Around the holidays, well-meaning people may be tempted to contribute to hunger-relief charities that send cows, goats and other farmed animals to poor people in India and other developing nations.

But these programs often do more harm than good -- to animals, to the environment and to the people they are trying to help.

Animal-donation programs force impoverished people to funnel valuable resources (such as grain and water) through animals, and as a result, the people these programs are designed to help obtain much less nourishment than they would if they just ate the grain directly. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of animal flesh.

An article about such programs in The Hindu, one of India's largest newspapers, quotes numerous people who had animals thrust upon them and then desperately struggled to care for both their families and the animals.

"This brute eats more than all us in this house put together," lamented one unwilling recipient of a cow. "And we don't get more than four liters of milk in a day from it."

In addition, the donated animals often overgraze the surrounding vegetation, which causes erosion and leads to drought. The environmental group World Land Trust calls animal-donation programs "environmentally unsound and economically disastrous."

And the countries that these animals are destined for often lack any meaningful animal welfare laws, so donated animals can suffer from horrible neglect, including lack of veterinary care, adequate or clean shelter and sufficient food or water.

On a recent trip to India, I saw black-and-white Holsteins and Holstein crosses roaming the streets and eating plastic bags out of trash cans -- plastic bags that will clog their intestines and cause them an agonizing death. American and European cattle breeds fare poorly in India's harsh, dry climate. They suffer greatly under the burning sun and cannot survive on the trash that they find or the sparse, dry, thorny weeds growing by the roadside. This is often all cattle get to eat, especially in drought-stricken areas such as the parts of Maharashtra where I saw these cows. They are also less capable of pulling heavy carts than are native Brahmans and Brahman crosses.

If people want to provide meaningful aid to impoverished countries, they would do better to support programs such as Animal Rahat, which provides relief to working animals and their families. Based in Indian villages where animals haul heavy loads of bricks and sugar cane for long periods of time, often in sweltering heat, Animal Rahat has greatly improved the lives of these animals by giving rest to the lame -- something that the owners, who often live hand to mouth, could never afford to do. Animal Rahat also provides free medical care to lame, sick and injured animals. The owners of these animals are often too poor to afford even the basic nutrients that the animals need in order to stay strong and healthy _ let alone pay for veterinary services.

Animal Rahat has installed water tanks around towns and designed special screens that can be attached to carts and used as shelter against the sun or as a blanket in winter. Impoverished people receive a subsidy for allowing sick, injured and elderly animals to retire. If they can't care for their animals at home, the animals can live out their days at the Animal Rahat retirement center.

With the holidays upon us, kind folks are opening their checkbooks in the spirit of helping others. Please, let's not forget about those struggling working animals who would benefit from a day's rest, a poultice for a wound or a yoke that doesn't cut into their shoulders.

People who would like to help the hungry might consider supporting organizations such as Food First, The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation and The Hunger Project, which do not send animals into a life of misery but do work to change the policies that allow hunger and poverty to thrive.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.