Giving to Animal Causes Can Help Humans, Too

We have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of not just to other humans, but to animals as well.

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Puppy sleeping by the fire

This month marks the five-year anniversary of the death of Leona Helmsley, the billionaire real estate investor who famously bequeathed $12 million to her Maltese, Trouble (later reduced to a mere $2 million by a Manhattan judge). 

Moral outrage was the obvious response to lavishing such riches on a dog when almost 16,000 children die every day from hunger-related diseases. The deeper question: Is it moral to bequeath any scarce resources to the needs of dogs, no matter how cuddly or loveable they may be? Is there an unbridgeable conflict between those who care most about human development, and those who—not to judge them—will never open their wallets for the heart-rending images of waifs, but will eagerly support "no kill" dog shelters.

Many of these two different kinds of givers will never see eye-to-eye. But what if there were a way to serve both causes, to promote the welfare of people by advancing the care of dogs?

The potential of such projects dawned on me when I traveled a few years ago to the highlands of Guatemala to help with local housing efforts. I saw many scenes of desperate poverty, prematurely aging women broken by stoop labor, and barefooted children playing on dirt floors. For the life of me, however, I also couldn't ignore wandering and ill-fed dogs. At the garbage dump, deep in the fields and forests, packs of dogs peered warily at us. Many of them were noble breeds that, properly cared for, would go for hundreds of dollars in America. In Guatemala, they were all scars, sores, and exposed ribs. I don't think I am anthropomorphizing when I say that in the eyes of these forlorn creatures I saw the hunted, desperate look of life-long beggars.

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There is a less sentimental side to their plight. Health specialists identify these animals as "vectors" of many human diseases, from roundworms that cause blindness to rabies. A recent New York Times article reports that in India alone, tens of millions of stray dogs inflict millions of bites on humans, causing up to 20,000 deaths a year from rabies.

I consulted Phillip Church, a 25-year USAID veteran development economist, about the role of dogs in the developing world. He says many of these animals come from homes where they serve as four-legged alarm systems, an impoverished family's first line of defense against robbery and assault where poor-on-poor crime is common.

"These dogs are not pets," Mr. Church says. "People in low-income societies can't afford to indulge them like we do. They are a utility. Better treatment could certainly benefit these families as well as their animals."

So here's a proposition for those who want to open their wallets to help dogs: Why not pair human development and animal welfare?

[Read Health Buzz: For Healthier Babies, Get a Dog.]

Mr. Church notes that $50,000 a year in a target zone in a developing country could employ up to 40 people to manage these animal populations with care for wounds, deworming, and vaccines that would safeguard local human health and restore some dignity to man's best friend. In addition to providing needed jobs, animal awareness programs could provide education materials to schools.

The Humane Society International provides low-cost spay and neuter programs, vaccinations, and some veterinary training. The Global Alliance for Rabies Control, whose patron is Alexander McCall Smith, the author of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, is working to eradicate rabies in human and dog populations. A wider network of support could also include foundations, charities, and U.S. pet food companies already doing a booming global business. Carefully placed grants could reach remote corners of the world, melding animal care with economic and human development. 

In a world in which those 16,000 children a day die from hunger-related causes, some will always question any cause less urgent than direct help to humanity. The fact remains, however, many Americans prefer to give away fortunes to animal causes.

"Nature," Shakespeare wrote, "teaches beasts to know their friends."  Paired together, human development and canine welfare could raise the health and happiness of both species.

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