Editorial feature: Adding consideration to compassionate acts
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2007:
Expressing either compassion or moral consideration toward
animals probably started just as a matter of feeding and befriending
a dog, and eventually bringing the dog into the family.
The first Neanderthal who tossed scraps to a dog just beyond
the circle of firelight, 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, probably had
no notion of extending a philosophical concept of personhood to other
dogs, other animals, the Cro Magnons who were just beginning to
push into Neanderthal territory, or even to rival Neanderthal bands.
There was just this one dog, who was hungry, who had perhaps
traveled with the family for some time, and might have helped the
family to avoid or fend off predators–and this night, the family
had extra food. This one dog, or her puppies, might have attracted
either compassion or moral consideration in response to the dog’s
contributions to the family, and probably was the beneficiary of
both, mingled with recognition that having dogs around could be
helpful in cave bear country.
Much closer to our own time, the Yellow Dog of Crypt Cave,
Nevada, lived and died about 6,360 years ago. The hunter/gatherers
who buried the yellow dog with flowers, in a woven mat, lived much
like the Neanderthals. Early in life the yellow dog suffered a
badly fractured leg. Though useless for working or hunting, the
dog was fed for years afterward, and was eventually buried as a
family member, among centuries of ceremonially buried human remains
and the less well preserved remains of other dogs, who also appear
to have been cherished companions.
Though the Yellow Dog of Crypt Cave was treated kindly, to
become a family member is not necessarily to be treated either with
compassion or as a moral equal. Unfortunately, efforts to reduce
exploitation and violence within family life have often trailed
progress in peacefully resolving or avoiding conflicts among nations.
The norms of human family life throughout most of history
have differed little from the norms of dog packs–and, at that,
human family life may be less violent and more stable than that of
chimpanzees chiefly through canine influence, including the role of
dogs in enforcing domestic order. The human concepts of family
structure and loyalty, significantly different from those of any
other primates, may have been learned from dogs.
We have a few more options today in deciding how to help an
animal in distress than the Crypt Cave people had, but our basic
possibilities are much the same. We may feed animals; adopt them
into our homes; treat their illnesses or injuries and then release
them; impound them; take them to a sanctuary; leave them alone;
relocate them from places where they are problematic to places where
we hope they will thrive; defend them or rescue them from physical
harm; or euthanize them, believing it to be for their own good if
their situation is hopeless.
Treating injured animals was acknowledged as the act of a
person of high moral character at least by circa 550 B.C., when
Aesop told the story of the runaway slave Androcles, who paused in
his flight to pull a thorn from the paw of a lion. Androcles was
later captured and thrown to a lion–who was the same lion, and
refused to eat him.
Taking elderly and disabled working animals to sanctuaries
and releasing captive animals as a gesture of compassion were both
established practices in India by the time of the Buddha and Mahavir,
the last of the founding teachers of Jainism, about 200 years after
Some of the other basic ways of helping animals, though
practiced for centuries, gained cultural resonance only in our own
The cartoonist and film maker Walt Disney wrestled with the
question of how humans should be kind to animals throughout his
career. In Dumbo The Flying Elephant (1940), Disney powerfully and
influentially depicted the abuse of circus elephants, but the only
alternative he offered was better treatment within the context of
circus life. In Lady & The Tramp (1955), Disney offered adoption
into a human family as a positive alternative to impoundment and
execution for stray dogs, whom he frankly depicted as death row
prisoners. In Old Yeller (1957), Disney juxtaposed a boy’s rescue
and adoption of a dog with later having to kill the dog due to
rabies. The humane community of the era liked Old Yeller, but were
ired four years later when Disney seemed to endorse breeding dogs
while attacking the fur industry in 101 Dalmatians (1961).
Relocating “problem” wildlife to rebuild populations that had
been hunted out appears to have begun in a systematic manner in the
late 19th century. Before the Ohio Division of Wildlife was formed
in 1949, for instance, private efforts–including some by humane
societies–had already reintroduced beavers, whitetailed deer,
raccoons, and even rabbits to parts of the state. But
rehabilitation of captive-born animals for release into the wild only
became popular and celebrated after publication of the 1960 runaway
best-selling book Born Free, by Joy Adamson, and the enduring
success of the 1966 film and song of the same title.
Also influential in popularizing relocation was Time Is Short
& The Water Rises (1967), by John Walsh and Robert Gannon,
describing how Walsh led the rescue of as many as 10,000 animals from
the land flooded by the Gwamba dam in Suriname.
Anticipating “direct action” animal releases and rescues was
Bless The Beasts & The Children (1971–whose theme song became as
popular as the Born Free theme song.
Going awry with good intentions
Unfortunately, no act undertaken as an intended kindness
seems exempt from the possibility that it may have unanticipated
Feeding animals may be the most obvious case in point.
Hardly a day passes that ANIMAL PEOPLE does not hear from a
well-meaning person, often in tears, who has fed street dogs or
feral cats, only to have them picked up by animal control or
poisoned; or has fed pigeons, only to have them netted and gassed;
or has fed a bear or raccoon, who was shot or trapped; or fed
songbirds, who were ambushed beneath the feeder by cats.
ANIMAL PEOPLE does not argue that compassionate people should
not feed hungry animals, and even if we did, the argument would be
futile. Responding to hunger by offering food is for many people
close to instinctive and reflexive.
However, much animal suffering and human grief might be
spared by better educating the public about how and when to feed
animals. Feeding a doorstep cat or two, or a courtyard dog, or the
birds who nest in one’s own yard is relatively harmless. Feeding
animals in a manner that attract an artificially large congregation,
on the other hand, is almost as potentially hazardous as feeding the
first domesticated dog would have been if the feeder had put out
enough food to draw cave bears.
Street dogs and feral cats, like other urban animals,
inhabit the ecological niche into which they have evolved. They earn
their livings by scavenging refuse and hunting rodents. They have
excelled in these roles for thousands of years, surviving all
efforts to exterminate them.
As their habitat niches are diminishing, with the advent of
refrigeration, improved public sanitation, and motor vehicles in
place of work animals whose feed attracts rodents, one can help
street dogs and feral cats by sterilizing and vaccinating them. This
reduces their need to find food, since they will no longer need to
find young, reduces food and territorial competition among them,
and reduces the likelihood that they will be persecuted as perceived
Some feeding at established locations may be necessary in
order to trap street dogs or feral cats to be sterilized and
vaccinated–but the feeding should not be done mindlessly. Living in
small groups, foraging as individuals, street dogs and feral cats
are valuable and mostly unnoticed contributors to the urban ecology.
Given an abundant and reliable food source, however, they tend to
give up much of their scavenging and rodent hunting, and instead
wait in packs or colonies for handouts. Dog packs may chase people,
vehicles, and work animals. Either dog packs or cat colonies may be
perceived by neighbors as noxious pests–and the very act of feeding
them often amounts to conditioning them to take poison.
Similar considerations pertain to feeding other animals.
In either feeding an animal or treating an animal for illness
or injury, one must consider the consequences. If the animal can no
longer survive without human help, one must be willing to provide
the help–or consider euthanasia.
Taking the animal to a sanctuary can be a kindness, but only
if the sanctuary is able to raise the funds necessary to provide the
resident animals with a decent quality of life. People who avail
themselves of sanctuary services on behalf of animals have an ethical
obligation to help support those services. Unfortunately, about
once a month ANIMAL PEOPLE hears of an overburdened sanctuary running
into trouble because too many people bring animals and too few
contribute to their upkeep. Thousands of animals suffer in such
cases; and while the people who have “rescued” hard case animals may
feel better for having not made the decision to euthanize, the net
outcome is too often that someone else has to make the decision,
after the animal has endured misery.
Relocating healthy animals is equally problematic. Suitable
wildlife habitat is rarely unoccupied. Animals for whom there is no
viable habitat niche will not survive. Some will kill others to take
over a niche. Some will starve; some will die in attempts to return
to their original habitat; some will become as troublesome to their
new human neighbors as they were in their old habitat, and be
trapped or shot. Raccoons, among the most adaptable and ubiquitous
of North American wildlife, have a survival rate after translocation
of less than 25%. Prairie dogs have a survival rate of under 10%.
Black bears have an almost 100% rate of return to their original
habitat, if not killed in the effort.
None of this means that wildlife should never be “rescued” by
relocation–but relocation should not be considered a top choice of
options. Learning to accommodate the animal wherever the animal
already lives should be the first choice, especially since removing
a “nuisance” animal from viable habitat typically just attracts
another to fill the vacancy.
That compassion must be tempered by consideration is no new
concept. Nearly 1,000 years after releasing captive birds became a
common attempted kind deed, the Prophet Mohammed appears to have
tried to halt the perversion of the custom by people who captured
wild birds merely to sell them for release. Mohammed unfortunately
had limited success. Wild birds throughout India and parts of
Central and Southeast Asia are still illegally caught and sold for
release by the tens of thousands–and have been a vector for
spreading the H5N1 avian flu virus, after catching it from domestic
fowl while in captivity.
The Crypt Cave people who splinted the yellow dog’s injured
leg and fed the disabled dog for years clearly thought about their
actions, and went ahead to undertake what seemed to them to be the
most compassionate and considerate actions.
Humane people today must think through similar choices, with
far more resources at our disposal. Whatever we end up doing, we
must consider all the potential ramifications of our actions, and
avoid responses to animal suffering that make the situation worse.