Did you know that Taxi and The Simpsons owe much of their success to a hardcore animal welfare advocate and philanthropist? Until I read this article from yesterday’s Washington Post, I didn’t. But now I think this man’s story is pretty remarkable, and his generosity got me thinking about the way we value and ration our time and money.
Six months to live and millions to give
Sam Simon, co-creator of the longest-running TV comedy of all time, is currently making headlines for the way he responded to a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has colon cancer, but he also has hundreds of millions of dollars, so he immediately decided to spend the rest of his estimated three to six months — and almost all of his enormous fortune — on saving and improving the lives of as many animals as possible. He’s been at it for two years so far. Wouldn’t it be great if the cure for a terminal disease — or the most effective way to stave off the worst of it — was to devote every resource you have to saving other lives? It would be a fair reward (if the universe worked like that), but do you know what sounds even better and easier? Embarking on that mission while still in perfect health.
If you have a privilege, use it!
Of course, most of the world doesn’t have any time or money or energy left over after they’ve fed themselves and their family (if that). And if you happen to grow up disenfranchised, living in a neglected or resource-starved community, it takes an Olympic-sized spirit to worry about cleaning up streets that don’t belong to you and improving lives even harder than yours. But those of us who have even a little extra — and this is why I fail to understand how “bleeding heart liberal” is an insult — can invest it in the quality of our species and our planet. Our lives and legacies can only improve when we live among happier neighbors, and are served by happier workers, and share our land with happier animals. Selflessness is selfish too, so why does pure greed win out so often, and on such a grand scale?
Sam saved this many lives …
Well, at least this Sam Simon fellow gets it. Since he received his death sentence two years ago, he has saved and improved as many lives as possible. Because of Sam…
- 425 chinchillas won’t be skinned alive for “fashion” because he bought the entire fur farm and turned it into a sanctuary
- 17 bears now roam 60 acres of Colorado grass at The Wild Animal Sanctuary, instead of pacing back and forth in concrete pits (until they’re killed for getting too big for roadside photo-ops)
- 2 chimpanzees swing through Florida trees at the Save the Chimps sanctuary, after one spent 17 years in a circus and another was the subject of laboratory experiments
- 1 race horse grazes on a Virginia farm and never gets ridden, after Sam bought the horse to save him from racing on an injured leg (again)
- War veterans with PTSD and dozens of hear-impaired people now have live-in assistance dogs from The Sam Simon Foundation
- The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society received a 184′ ship as a gift (The Sam Simon is now used to fight commercial whaling)
- Thousands of LA pets were spayed and neutered for free by a mobile veterinary clinic that his foundation funded
- Thousands of LA families (65,000 in 2014 alone) received all-vegan meals from his vegan food bank, Feeding Families
Sam also helped set up a live stream of Japanese dolphin hunters and does a whole lot more than I can fit into a list on a blog. He even hired a personal “vegan pot chef” to cook his plant-based, weed-laced meals, making his diet and his medical regimen as eco-friendly and bloodless as possible. But as this man scrambles to spread his compassion and wealth, he’s outnumbered by the guilty, the greedy and the apathetic. Do you really want to belong in any of those categories?
… and now the world rushes to replace them
Sam’s money and time have prevented a significant amount of suffering, but as I tallied the numbers, I couldn’t help but imagine the opposite figures. These creatures wouldn’t suffer and die if there wasn’t a market for it, and despite the admirable dent that people like Sam are making, business is still booming for the people who trap and hurt and starve and kill animals. There will be agony as long as industries profit from depriving and confining their living products as much as possible, and as long as economic systems force so many into careers that require cruelty. One quote from the article (which is actually from a Vanity Fair profile) struck me:
Diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in 2012 and given three to six months to live, he is now focused like a laser, in a race against time, making sure that all that money—hundreds of millions of dollars—made from his years of work on The Simpsons and other television shows is being channeled directly into the charitable causes he loves.
He is, indeed, “focused like a laser, in a race against time”. But isn’t the clock running out for all of us? Shouldn’t we all have laser focus on at least one real purpose? And maybe this is a more important question: why does this mission require so much focus and so much time? Sam is a powerful man, but he still has to fight enormous odds just to make his message resonate in the slightest. And it frustrates me so much, because his biggest obstacle — which he shares with anyone trying to improve anything — is people who could help but don’t.
Don’t be part of the problem, okay?
Sam might have terminal cancer, but the biggest obstacle to his life’s mission is the “animal lovers” who pay to pose with lion cubs at the county fair and swim with dolphins and pick out purebred puppies and watch whales do tricks in tanks*, either because they don’t know what they’re (very directly) financing or because they don’t care to know. Because distancing themselves from death and cruelty — or denying it completely — is just more convenient.
* Be aware that I was guilty of two of these (as a kid) before I saw the light. And that I’m pointing this finger at the people who can choose to stop causing pain, or to stop spreading the misinformation that keeps so many more from knowing and acting. I don’t blame the single parent with two minimum wage jobs for bringing home a pepperoni pizza instead of locally sourced fruits and vegetables.
Mostly I blame myself and every other capable, informed human who isn’t acting like they’re in a race against time to make a difference. Because technically, we all kind of are.
Maybe that makes me an idealist. Maybe there’s no empathy “on” switch that can make some people value the difference their money can make over the things their money can buy. Maybe the lavish lifestyle of one executive will always matter more to society than the educations of a hundred kids or the leg room of a thousand pregnant cows.
But maybe not. Maybe Sam’s contributions don’t have to be temporary, and the right information — delivered in exactly the right way — actually can inspire habit changes on a massive scale. So I know this is a tired suggestion, and I know “life” gets in the way, but come on. Even if you don’t have hundreds of millions (or even hundreds) of dollars, you almost definitely have more than a few months left to live. Use them to add more beauty and life to the world, which doesn’t and shouldn’t revolve around you.