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David Vognar Headshot

Animal Welfare, Human Welfare Linked

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When I volunteer at my local animal shelter, which accepts thousands of dogs and cats per year, the worst sight is another animal control truck lumbering through the parking lot, bringing new lost, neglected or abused creatures to the shelter. After I had been at it for a while, I began to notice a pattern: trucks from the most impoverished towns in my area were much more prevalent than those from better-off areas.

The pattern was no coincidence. Human welfare and animal welfare are related. Countries with little in the way of social services also have weak animal welfare systems. Think Russia and Mexico, where dogs roam the streets and are often in the most pitiful health. While affluent as well as impoverished areas can be host to animal cruelty or abuse, such practices are strongly linked to other crimes and volatile living environments. In an interview with The New York Times, Randall Lockwood, of the A.S.P.C.A., said, "Poverty often creates the sense of persecution and injustice that makes some people feel justified in striking back in order to gain the sense of power and control they otherwise lack." In cases of neglected or stray animals, poor people may just not have enough resources to adequately care for their pets and do not know that there are organizations that can help. But there are other reasons for animal neglect, as well. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, neglect of an animal is often associated with neglect of a child, elder or dependent. These unfortunate events are higher in low-income areas.

Human and canine fate may have always been intertwined. New research points to the domestication of dogs as one of the reasons humans won out over Neanderthals about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were the "technology" that allowed humans to prosper in prehistoric hunts. It is more evident today than ever that to truly care for our companion animals, who helped us evolve to the species we are today, we have to be looking at improving the welfare of those who care for them. While some rail against recipients of welfare payments living off the government dole, those same people might otherwise gush over the cute pets their poor counterparts have at home. (No one ever complains about cats and dogs not working and earning their fair share.) We can help those who need government help, all in an effort to get them on their feet again and able to provide for themselves and their animals. We can do so by coming up with structural ways to provide for them and then have them provide for themselves. Such schemes include more investment in job-training, work sharing and counseling to deal with the strong and often violent emotions that come with living in poverty.

Another tactic is to increase funding for animal welfare itself and hire those in the neighborhoods with high rates of animal neglect and abuse to work in local shelters. Currently some animal control and care facilities receive money from county or local governments. There are many other animal welfare organizations that survive on the donations of individuals and corporations.  Gifts to the environment and animals totaled $6.66 billion in 2010, according to the most recent Giving USA report. This was one of the smallest categories of giving.

One reason why we might give so little to animal causes could be because humans and animals are different species and, despite our affinity for our furry friends, one of the determinants of how we feel about providing welfare for others is how similar we are to the recipients. As Jeffrey D. Sachs explains in Common Wealth, "Social-welfare systems proved to be most effective and popular in ethnically homogenous societies, such as Scandinavia, where people believed that their tax payments were 'helping their own.'" Taking the dilemma a step further, another root of the problem may be that we see dogs and cats who wind up in shelters as somehow "other." Either they come from bad owners or from poor areas -- or maybe they are just bad animals that don't deserve help. The psychology of our decision to ignore animal welfare could be quite twisted.

To overcome this mindset and provide for the millions of animals who fall through the cracks in communities that cannot support them, we could tax animal product suppliers to establish government-paid animal shelters in crisis areas. The government could provide an optional line on tax return forms to donate to animal welfare agencies in the inner city and elsewhere. There are already organizations, such as the Urban Animal Alliance and Poverty's Pets, which work against animal abuse and cruelty in inner-city areas. The recently founded Inner City Initiative in LA will help educate people in the inner city about animal care. These groups can use support in the interim. More organizations like these could spring up with public support.

Social services are usually thought of as pertaining to humans only. But investing in services to those in need can also help animals. Coupling such targeted programs with more investment in at-risk animals could help solve many problems in the inner city.