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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!