Really Want to Help People? Trash the Send-an-Animal Catalogs
From The Heifer Project: Inhumanity in the Name of Humanity - An Animal Issues Article Series



Stephanie Ernst on
December 2009

(And by "trash," I mean recycle, of course.)

I imagine many of you have received catalogs in the last month offering to send live animals to impoverished people in need, on your behalf, for what seem like bargain prices: $20 for a flock of geese or $120 for a goat or one of the "season's hottest gifts," a "farmer's flock" of one cow and two sheep for the low, low price of $150.

A bargain indeed, except not for the animals and, actually, not for the human recipients either. How this is not so great for the animals should be obvious. But read on to learn about what it means for the human recipients (and their environment and natural resources) too. If your goal is to sincerely help people, these animal-giving programs are not the way to achieve that goal.

Two years ago, Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid had a commentary titled "Don't Follow the Herd and Give a Cow for Christmas" published in The Independent. Here's a selection from that piece (which I recommend you read in full for a more complete understanding of the issue):

The message might bring comfort to the target audience, but such schemes, sadly, are not a good thing. They serve only to increase not diminish poverty. Why? Because farming animals is an inefficient, expensive and environmentally destructive way of producing food. All farmed animals require proper nourishment, large quantities of water, shelter from extremes of weather and veterinary care. Such resources are in critically short supply in much of Africa. In fact, the wide variation in prices asked by the donor agencies testifies to this reality: arguments have broken out between Send A Cow on the one hand and Christian Aid and Oxfam on the other, as to the "quality" of the animal delivered and whether the many supplementary costs are covered in the asking price.

Skeptical readers might, at this point, accuse me of dressing up a concern about animal welfare as a concern for the world's poor. Let's be clear that there are major animal welfare issues involved in sending animals to, for instance, the Horn of Africa where, earlier this year, up to 80 per cent of cattle perished in a drought and many of the remainder were washed away in the floods that followed. But this is not about cows taking precedence over people.

The reality is that animal gift schemes are, in the words of the conservation charity World Land Trust (WLT), "environmentally unsound and economically disastrous". In a statement last week, WLT declared: "Now that the grave consequences of introducing large numbers of goats and other domestic animals into fragile, arid environments is well documented, WLT considers it grossly irresponsible ... to continue with the schemes ... as a means of raising quick money for charities over the Christmas season".

Also two years ago, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, founder of Compassionate Cooks and author of the beloved Joy of Vegan Baking cookbook, among other projects, posted a thoughtful commentary on this issue on her blog Food for Thought. She remarked not only on the problems inherent in these programs but also on why animal advocates are hesitant to speak up on the issue:

Now, let me just say that I’m often perplexed by the claim that animal advocates are anti-human. You’ve probably heard that before or maybe you’ve made that claim yourself. What perplexes me about that accusation is that it implies that compassion for one species means lack of compassion for another; as if our capacity for mercy and kindness is limited. When we deem certain human groups unequal, we call it racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism. When we make this claim about non-human animals, we justify it – their inequality, that is – on the grounds of tradition, science, or religion. But there is a name for this – it’s called speciesism. The claim – that animal advocates are anti-human – seems really odd to me because though we are reminded every day that humans steal, lie, cheat, kill, rape, and hurt each other, I’ve never heard any of these people called “anti-human.” It seems to me that the accusation would better suit someone who actually acts against humans, which is something we see and hear about every day in the news, on the street, and in our own homes. Ironically, those who commit the worst crimes against humans are derisively called “animals.”

This societal premise leaves animal advocates reluctant to publicly object to such groups as Heifer Project International, lest they be accused of caring more about humans than animals. Heifer’s mission is “to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth.” Their mission statement does not say that they give animals to people around the globe to use, breed, sell, and consume their milk, eggs, flesh, hair, fur, feathers, and skin. Instead, Heifer, whose $75 million revenue increases every holiday season, dupes individuals and seemingly progressive celebrities, such as Susan Sarandon, Frances Moore Lappe, and Jimmy Carter, into supporting what is essentially an animal slave trade.

Aside from the obvious problems this model creates: such as environmental problems economic problems, (raising animals for human consumption is expensive and inefficient) health problems (globalizing our preventable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes hardly seems charitable; and despite the fact that two-thirds of non-Caucasians on the planet are lactose intolerant and cannot digest dairy, Heifer is spending millions on dairy programs in countries like Zimbabwe. The last thing a hungry child in Africa needs is the milk of a cow. Aside from these problems, and I’m skimming over only a few, Heifer perpetuates a speciesist paradigm, viewing animals as mere commodities with no regard for their own inherent value.

The preceding is just a small portion of Colleen's articulate, thought-provoking post, so I really do recommend that you read it in full too. She comments, for example, on the absurdity of Heifer's grand-scale efforts to provide dairy-producing animals to communities where most people are lactose intolerant. The Animal Place Sanctuary blog makes the same observation: "If you care about people: Asia and Africa have the highest levels of lactose intolerance, with upwards of 90% being unable to properly digest milk. In Zambia, nearly 100% of the population is lactose intolerant. Yet Heifer International has several dairy cattle projects in Zambia. Sending dairy cows to areas with a mostly lactose intolerant population is mind-boggling, really."

So now that you won't be participating in these live-animal gift programs anymore, what can you do to help people? What are some worthwhile organizations and efforts to support? Stay tuned.

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