We’re all empathetic beings that care for others. We can admit it or not, but that's the reality that was imprinted on us long time ago. What may be more surprising is that our empathy isn’t restricted to our kin or other humans. We also notice the feelings of other animals and react to them. Of course, some people are more empathetic than others*, but it’s clear that we care about other animals. If we look on the Internet we may even say that we’re a little bit crazy about them. A big portion of viral videos are cute and funny animals.
In our society, any cruelty toward animals is met with a big outcry and often unbelievable mobilization. Just read this story about an anonymous woman that was caught on video throwing a cat into a trash bin. The video was posted on YouTube and in less than 24 hours, the infamous Internet community 4chan tracked her down and published her personal details to the world to the joy of everyone.
Apart from anecdotal evidence, we also have impressive results from a 2016 poll that assessed the opinions of European Union citizens. The overwhelming majority of us give serious moral consideration to animals. We can see that 94% of EU citizens think that the welfare of farmed animals is important and 82% of us call for more protection for them.
So not only do we have the neural foundations to be affected by animals’ feelings, it also seems that our empathy for animals is on the rise. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many groups and organizations try to help animals and save them from suffering. The emotions we feel when we encounter injustice and cruelty toward animals make us want to act. Fortunately, many people do. Some donate money, some volunteer. This is positive behavior that we should encourage, but are our emotions always the best guide when it comes to helping?
Is it always good to donate or volunteer just because we have intuition that it’s a good thing to do?
The simple answer is yes, but let's consider this situation. Let's imagine an animal shelter with 2601 abandoned dogs. 2600 of them live in very miserable conditions and suffer greatly due to a lack of attention and money for necessary caretaking. But one dog, let’s call him Spike, lives in great comfort and is in relatively good shape. The dogs are suffering, except for Spike. Spike is well liked by volunteers and donors. Because of all the attention he gets, Spike is well maintained and playful, to the point where he attracts even more attention. Basically, Spike gets medication, care and more walking time than any other dog, and because of this the other animals are neglected and suffer. People are way more sympathetic to Spike, just because they like him more than the other 2600 dogs.
Is this fair though? It is OK for the institution to put one dog over 2600 other dogs just because he or she is familiar to us and looks good?
I think most people will say “no”. Especially when we talk about charities that should be the most efficient when doing good. They should be objective. After all, we don't want our time and money to be wasted. How would you feel if you donated $1000 to help this shelter, just to learn that instead of helping all 2601 of these animals they helped just ONE. Most people would be outraged. Rightly so.
Let's create a new scenario. Now instead of one dog, let's imagine the same shelter, but instead of 2600 neglected dogs there are 2600 pigs that suffer and all the money, care and attention goes to one dog that also lives in this shelter. Spike. Would it be as outraging as the first scenario? Would it be unfair to treat this one dog well over these pigs?
I hope you said yes. Unfortunately, the second scenario is really happening.
Right now, when you read this. In the USA, for every dog or cat that dies in a shelter, 2600 (!) animals die in factory farms.
Due to cultural conditioning and cognitive biases, it's hard for us to react the same way to the suffering of other animals. But in reality there’s no reason why we should care more about dogs than pigs or any other animals that possess the capacity to suffer. Not to mention that pigs are very similar to dogs. What is even more saddening is the fact that this problem is not reflected in the donations allocated to charities. If we believe that all or most animals have feelings and can feel pain, then we should allocate money more or less evenly (of course we can add other factors into the equation but for this argument they’re redundant). So is money split evenly between animal causes? The reality is way more unjust than our imagined scenario. In the real world, the vast majority of money is donated to charities that help cats and dogs. Don't get me wrong. I'm totally for donating to shelters and helping companion animals. But if we want to be empathetic and fair with our help to animals, we should try to donate about the same amount to each cause. This isn’t the case.
Just check out this chart made by Animal Charity Evaluators (a metacharity that I highly recommend!)
Not only do farmed animals receive far less help, the conditions they’re exposed to are much worse than anything that happens to cats or dogs that live in shelters. I won't go too deep into the practices of industry farming here, but grinding chicks alive, beak trimming, nail clipping and castration without anesthesia are standard practices and aren’t even considered abuse in society.
Now image what the public reaction would be to putting puppies in a grinder.
To explicitly underline this – I'm not against helping cats or dogs. I take care of dogs and cats on my own and always try to help when someone is searching for a home for stray ones. I also believe that dogs and cats are a good bridge to show people who are unaware that animals are sentient beings that should be considered morally. I just want to point that it may be not the best idea to give food to someone living in a palace when others around are starving and that we should be helping more equally.
Personally for me this discrimination is saddening. So many animals suffer right next to us, yet we’re indifferent and we don’t help them as much as we should.
Can we fix this injustice? I think we should most definitely try. I’ll try to cover in my next entry how, but feel free to search for answers on your own and post your opinions or disagreements here. In the meantime, I invite you to check the Animal Charity Evaluators site to learn about maximizing your impact.
*check this fMRI imaging experiment for some nice details on differences in brain activity - http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0010847 )