What Compassion for Animals can Teach us About Compassion for Humans
The first time I ever interviewed for a job in animal welfare, I nearly blew it. I was fresh off of what I hoped would be my last stint in corporate America, and after clocking in multiple years at ad agencies and hedge funds (yes, you read that last part right) my tolerance for humans was at an all time low.
I don’t remember exactly how I began my interview but my feelings were immediately apparent: I would choose animals over people any day of the week. Cue the big red flag. Fortunately for me, I could see that my approach seemed to be the canine equivalent of relieving myself on the Westminster stage, so I quickly reversed course. I wound up getting the job, but years later, my then-manager informed me that my discernible desire to ditch the company of humans for dogs had given her pause, and almost landed my resume in the reject pile.
That was over 10 years ago, and I like to think I’ve learned a great deal about animals and people since then. For starters, my former manager had every right to be wary of my attitude toward people. Working with animals is not a “get out of society free” pass. In fact, the opposite is true. Rescuing animals and providing them with the care they need to become cherished family members requires countless conversations, a network of relationships, and the ability to navigate people and personalities around sensitive subject matter and stressful situations. In short, people skills are a must.
Over the last decade, I have been blessed to work with some of the kindest and most compassionate people one could ever hope to meet. I have seen them dedicate their lives to giving every animal in their path a chance to thrive and I am continuously in awe of their patience and tenacity.
I have also seen many of them (myself included) struggle with the human side of the equation. Whether it’s in relation to our coworkers or the general public, our tolerance and empathy seems to wane in the face of our two-legged companions. But why?
Why is it that we can see past a host of challenging behaviors in our animal companions and point to the “reasons” behind them: “she came from an abusive situation”; “he is scared and needs time to adjust to a new environment”; “she is timid and needs to interact gradually and on her own terms”, but we struggle to make any allowances for our peers? I have watched those of us in the animal welfare industry routinely endure hisses, scratches, bites, bruises and just about every kind of troublesome behavior you can imagine from an animal without so much as batting an eye, but we struggle to cope with even the slightest perceived slight from our own species.
The reality is, when it comes to challenging behaviors, people are not all that different from the dogs and cats in our lives. Our family members, friends, coworkers and communities are generally doing the best they can with the tools they have. There is a famous expression that says, “we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as WE are.” We all come from different backgrounds and we’ve all had varying experiences that have made us who we are today, unsavory bits and all. Some days we may come off as a little curt, other times we might appear slightly dramatic, on occasion we’re a little on the sensitive side (hey, it IS animal welfare!), and sometimes we’re just having a really crappy day (it happens!). Like our animal companions, we may have our quirks and imperfections but our hearts are almost always in the right place.
So, after over ten years in animal welfare, if there is anything I’ve learned (besides the fact that not all cats are evil) it’s that whether I’m dealing with an off-putting comment from a colleague, or a dog that just chewed a hole through my new skirt, the person or pet in question isn’t doing it To ME; they are just doing it. And every time I watch my colleagues help a terrified dog overcome his fears and learn to trust again, or accommodate the unpredictability and anti-social tendencies of a feral cat and love her in spite of them, I am reminded that a little compassion, understanding, and patience can go a long way to bring out the best in ALL living creatures.