Thursday, January 21, 2010

When Disaster Strikes

I have been to Haiti twice. The country has been in the grips of unimaginable poverty and unaccountable governance for decades. The pain and despair felt by the vast majority of the population, and the vast majority of the animals, is literally indescribable.

I am heartbroken every time I turn on the news and see coverage of the devastation that has just overtaken Port-au-Prince. I grieve for the people who have lost family and friends, and for those whose loved ones have simply disappeared. And my heart aches for the thousands of animals left behind to fend for themselves in such an unforgiving environment.

We all want to do something right now. We want to make an immediate difference in what's happening. You can text your donation to the Red Cross in mere seconds. And some international animal welfare groups have begun preparing for efforts to help Haiti's pets when they are allowed to join the relief teams in Port-au-Prince.

I am not telling you not to donate toward these efforts. In fact, I know that right now, every single dollar helps. But I am asking you to think about your response to this disaster.

First, make sure that the money you are donating is actually going to the right organizations who will do the right things with it. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) are spearheading a coalition of animal welfare organizations to go into Haiti as soon as they can. I have a great deal of respect for both of these organizations, and can feel relatively confident that they will do what they say they are going to do. (Learn more about their efforts here.) Unfortunately, not every organization that is collecting money to help the animals in Haiti will actually do it. Some may spend 10% of every donated dollar on the animals, and the rest will support overhead, marketing, fundraising and staff. And some will "rescue" a few animals, fly them back to the US, and collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. When the donations stop, they'll deem the animals unadoptable, and euthanize them. I am sure this is not what you intend for your donation to do.

Second, I ask that you think about what motivates you to act at this time, and in this situation, but not at other times or other situations. Is it the immediacy of the disaster? I can guarantee you that at least 200 dogs and cats in Atlanta today (whatever day you are reading this) are facing the immediate risk of death at county shelter. Is it the painful images that you are seeing? Is it the non-stop media attention that is compelling you to take action? What motivates you not just to care, but to take action?

Then, think about how to sustain that level of caring and concern, whether about the people or the pets. What will motivate you to still want to do something in a year, 6 months, or even next week?

Disaster is preventable. Perhaps we could not have stopped the earthquake that hit Haiti. But if we as a global community had cared enough for the people of Port-au-Prince to take action for the last 30 years, the city would not have been overcrowded, the building standards would have been better, the government would have been better prepared to help its own people, and the death toll would be minimal. The infrastructure to care for displaced people and pets would have been sustainable.

The disaster of daily killing of 200 pets a day in Atlanta is preventable, too. We are facing chronic disaster conditions, and we seem, as a community, to wait until the unthinkable happens before we are motivated to act.

Let's act now to save as many lives as we can, both people and animals. But let's think bigger and longer than that. Let's get motivated, and stay motivated, to create a world where this kind of death and despair becomes impossible, because we have created a world that simply won't allow it.

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