Why Helping Pets Helps People

by Michael Barrett, Vice President of Grants Management,
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)

The bond between pets and humans goes way beyond simple obligation and affection. Very often, things that affect one invariably and profoundly affect the other.

We regularly see this during major life events, tragedies and disasters — when a pet is helped, found or rescued, the owner typically benefits just as much as the animal. That’s easy to picture. But what’s less known is that overlooking a pet’s needs can actually hamper the delivery of critical social services to their owners. When forced to choose between a pet and their own welfare, many owners will choose the pet.

Extreme and subtle displays of the human-animal bond are commonplace — perhaps even in your own life — and certainly in the lives of many of the constituencies served by grantees of Philanthropy New York members.

The growing importance of pets in American life is no doubt linked to the increase in charitable giving to animal welfare, of which the ASPCA is a fortunate beneficiary. But while individual giving toward animal causes has seen a strong upswing, support from institutional funders hasn’t kept pace. The latest edition of the Giving Institute’s annual Giving USA report indicates that Animals/Environment was one of the top three fastest-growing areas of 2012 charitable giving, increasing by 6.8 percent over 2011 to a total of $8.3 billion, yet grant dollars for “Animals and Wildlife” constituted only 1 percent of grants awarded by the largest U.S. foundations, according to 2011 Foundation Center statistics.

The false notion we need to overcome — in the institutional space in particular — is that the welfare of pets is separate from the welfare of their human companions. In fact, the connection between giving to animals and giving to humans mirrors the strong connection between animals and humans themselves.

That connection comes from understanding the meaningful role animals play in peoples’ lives. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 63 percent of the population has at least one companion animal. Pet owners also constitute the vulnerable populations supported by many PNY members – people confronted with economic issues, physical and mental disabilities, abuse, disasters and other challenges.

Furthermore, for all people — but especially people at risk — pets are an antidote to isolation, a gateway to trust and unconditional love, and a catalyst for physical and emotional healing. Much has been written about the general health benefits of animals, including their specific benefit to children, families, seniors and adults. And while guide dogs have long helped the blind, a growing number of programs are pairing therapy dogs with sufferers of severe conditions like epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The tight connection between people and pets is often most on display during disasters, when people refuse to evacuate their homes without their pets. Recognizing this, responders and the public sector have increasingly taken measures to include considerations for pets in disaster preparedness, evacuation, response and recovery. The ASPCA’s Emergency Boarding Facility brought relief to hundreds of animals lost or relinquished by pet owners ravaged by Superstorm Sandy. But it also provided a safe place for people to board their pets while they sought their own temporary housing. This was merely one safety valve among many that enabled nonprofit and government agencies to deliver services to constituents whose pets may have otherwise compromised that response.

Disaster grantmakers can improve the outcomes of their grants by asking their own grantees if pets are part of their disaster plans, by granting to animal nonprofits that fill those gaps and by facilitating collaboration among nonprofits whose constituencies may differ, but whose missions overlap.

Grants can also underwrite programs developed by domestic violence advocates that enable victims to keep their pets safe from harm and/or from being used as a tool by abusers. Victims of domestic violence too often refuse to leave abusive environments if they cannot bring their pets with them. In reaction, domestic violence responders and their advocates have begun to recognize the importance of including pets in the safety planning and sheltering of survivors. Following a growing trend across the country, NYC human services provider Urban Resource Institute, in conjunction with the ASPCA’s largest grantee, the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City’s Animals, launched the city’s first pet-friendly domestic violence shelter in June 2013.

The elderly and home-bound are other populations who often put their pets before themselves. People who receive meals in their homes through social services frequently choose to give those meals to their pets if they can’t afford or easily access pet food. Meals on Wheels and similar organizations are among the ASPCA’s growing list of grantees serving people. With both pet and person at risk in these instances, the impact of a bowl of cat food is profound, as is the link between human and animal welfare and what that means to the community of grantmakers.

Poverty is a priority funding area for many foundations. Pets of economically distressed individuals and families are at risk of illness, unintentional neglect or even abandonment. To the extent that emotional well-being plays a role in lifting people out of poverty, or at least easing its burdens, it is in the funder’s interest to ask their grantees to provide strategies that address the welfare of those peoples’ pets.

Our safety net grantees consistently demonstrate the impact on humans of keeping pets in their homes. Following the BP oil spill in 2010, the ASPCA gave a $100,000 safety net grant to the Louisiana SPCA to fund pet food banks, veterinary care, vaccinations and spay/neuter services for pet owners affected by that environmental and economic disaster. Our goal was to slow the relinquishment of animals to the region’s shelters. But in truth, what pulled at our heartstrings were the stories and pictures of pet owners who were spared the emotional distress of having to relinquish the four-legged members of their families just to keep afloat economically.

The previously mentioned human-animal bond is of little significance to the greater philanthropic community on its own. Its significance lies in the overlap between human and animal welfare that is a result of that bond. So it is within the broadly defined realm of the “safety net” where the ASPCA, as both a practitioner of animal welfare and funder thereof, finds commonality with our peers in philanthropy whose grant dollars support the welfare of human beings.

On the heels of decades of progress in the reduction of homeless animals through spay/neuter, improvements in sheltering and creative strategies to find pets loving homes, our field is focusing more on keeping animals out of shelters in the first place. While spay/neuter remains a primary tool, there’s room in our toolkit for strategies with a human emphasis, which puts the welfare of animals and of humans at a crossroads chock-full of intriguing collaborative opportunities for philanthropy to explore.

The question of whether or not a funder grants to animal welfare or human welfare is irrelevant. What may seem like a choice between pets and people is really just an invitation to embrace the programs that leverage the bond that so powerfully impacts them both.




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