Making Light of Animal Advocacy Does Not Help Child Advocacy

By now I am sure you have read or at least heard about the tragic death of Harambe, the 450-pound silverback gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo. When a 3-year-old child fell into the exhibit, zookeepers felt they had no choice but to shoot the animal to save the child.

I am sure you have also read or at least seen all sorts of hot takes on the issue. Some people are condemning the zoo; others are condemning the parents; still others are praising either or both parties. Some people have made the situation into one about religion, or race, or neglectful parenting, or normal parenting…

…and of course Matt Walsh made it about abortion.

I am neither a parent nor a zookeeper, so I am not interested in wading into any of those waters. What I am, however, is a child advocate. And as a child advocate, I want to address something that is concerning me in how I have seen some of these discussions go.

That something is the tendency to be flippant about animal welfare. I have seen, for example, people rushing to defend the zookeepers’ decision to kill the gorilla by saying, “An animal’s life is nothing compared to a human’s life.” Others are mocking those who care about animals’ well-being, accusing them of valuing humans less because of their compassion for animals. For example, Matt Walsh wrote that, “We are living in the days of neo-paganism, where legions of depraved souls seem only capable of mustering compassion for wild beasts. As for human beings, they feel only contempt and indifference.”

I think this is wrong for a number of reasons. But the most significant is this: how we treat animals as a society is actually a barometer for how we treat children. Study after study has found that animal welfare is intimately connected to child welfare, and that animal abuse is one of the greatest predictors of child and domestic abuse. Professionals consider animal abuse to be a clear warning sign of family violence.

The American Humane Association, which focuses on both child and animal welfare, discusses the research behind these facts:

A survey of pet-owning families with substantiated child abuse and neglect found that animals were abused in 88 percent of homes where child physical abuse was present (DeViney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983). A study of women seeking shelter at a safe house showed that 71 percent of those having pets affirmed that their partner had threatened, hurt or killed their companion animals, and 32 percent of mothers reported that their children had hurt or killed their pets (Ascione, 1998). Still another study showed that violent offenders incarcerated in a maximum security prison were significantly more likely than nonviolent offenders to have committed childhood acts of cruelty toward pets (Merz-Perez, Heide, & Silverman, 2001).

When we make light of or denigrate the concerns of those who care about animals, we are not doing children or other humans any favors. We are not advancing the cause of child advocacy when we attack the cause of animal advocacy. We are forgetting that intersectionality is key to all advocacies, and that we should be working together — not against each other — to create a better world.

We are also forgetting that it was because of advocates for animal welfare that children were first legally protected against abuse in the United States. The 1874 case of Mary Ellen McCormack, which launched the modern child protection movement, demonstrates this. The New York Times explains that,

In 1874, there were no laws protecting children from physical abuse from their parents. It was an era of “spare the rod and spoil the child,” and parents routinely meted out painful and damaging punishment without comment or penalty…

Mary Ellen was adopted by a Manhattan couple, Thomas and Mary McCormack. But Thomas died soon after the adoption, and his widow married Francis Connolly. Unhappy and overburdened, the adoptive mother took to physically abusing Mary Ellen.

Sometime in late 1873, the severely battered and neglected child attracted the attention of her neighbors. They complained to the Department of Public Charities and Correction, which administered the city’s almshouse, workhouse, insane asylums, orphanages, jails and public hospitals. Even the hard-boiled investigator assigned to Mary Ellen’s case, Etta Angell Wheeler, was shocked and became inspired to do something…

Frustrated by the lack of child-protection laws, Wheeler approached the [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals]. It proved to be a shrewd move. Mary Ellen’s plight captured the imagination of the society’s founder, Henry Bergh, who saw the girl — like the horses he routinely saved from violent stable owners — as a vulnerable member of the animal kingdom needing the protection of the state. Bergh recruited a prominent lawyer, Elbridge Gerry (grandson of the politician who gave his name to gerrymandering), who took the case to the New York State Supreme Court. 

It was because of the involvement of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that Mary Ellen was saved from her nightmarish life. Because of these animal advocates, the first child advocacy organization was then founded.

I agree with people like Matt Walsh that a child is worth more than a gorilla—in the same way that I would agree that a gorilla is worth more than an ant and an ant is worth more than a piece of grass and a piece of grass is worth more than a piece of dirt. That is likely an issue of how sentient each being is. But I disagree with these games we play where we argue just how much more valuable a human is than another living, breathing creature. I would not go so far as Walsh does, for example, to say that a child is worth a million gorillas. Because when we get to the point that we are killing a million gorillas for the sake of a child, we are likely living in a world that respects neither gorilla nor child. We are living in a world that demeans life, regardless of whose life it is.

“Pro-life” should be just that: a desire to respect all life, whether human or animal. It should be a commitment to do better by our furry friends, to preserve our endangered species, to serve our over-stressed families, to end policies that kill minorities, and to advocate for all children. When we start drawing lines between who and what is valuable, everyone loses.

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