When I worked for the San Francisco SPCA, we partnered with Anthropologie on a downtown winter adoption event. In lieu of filling the retailer’s huge Market Street windows with kitschy holiday displays, clothes, and accessories, the store let us arrange carrier after carrier of kittens and cats to entice shoppers who could offer them homes. It was a smashing success, as I recall; we fostered many a love connection between needy beasties and big-hearted locals that season. That was what the shelter team told me, at least; as a veterinary hospital staffer who participated as a volunteer, I just held a big donation jar on the sidewalk in front of the windows.
I didn’t say a word, mind you. I was shy as hell. Aiming an unthreatening smile at my own feet while holding that jar was enough interaction with the public for me. Yet that was too much, according to some passersby.
“How dare you stand there and ask for money when there are homeless people out here?” one hissed. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Oh, yeah,” said another. “Those Christmas kittens will have a real hard time. They’ve got it ROUGH.”
The vast majority of people who passed our event that afternoon either ignored me or scuttled up and dropped change in the jar with a smile like mine. A few even offered encouragement and thanked me for the work we did. The interactions that stuck with me, though, were the hostile ones. There were homeless people all over Market Street that winter; that’s still the case more than a decade later. Was I supporting animals at their expense? Should I have been ashamed of myself?
Those catcalls came back to me last year when animal advocates around the world screamed for justice for Cecil (the beloved Zimbabwean lion lured from safety and killed by an American dentist) — and triggered a backlash from critics who argued that we shouldn’t fixate on his death in the face of human global emergencies. “Is it wrong to cry over a lion?” Frida Ghitis asked in an op-ed for CNN. “No, any sign of compassion, of caring, is a welcome reminder that we have not lost our humanity. And the right vs. wrong calculation is easy to understand in this case. But compare it to the human abhorrence for injustice that might better motivate us to fight hunger or war or disease.” That’s a much more polite and thoughtful way of putting things, but the message is similar to what I heard in San Francisco: Hey, step away from the cats and focus on people.
Here’s a dirty little secret about people who volunteer. They’re more likely to be involved in other civic activities, such as serving on committees and contacting public officials. Here’s another: They’re twice as likely to donate to charity. And a third, based on my personal experience: They give a damn about all kinds of things. The women I join every week at a wildlife rehab center uptown also raise funds for cancer research. When I was a crew member at a local film festival last year, I recognized a fellow volunteer from Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (which supports people affected by homelessness and HIV/AIDS; I’m there once a week, too).
Working with shelter cats at the SPCA all those years ago didn’t harden me to other causes. Quite the contrary, in fact: As the first volunteer gig I really loved, it got me into the habit of looking for ways to contribute to my community. Yes, time and attention are limited, nonrenewable resources, as management consultants and motivational speakers are fond of saying. Our hearts, on the other hand, are muscles, and use increases their capacity. If someone tried to shame me for giving a frequent, vocal, significant damn about cats these days, I’d look them in the eye and tell them they were wasting their breath.