When making a donation to a charity or other non-profit, most people want to do good. It then likely follows that if we could just do some good, or do a lot of good, that we would prefer to do the most good possible given our limited resources.
Many vegans are aware of the inefficiency of donations towards pet-focused charities. Vegans are also aware of the hypocrisy when “animal charities” have a BBQ that features the bodies of other non-pet, yet still sentient and loving beings.
Because of this inefficiency* and hypocrisy, vegans are hesitant to support pet charities or organizations, instead preferring charities that do veg outreach, farmed animal advocacy work, or, lastly: local animal sanctuaries.
It is this last charitable sector that I wanted to question, and I hope to do it in a delicate way, knowing that many people have personal investments or ties to such groups and organizations (myself included).
I’ve been to my local animal sanctuary. I helped paint fences, I interacted with the chickens, a pig who loved playing in their mud bath, the cows who stood contentedly on the field, blinking flies away from their eyes. Because of this pleasant and emotional experience, I did feel some sense of obligation to financially support the sanctuary and help the animals. But I knew I had to question this intuitive feeling if I wanted to do the most good I could do.
The first fact to acknowledge is that the “animal sanctuaries” sector is incredibly diverse, with hundreds of operations (in the US and Canada at least) of varying size, missions, and activities.
Because of this diversity it’s very difficult to generalize about sanctuaries. Some definitely do better than others, but figuring out which ones are better and which ones are worse will require some leg-work.
However, if we want a point of reference, one of the United States’ more well-known animal sanctuaries spends, on average, $3,000 annually to take care of each animal*.
How does your local animal sanctuary compare? Unfortunately, even if they were somehow five times as efficient at doing good, they would still be spending hundreds of dollars for each animal who they help. For example, a local sanctuary near me says that it costs ~$250 to feed one goat for one year. Add in veterinary care, facilities and maintenance costs, then we are probably looking at a few hundred dollars each year for one farmed animal*.
But where are the hidden costs? Well, the fact is that every financial decision has costs/benefits, and charitable donations are no different. The benefit of donating $100 to a local animal sanctuary might be to help care for an animal for a month or two, but when we compare that benefit to what the $100 could achieve by being donated to an effective farmed animal charity*, then we see the true hidden costs of favoring the local over the effective.
Using the financial numbers of how much it costs to care for an animal in an animal sanctuary is a good reference point when examining efficacy, but there are some other factors to keep in mind.
Impact on diet: In a small online survey I conducted in a local vegan group, there was some evidence that visiting an animal sanctuary had positive impacts on adopting a vegetarian, vegan diet, or at the least, cutting down on animal product consumption. The survey was not representative, though, so more research is needed to examine animal sanctuary visitor numbers and the impact of a visit on someone’s diet.
Social media: Animal sanctuaries often have social media pages where they will post pictures, videos, and stories of their animals. This can have a positive impact on breaking the human/non-human divide, and could possibly help people change their diets in favor of more compassionate food choices. However, this effect is difficult to quantify.
Recidivism: Many people who adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet often go back to eating more animal products. A visit to an animal sanctuary might help reduce recidivism by allowing someone to form a more personal relationship to farmed animals. However, I don’t think this impact would be that great considering that those who go to animal sanctuaries tend to be fairly committed in their veg*nism and, conversely, those who are not that committed might not have the effort, desire, or capacity to visit a sanctuary.
Prompt for activism: Finally, and one of the most important effects of animal sanctuaries, is that they seem to have positive impacts on activism. In my survey, people mentioned that learning a farmed animal’s story gave them a useful narrative to use when doing activism or having discussions with people. Another person mentioned that having a personal connection with the animals at a sanctuary inspired them to do more activism for nonhuman animals.
However, even with these positive considerations acknowledged, I personally will not be donating to any animal sanctuaries in 2016 as I believe that other organizations such as Mercy for Animals and The Humane League are more effective at helping farmed animals.
But where does that leave our favorite local animal sanctuary?
The fact is that, fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you received the arguments in this blog post), people will continue to give to their local sanctuaries, while a minority of people will consider the alternative path of more effective giving.
If veganism is about opting out of violence to the best of our ability, and a donation is about reducing suffering, then why not maximize our donations like we attempt to maximize our vegan-ness?
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