Compassion for Animals is Not Neurosis

Compassion for Animals is Not Neurosis
Ever wonder why people devoted to caring for pets and animals (other than human) are repeatedly typecast as pathologically needy? This is especially true for childfree pet owners, and even more so for women. I attended a "compassion fatigue" workshop the past weekend for people volunteering and working in animal shelters and rescues. The presenter was intelligent, caring, and childfree. Much of what she said was helpful. Yet, as we were discussing therapy for shelter workers overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and guilt, the presenter’s advice was to find out "what triggers are coming from childhood. What unmet needs are being met by caring for animals?" The presentation took a negative turn at that point; with discussion focusing on perceived neurosis in animal care workers and pet owners.

I had to ask myself, "If this were a seminar for parents stressed out by taking care of problem children, would the question of a parents' psychological issues come up at all? How often are parents asked to explore the "unmet needs of childhood" as motivators for parenthood, or question the nature of their devotion to their kids?

There is, of course, neediness or pathology in the decision of some people to become parents. Yet, while parents of humans are buffered from constant requests for self-reflective inquiry, pet parents and animal care workers are subject to regular intrusive questions about the nature of their caring. Even my veterinarian complains that he gets comments such as, "You are such a talented surgeon. Why aren’t you caring for humans instead of dogs and cats?"

Volunteers at our shelter take in "problem pets" - the undesirable, unadoptable ones with behavior or health issues. We are often subjected to psychobabble suggesting some deficit in our psyches is motivating our behavior, causing us to spend so much time taking care of beings considered worthless by many.

Are parents equally questioned about the sanity of producing children in an overpopulated planet? Most parents of humans rightly persist in the care of problem children, but pet parents are encouraged to euthanize a pet suffering from a chronic illness or deviant behavior. I'm always amazed how otherwise caring people can have an utter callousness regarding non-human animals.

Yet, the ability to feel only human compassion is a symptom of a sick culture. It fuels overpopulation, environmental degradation, and cruelty. Human parents are celebrated. People caring for pets - with similar levels of devotion - are pitied or ridiculed.

Even cultural icons, such as scientist Jane Goodall, are subjected to this subtle form of discrimination. One writer smugly attributes her lifetime dedication to ground breaking primate work to early loss of a parent: "Mortimer divorced Jane Goodall's mother, Vanne, in 1950, consigning Jane to the fate of so many children who cathect with the animal kingdom to compensate for missing parents." - Judith Lewis; Observing the Observer: Jane Goodall, The Woman Who Redefined Man; Los Angeles Times; Nov 19, 2006.

Cathect is the word Lewis uses to define the nature of Goodall's love for primates. Cathect means to invest mental or emotional energy in an idea, object, or person - it is contrived, not "natural" affection. Lewis' statement is the second time I've encountered the word "cathect." The first was in reading M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Taken when I first decided to not have kids. Peck uses the word cathect divisively, claiming that people can only "cathect" pets, not love them as human children. His reasoning is that pets can't return affection or conversation - which suggests that Peck probably never spent time caring for pets in his life. And, if he did, I'm sure his pets never slept on the bed or sofa.

Love, compassion, concern and caring are in equal parts exhilarating and draining. If imbalance occurs - all giving and no receiving - spirit is exhausted. It's important to replenish our giving by loving ourselves and allowing others to love us, whether our children, our pets, our community. I don't believe there are hierarchies in love - no form that is nobler or more mature than others. Love and compassion are - like every experience - subjective. Any attempt to label one type of love "pure" and another "pathological" only diminishes us and contributes to creating a bleak and harsh culture. Like it or not, we really do create our own worlds.

As a case in point, speakers at the 2010 Animal Rights Conference ( in July devote their lives to non-human animals. Some have children of their own. Some do not. Collectively, these compassionate people work to improve the world by caring for, and loving, non-human animals. I don't believe their motives stem from lack or pathology but, conversely, a healthy sense of responsibility towards our ecosystem. As opposed to being sick, animal welfare workers and advocates are some of the healthiest people on the planet.

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