share with all other species.
Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA. To read her biography or that of our other bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires both your first and last name to be used as your screen name.