Last month, Nicholas Kristof wrote on The New York Times site that the U.S. and Europe appear to be on track for providing broader protections and rights to animals, in order to legislate more humane treatment of animals. His post, naturally, sparked debate from people on all sides of the issue. One commenter wrote:
I’ll never understand why human beings get passionate about animal issues when 2/3 of our own species live in abject poverty. Pampered pets in Beverly Hills and the Upper East Side live better than the millions of slum dwellers throughout the developing world. Who cares if a cow can sprawl out in a pen when babies die routinely because they lack clean water, and are malnourished from birth? I say let’s take care of our own, and when all of humanity is healthy and secure, then we can turn to protecting and improving the animal kingdom.
I would suggest that, perhaps, in improving protections of and respect for the animal kingdom now, we humans might remind ourselves how we should be treating each other — and should have been treating each other all along.
I’ve read about abused children and children from crime-ridden neighborhoods transformed by relationships they develop with animals. In caring for animals in health and in sickness, in being there when one is born, in being there when one dies, these children find generosity, compassion, responsibility, a sense of stewardship, and the respect for the sanctity of life—any life. Similarly, prisoners involved in training or rehabilitation programs for dogs and horses also report transformations in themselves as a result of their interactions with animals.
On the flipside of this, there is extensive documentation that domestic abusers and violent criminals can trace their paths back to a point that started with tormenting and killing animals. It all suggests to me that regard for human life and regard for animal life are inextricably connected. One does not come without the other. One can strengthen the other.
It is a sad commentary on our civilization that so many view animals only as commodities — for food, for circus acts, for pet store stock, for vanity collecting, and much more. It is a sad commentary that these people dismiss that animals have intelligence, emotions, the capability to form bonds, the capacity to feel pain and fear and sadness. When we finally get it through our thick heads that dominion and dominance are not synonymous, when we finally get past our selfishness and arrogance and get it through our heads that we hold one of many places in this world but not the whole world, maybe then we can start effecting some real change.
With effort, I can see why someone (like the commenter I quoted above) can't understand why some folks connect with animal causes before people causes, why they think there needs to be some kind of pecking order in who gets helped first. I see a planet with 6.7 billion people living on it -- which is a lot of people to help simultaneously divide and conquer the problems in all corners of life on Earth.
The important thing is that we humans find something that helps us reconnect with -- and stay connected with -- compassion, mercy, and generosity. For some, they may start with animal causes and eventually expand to people causes. For others, they may start with people causes and eventually expand to animal causes. It's not for any one of us to judge what inspires others to take action, to plug into the world around them, to care.
The specific route to compassion, to me, seems irrelevant. What is important is that we're all walking in compassion.