Harming animals to help humans: when charity isn’t charitable

Pigs in gestation crates: www.all-creatures.org

There’s something terribly uncomfortable about commenting on people and groups doing charitable, humanitarian work where animal exploitation figures in–even if only remotely or tangentially. It feels like badmouthing Santa or ripping on Mother T. Because oppression of other animal species is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our lives, it’s considered normal or merely goes unrecognized. You know from the get-go that your comments will be perceived as criticism. The nuances of the discussion will be lost. The defensive accusation, “You care more about animals than people,” will come blasting your way to shut down further discussion. Some things shouldn’t be questioned. Period.

Whose heart doesn’t go out to the uninsured family who loses everything in a fire? Or the individual dealing with a devastating illness he can’t afford? When the safety net’s gone missing, compassionate people often step up to provide one, and the warm embrace of the human family surrounds us all. We take care of each other.

But when the missing safety net materializes in the form of, say, a benefit pig roast (as just one example), my heart breaks a little, too. I’m saddened that my immediate family of humans can’t see compassion extending beyond the boundaries of our own species, and that to help our own kind, we’re willing to hurt another kind. The comforting embrace diminishes and a disquieting idea recurs: I don’t really belong. I sit at the edge of the Homo sapiens family gathering, the frowning, odd relation who not only won’t play by the rules, but wants to change them. (Just ignore her–maybe she’ll leave.)

You probably recognize that odd relative if you believe that dignity for one need not come at the expense of dignity for another. If you feel that compassion and justice know no species. If you’re one who sees–actually sees–the foundation of institutional animal cruelty that supports the status quo by which our every-day lives are ordered.

So when I tell you that I was dumbfounded to read that a Habitat for Humanity chapter (an organization I very much admire) raised money by throwing a hotdog eating contest, you’ll understand dumbfounded.

There’s the dissonant idea that an organization serving people in need should sponsor a fundraiser based on gluttonous competition where food is squandered. It felt unsettling and weirdly at odds, but I’ve never been a fan of eating contests, and maybe that’s just my cranky quirk. I’m willing to own it.

When is a hotdog not just a hotdog?

But I’m also one who sees the horror of the factory farm lying in every bun. I so badly want the compassionate people who build homes to recognize that the pig needs compassion–she whose only home will never be anything more than a gestation crate brimming with her body and her despair. Or the chicken, whose “home” is a darkened warehouse where she stands immobile in her own waste–crammed with thousands others–for her miserable 45-day life. Burned raw by ammonia, suffering eye and respiratory ailments–she, too, desperately needs mercy. And the cow? Yes…stunned with a bolt to the brain, shackled and hanging by one leg, awaiting the throat-slitting knife–compassion is called for here, too, in the antithesis of a safe haven. Understanding all this, can a hotdog ever be an agent of charitable kindness?

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Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” According to Volunteering in America, 26.3% of Americans–62.8 million of us–found ourselves through volunteerism in 2010. Another 19 million volunteered informally–simply filling a need where they found one. A good many of us are driven to do good in a myriad of ways: tutoring kids, walking shelter dogs, knitting socks, picking up litter, building trails, visiting nursing homes–acts of giving as varied as the members of our species.

Must service to one species do disservice to another?

But in programs where animals play an involuntary role, the primacy of helping humans usually precludes discussion about what we owe sentient othersevenin (and perhaps especially in) the commission of charity. And why shouldn’t it be this way? Who but an animal rights nudnik is going to whine about harming fish–cold-blooded, finned, scaled, water-dwelling fish–to help humans who’ve been through hell?!?

Just like the hotdog eating contest, dissonant vibes rang out in a couple recent news items pertaining to healing retreats for breast cancer patients and war veterans, with fly fishing as their centerpieces. Under the auspices of national charitable groups, both have at their core the compassionate, generous mission to provide physical and mental healing space for those who’ve suffered. Speaking of what fishing means to her, one enthusiast says, “It’s a tremendously healing, peaceful, fulfilling activity.” Hoping to share the well-being she reaps, she plans to volunteer at next year’s cancer retreat.

But research tells us that fish are sentient–that they feel fear and pain. “Indeed, there is a growing body of science demonstrating that fish are far smarter and more cognitively competent than we have previously suspected,”according to the Oxford University Press description of Do Fish Feel Pain? by biologist Victoria Braithwaite. Professor Donald Broom (University of Cambridge) asserts that “…the pain system of fish is very similar to that of birds and mammals.” (For more on fish brain structures, fear, and pain, visit FishCount.org.)

Marc Bekoff, commenting on Braithwaite’s research, says,

Given the violence done to fish with every encounter (whether their terrified, gasping struggle ends in the frying pan or in a return to the water, wounded), I’m struck by the incongruity of finding peace and healing for one’s damaged self through cruelty to another. Yet is it reasonable to expect anything else in a world where the act of hooking “just” a fish isn’t perceived as cruel?

Nonhuman animals are the largest class of exploited beings on Earth, where the animal industrial complex “…naturalizes the human as a consumer of other animals” for food, clothing, experimentation, and entertainment. On the one hand, singling out charities for their blindness to the suffering of other species feels unfair when all of society labors under the same condition–when, in fact, our economies depend upon it.

On the other hand, singling out charities (the ones mentioned here are merely examples that randomly presented themselves and were not chosen intentionally) is, perhaps, the place to start the discussion. What is charity if not benevolence? mercy? generosity? compassion? Are these qualities reserved for one species alone? Albert Schweitzer, one of the world’s great humanitarians, said, “Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”

The holiday season approaches. We’ll be bombarded with requests for donated turkeys and hams to help the less fortunate celebrate seasons of generosity, peace, and hope. Houses of worship, among compassionate others, will distribute the bodies of thinking, feeling beings who suffered from birth to death without a moment of relief, kindness, or hope…ever. The animal industrial complex has convinced us that this is necessary, and good-hearted, charitable people will ensure that no member of our own species goes without.

This post also appears at animal law blog Animal Blawg where comments are accepted.

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