Whenever advocates work to spare the lives of animals, there are invariably those who criticize them by arguing that animals are less important than people and we should ignore one in deference to the other.
It is a tragically commonplace argument, but no less indefensible because of it. In effect, they are arguing that compassion is zero-sum, that it ought to be doled out in a miserly fashion, and that unless and until we end all human suffering, we should ignore the harm to every other earthling who shares our planet — terrible, painful, life-ending harm – even though it is within our power to ease it. Not only would that render all progress in helping animals impossible, but ignoring their plight – as these critics would have us do – would do nothing to help people. To the contrary, it would merely add to the aggregate suffering in the world.
My response to an op-ed calling the quest for a No Kill Trenton absurd, is here:
The Trenton, NJ, city council recently terminated its contract to run the city animal shelter with Trenton Animals Rock (TAR). Before TAR took over animal services, the pound had one of the highest kill rates in the state. Under TAR management, that finally changed.
With no plan for some other organization to run the shelter instead of TAR, the Mayor asked the state for assistance. In his letter, he noted that “TAR has been instrumental in our status of operating a ‘no-kill’ shelter, which is now in jeopardy.”
Adding insult to injury, a local newspaper published an op-ed calling the Mayor’s concerns absurd (Parker, L.A., “Lives and safety of Trenton children more important than pets,” The Trentonian, Apr. 18, 2022).
It suggested that any progress in protecting animals was an insult to people of color who suffer from gun violence, citing the recent death of a child caught in a crossfire. L.A. Parker, the author of the op-ed, argued that instead of a No Kill policy for animals, Trenton should pursue a No Kill policy for victims of gun violence because “Pets are not people. Plus, when pets die, animal lovers usually find a new one to love.” Clearly, the author has never had a personal relationship with an animal. More importantly, these views are heartless and illogical.
First and foremost, it is already illegal to kill children. Indeed, Trenton police officers attempted to save the child, investigated the crime, and arrested the perpetrator.
Second, caring about children and caring about animals are not incompatible. On the contrary, the founder of the nation’s first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also founded the nation’s first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Many humane organizations simultaneously worked on both issues. They have been linked since their inception.
Of more immediate concern, to the extent that the Mayor doesn’t address the threat to animals, Trenton may revert to the neglectful pound mired in killing it once was. How would that serve humanity, and protect children from gun violence? It wouldn’t. Holding back – or, in this case, failing to maintain – moral and civic progress relating to one social ill does nothing to “cure” another; rather, it adds to the aggregate suffering in our world.
We can’t let the opportunity to protect Trenton’s animals pass in deference to the false notion that it somehow takes away from the compassion we owe to humans who are also suffering. Empathy is not zero-sum. There is no victory in the moral enlightenment of humanity, in which some people did not lament the amount of attention paid to that issue because they regarded it as less important than others. In its day, prejudice is often seen as a virtue. But it is precisely this attitude that the suffering of animals is somehow less important that enables the tragedy of their neglect, abuse, and killing. If the author of the op-ed does not want the plight of animals to dominate the news and public concern, he should wish for a world where such outcomes are no longer permitted.
Bemoaning expressions of empathy and compassion is entirely counterproductive to the cause, not just of animals but of people, too. Love – however it manifests itself – should always be welcomed, as it can only make our world a kinder, gentler place filled with people who are increasingly intolerant of cruelty and killing.