An acquaintance of mine recently changed her mind about donating
second-hand clothing and books to a non-profit store. Her reason: she heard
that proceeds from their sale would go to a charity that rescues cats and dogs. She doesn’t dislike animals, she just feels that if she’s going to give,
she should prioritise needy humans over needy animals.
If you’re an animal lover, your immediate response is likely that she was being unfair and mean-spirited. But it raises the perennial question:
If you were faced with a starving child or a starving puppy, which would you
feed first? When you pick Saving the Rhino to receive your annual charity check,
doesn’t that say “Wildlife is more important to me than poor/sick/disabled
people who desperately need my donation?”
South African conservation history is tainted by this issue:
nature reserves and the animals they protected were considered by many to be
set aside for the wealthy few. People living in poverty on their borders were
made to feel that they mattered less than the fauna within. This sense has
diminished to some extent in the post-apartheid era thanks to more inclusive
community conservation initiatives, but the suspicion persists that many
privileged people prioritise the needs of wildlife above those of needy humans.
Similarly, when it comes to companion animals, our pets get
better food, shelter and medical care than many of our fellow humans do.
Animals get a tiny piece of the pie
But there are morally justifiable reasons to donate to
animals and nature. For one thing, the amount of money they are ostensibly
siphoning off from people-oriented charities is paltry. The slice of the
charitable donations pie received by animal and environmental causes combined is dismayingly small: less than
10%. In the UK, it’s around 7%; in the USA, it’s around 3%.
Awareness of the
global environmental crisis, especially with regards to its effect on human
health, has increased giving to nature-related organisations, but only slightly.
The rest goes directly to people. Faith-based charities, medical research and educational institutions are all big donation
pullers; in the USA, religious groups receive over a third of the total.
Helping animals helps people
Giving to animals and the environment, if you give to sound,
effective charities, is a way of giving to people too. The environmental crisis
isn’t confined to our game parks, it’s affecting every living creature everywhere on the planet.
For humans, it’s the poorest that bear the brunt: farmers scraping a living in increasingly
drought-prone areas, fisherman struggling to get by as marine stocks dwindle.
When you give to causes that fight climate change or biodiversity loss, you’re
really giving to people in need, because these initiatives protect the
ecosystem services that maintain livelihoods.
Giving to projects working to
protect iconic wildlife species like the giant panda are a little harder to justify to detractors who say that efforts should be focused on broad ecosystems health
rather than on keeping the last few members of a dying species alive. But these
charismatic beasts help keep the public’s attention focused on the environment
in a way that statistics about global warming do not, and they are a major
engine for the tourism machine.
Companion animals also have well-proven benefits for humans,
from banishing loneliness and warding off mental illness, to cutting heart
Besides what animals can do for us, though, we have a responsibility towards
their welfare. The reason there are so many unwanted and stray cats and dogs is
a function of our domestication of them, and of the unchecked proliferation of our
Thus a more positive take on this is that supporting
animal-centric causes doesn’t necessarily detract from human ones; instead it
can enhance both categories. The important thing, as those working in charity would undoubtedly agree, is continued support for their sector in general.
Giving USA 2012: The annual report on philanthropy
UK Giving 2012: Summary of findings. Charities Aid