All Creatures

When it comes to showing mercy, species shouldn't matter.

I have a few petty gripes: folks chewing with their mouths open, good ole boys who won't remove their ballcaps in a restaurant, the thump of bass music in a nearby car so loud it nearly cracks my skull.

But perhaps my biggest gripe is more a grief. It comes up in some conversations when I mention my concern for animals. A roll of the eyes will be followed by this comment: "They're just animals. How can you worry about them when so many people are suffering?"

My reactions run the gamut — from anger to sadness to perplexity. Why on earth can we not help both?

The world is rife with misery. But it's also rich with hope and helping hands. If some of these hands are reaching out to animals, I know their Creator approves.

For several years I served as a volunteer cruelty investigator for a small local animal protection organization. On evenings and weekends I'd take calls involving dogs (sometimes cats, horses, and once, even a hermit crab) in bad situations. More often than not, the owners were within the law — providing some degree, albeit grudging and reluctant, of food, water, and shelter to the animal. Other creatures weren't so "lucky." I'd find dogs on chains so short they couldn't move; standing in freezing rain without even an old truck to hide under; in the blazing sun with no water in sight. In some cases, I demanded, and saw, improvements. One genuinely sweet woman had too many grandchildren clinging to her skirts to notice her dehydrated sheepdog. At my urging she took the garden hose and filled his water bowl. As he drank it dry not once but several times, she shook her head and vowed to do better. Another time, our group found dog houses for a mother mutt and her pups left out in the snow, and I'll never forget the way those puppies — perhaps comfortable for the very first time in their lives — nestled into the hay with something like wonder in their eyes.

On many occasions, I'd leave notices with owners, explaining what needed to be done, certain that the image of a scrawny, mangy "pet" would haunt me through the night. More times than I can count, when I'd go back to check on the animal, the owners wouldn't answer the door — and all trace of pets would be gone. I hate to think where they wound up.

My point here is this: I know firsthand what "lesser" creatures endure at the hands of humans. But I also know the kindness of which our species is capable. We see it whenever disaster strikes — rescuers thrashing through toxic, flooding waters, or battling their way out of burning buildings, carrying survivors to safety. We see them dig through earthquake rubble or mudslide ruins, some of them trained disaster workers, others simply compassionate bystanders responding to overwhelming need.

And thankfully, we see it too when animals are hurting, whether they're victims of dogfighters like Michael Vick, or of puppy mills that have forced them to breed for years in filthy cages, or of teenage boys who get their kicks setting creatures on fire, like the dog named Hope, who ultimately died from such torture. But not before she won the hearts of humans who are not of the mindset that she "was just an animal."

I'm grateful for the many organizations and individuals who swing into action when nature unleashes its fury, or when a killer goes on a shooting spree, or when a child disappears in a mountain gorge or from a shopping mall. I'm also grateful for those who counsel the homeless, who visit the convicts, who believe in second chances for society's rejects. At our church soup kitchen I see men and women grateful for a hot meal, a warm welcome, and an opportunity to tell others what a rough week they've had. Some of these folks made bad choices and brought grief on their families, but they keep trying to find a way to turn their lives around.

Animals, on the other hand, have no choice. Their fate often depends on the mercy — or meanness — of humans. That's why some of us choose to save a sick stray cat, or work to conserve endangered species, or lobby for humane laws for "livestock" raised in horrendous factory farms.

It's hard to say why some extend charity to humans, others to animals. Perhaps it stems from the same inner urging that guides one person to write, another to teach, another to run a business. Wherever the spirit leads them, it's a good thing to give comfort, whether the recipient is a drug addict desperate to change, or a dog too weak to stand.

Perhaps those who scorn us for showing mercy to animals should consider the words of St. Francis of Assisi: "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow humans." To that I say, Amen.

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