Is Helping Animals in Gaza Misguided?
This story isn't new news, but it's spilled over from discussion in the Punks of Zion blog. After disengagement left cats and dogs abandoned in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Hakol Chai (an Israeli animal rights group) stepped in to rescue them. Instead of leaving the animals for dead, they tried to lend a helping paw.
"Israel's expressed intention to be sensitive and behave responsibly during the disengagement should apply to all living beings," said Hakol Chai's Director, Merav Barlev. "Cats and dogs left behind by departing settlers have no ability to survive under the extreme conditions that will exist during and after the disengagement. Without our help, when all that remains is dust and ruins, those who escape the massive bulldozers will die of hunger, thirst, and injuries."
Hakol Chai's actions came under attack in Punks of Zion because some bloggers thought all money should be directed to the humans stranded by the disengagement. That same logic would presumably lead people to oppose helping animals affected by last year's tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, amidst such vast human suffering.
It is inevitable that people will prioritize some issues over others, but if we do not collectively act on all "legitimate" fronts, only limited progress can be made. It might seem hard to ever make any headway combatting world hunger, establishing universal health care, helping the environment, and fighting the spread of AIDS, for example, if one particular issue seems the most important and leads to disregard of all the others. It's not wrong, though, for some people to support one benevolent cause while others work on another front. There are many issues that deserve our attention, and animal protection is one of them.
I'm reminded of a quote from Peter Singer, a Jewish philosopher often referred to as the father of the animal rights movement:
I would not question the sincerity of vegetarians who take little interest
in Animal Liberation because they give priority to other causes; but
when nonvegetarians say that 'human problems come first' I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.
Similarly, I cannot help wondering what people are doing to solve human problems that makes them think alleviating animal suffering is a bad strategic move. While charitable resources are "finite," charitable groups and activists are free to do right no matter what someone else's sense of priorities may be. (It's not like the government is the one "misdirecting" money from opposing citizens.) And if one agrees that "helping animals is a good thing," then it certainly should not be deferred until every last distinctly human problem has been eradicated (i.e., not in our lifetimes).
As for the general question: Why should we care about animals when there are humans in dire need? To paraphrase Singer, we are all alike in that we all suffer. All animals, including humans, are alike in that they feel pain and suffer from it. And if we are concerned about tikkun olam (repairing the world), then it is certainly important to minimize tsa'ar ba'alei chayim (unnecessary suffering to animals) in our efforts to reduce unnecessary suffering wherever it rears its ugly head.
Deuteronomy 11:15 is standardly interpreted to mean that people should feed the animals for whom they are responsible prior to feeding themselves. This duty is considered so important that a person should interrupt the performance of a rabbinic commandment if he or she is not sure their animals have been properly fed. Of course, this refers to farm and domestic animals, and does not state that everyone must put animals before humans in our relief efforts. However, this and so many other kind teachings in Judaism do compel us to take G-d's creatures' interests into consideration, and not to outright ignore them.
It is indeed a mitzvah to help animals in need rather than leaving them to defenselessly suffer and die, not unlike how it's a mitzvah to aid any humans who are similarly affected. And it is certainly not a step in the wrong direction when people show compassion in times of devastation or disrest, extending it past the species barrier with the hopes of minimizing tsa'ar ba'alei chayim.