In Honor of World Wildlife Day, Empathy for Animals One and All

Azzedine Downes   Photo: IFAW

By Azzedine Downes, President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare

As the leader of an organization dedicated to the wellbeing and conservation of animals, I often receive requests from the general public to intervene to help animals in need—from rescuing emaciated lions in makeshift zoos in Sudan, to helping multiple species of animals in need in the aftermath of the unprecedented Australian bushfires. And yet, a billion animals lost their lives as a result of these fires – a shocking number that has haunted those who participated in the response effort.

Even in the midst of a global event like the bushfires, often the requests we receive entail helping to alleviate the suffering of one or perhaps a very small handful of animals; individuals that would, biologically speaking, often be disregarded.  Regardless of ecological impact, physical proximity, or strategic importance, there is an underlying faith that IFAW will make the situation right—alleviating the suffering of those animals. That alleviation can take the form of animal rescue, or perhaps beginning a process of rehabilitation, or in the ideal scenario, releasing that animal back into its natural environment. But in reality, that ideal scenario cannot always be achieved—and we must face the most difficult of decisions when we embark on that journey of empathy.

The act of alleviating the suffering of any living creature is an act of mercy. It is not a strategy, nor is it a scientific endeavor. It is a fundamental reflection of the essence of compassion and perhaps the greatest use of our gift of free will. That act of mercy in and of itself has value. It is not economic; it is not functionally measurable. But we know that value exists—for we feel it deeply, if only at that very brief moment when facing the thin veil that lies between life and death.

Turned upside down by decisions made by people who give cursory thought to the number of living things affected, the world today has witnessed a sense of upheaval, both socio-political and environmental, that have left an indelible mark on our times. Our minds are conditioned to accept that traumatic events — such as war and civil unrest — will result in human harm or at the very least, a fundamental disruption of day-to-day life. We are not, however, accustomed to thinking about the suffering that such events cause to animals. Having no way of escaping the violence and outlying suffering, animals are uniquely caught in the midst of the storm, with no recourse to alleviate that suffering. No systems, no assurances, to guarantee a return to the life they once knew. Casualties are most often measured in human lives, with barely a mention of the often overwhelming effects on the natural environment and on biodiversity that come from human-driven conflicts.

IFAW wants to save lives. I want to save lives.

But I know we will not be able to save every life. We will not be able to save every animal that is being abused, neglected, or is starving to death. But I assure you that we will accept the responsibility to help suffering animals—through food, through medicine, through action, or through administering end-of-life care.

To share in the suffering of an animal—to act as a conduit for compassion even if we aren’t able to save that animal’s life—is something we need to do. People have faith in IFAW as an organization and in us as individuals—for we share that collective philosophy of compassion. And we must never give that away. Alleviating that animal’s suffering is paramount. We intervene to protect, to make things right, to ensure the journey for that animal either back into the wild or into death’s unknown is as it should be. A shared journey between mutual living beings who ultimately share the same fate.

We must ask ourselves if the alleviation of suffering has value only if it is broadcast on a global stage for all the world to witness. Does its scale define its overall importance? Is the compassion demonstrated to a dying animal through providing a few sips of water to quench its thirst any less important than working to conserve the future wellbeing of an entire animal population? I would argue that both are essential. Both recognize the inherent dignity that all living beings so fully deserve and underscore what I feel must be a sincere willingness to share the earth.

We must focus on the impact that we have—in everything that we do. At all scales—from the ‘micro’ where we help one individual animal to the ‘macro’ where we work to ensure the needs of an entire species population for generations to come. And no impact is greater felt at the individual level than the act of alleviating suffering. It is an emotional impact as much as it is a physical one. It is a voice that must always be listened to, acted upon.

Sympathy and compassion are devoid of any political agenda. It requires courage to partake in another animal’s suffering, to empathize with the suffering that so many animals feel around the world. And we must recognize that every act of kindness that we show them is a blessing. It is IFAW’s moral duty to engage in that compassion and alleviate their suffering. We do it because it lies at the fundamental core of who we are as an organization and we do it because we know that so many others will not. And in that simple act of showing compassion and easing the most difficult moments of an animal’s life is when we truly realize that our purpose has so genuinely been fulfilled.

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