And God created great whales and every living creature that moveth…and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:21)
How much is that doggy in the window? (children’s song)
A mermaid and a prince and a singing lobster. When Walt Disney announced this Christmas season’s movie release, a collective sigh of relief no doubt came from animal shelter workers across the country.
“The Little Mermaid” - which originally debuted in 1989 - has no kittens, no puppies and no bunnies. The critters that dance through its frames are scaly and slimy, not the sort that drive throngs of consumers to local pet stores.
Last year at this time it was different. Last year Disney re-released “101 Dalmatians.”
With such massive free advertising, puppy mills and other unethical breeders filled pet stores with thousands of black-and-white spotted puppies. There was money to be made.
Romping in their cedar chip-filled pens, playfully pawing the glass of a pet store window, the tiny dogs were almost irresistible to a parent whose child had just seen the movie. Dalmatians were everywhere. On sheets. On pajamas. On lunch boxes. Why not a live one in the back yard?
Why not indeed. The catch, however, was those adorable puppies quickly grew into large dogs with very real daily needs for exercise and attention, not to mention food, water and veterinary care.
“We’re breeding animals in a consumer-based society because you can buy anything you want,” said Maureen Fredrickson, director of the Delta Society, a Renton-based international organization that champions the human-animal bond. “But that puts pressure on biological systems and we end up with pet animals that have the highest cancer rates ever seen and genetic and biological defects that are just out of this world.”
Had they been able, all those Dalmatians bought on impulse as Christmas presents last year, then dumped in animal shelters this spring, might have asked what all this means about American values and the true meaning of Christmas.
In his new book “Disposable Animals, Ending the Tragedy of Throwaway Pets,” author Craig Brestrup, former director of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), challenges animal shelters to stop accepting animals discarded by their owners.
Only when there is a clear and present danger of abuse or abandonment, Brestrup said, should shelters take in these dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and other animals. Instead, shelter staff should advise owners on how to correct behavior problems, manage allergies or find a rental that accepts pets, among other things.
Brestrup notes that several shelters around the country - including the PAWS shelter near Seattle - are “no-kill” shelters, or trying to attain that status. These facilities do not kill animals for lack of space or time. Euthanasia is reserved for animals with severe physical or behavior problems. To become a no-kill facility, shelters must employ Brestrup’s philosophy of refusing to accept every animal that comes through the door.
“Owners must be held more accountable for their actions,” Brestrup said. “We’ve made it entirely too easy for them to simply get rid of their pets. If society finds it more convenient to continue the killing, then society will have to take responsibility for doing the killing itself.”
It’s a tall order. Each week, more than 200,000 cats, dogs and other pets are killed in America’s animal shelters. That’s roughly the population of Spokane. Some of the animals are strays. Many are “owner-relinquished,” shelter jargon for pets dumped by their former guardians.
The most common excuses given at Spokane-area animal shelters by those disposing of their pets are: “not enough time,” “moving,” ” behavior problems” (easily-solved ones like not being housebroken, chewing, or jumping fences) and “landlord does not allow pets.”
Brestrup includes in his book this real-life example from his experience working at the PAWS shelter: “A mother and child enter and see a sign saying ‘animal adoptions’ over one counter and ‘animal receiving’ over another.
“She carries a box resounding with plaintive kitten meows and heads to the second sign. There are four, two having been found homes in the neighborhood, with mother cat grieving at home and still fertile.
“This is the cat’s third litter, 17 living kittens in just over a year. Many ended up adopted, but each fortunate one displaces a waiting, homeless adult who ends up dead to ‘euthanasia’ for lack of space or a home to take him.
“There is ignorance in this. Could she be expected to know about the thousand ‘surplus’ animals across the nation who died in the time it took her to drive to the shelter and leave her box, or the 30,000 or so who will die by the same time tomorrow for the mistake of being surplus within our borders?
“She has been told this before, in so many words, but it seems unreal. She does not see the bodies.”
At all three Spokane-area animal shelters - Spokane County Animal Control, the Spokane Humane Society and SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. - healthy animals are sometimes euthanized. So are unhealthy animals too sick mentally or physically to be suitable for adoption.
The county shelter euthanizes an average of 15 dogs and 25 cats each week, according to director Nancy Sattin.
At the Humane Society, weekly averages in October totaled 20 dogs per week and 59 cats, director Susan Canterbury said. She noted that since losing a contract with the City of Spokane to house city strays, the Humane Society now rarely has to euthanize healthy animals.
SpokAnimal director Gail Mackie said her shelter does not yet have euthanasia statistics. Before taking over a contract with the City of Spokane in October to house city strays, SpokAnimal was a no-kill shelter.
At all three shelters, workers try to counsel those who want to discard their pets.
“If they’re going to bring it in here, hopefully they’ve considered all the alternatives, like do they really have to give it up or would some obedience training help with the problem,” said Canterbury. “But you get a lot of people with their dogs bred, and they bring in the puppies.”
“I don’t have any problem with putting the responsibility back on the owner of the animal,” said Mackie. “I say, ‘Hey, you know we already have five black labs in this kennel and black labs are the most difficult to place. If you relinquish this dog, the chances that it will be euthanized are very great. In fact, we may even have to do it this afternoon.”’
A fragile bond
America’s relationship with companion animals like dogs and cats and birds changed rather dramatically about 30 years ago, said Daun Martin, research assistant and companion animal partnership coordinator for the People-Pet Partnership Program at Washington State University.
Before then, American culture in general regarded animals - wild and domestic - from a largely utilitarian standpoint. Cross-species emotional bonding was not the rule. Rather, the pragmatic use of an animal was paramount. Under the law, animals were considered property.
Today, Martin said, affectionate relationships are more the norm. She links that to increasing urbanization, the demise of the nuclear family and a rise in the amount of expendable income people have to outlay on pet care.
“Animals give us unconditional love through everything from a bad hair day to a stroke that paralyzes half our face,” Martin said. “We still need to have a connection with the natural world. Not that the way we’ve evolved pets is that natural, but it is still a connection.”
Yet, Martin noted, the humananimal bond is fragile. It can easily break in the face of competing values from the surrounding throwaway culture. Cat lost its novelty? Release it in a rural area. Dog too much of a responsibility? Dump it at the shelter.
Ironically, notes Bill Kostelec, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, those who love animals may contribute to such scenarios.
By viewing animals strictly as pets, not working companions, it becomes easy to consider them luxury items. In America, luxury items are objectified and discarded when they become too expensive, inconvenient or too much of a responsibility.
“It feels like an on-going process of isolation because our population is getting so big,” Kostelec said. “We’re becoming more isolated. We’ve become more urban.
“Maybe the way we deal with animals is part of the same thing. It’s one thing to have animals in a tribal community, like dogs, that act as guards. There’s a certain attitude of respect in the relationship. You support those animals and they support you. But to have them as substitute children, that’s got to be a modern invention.”
A double-edged sword
His little elbow was shattered. His tiny hip was broken. On a soft blanket in a kennel at All Creatures Veterinary Clinic in the Spokane Valley, the Chihuahua mended body and spirit.
About one month ago, he was hit by a car. Save for a Good Samaritan who was in the right place at the right time, he would be dead. Save for the dedicated staff at the vet clinic, he would be alone.
Although he wasn’t wearing a collar, his owner found out about him through a local lost pet hotline. She thanked the staff at the clinic for caring for him, but said they could keep him. She said she couldn’t.
The Chihuahua has already had one surgery. He faces another. And he faces adjusting to a new family. He can’t go home again.
The Good Samaritan offered to pay for part of the dog’s expenses. The clinic is covering the rest.
“For animals, consumerism is probably a double-edged sword,” said Maureen Fredrickson of the Delta Society.
On the one hand, she said, it perpetuates rampant breeding and throwaway pets. On the other hand, it creates disposable income which in turn can be spent to better the quality of life of companion animals.
For example, a study published in the academic journal American Demographics found Americans spend $7.5 billion on premium cat and dog food.
“A consumer culture permits us to take care of our pets in a way that people wouldn’t otherwise,” said Julie Ruth, an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the University of Washington. “I equate the consumer culture flourishing when people have disposable income that’s not allocated to essentials for themselves like food, clothing and shelter.”
Organizations like the People-Pet Partnership Program at WSU are working hard to help the next generation of Americans use their economic freedom to stop the phenomenon of disposable pets.
By going into the schools, they help children understand what is sacred in the human-animal bond.
“We teach that when you enter into a relationship with an animal, that’s for the length of the animal’s life,” said Martin of WSU. “If it can’t be, it’s your responsibility as a moral person to make sure that that animal is in a good situation.”
Will it work? Humane educators like those at the People-Pet Partnership Program are optimistic. They hope through their work the children they reach will not grow up to be like adults observed by Sattin of Spokane County Animal Control.
“As the staff and I were leaving the other day we saw someone pull up in a U-Haul,” she said. “The last thing they needed to do before heading out was to get rid of their pet.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CONSIDER THIS Thinking of giving a pet as a Christmas gift? Consider these points before making your decision: Only an adult can truly understand a pet’s needs. Children can help care for a pet, but they are too immature to comprehend the large amount of time that must be devoted to the animal each day to give it a humane existence. Owning a dog is usually a 10- to 16-year commitment. Owning a cat or horse or bird can also be a long engagement. In the case of a dog, the person who receives your gift must be willing to spend 3,650 to 5,840 days exercising the dog, feeding and watering it, cleaning up after it, training it and taking it to the vet. Are you sure they want this responsibility? Selecting a pet on looks alone is a bad idea. Each breed of dog, cat, bird or other type of pet has unique needs and can create unique problems. Consider such things as what the animal is bred to do, how much it sheds or molts, what kinds of medical conditions are inherent in its kind, its behavioral tendencies and how complicated it is to properly care for. If you are positive your friend or relative wants a pet, consider giving a gift certificate toward its adoption. That way, they can take the time to find the right kind of companion. All three Spokane-area animal shelters offer gift certificates. And all three usually have both purebred and mixed-breed animals available. Pet rescue groups are another place to find great pets. Rescue groups screen potential owners, but the dogs and cats they place usually have already been spayed and neutered and come with a health guarantee. Many of these groups also rescue other types of pets, or can put you in touch with people who do. Here’s how to contact area rescue groups: Animal Rescue Coalition, 928-9119 or 927-1099. Pet Rescue, 921-0178 or 325-9273. Partners for Pets, 327-9514 or 927-3789. Pet Savers, 921-9359. Ritzville Pet Rescue, 659-0962.
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