If you care about animals and want to reduce their suffering, but aren’t sure exactly how, Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) is an organization that might be able to help. The California-based nonprofit puts out an annual guide for recommended animal charities, and it just released its list for this year. (Disclosure: ACE helped fund some of Future Perfect’s work in 2020 and 2021.)

Two of the top three charities focus on improving conditions on factory farms — which makes sense, given that they’re sites of suffering on a massive scale. It’s not just the death that takes place there — in the US alone, factory farming kills about 10 billion land animals each year — but the suffering that animals are forced to endure while they’re alive. Hens, calves, and pigs are often confined in spaces so small they can barely move, and conditions are so galling that “ag-gag” laws exist to hide the cruelty from the public.

When we hear about some of these conditions — like the fact that chickens are forced to produce eggs at such a fast rate that their intestines sometimes partially fall out under the strain — we may want to put a stop to them. But it can be hard to know which charities will actually make good use of our dollars.

ACE researches and promotes the most high-impact, effective ways to help animals. The group uses three main criteria when deciding whether to recommend an organization, as my colleague Kelsey Piper previously explained:

  • Charities must be “likely to produce the greatest gains for animals” — that is, they’re doing high-impact work and they’ve got the evidence to back it up.
  • Charities must “actively evaluate and improve their programs” — they’re constantly trying to figure out the most effective way to advocate for animals (which may change over time) and adjusting their programming accordingly.
  • Charities must “have a demonstrated need for more funding” — they actually need more money on hand in order to reach everyone they know how to reach (which is not the case for every charity).

With this in mind, ACE has selected its three top charities of 2021:

1) Faunalytics: This US-based nonprofit is a bit meta in its approach to animal advocacy: It conducts and publishes independent research, mostly related to farmed animals, in an effort to make other animal advocates more impactful and evidence-based.

For example, it examines social psychology data on how to influence public opinion about animals in a way that actually leads to behavior change. ACE notes that advocacy research is a neglected intervention, writing, “Faunalytics’ programs support the animal advocacy movement by examining effective advocacy strategies, problem areas, and tactics, and by providing advocates with a curated database of academic research summaries.”

2) The Humane League: Founded in 2005, this organization currently operates in the US, Mexico, the UK, and Japan. It runs successful campaigns urging corporations to adopt higher animal welfare standards. It has worked to end the use of battery cages internationally and improve conditions for chickens raised for meat. It also conducts grassroots legislative advocacy. Importantly, The Humane League has an evidence-driven outlook, collecting and using data to guide its approach, and testing new ways to improve its programs.

3) Wild Animal Initiative: As my colleague Dylan Matthews has documented, this group is doing something unique: researching and advocating for ways to help wild animals. Instead of focusing on the welfare of animals in factory farms, it’s focused on the welfare of free-ranging animals from birds to raccoons to insects. It studies questions like: Which animals are capable of subjective experiences? What is the quality of their lives like in the wild? How can we safely and sustainably help them?

ACE also named some standout charities — organizations it says are doing good work despite not making it into the top three — such as xiaobuVEGAN, a Chinese organization that aims to reduce the suffering of farmed animals and increase the availability of animal-free products in China, and the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations, which pursues similar goals in India. It’s nice to see such non-US-based groups highlighted given that, as Marc Gunther explained in Vox, the vast majority of farmed animals are outside of the US and EU.

If you donate to one of the charities above, you can be reasonably confident that your money will be used effectively to minimize animal suffering. And if you’re not sure which of them you’d like to donate to, you can give to the Recommended Charity Fund and leave it up to ACE to distribute the money based on what their research suggests is most effective at the time.

Is it misguided to worry about animals when so many humans are suffering?

Americans are increasingly concerned with animal welfare. The incredibly rapid embrace of plant-based meat products like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat is, in part, attributable to a growing sense that we can and should be inflicting far less suffering on animals.

A 2015 Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans said animals deserve some legal protections. Another 32 percent — nearly one-third — expressed an even stronger pro-animal stance, saying they believe animals should get the same rights as people. In 2008, only 25 percent voiced that view.

It seems more and more Americans are coming to see animals as part of our moral circle, the imaginary boundary we draw around those we consider worthy of ethical consideration.

Some people, however, react to this with a bout of “whataboutism”: What about urgent human problems like the pandemic and poverty? Underlying this objection is typically a sense that we can’t afford to “waste” compassion on animal suffering, because every bit of caring we devote to that cause means we have less to devote to human suffering.

But as Ezra Klein wrote, research from Harvard’s Yon Soo Park and Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino showed that concern for human suffering and concern for animal suffering is not zero-sum — in fact, where you find one, you tend to find the other:

In one half of the study, they used General Social Survey data to see whether people who supported animal rights were likelier to support a variety of human rights, a test of whether abstract compassion is zero-sum. Then they compared how strong animal treatment laws were in individual states to how strong laws were protecting human beings, a test of whether political activism is zero-sum.

The answer, in both cases, is that compassion seems to beget compassion. People who strongly favored government help for the sick “were over 80 percent more likely to support animal rights than those who strongly opposed it,” the authors write. The finding held even after controlling for factors like political ideology. Support for animal rights was also correlated — though the size of the effect was smaller — with support for LGBT individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, unauthorized immigrants, and low-income people.

Similarly, states that did the most to protect animal rights also did the most to protect and expand human rights. States with strong laws protecting LGBT residents, strong protections against hate crimes, and inclusive policies for undocumented immigrants were much likelier to have strong protections for animals.

The question of why these correlations exist is up for debate, but the bottom line is that we’d better hope our society takes action on animal suffering: If it does, we’re more likely to see it taking action on human suffering, too.

Update, November 30, 2021: This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated throughout for 2021.

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