On a recent book-related trip and then at a dinner after I returned I overheard two conversations remarkably similar in content, if from two dissimilar sets of individuals. Both were discussing, often heatedly, concerns about the mistreatment of animals in the United States and the concerns about starving and suffering children in war zones and third-world nations across the globe. The underlying question posed by one person in each of those settings was, essentially, why are Americans so concerned about suffering animals in the United States when there are so many suffering people, especially children, in the world who could use the dollars and caring lavished on animals here in the U.S.?
It’s a seemingly straight-forward question that isn’t, similar in many ways to the statement made a few generations ago to children who wouldn’t “clean their plate” by parents who said, “Finish your dinner. There are millions of starving children in China,” or some variation on that theme. Just as I wondered how cleaning my plate would do anything for starving children, since I perceived no way that my uneaten dinner could get to China, so too, today, the problem remains that much of the care lavished on mistreated domestic animals in the U.S. cannot be transferred economically or practically to malnourished children, even in the U.S., let alone across the globe.
But beyond that rather practical observation, and beyond the protests that there must be a way, lie even more fundamental questions/issues. Why must some people assume that concern over mistreated or deserted animals precludes concern over maltreated, abused, starving children? Does a preoccupation with alleviating human misery, to the extent of ignoring animal misery, reflect not only real concern, but also an innate assumption of human “superiority” and a minimization of the ills of living creatures less able to control their fate and destiny? Given that we are a part of the ecological weft and web of the world, and that our survival requires the continuation and prosperity of that web that is also the food chain of the world, in the “grand scheme” of the universe are we really that special? Who says so? Besides us, that is? More and more studies show that the more intelligent mammals, as well as some reptiles, have what we term feelings, such as concern for offspring, affection, grief, and even forms of altruism.
Add to that the fact that studies have indicated that individuals prone to mistreating animals have a far higher propensity to mistreat vulnerable humans, such as children, spouses, and the elderly, and given that, wouldn’t it be better to not to create such a firm dividing line between the need to help animals who clearly experience suffering and humans who do? That might also have a social and political effect on those not-so-“human” individuals, not only throughout history, but even today, who characterize groups of humans that they dislike as “little more than animals,” because in a very real and absolutely physical sense, none of us are more than animals who can think and use tools better than the other animals.