$43,000 pooch Barney's fund: Why are we more willing to open our hearts and wallets to animals?

August 29, 1996

ONE COULD ARGUE that Barney, the Baltimore County Fire Department search dog who has rescued 40 people, is a more productive member of society than some people. That may explain why donors have showered him with an astonishing $43,000 for cancer treatments -- or $40,000 more than the treatments will cost.

Many will find this heartwarming. But there's also something about such an outpouring of public sentiment that forces us to ask why a lower form of life grabs more at our hearts than a lot of fellow humans.

The public's soft spot for animals is well-documented. Perhaps the starkest demonstration of excess toward animals occurred out west, where a fund to support the orphaned cubs of a killer mountain lion raised more money than a fund for the children of the woman the cat mauled to death. Several years ago, scores of would-be rescuers paid their way to help save a whale stuck under the ice off Alaska. And community outrage toward the Baltimore County man recently convicted for tying his dog to his car and forcing it to run alongside exceeded that for many local murders.

Perhaps Americans turn to mush over animals because, when in trouble, animals are the ultimate victims -- helpless, unable to speak for themselves, incapable of bearing responsibility. We like anthropomorphizing them and making them abstractions of qualities we admire. Thus Barney becomes a hero, like Binti, the gorilla who rescued a fallen toddler at an Illinois zoo.

But people in trouble, even children, are more complex. They are not always cute or majestic. Except for the youngest, they can be blamed for their own misfortunes. Generally speaking, we expect people to take care of their own problems. Yes, we give our hearts and resources in times of crisis, especially when someone in peril fits the "ultimate victim" description. Otherwise, we are more grudging.

A fire battalion chief noted that he wouldn't have ended up with $43,000 in donations had he been the one with cancer, and he's right. That's a sad commentary. His life is worth more than a dog's, even Barney's.

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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