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Animal companions & why “buying” them is brutal: an adopters’ manifesto

25 Jan

Anna is one of my dearest friends, and she is a hero to animals everywhere. We do lots of things when we’re together. Mostly we eat and then talk about what we just ate. But recently, we wrote this piece on an issue very close to our hearts: companion animals.

What do you call it when someone painlessly ends the life of another who is suffering from an incurable condition (often at the patient’s own request)? Unfortunately, this isn’t the set up to some hilarious joke. What you get, according to the trusty Oxford Dictionary, is euthanasia.

The people who wrote the Oxford Dictionary are probably pretty smart, and they seem to think that euthanasia is killing someone for his or her own good, because death has become a better option than incurable suffering. But we find ourselves a wee bit confused: why do we describe shelters as “euthanizing” healthy animals? That doesn’t sound like euthanasia to us or to the Oxford Dictionary for that matter. That sounds more like killing: to deprive of life or vitality; to put to death; to cause the death of (Oxford, FTW!).

Ever the stalwarts of accurate discussions, we use the word “kill” when we discuss this issue, because that is what we are doing to companion animals. And we hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable. We’ll leave it to you to speculate as to why the euthanasia euphemism has become so commonplace (but it likely has something to do with the uncontrollable guilt that would come with acknowledging that we kill perfectly healthy animals en masse, despite as a culture claiming to value them).

According to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, in 2008:

  • 54% of the cats taken in by shelters were killed.
  • 19% of the dogs taken in by shelters were killed.

But let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: this is not the fault of shelters. By and large, shelters are running on tight budgets, staffed by generous and compassionate volunteers, and doing largely thankless (and emotionally depleting) work that remains invisible to most of us (which is just fine for most people).

Shelters all too often find themselves in a nightmarish predicament of providing shelter for some animals while taking the lives of some other animals, to make room for still other animals. Is there really such a shortage of space for animals, you ask? Consider this: in Toronto alone there are between 100,000 and 300,000 homeless cats, many of whom were dumped on the streets by guardians who lost interest in caring for them. Extrapolate that number out, and you can see that the number of animals in need of homes is so enormous that purposely bringing more animals into existence just to make a buck is, quite literally, insane. Oxford-dictionary-style insane.

If aliens were to come to earth (and decide not to obliterate/colonize us) they’d have some serious questions that we may not have decent answers for. After no doubt expressing disgust at the way we harm and kill animals for food even though we don’t have to, they’d probably say (telepathically of course): “why create more life when there are already so many who need the love and companionship of a human family?” And despite our own demonstrable capacity for intelligence and empathy, most people would seem like absolute fools when we can’t even answer. We’d completely embarrass ourselves in front of the aliens, who would have it confirmed in an instant that not only are we not the smartest beings in the universe, we’re not the most empathetic either.

Anna's companions: Roxy & Lola! Roxy was adopted from the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue and Lola from a man holding a cardboard box in the alley next to my house!

And before you say, “Well I’m not a breeder, so I’m off the hook!” we’ve got news for you, courtesy of every Economics 101 class that’s ever happened, ever: if you demand it, the market will provide it. That means that if you think it’s acceptable to purchase animals from pet stores or private breeders, some idiot out there will supply your demand. And the opposite is also true. Take a look at Albuquerque, New Mexico, which banned the sale of cats and dogs in 2006. Animal adoptions have increased by 23 per cent, while the rate of animals killed at shelters has decreased by 35 percent.

Let’s break down some of the problems with our system of creating animals, abandoning them in shelters or on the streets, killing them, and then creating more new animals:

  1. Animals aren’t here for us. This is axiomatic. While we mutually enjoy life with companion animals, their actual existence has nothing to do with us.
  2. If we acknowledge that animals don’t exist for us, then we also must acknowledge that it is not our right to choose when they die.
  3. If we acknowledge that because animals don’t exist for us and therefore we shouldn’t have control over when they die, we must also acknowledge that a system that decides how one in every two cats dies, and how one in every five dogs dies, is a flawed system in dire need of a committed, emergency overhaul.

It also illuminates an inconvenient, but unavoidable reality: your superficial want for a Labradoodle is grossly outweighed by the right to live that all animals have. Frankly, it’s just too damn bad for you.

Oh, and it’s also too damn bad for the “responsible breeder” (hereby dubbed the ‘responsibreeder’). Why aren’t we more empathetic to the well-intentioned responsibreeder, you ask? Truth bomb: The responsibreeder is fictitious. Non-existent. Think Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or that sister you invented to get out of office work parties. There is no such thing as a responsibreeder, as the very definition of “responsible” means “having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, part of one’s job or role”. If we consider notions of responsibility on a community level (as we ought to), then the only responsible breeder is a breeder who is not breeding.

OK, so you’ve read this far. And you may even be in a position of wanting to bring home a new furry family member. Before heading out to meet Sandy, who owns the certified-accredited-organic-fair-trade-gluten-free-pedigreed Sunny Oakridge Autumn Harvest Labralove Kennel, we dare you to Google your local animal shelter or humane society and check out all the wonderful individuals who are literally waiting for their second chance.

If even after looking into the eyes of an animal who may be sentenced to an unnecessary death (read: killed), you choose to purchase an animal from Sandy, the charismatic responsibreeder (who assures you she’s doing it for the love of dogs), there’s not much we can do. But one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that you are not an animal lover. You’re an animal collector.

My Millie: one of my 9 companions! We fell in love with her the moment we met her at the Toronto Humane Society.

And for those of us who opt out of the canine version of Toddlers and Tiaras, remember that there is always an animal out there who is wonderful and who needs a home. Your home. You can be a total superhero for that animal. As for what we, as animal advocates, can do, this is some stuff we prioritize:

  • Fix your companions! There is no excuse. By understanding there are more animals already than there are people willing to adopt, fixing your companion will ensure you’re not contributing to their already staggering population.
  • Don’t reward superficial people with superficial comments! One thing we always try to keep in mind is that people who purchase dogs do so in large part because of the dogs’ aesthetic qualities (their squished faces, for example). We make a point of never dwelling on an obviously purebred feature (especially once that compromises the animal’s wellbeing) when talking to their humans because we feel like doing so validates the humans’ decision to buy instead of adopt. That doesn’t mean we are not super tender with the actual animals, we just refuse to reward their human companions for shallowness. (As one reader pointed out however: keep in mind that there are breed-specific rescue groups though!)
  • Rescue talk! When people remark about our animals, or even when strangers simply find out that we live with animals, we always make a point of talking about where we adopted them from. Remember– even though it seems bizarre to us, there is a serious stigma surrounding rescue animals. Every second we talk about our companions is an opportunity to myth-bust!
  • Insure your pet! Having an illness or injury that is expensive to treat should never be a reason to end a companion’s life. By insuring your pet (or setting up a savings system so you’re already emergency-ready), you’re ensuring a long and happy life together by taking away much of the stress of covering expensive medical costs. And if you’re considering adopting an older animal, expect medical bills and for insurance to be a bit more expensive.

In closing, shopping is what you do when you need a new toothbrush, or run out of balsamic vinegar. It is not what you do when looking for a companion. So be a superhero. Adopt! Rescues rule!

Pork: Inspiring me to stay Vegan

29 Mar

Did you get the memo? Turns out, pork is no longer ‘the other white meat’. You heard it here first. Turns out, after a quarter of a century hoping people would start eating pork in the same volume they eat chicken, the National Pig Board (NPB) out of the United States has decided to reinvent itself. The new slogan: Be inspired.

But surely people won’t be suckered into buying ‘more’ pork by such a benign catchphrase? Not in the era of Oprah going ‘veganish’, or when Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’ adorns the bookshelves of omnivores and vegans alike, or when Ian Falconer’s adorable illustrated pig ‘Olivia’ is one of the most popular children’s cartoon characters?

In his article, Tom Laskawy says of the new slogan, “Sure, it beats “Pork: When You Can’t Afford a Steak”; or “Pork: We’re Pretty Sure It Won’t Give You Swine Flu”; or even “Pork: Wash Hands Thoroughly After Handling.” But perhaps that isn’t saying much.” I couldn’t agree more.

Dead pigs and manure spraying at a North Carolina farm/Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy + S. Wing, UNC; map of North Carolina hogs farms/IATP + S. Wing, UNC (adapted from Wing et al. 2001)

For starters, the slogan doesn’t say anything about the recent studies I stumbled across that indicate drug-resistant bacteria make their way into urban populations via flies, cockroaches and other common ‘pests’ found in swine factories (see Wing’s photo for a palpable example of how this happens).

It also doesn’t mention Smithfield Foods, one of the world’s largest pork producers, who despite attempting to ‘inspire’ the crap out of people with big budget ‘documentary’-style YouTube tours of their facilities (no doubt after everything is cleaned, and scripted), can’t shake off the reality that remains. In fact, Tracy Worcester, director of Pig Business (a documentary about the industrialization of pork) followed Smithfield Foods all the way back to Poland in the late nineties, where cheap labour, lax environmental standards and a vulnerable government resulted in the sale of former state farms for small pennies. Smithfield bought up production facilities with the help of tax payer subsidies and loans provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) (which is also paid for by European taxpayers). She explains for the Huffington Post that while the intentions on paper were to enable Polish farmers to modernize and become competitive with western Europe, the reality was a “vertically integrated, factory farming system that could produce ‘cheap’ pork by cramming as many pigs as possible into a small space, polluting waterways, poisoning local residents and putting generations of family farms out of business.” And it didn’t stop there either. The flooding of the market with cheap pork began bankrupting farmers across the EU. When Poland’s neo-liberal government was replaced by the Law and Justice Party, Smithfield simply moved onto Romania.

If that doesn’t ‘inspire’ you, then consider in March of 2010, a court in Missouri ordered a Smithfield Foods subsidiary to pay local residents $11 million for “odors so offensive that they defied description”. Smells inspiring, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately it’s not any better here in Canada, where groups like Beyond Factory Farming work around the clock to provide resources and support to communities being negatively impacted by industrial hog operations in their rural towns. In fact, the University of Guelph is responsible for what may become the biggest ‘band-aid’ solution to the gaping wound that is industrial animal agriculture– EnviroPig (although there has been a great deal of backlash). The University of Manitoba is doing a piss-poor job of promoting their environmental ‘awareness’ week, given that they’ve refused to allow a model gestation crate to be set up (as it has been for years prior) to demonstrate the harsh conditions that factory farmed sows live in.

The NPB (and the Canadian Pork Council for that matter) can showcase pork as ‘inspiring’ all they want and I’ll admit…it’s inspiring the hell out of me.
Inspiring me to stay vegan.

Petunia the survivor @ Farm Sanctuary!

But wait just a second– while I don’t find pork inspiring, I do find pigs inspiring! Their intelligence, their playfulness, and their rich emotional lives continually move me. To counter this new slogan, let me share with you my love of pigs, and one in particular. The most inspiring piglet I’ve read about to date is dear Petunia. Despite being the runt (which often means brutal, painful death on a farm), she was donated to a veterinary teaching hospital to practice hernia surgeries. Unfortunately being an animal to practice on isn’t often any better, as animals are either destroyed when no longer useful or succumb to the stresses of multiple surgeries. However the folks at Farm Sanctuary received a call from the doctors at her hospital asking if they’d take her, and while Petunia needed immediate emergency surgery, she survived! Despite weighing only 4 pounds, and being literally hand-sized (can you imagine?!), her family at Farm Sanctuary is hopeful she’ll make a full recovery. Stories like Petunia’s mean a great deal to me. She symbolizes just how mighty small things can be, which is a lesson I can’t be reminded of enough. Thank you Petunia, for inspiring me, in the best possible way!

How more than just birds-of-a-feather stick together, and why we owe all birds, not just the ones that make the news

10 Mar

Before we begin, please have a look at this heartwarming little story:


Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on when it comes to animal rights, this story probably touched you (whether you would admit it or not). I know this because the only reason warm and fuzzy animal stories even make the news is because they’re guaranteed to be well received.  And why shouldn’t they be? An affinity and connection with different species is hardwired into us, serving as the foundation for keeping pets, surrounding our children (from infancy) with animal-themed bedrooms, clothing, books, etc., and enjoying a literary canon that includes the likes of ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘Black Beauty’ or ‘The Wind in the Willows’.

From a young age, we connect with animals

While most of us may not have a story quite as unusual as Dominic and Maria’s, even those of us who grew up without pets are likely to have had at least one or two animal encounters that resonated with us in a deeply meaningful way.

Which leads me to the question…

What the f$*# is the difference?!?

Having seen this video, and knowing that Maria clearly has an emotional life as sure as she has a physical life, why will the vast majority of people who watched this video find themselves at the grocery store the next day, mindlessly plunking chicken breasts into their collective shopping carts? What if that meat came from Maria (assuming they got past Dominic)? Would they still be so comfortable chowing down?

If Maria’s attachment to, and affection for Dominic (and vice versa) can cause something in our hearts to flutter, isn’t it possible– nay, likely–  that every bird’s story (or potential for one if given the opportunity) would make us do the same?

Karen Davis, a hero of mine

A new study released by the University of Bristol shows that chickens are capable of feeling empathy. That’s right, empathy. The coveted e-word normally reserved only for humans. Now I’m not a biologist, but I would think it’s safe to assume  that if chickens have empathy, then so do turkeys, geese, and by extension, Maria. People like Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns and one of my personal heroes, has known for a long time that this was the case. I wish that in addition to stories like the one about Maria and Dominic, CBS would cover stories like Karen and Viva’s, because if they did, I think most would people opt out of their omelettes and chicken parmigiana.

The reality is, Maria is every bird. Every bird laying in a cage right now, every bird already disassembled and shrink-wrapped in all the grocery stores across Canada (and the world), every bird born into a life of slavery, every female bird having her reproduction and resultant offspring controlled by a corporate, dominionistic system. In Canada, she is every one of the 600 million chickens or 19.7 million turkeys slaughtered for their flesh. She is every one of the 26 million layer hens enslaved for their eggs until she is no longer ‘productive’ (more on that  here). She is also every one of the tens of millions of unwanted male chicks killed (by gassing, crushing or suffocation) the very same day they hatch (more on that here).

If you wouldn’t eat Maria, I implore you to consider: why would you eat her nameless sisters, cousins, or offspring?

For more resources on the lives of chickens, please visit United Poultry Concerns and read Marc Bekoff’s recent piece.

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” – Alice Walker



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