A sad run this morning… for weeks, I have passed a pair of sand hill cranes on my running route. They would turn and watch as Que, Sea and I ran by, a nice way to say good morning. Yesterday I only saw one of the pair, and I hoped that the partner was simply out of view. But this morning still only just one crane…
Where I live, cranes stick around most of the year, and are well loved and protected by the community. On my run this morning I thought about why the crane holds a place in the hearts of so many, while so many other animals do not receive the same level of empathy. As an example, I stood cringing through a story shared on a grocery store line, during which there was celebration over running over a native snake in the road. Why the empathy for one?
Cranes pair bond… and so do we. We tend to be empathetic, patient and kind to those who are more like us. The fact that cranes pair bond is known by most everyone where I live. We stop traffic to ensure a family stays together…
When it comes to empathy and understanding, we tend to have the same inclusion/exclusion process for the human animal as we do for others – the more “like me” they are, the more likely we are to apply empathy and kindness. The more “them” as opposed to “us,” the less likely we are to feel an emotion involving empathy. We all have these tendencies, with some of us having a larger lens for inclusion than others.
I am a huge fan of the HSUS Pets for Life program – the philosophy of this program is to serve the pet needs of clients in underserved communities. By starting with respect, we learn that these clients too love their pets and eagerly take advantage of services to improve their quality of life (from vaccines and food to spay/neuter).
Sometimes the best way to get to “We Are Them” is to simply spend some time (with an open mind) with “them.” I recently heard the experiences of some shelter professionals who had the opportunity to ramp up a Pets for Life program in their community. The shift from “Those people don’t believe in spay/neuter” and “It’s not safe to go there…” to “They just needed the access to the resources” and “All it took was going directly to them” was profound. Now… Pets for Life is much different from putting up fliers, setting up a table at a community event or speaking at a local church. It is connecting one on one.
The inclusion/exclusion behavior happens right within the shelter doors, too – I have shared my experiences as “them,” in which I was considered an inappropriate candidate for pet parenthood by the shelter I had interacted with. Being dumped into the “them” pool in this case was due not to how I looked, but because of assumptions based on characteristics such as age, home ownership, etc.
“They” can look just like “us,” and we make assumptions that put them into the “them” pool. At a recent shelter visit I listened as a staff person noted that “those people” told her they would keep their dog outside for 8 hours a day, and completely discounted them as appropriate adopters for the shelter.
In a situation like that, how do we begin to open up to the possibility that “they” are “us”—that “We Are Them?” “Us” respects that while the dog may not live in that potential adopter’s home the way they would when in your home, they will care for their pet and provide humane care. “Us” understands they came to the shelter because they care… because they want to add that gift of a dog or cat to their lives.
“Us” also understands that not everyone has the same access to services and support, and that does not mean they do not want their animals in their lives… “Us” is kind not just to cranes and “Us,” but to “Them” as well.
“I Was Them”
HSUS: Pets for Life Program