The trouble with caring

There is unfortunately too much suffering on this planet, and not enough people who really care. This is not a judgment about people (I’m usually not cynical about people at all). It’s more meant as a neutral statement. An annoying one, though.

Let me tell you something about my girlfriend.


She’s called Melanie, and we’ve been together for over seven years (we met a long time ago, when she sat across from me on the train and asked me about the book on vegetarianism that I was reading). Because animals and animal rights are my passion, I meet a lot of people who are really devoted to animals, and are really committed to helping them and making things better for them. Melanie is one of the most committed of them all.

Melanie works for EVA, the Belgian vegetarian/vegan organisation I founded and recently left, as a campaign manager. In her spare time, she also works for a cat rescue organisation. Apart from two dogs and six cats that are permanent residents of our home, there’s also a constant coming and going of stray cats, who are here temporarily till my girlfriend finds a new forever home for them. The current tally is 17 cats present in our home.

The thing is, cats (and other animals) in need of help keep finding Melanie all the time. She can spot a hurt animal from miles away and seems to be able to sniff them out (ok, I’m exaggerating a bit). And many people have her phone number or email/facebook address, and she’s their go-to person when they found or heard of an animal in need. When she’s not cleaning out litterboxes, Melanie is calling with or receiving potential new adoptants, or she’s out on the road to find an animal someone said was somewhere, or is taking cats to the vet and back for spaying/neutering, surgery, inoculations etc.

The result is, she’s practically constantly at work. You see, she’s one of the people who can’t ever close her eyes to an animal in need. Most people can. At worst, when people see an abandoned and/or hurt animal, they ignore them. At best, they call people like my girlfriend (okay, there are some who will try to take care of the animal themselves, but they are exceptions).

So the people who care, the people who can’t say no, have hardly any spare time. When my girlfriend is overworked and stressed (it happens sometimes), there is no easy way to take a break, because the animals keep coming, and coming: the reservoir of animals in dire situations is constant and infinite. You can imagine that it is very hard for her, and to people like her, to just not mind, to say that there is no more room or time or energy or money for that particular animal, knowing that they will suffer and die from lack of food, alone, maybe in the cold.

It’s obvious that this kind of care is draining, both mentally and physically. I don’t see any easy short term solution. Of course the long time solution is that we structurally change things. But long term plans, even if we have good hopes that they will work out, don’t help the animals that are in need right now, and they don’t help the people who can’t say no to their suffering.

So in the meantime, maybe we should distribute the work a little bit more. Maybe each of us who cares has to take some responsibility. Everyone can do something. You can adopt an animal, you can pay for vet costs, if you’re a vet you can do some volunteer work to make the cost for spaying/neutering or healing these strays (which society rather any individual should pay for) lower. And if you find a wounded animal, you can probably take it to the vet yourself (if you can catch it), rather than calling an overworked person who can’t say no and expect him or her to do it for you. So I guess my message is: if you care, then care.

And maybe then, if we all do our little bit of real, actual care, we can spread the work more evenly, and everybody gets to relax just a little bit, so that all of our care is more sustainable and we can keep on caring.

14 thoughts on “The trouble with caring

  1. Nice post Tobias. Maybe I’ve missed this in other posts of yours, but why are you not being judgmental when you say most people don’t care about (human or nonhuman) suffering? And why are you not cynical about people? I think I have an idea but am curious to hear from you.

    1. good question. in any case, i wasn’t *feeling* judgmental when i wrote it, or it was not meant as a judgment, if that makes sense.
      in any case, no, i believe in people (i think we have no other option than to believe in them). i believe in getting better, evolving, growing… and i believe we can see most of the human race as children still, who have yet to become mature.
      But even now, i think most people care, just not enough for them to get into action and forget their own woes.
      And of course, there is the thing that it’s not all our fault and responsibility 🙂 We’re living on a planet where there’s just a lot of suffering, maybe more than we could ever take care of right now even if we’d be at our best all the time 🙂

  2. A beautiful post which I’m sure Melanie really appreciates.

    And beyond that, it’s an excellent call to arms for the many armchair activists among us. I mean, we can all get lazy. I think the internet is great in terms of raising awareness of animal rights issues, but often our response can be no more than a ‘like’ or a ‘share’ on facebook, or, if you’re feeling particularly feisty, the signing of an e-petition.

    Personally, I don’t go for the megaphone in the street approach to activism, but at least it involves getting away from your PC for an hour or two and talking to *actual* people (well, shouting at them, in many cases) face-to-face.

    There has to be a middle ground and I think this post demonstrates much of what that middle ground can and should be.

    1. one problem that i didn’t mention is that of course the structural work needs to be done too. people may get so focused on the suffering that’s directly in front of them, that they have no time, energy or attention left to improve e.g. the structure of their own organisation and deliver more output. or, as a friend of mine once said: a good ploy by our “enemies” would be to place a hurt pigeon in front of our door every time so we don’t get to the real work… 🙂

  3. I do think this is judgmental and a bit insulting to people that just don’t operate like this…..not everyone has this sort of emotional relationship with animals (heck, I’m argue that the vast majority of men do not) and to imply that they don’t care because they don’t operate in this way, well, is pretty damaging.

    People care in a variety of ways, and they should do the sorts of actions that they think are best suited for their personality and the resources they command.

    1. what i meant is: if you care enough to do something about an animal in the road, then try to care a little bit more, or further, and don’t just call the usual suspects who should take care of it.
      of course there is something to be said for specialisation and using the skills you have etc. But still, what i see again and again is that people trust on other people to do the work, thinking that these people have nothing else to do at all, or that it’s their job and they’re getting paid for it, while actually they are all volunteers…

      1. You still seem to be associating caring with a very particular emotional response to domestic animals, that is the part that I found peculiar. Though I guess it is precisely the sort of people that respond this way that tend to be attracted to vegansim, have to remember I’m a fish out of water here and you’re audience is vegans.

        1. I think it’s peculiar to be of the opinion that having a caring and emotional response to animals (domestic or not) is peculiar. The use of idiom of “a fish out of water” itself illustrates this; this analogy wouldn’t work if people didn’t have emotional responses to animals, even fish.

          According to this definition*, it means “someone who is uncomfortable in a particular situation”. In order for the idiom to work, people must understand that it’s uncomfortable for a fish to be out of water. While that understanding might not always be associated with caring, it does illustrate how it’s normal, and not peculiar, for people to have emotional responses to animals.


        2. Christine,

          I wasn’t suggesting that the sort of emotional responses discussed in the post are peculiar, rather that associating “caring” with this type of response is peculiar because only a subset of people react this way. My use of the idiom “fish out of water” was to note that I’m out of place here (and I don’t think one has to have a particular belief about fish sentience to use/understand it) ….I’m not the intended audience in more ways than one and as such I really shouldn’t be interrupting matters. I’m just here because I have an interest in animal welfare issues and I like to get an idea of the thought processes that motivate what what vegans promote.

        3. Thanks for your reply, Mr. Toad. Sorry if I got the wrong impression of what you meant in your earlier comment.

          From my experience and what I know in the U.S. where I live at least, the subset of people that feel caring along with their response to the plight of animals (especially companion animals, such as cats and dogs) is a much larger group than the subset that doesn’t feel caring. It can be argued that this caring population really isn’t even a subset, it’s actually the norm.

          There’s a reason animal charities use images of “sad” animals in their advertising; it’s exactly because it is such a large group that does have caring feelings along with their response. In fact, not possessing caring feelings towards animals has long been known to be part of the psychological make up of sociopaths. As children, many serial killers actually start out “experimenting” by abusing and torturing animals.

          But going back to your last reply where you wrote, “I really shouldn’t be interrupting matters”, I personally want to say I disagree…I think it’s good to have these conversations as long as people aren’t just trying to be malicious, but are sincere in their interest of understanding and to contributing to the conversations revolving around the topics of this blog. It’s only by talking and discussing things that we learn to understand each other.

          This other sentence you wrote also describes me, and after many years I have to admit there are still some vegans that have me scratching my own head regarding what motivates them. 🙂
          “I have an interest in animal welfare issues and I like to get an idea of the thought processes that motivate what what vegans promote.”
          Can I ask where your interest in animal welfare issues stems from?

        4. Christine,

          Being emotional distant with animals (or other people) is a lot different than harming animals for pleasure. Most people care on some level about at least some animals, but I was referring to the sort of caring that motivates people to volunteer at rescues, etc. For most, they care in the sense that they are against the wanton cruelty of animals for no purpose. So, for example, they wouldn’t intentionally hit an animal with their car…..but most also wouldn’t pick up a stray cat or dog and bring it home.

          My comment wasn’t so much about the blog as a whole, but posts like this one. The audience here is pretty clear…and its not me. At the end of the day, I think I need to stop trying to engage vegans and instead engage people that have an explicit interests in the philosophic issues present in our relationship with animals. My discussions with vegans have never been very productive and I think I’m starting to understand why, for a vegan a discussion is seen as an opportunity to advocate vegansim rather than discuss the basis of the underlying ideas. I think I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to have serious discussions when, in reality, I’m just the target of vegan activism.

          As far as where my interests stems from, I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. Since I was young I’ve been interested in our relationship with other animals. From what I recall, I first started thinking about animals used as pets.

  4. Your girlfriend has a great heart ❤️
    I love it. And do wish more folks did more. But I’m sure everyone does what they can… Whether it’s for humans or non humans. The reward is at the end of the road.

  5. Thank you for all that you and Melanie do for the animals, Tobias. Please take the time needed to care for yourselves…compassion fatigue is a very real thing for animal rescuers, and it can sneak up without warning. Thank you for all you both do! 🙂

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