Over the years I have come to understand compassion as a deep awareness of the suffering experienced by another – coupled with the desire to relieve it. Compassion is more vigorous than sympathy or empathy, compassion gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering – making compassion the essential component in what manifests in our social context as altruism.
In ethical terms, the “Golden Rule” may best embody the principle of compassion: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Compassion does not simply mean caring deeply about someone else’s suffering. Compassion actually causes you to get personally involved. Compassion manifests in the face of cruelty, moving you to say out loud, “This is wrong” – and it moves you to actually do something to end the suffering.
It is not uncommon for those of us working in animal welfare to encounter cries for help from victims of domestic violence. Domestic issues involving humans are not usually within the purview of an animal organization. However, its not uncommon to receive a call that causes us to say out loud, “This is wrong.” These calls involve women looking to escape their desperate situations – feeling like hostages in their own homes, unable to leave because their abusers threaten to harm the family pet(s) should they attempt to do so.
Finding a safe place for these pets is prerequisite to these women getting the help they need. What can animal shelters do to help when they are already overflowing with lost and homeless animals? By way of some rather circuitous routes, I have been able to help in some small ways – but I’ve learned it is important that animal shelters to not be caught so flat-footed when these needs come knocking at the door. We must be able to respond better and more quickly.
Domestic violence and partner abuse is not an animal shelter problem. Domestic violence is a community problem. Abuse comes in many forms, both verbal and physical. Verbal abuse and manipulative behavior can be as destructive to the soul as violence is to the body. Women, children and pets should never be victimized or cruelly treated regardless of the situation. To do so is wrong.
Compassion is what moves us to do something about a wrong, but we are ill-equipped to do it alone. These types of complex problems need a community response that ensures victims of violence never go unheard.
That is why I developed a program called Safety Net designed to help pets stay with their families through difficult financial times, dislocations, hospitalizations, evictions, and yes, domestic turbulence. Often families face crises that prompt abandonment of a beloved pet, even though the crisis is likely to be temporary.
When properly funded, the Safety Net program can help pet owners weather such storms by providing emergency foster placement, veterinary help, counseling and other remedies to help prevent a pet from losing its home and family because of a temporary crisis.
Sadly, we seldom have enough funds to assist people within this narrow mission. Clearly, a Safety Net program is not sufficient to meet the needs arising from domestic abuse. What is needed is a community-wide safety net – a program with financial sponsors and service and product partners. Partners able to provide human and/or pet boarding, pet grooming and supplies, veterinary services, social services and doctors are vital. We need partners who recognize that abuse and cruelty are wrong and are moved to do something to ease that suffering – rather than look the other way. Together we can create this community-wide safety net so no one has to stay in a terrible situation in order to protect a loved one.