Two things happened today that infuriated me. Granted, I'm on edge these days--between Vashti, the book proposal I'm working on that alternately thrills and terrifies me (good news--it's another cat book! but a novel this time!), and life in general in these scary times...let's just say that I've been saner.
I saw this story today: http://www.aolnews.com/science/article/superstitious-villagers-are-killing-off-harmless-primate-called-aye-aye/19416515?icid=main|main|dl1|link6|http%3A%2F%2Fwww.aolnews.com%2Fscience%2Farticle%2Fsuperstitious-villagers-are-killing-off-harmless-primate-called-aye-aye%2F19416515.
Read it after you've read this--although I warn you, it will probably upset you.
All you need to know right now is that a group of superstitious people somewhere in the world are killing a bunch of harmless animals for superstitious reasons.
Now, I've always been appalled by stories of superstition-based animal cruelty because of the way I feel about animals. I tend to take them more personally these days--ever since I became aware of how hard life is for black cats in this country. I literally had no idea that upwards of 95% of black cats go unadopted from shelters because they're black until I started doing research for the proposal for Homer's Odyssey. That was when I learned that even if he hadn't been blind, Homer almost certainly wouldn't have been adopted from a shelter because he's black. I have a black cat who I couldn't love more if he were bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. So I take the problems people have with black cats very personally.
I mentioned the above news story to someone tonight, and got one of those "why do you care so much about cruelty to animals when so many terrible things are happening to humans blah blah blah" speeches. I am SO VERY SICK of hearing that. I try not to rant in social situations, so please indulge me while I do so here.
First of all, I worked in non-profit for a lot of years. I worked with organizations that served animals, but that also served abused children, terminally ill children, the elderly, the homeless, the disabled, and so on. I ran a program that trained women on welfare for jobs back in the '90s during Clinton's welfare-to-work initiative (and when people questioned why I was wasting my time on lazy "welfare queens," my short answer--and I could have given a MUCH longer one--was that, if nothing else, as a society we should be concerned with the plight of their children).
I'm not trying to make myself out to be a saint. My point is that the people who volunteered with children never questioned the people who volunteered with the elderly. And the people who volunteered with the elderly never questioned the people who volunteered with disabled veterans. And so on. And none of those people--the people who actually did things other than judge what other people did--ever questioned the animal volunteers. If I'd been able to collect a buck for every person who questioned the animal volunteers but didn't volunteer themselves in any capacity...let's just say that Laurence and I could retire today.
Which leads me to my second point. When you help animals, you help people. I'm not talking about extremist fringe groups that hurt humans to help animals--frankly, I don't feel that I have to answer for the extremists any more than Christians have to answer for the KKK. There are messed-up people in all walks of life, and their particular cause isn't what messes them up--they're messed up already, and then they find a cause that legitimizes it.
But I'll say it again--when you help animals, you help people. Maybe that's not why you do it, but the fact remains. Shelters give people who've lost a pet a place to start in their search. They provide a safe haven for animals that might otherwise roam the streets and, out of sheer desperation and hunger and fear, become a threat to neighborhoods. They match people with pets who make their lives tangibly better (statistics on the improved health/reduced stress of pet owners, anyone?). In my case, the ASPCA volunteers who helped me get back to my cats after 9/11 may have done it for their love of animals, but they helped me, and I was a human disaster survivor.
That would be enough, but I'm not done by a long shot. Going back to my earlier point--how the people who genuinely want to work to make the world better never question the others who do so, even if they do it in a different way. That's because we all understand that cruelty is cruelty, and injustice is injustice, and if everybody did some small thing to help others out of kindness--or even a sense of ethical responsibility--the world would be infinitely better for us all.
What's wrong with the world isn't too many people helping animals. What's wrong with the world is too many people doing nothing to help anybody at all.
The people who want to help, however they want to help, aren't the ones who create injustice, violence, or oppression. I've met a lot of people who would help animals before they would help humans--but not a single one of them would ever knowingly hurt or take advantage of a human. People who volunteer at shelters might not teach an illiterate adult to read, but I guarantee you they'd be the first to rally to help a neighbor in a crisis that others would ignore. Often they don't volunteer with humans because they feel "safer" with animals--but, to a man (or woman) they are kind-hearted people. Kindness, in any form, is the only hope our species has got.
Which brings me to my final point--societies that routinely mistreat their animals will also mistreat their humans. Before the founding of the RSPCA, Victorian England was notorious for animal cruelty. They also hanged 10-year-old children for pickpocketing in Victorian England. Maybe I can't draw a scientific cause/effect relationship here, but I don't think I'm off base.
I could provide countless other examples, but I'll offer only one. When I was a young child, maybe third grade or so, I started learning about the Holocaust. (To grow up Jewish, at least in my neighborhood, was to begin learning about the Holocaust at a young age.) Something like the Holocaust is a hard thing for a child to grasp as anything other than an abstract Very Bad Thing that happened a long time ago. It's as hard to personally conceptualize as the concept of infinity. The first thing that made it personal and real to me was learning that, before there were concentration camps and actual murders, there were laws passed to restrict the daily life of Jews. Jews couldn't use public parks. Jews couldn't teach in schools. And Jews were not allowed to have pets--Jews who did have pets were forced to give them up.
As a child with dogs, that horrified me to my core. And it wasn't just that I could personally and viscerally understand how it would feel to have police officers come into my home and take my beloved Penny and Tippi away. It was because I could understand, although I couldn't have articulated it, that a society that could be that cruel to innocent and helpless animals (because, even if you thought Jews were bad, their dogs and cats loved them and wouldn't understand why they were being taken away from their families and homes) was capable of any cruel thing. It was a society devoid of a soul, of compassion. It was a society that could ruthlessly inflict any horror one could imagine. And while obviously ripping pets out of homes was far from the worst thing the Nazis did, I think I was correct in understanding on a purely visceral level that people who could be that cruel and unfeeling were the kind of people who were responsible for all the horrible things in the world.
The people who killed black cats because they were "witches' familiars" were also the people who burned humans at the stake. Societies that engaged in animal sacrifice also engaged in human slavery and trafficking. I don't even think it's a cause/effect relationship--I think that cruelty is simply one of those things that gets easier as you go along. We practice it on animals and then perfect it on people.
Bad people aren't bad people because they're cruel to animals. They're cruel to animals because they're bad people. And nothing I've seen since third grade has convinced me that I'm wrong about that.
So I don't care about animals more than or instead of humans. It's my general feeling that somebody has to care for the most helpless among us--that somebody has to recognize when we've started down the slippery slope to general inhumanity--that motivates me and makes me angry when I see animals abused or killed for gratuitous reasons. And even the people who would say they care more about animals than humans are still the ones who do more to help humans--if by doing nothing else than tipping the social scales back toward human kindness--than those who judge them for it. I'm not talking about every pet owner out there--I'm talking about that rare breed (the ones who people tend to call "crazy") who love having an animal in their homes, but who ultimately take in pets out of a genuine desire to give the pet a better life, not so they have something cute and fuzzy in the house. It's a fine distinction, but an important one. People who love animals purely for the animals' sake--not as tools or entertainment--aren't the ones throwing dollar bills at Parkinson's sufferers like the "humanitarian" in that video that went around last week. Goodness is always appalled in the face of cruelty, whatever form it takes.
And the people who are in it to help others, not for the sake of making themselves feel more special or righteous but out of a genuine desire to do good, never judge the way others choose to do good. They recognize that good is good, however it occurs--and that, like people themselves, it never looks exactly the same twice.
And, frankly, just like I'm capable of loving my cats and my husband and my family, I'm capable of caring about animals and humans. People who know what it is to love in the truest sense of the word know that love is an infinite resource. The people who assume that caring for animals and caring for humans is an either/or proposition are the ones who have no idea what it means to care from your very soul about anything. They're like children who think mommy won't love them anymore because she's having another baby. If they didn't spend so much time impeding my progress, I'd feel sorry for them.
People who fight to save animals are fighting to save us all. And I say: Godspeed.