The Dark Side of Animal “Gifts.” ~ John Merryfield

Via elephant journal
on Dec 14, 2012
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It’s the Christmas season, a giving time of year.

Now, imagine a single mother in the third world with two small children, both of whom are starving. Naturally, you want to help. Many people generously give during Christmas to organizations like Heifer International, an organization that claims to work against world hunger, by donating animals to families in developing countries.

Heifer International’s catalog portrays beautiful children holding cute animals in seemingly humane circumstances. The idea is to help feed the poor and hungry by providing them with an animal that will provide milk and meat. What the marketing brochure for Heifer International does not show, are the animals being transported, their living and slaughter conditions, or the erosion, pollution, and water use caused by the introduction of the animals and their offspring.

By definition, animals raised for food are exploited in a variety of ways. A large percentage of the families receiving animals from Heifer International are struggling to provide for themselves and cannot ensure adequate living conditions, nutrition, and medical care for animals they have been given. The animals shipped to developing countries are often subject to water and food shortages; cruel procedures without pain killers; lack of veterinary care resulting in extended suffering when illness or injury occur; and brutal conditions in slaughter.

Photo: Joanne McArthur

To make matters worse, animal agriculture causes much more harm to the environment than plant-based agriculture.

The fragile land in many of the regions where Heifer International is sending the animals cannot support animal agriculture. Although they say they encourage cut and carry feeding of the animals to avoid erosion, the reality is often quite different.

While it may seem humane and sustainable to provide just one or two dairy cows here or there, the long term consequences are: an increased dependence on animal agriculture for survival, causing a less sustainable environment, and more animal suffering in the world.  Also, it cannot be overlooked that 35 percent of all grain production in the world is fed to livestock, not humans.

There is an alternative.

While adopting a plant-based diet can have a positive global effect, there are other international organizations working to end hunger, and the causes of hunger, without exploiting animals.

We cannot deny the existence of hunger in our world. It’s a reality that challenges us, and stirs our deepest compassion.  Our own lives can be our greatest vehicles for change in the world. This Christmas, work to end world hunger; eat plants instead of animals.


John Merryfield lives with his wife in Lake Tahoe, California and works as a painting contractor. He is director of Vegan 1 Day.




Ed: Terri Tremblett

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5 Responses to “The Dark Side of Animal “Gifts.” ~ John Merryfield”

  1. clare says:

    Thank you for writing this. People do need to really think before donating. I wish that the link between the environmental damge from meat and dairy farming and world hunger had more visability.

  2. Via the folks at Heifer:

    Heifer International focuses on small farms using appropriate technologies and livestock which feed on resources that are not grown for human consumption. Training in the care and appropriate use of animals, as well as helping to develop community organizations that support those values are a fundamental part of our work and one of the 12 Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development.

    We support environmentally-sustainable or beneficial animal management practices that produce safe, humane conditions for the animals. These animals are the Project Participant’s life blood. They want to raise them in the best manner possible and often develop close bonds with them.

    Heifer does a resource analysis before any project is started, monitors the projects to make sure they are successful, follows Heifer’s model for sustainability, and always works to preserve the environment. Renewable resources are high on the list of priorities. We say we are trying to “end world hunger and save the earth,” and we mean it.

    A great example of how careful attention to ecological sustainability is necessary to the well being of our project partners can be found in the Philippines. On the easily eroded hillsides in the Philippines, there is only one way to move a family away from destructive farming methods to the soil-conserving, water-conserving terrace method: give them an animal and training to go with it. Animals provide value in several parts of the ecosystem. They add worth to the farm by providing meat, milk, manure and work productivity, and they keep up with inflation. Animals such as water buffalo can help farmers build the terraces needed for improved farming methods, and their manure can fertilize the crops. The animals also provide a necessary financial safety net as farmers transition into terraced farming since initially their crop production will decrease. After three to four years, however, production usually exceeds previous best yields because the soil is better even though less land is under cultivation. The farmers also report a savings in real money by having to use less chemical fertilizer. Adding one key element in the ecosystem impacts the whole and supports environmental sustainability.

    Offering seeds for planting, developing irrigation projects, digging water wells (ensuring safe water for drinking and irrigation), providing fruit and nut trees, providing vegetable plots and/or training people to grow vegetables-are all key components of our projects, which maximize the limited resources of farmers subsisting on smaller plots of land. We emphasize dairy cows, dairy goats, egg-producing, poultry, wool, angora rabbits, etc., which provide much more than just meat.

    We share the concern for animal welfare, animal health and animal well-being and have many vegetarian employees and supporters. Livestock development can move people from living hand-to-mouth, give them a future, stop the practices of destroying forests and ruining the land and lower the rates of starvation and death due to easily preventable diseases.

    We use holistic methods – water, gender equality, renewing the environment, etc. – to help families lift themselves up from poverty and hunger to a better life.


    Despite the crap on the Peta site (who, I have to say, often do more harm than good for the cause of animal welfare) Heifer is a wonderfully run organization. Their sustainability model is a great example for other similar organizations, and to me, while I choose not to eat meat, it kind of feels like a first world luxury choice in comparison to the poverty these folks are living in.

  3. I agree with this post. For urban countries, giving animals as a gift is also a bad idea. I recommend giving them the gift and cultivation of vegetables like seedlings on which they can tend and use as a food source. Don't call PETA crap, it undermines all our efforts for a humane society.

  4. Raelynn says:

    She's not calling PETA crap, she's saying that their stuff on their site is crap. Which I understand. I've done a lot of research on PETA and, although I was a big supporter when I was young, I'm slowly losing trust in them. They aren't agaisn't killing animals, they are agianst killing them in inhumane ways. You should look up how many animals actually get adopted from PETA compared to how many they take in each year, it's sickening.

    This article is absolutely fantastic for the research I'm doing into animal gifting. I recently went to spend the night at Heifer and I had a feeling there were gaps in their logic, but I just couldn't put my finger on it. I recently read another article by the same name and they seem to be on the same page. Not to say heifer doesn't have a good goal. And they do provide other animals than just cows (Rabbits and chicken and pigs are just a few examples)but I can see where this can create a problem for some countries. I don't think it would be bad for Heifer to think of adding plant gifts to their list of gifts for the areas that can't handle animals.

  5. Raelynn says:

    and apparently I can't spell today. I spelled against wrong twice :/