Probably no part of Homer's Odyssey has provoked more outraged response (yes, there are readers out there who were outraged -- outraged! -- by Homer's Odyssey) than the chapters dealing with 9/11 and my attempts to rescue my three cats who were trapped in my apartment mere blocks from Ground Zero. I have been called "selfish," "utterly self-absorbed," "eerie," and just plain "stupid" for thinking about my cats on a day when so many human lives were lost. I've always felt that any reader who comes away from those chapters, describing my very visceral reactions to witnessing the loss of human life that day, and remains convinced that it wouldn't have ruffled a hair on my head so long as my cats were okay is... well... not a very intuitive reader. And, going back to my non-profit days, I've always been particularly irritated by the type of person who takes no helpful actions himself, but feels that so long as he criticizes your actions/attempts to help, he's achieved a kind of helpfulness-by-proxy. (I like to refer to this as the Cheez-Whiz of helpfulness -- it isn'tactual helpfulness, but it's a helpfulness-like product.)
Forgive me for such a cranky beginning to a blog post. But the thing that really chaps my hide -- and that I'm using today as a platform to discuss -- is this idea that helping people and helping animals is somehow an either/or proposition. It is one of my firmest, most deeply held beliefs that when you help animals, you help people, too. I spent this summer traveling to no-kill shelters all over the country, each one of which has programs that serve their local human communities -- anti-bullying programs, literacy programs, programs that serve the elderly, the disabled, military families, disaster survivors, and so on -- as a direct extension of the work they do saving animals. Certainly more has been done for people by the people who help animals than by those who sit comfortably on the sidelines offering nothing beyond one more opinion about how things should be done (and we all know how much one more opinion is worth).
On September 11, the ASPCA helped rescue animals trapped near Ground Zero -- but, in doing so, they also helped me, and I'm a person. The same goes for Garrett, my pet-sitter, who did everything in his power to get to my cats. It was something he was able to do for a 9/11 survivor forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on her back and the $500 she had in her savings account, and who -- for all she knew -- might have nothing else left in the world.
I don't even want to get into the debate as to the relative value of human life versus animal life, mostly because I think such a debate is ultimately pointless. We couldn't live in a world with only humans and no other animals, nor would most of us want to even if we could.
On September 11, we remember that all life -- whether that life goes on two legs or four -- is precious and fragile.
We remember the men and women -- the office workers, the police officers, the firefighters -- who lost their lives that day. And we also remember the rescue dogs who rushed bravely into the fray. Some of them didn't live to see September 12. Many of them have since been claimed by the lung diseases and cancers that have taken the lives of so many 9/11 first responders.
And I, at least, remember a little blind cat whose life was spared that day. Just a little cat, whose loss might not have shaken the world to its core, but who meant the world to the person who loved him.