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June 21, 2012: The complicated side of helping animals

Originally posted on June 21, 2012 on this blog.

It isn’t always clear when we should actively reach out to help an animal, and when we should leave an animal (or a group of animals) alone. Even people with the best intentions to help animals sometimes choose a course of action that has the opposite effect to what they expected. On one side, we, as humans, as an intellectually advanced species, should use our intellect to help other animals, to improve their lives, to be caregivers whenever the situation calls for it. We should also be aware of certain situations that might not be completely clear, situations in which it is best to leave an animal alone, or one in which it is debatable whether or not we are, indeed, helping, or whether we are interfering and, in some cases, actually causing more harm than good. If we’re walking through a forest, or any other place where a natural ecosystem exists, we should avoid interfering, even if we don’t like what we see. Sometimes nature can be cruel, but this is its way of balancing out population levels. In most cases such as this, we will cause more harm than good, and by "helping", we might be actually disrupting the balance, something that could eventually lead to even more suffering and death. Having said that, it is important to remember that this is a guideline, not a hard-set rule. For example, if you see an injured bird while taking a hike in the woods, you shouldn’t just leave it. Helping that animal (if possible) would be a noble thing.

In cities and in other places where we share a common habitat with other animals, it is more acceptable (and often necessary) to help them, because they depend on us for help. Stray dogs or cats, for example, while able to survive on the streets, often have miserable lives filled with fear, pain, and hunger. Adopting such an animal and giving him a loving home is, in most cases, a good thing. That said, too much of a good thing can sometimes be a bad thing. Someone who takes in 10 such animals, and lives in a one room apartment, for example, might have a hard time dealing with certain issues of hygiene and health (both the animals’ and their own), not to mention financial issues, such as not being able to afford pet food, vet bills, etc. The harder it becomes to keep the above mentioned elements under control, the worse the quality of life for the animals, which may lead some (if not many) of them to become ill and die. Thus it becomes obvious that there comes a point when one’s idea of helping can indeed become hurting. Once again, there are no clear-cut rules as to when that happens, but you should always make sure you aren't overextending yourself when trying to help. Always make sure that the animals under your care are well fed, healthy, have enough room to live in, and receive the proper amount of attention before taking in any more pets.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you should avoid helping one type of animal at the expense of another. You may, for example, love birds and take steps to ensure a healthy, safe environment for them, but you shouldn’t poison the neighborhood cats in order to make this happen. This would more than negate the good that you’re doing for the birds. In this particular case, if you feel that the cats should be prevented from attacking the birds, the "preventative measures" you take should should aim to ensure that the cats don't have access to the birds by building barriers, etc., not by hurting the cats.

What about killing fleas, ticks, and other insects? Isn’t that helping one type of animal at the expense of another? Yes and no. The thing to remember here is that fleas, ticks, and other such creatures are parasites, and the nature of their existence is to live off other creatures, often weakening them, - if not eliminated, their presence on your dog or cat may very well lead your animal becoming ill and dying. While we at EFFA value all life, we think that cases of infestation can be dangerous, and that sometimes these cases can only be dealt with by killing the parasites. If faced with such a case, you should ask yourself whether or not there is a real threat to your or your animals' health (or home). You should also do your best to find out if you can first resolve the problem without killing before pursuing that course of action.

Two other issues relating to whether or not we should let the "natural way of things" prevail deal with the sterilization and euthanasia of animals, especially pets. Despite some critics calling the method unnatural, spaying and neutering our cats and dogs is the way to go. This is one of those things where, in fact, humans do know best, and should not allow our pets’ instincts to prevail. Apart from being healthier for our pets both physically and mentally, sterilization ensures that there are less unwanted pregnancies, less overpopulation, less strays on the street, and hence less suffering and death. When it comes to euthanasia, it should be done as a last resort, to ensure that a sick animal does not suffer. This is a very difficult decision, especially for someone who loves a certain animal, but sometimes it is a better option than allowing the animal to suffer. Euthanasia should never be used as a method of population control, or a method of keeping numbers in shelters down. While this is common practice in some parts of the world, shelters where animals are killed should be replaced with no-kill shelters, where healthy animals are allowed to live out their lives if they are not adopted.

These are just some of the complicated issues dealing with helping animals. There are many more, involving countless hypothetical scenarios that may or may not be easy to deal with. It’s not always easy to tell if we’re doing the right thing, and we all end up making mistakes sometimes. If you’re truly committed to helping animals and your heart is in the right place, dealing with most issues in an intuitive way will be fairly easy. Still, by being mindful of whether or not we’re actually helping or whether we’re interfering in a harmful way, we might avoid some of the pitfalls described above.

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