animals and empathy: a response to those who don’t comprehend fundraising for “just a cat”

For every ten people who easily comprehend the unique bond between humans and animals of all sorts, there’s one suffering some deficiency of feeling, and unable/unwilling to acknowledge this as exactly that. While I’ll stop short of saying they are all one type, they are frequently the sorts that readily eat meat but don’t want to hear about their slaughter, who think animals feel but don’t think, and can’t address the subject of animals without declaring human dominance over all species. Life is observed exclusively through the lens of personal convenience, need, and desire, an insulated tube of autonomy where even community is exclusively to boost exceptional individuals; there’s no acknowledgment of relationship between human beings, let alone all beings, and our reliance of living things outside of ourselves for our very existence. It’s a private den for lazy observers and those who lack empathy, declaring issue with those who extend themselves openly and with love, as opposed to acknowledging personal limitations in the ability to give and receive love from anyone or anything.

These individuals make statements like, “People are more important than animals” while failing to note that a.) humans ARE animals, and b.) no one asked them to pick a team. They observe people with special affection for non-human creatures through a judgmental lens, and feel justified in doing so. This is illustrated through a recent knock-down drag-out in the comments section of a KATU news story about a woman who found an injured dog. The dog was found with a badly damaged leg, and was brought to Dove Lewis and then Multnomah County Animal Shelter. A staff member at the County recognized the dog as belonging to a homeless man. The individuals commenting on the story were basically divided into two angry camps: 1.) Those upset that the woman who found the dog was more concerned about the fate of the dog than the fate of the homeless man, and 2.) Those who used this as an opportunity to soap box issues about mental illness and the homeless — despite there being no evidence that the homeless man in question suffered any sort of illness. The dog was returned to the homeless man (despite terrible injuries of nonspecific origin), and there was very little discussion of the fundamental difference between the man and his dog. While it’s unclear what the mental state of the man in question is, the one thing for certain is that the dog is not given choices. There was no debate as to whether the dog would be placed in a home with a roof instead of returning to the man, and he certainly wasn’t asked about his feelings about an ongoing outdoor existence; he was immediately transferred to his owner.

So the question then becomes: what responsibility do we have to those animals in our charge? What do we sign on for when we adopt animals and agree to feed and water them and care for them every day? For me, this means we agree to observe them as living things and not stuffed animals. Living things have needs, desires, thoughts, ideas, and feelings. They are sometimes sick and sometimes well, but a social contract is formed in which we agree to care for them, even when it challenges us mentally or puts a pain to the pocketbook. We acknowledge their autonomy, their lives, their choices.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Like humans, sometimes animals cannot integrate with other animals or humans, and threaten the community. In these instances, it’s in the best interest of everyone for the animal to live elsewhere, or (if necessary) be put down. I’ve known many people who are strongly against this idea until they encounter a dog or other animal who appears irreparably damaged in some way. It’s then that we learn that Death is also compassionate.

When I set up a fundraiser for my beloved cat Winston, I did so with the understanding that he did not and does not want to die (yet). Since I took him in as my own I’ve made the commitment to provide the best life possible for him and his adopted brothers. This means not just interacting with him for self-serving reasons, but observing him. As an individual, Winston likes people and what they offer, and interacts with them with compassion and love the exceeds the average human-cat interaction, thus directly feeding community. Is treating Winston for renal failure excessive? No. To not treat him would be violating our social contract, and the community he’s influenced. I have chosen to love Winston, and part of that love is observing his illness, and treating it when it can be treated.

Additionally, each year, I work for numerous nonprofits to raise millions of dollars for people. Why? Because I think there are many nonprofits doing excellent work. Sometimes, these nonprofits extend benefits to people who will never be doctors. Lives will be carried out without inventing anything new, solving world hunger, or making a special mark on all of humanity. The ripples these organizations make are often small ones — but they are still ripples that are felt by some people quietly, and others in profound and life changing ways. Even if I start out uncertain as to the benefits or unclear as to whether or not such work ultimately makes a difference, I usually come around and see clearly that my initial perception was clouded by judgment and my own limitations. In other words, slapped in the face with what I don’t know yet.

While most people can comprehend my decision to work for nonprofits, some struggle to comprehend empathy and commitment with regards to other living creatures. Perhaps it’s out of fear of sensory overload. When you cut down a tree, you’re not just killing a tree (which is alive, btw) but you’re displacing the animals that lived within the tree. You’re compromising the health of nearby trees, which might have relied on the felled tree for nutrients, shade, etc. You’re compromising the health of humans who rely upon trees to breathe. Despite the cheesiness of the notion, it really is a circle and not a straight line. There’s not a singular winner or loser, there’s no king of the jungle or master of the ocean, it’s a relationship that some folks choose to ignore so they don’t have to think of the consequences of their actions. This allows people without herds of children or heavy machinery to justify purchase of an SUV, people to prioritize the convenience of shopping at a big box store over supporting a local business, and people to neglect farmer’s markets because they don’t want to clean their vegetables prior to consumption. It’s all self-serving human laziness that we cast in other shadows so we don’t have to confess our deficiencies as a species.

So what does Winston have to do with any of this?

When people question my decision to dedicate personal funds (and donated funds) to his well being, they do so with absence of empathy. They have not considered the physical pain he might be experiencing. They have not considering his willingness to live, and the frustration he might experience trying to communicate exactly that. They have not considered his relationships to other beings, or his contributions. The answer comes exclusively from a place of dollars and cents, which is an unemotional realm that favors a privileged few. Others suspect I’m allowing my own desire for him to live to trump his probable pain and suffering, and am forcing him to zombie through another round of life against his will. Both of these assumptions question my ability to observe an animal who has been a fundamental part of my life for more than ten years. I’ve been accused of many things (sometimes accurately) but “shitty observer” has never come up.

Then, there’s this: why are some threatened by my capacity for loving a cat? My ability to love cats directly feeds my ability to love people. I trusted cats first, and their willingness to offer themselves as companions, despite the ability to leave at any time. Through observation of such unselfish gifts, I’ve been able to see this ability within myself, and others.

No one has to take part in this fundraiser. An invitation is not gun-point. It’s not for everyone, and I never claimed it was. You’re within your rights to dedicate all of your funds and energy to creating a giant room of Apple Jacks if that’s what tickles your fancy. I might even contribute to the creation of said room. This is not an assault on your bank account or your values, or a demand that you immediately reorder your way of thinking to celebrate cats and all their amazing eccentricities. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t host a fundraiser for a niece or friend who had renal failure, or that I won’t contribute to a leukemia fundraising for a child.┬áIt’s simply what I am choosing to do with my time and money to honor my long-term relationship with a beloved companion. It’s not up to you to determine his value, or the value of animals in general.

Winston is a part of the circle, even if his ripple is small.


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