America has 3,800 animal shelters, but only 1,500 for battered women. Puppies are blameless and easy to care for; people are more complicated. Allison Schrager, an economist, examines our inclination to help animals over our own species ...


A woman who fundraises for a charity dedicated to helping battered women recently told me about her challenges raising money. Called the Retreat, the charity is located in East Hampton, a posh beach community, full of people who make philanthropy a part of their financial and social lives. Yet she struggles to find donors. In response to her requests, she often hears, "Well, no one I would know would be a victim of domestic violence. Besides, I already give money to the animal rescue charity." The animal rescue charity is one of the best endowed in the area.

I find many things troubling with this statement. First, contrary to popular perception, domestic abuse occurs in all socio-economic groups. The assumption that such violence afflicts only the poor or deserving is both fatuous and misguided. That potential donors admitted that they would prefer to help animals over battered women also reveals some odd instincts in the realm of empathy and philanthropy. Granted, we often say things we don't mean when being solicited for money. Yet the donations given to animal rescue could instead support a charity that helps people. If we value people more than animals can we ever justify giving to an animal-welfare charity?

Peter Singer, a philosopher, stated the case for animal welfare in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. A utilitarian, Singer believed that because animals have the ability to feel pain, we have a moral obligation to minimise animal abuse. We can not say, given an equal amount of suffering, a human should take priority over an animal. But because humans are capable of a higher state of consciousness, we have the capacity to suffer in a more profound way. Thus, Singer concludes that human suffering should take priority over animals:

Within these limits we could still hold that, for instance, it is worse to kill a normal adult human, with a capacity for self-awareness, and the ability to plan for the future and have meaningful relationships with others, than it is to kill a mouse...

Singer believes we have an obligation to minimise world-wide suffering. His argument, taken to the extreme, suggests all our time and energy should be devoted to this pursuit. Of course if we spent all our resources helping everyone in need we would all be poor and negligent of our own families. In order to maintain our ability to help others, we can only donate a limited amount of our resources. As an economist, the question that interests me is: what is the most effective way to minimise suffering given our financial and time constraints? These constraints mean we must make choices.

It turns out that the preference for charities that help animals over people is hardly unique to this one posh community. In 1874 in New York, the definition of child abuse was rather vague, while the parameters of animal abuse were clearly understood. This became apparent in the historic case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a battered girl. At that time few resources were available to help children like Mary Ellen. Ultimately Etta Wheeler, a concerned Methodist mission worker who regularly visited the area, went to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for help. According to the American Humane Association:

Etta Wheeler continued her efforts to rescue Mary Ellen and, after much deliberation, turned to Henry Bergh, a leader of the animal humane movement in the United States and founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). It was Ms Wheeler's niece who convinced her to contact Mr Bergh by stating, "You are so troubled over that abused child, why not go to Mr. Bergh? She is a little animal surely."

This disparity persists today. According to Susan Weitzman, author of the book "Not to People like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages", the United States has 3,800 animal shelters, but only 1,500 shelters for battered women. She has founded and now directs the Weitzman Center, dedicated to helping "upscale" victims of domestic abuse.

Perhaps we prefer helping animals because we believe they have a greater need. People often think a battered woman is free to leave her situation, while animals are physically prevented from leaving. Humans are easier to blame for their circumstances. Because we do not grant animals the same freedoms, we also do not assign them the same level of responsibility for their situation.

Also, helping battered animals is easier than helping battered people. Men and women need more resources to get back on their feet, and our ability to experience profound suffering makes our pain harder to alleviate. Suppose it takes the same amount of resources to save a battered woman as it does 100 puppies: if the ultimate goal of charitable giving is to ease world suffering, some will argue that it makes sense to help the puppies over the woman.

When we witness human suffering in our own communities, the pain affects us more directly. It is easier to empathise with victims of a situation that could have just as easily befallen ourselves. That may explain why countries with more homogenous populations also tend to have more generous welfare states. Believing abuse is the domain of faceless, unfortunate others makes choosing animals--which are equally unknown yet undeniably blameless--seem fairly reasonable. Yet this overlooks and underestimates the less visible suffering that may be taking place just down the street, or in the next town.

Of course it is better to give to animal charities than not at all. Human suffering is more complicated, in every way, and helping people takes more commitment and patience. But if you choose animals over people because of a naive belief that a particular brand of human pain has not infiltrated your own community, you may want to reconsider.

(Allison Schrager is an economist based in New York. Her last column about microphilanthropy was about finding a sense of community through charity-work.)