I cover a lot of topics on my website in an effort to help educate the animal-loving public on some serious issues regarding companion animals in our country. What all of these topics have in common is the fact that they all relate to the topic of the destruction of animals in buildings we ordinarily call shelters. Although most of the animal loving public may give little thought to what happens in shelters, the reality is that we are all paying for what happens there whether it is good or bad. Whether it involves life-saving or death. In all but the most progressive communities in our country, healthy and treatable animals are being systematically destroyed in municipally operated buildings using public funds while the public is blamed for that very process. If only the public _______________, the argument goes, this would not be necessary. You can fill in the blank with "was more responsible," "would only spay and neuter pets," "did not treat pets as disposable" and so on. While there are more and more no kill communities emerging with the passage of time, those places are still in the minority as public officials continue the decades old practice of adopting out a few animals and destroying the rest, doing nothing to stop that cycle.
Some events of recent weeks have caused me to reflect on the whole subject of political advocacy related to shelter animals. As the concept of "no kill" has evolved over the years and across the country, there are factions which have formed which are essentially at odds with each other. There are some who say that in order to reform our animal sheltering system, we should not be overly critical of those who manage shelters where animals die and that we should work harder on bridge-building to change what is happening. There are people in this faction who go so far as to say that governments are really only required to house animals for property reasons so we really shouldn't push them too hard. There are others, like me, who believe in diplomatic communication about this topic, but who also believe that it should be handled with a sense of urgency. As Nathan Winograd once aptly wrote, "with each day we delay, the body count rises." Because we are talking about the lives of animals (and their potential death), this subject is unique in terms of seeking accountability for the manner in which our tax dollars are spent. People complain to police departments all the time about increased patrolling related to reducing crime. They complain to public works departments about garbage pick-up. They complain to traffic engineering departments about the timing of traffic lights which they think are too slow or about roadway conditions. They complain about a host of issues most of which do not relate to the imminent threat of death.
I am, and have been, openly critical of the animal shelter in the city where I work. For me, this is no different that seeking municipal accountability for any other public service function of local government other than the fact that I think we simply cannot delay in implementing change. It is perfectly logical for me to not only say "I think you can to better" but to also make recommendations on how that can happen which are based on proven results in other communities using established programs which do not cost more. I know that the topic of animals is an emotional one for most people. The American public simply does not want tax dollars spent to destroy shelter animals when those same funds can be spent to ensure public safety and still keep animals alive. When progress is made, as is the case in the city where I work, I am fully capable of applauding that progress. I absolutely give credit where credit is due.
Where I differ with some is on this idea that I cannot applaud progress while still asking for more. This is not an episode of Let's Make a Deal where my choices are Door Number 1 (give praise) and Door Number 2 (be critical). Both of those behaviors have value. But when the lives of shelter animals are still at risk for whatever reason (lack of commitment, lack of program development, defensiveness to criticism), I not only have the right to remain critical, I also have an obligation to do that for the sake of my values and my exercise of the right to free speech. Does change take time? It sure does. But the truth is that we have to act with a sense or urgency when lives are at stake. As a veteran, I believe strongly in accountability for how our government operates at local, state and federal levels using public money. But I also believe that it you feel strongly about something, it is up to you to speak out about it so that those who govern us know what you want. Complaining to your friends or posting on social media is of little value and you have to take your complaints to those in positions to effect change.
I have been told by some in animal advocacy circles that I should stop criticizing my local shelter because they have done so well. I simply will not. I can acknowledge that a lot of things have changed and animals are safer here now than they were in the past. Since I know that healthy dogs still die in the shelter here, I simply will not stop being critical just because it makes some people uncomfortable. The lives of animals in our nation's shelters often depend on the outspokenness of advocates. If it is permissible for me to complain about a pot hole in the road, it is absolutely permissible for me to complain about a dead dog named Jackson who was a year old when he was destroyed to make space in the "shelter." And while I am sure shelter volunteers will demand that I spend hours in a shelter in order to have the right to complain, I am equally sure that no one would ask me to become a worker on a paving crew in order to help this city do a better job. Those who are public servants would do well to remember that role in our governments. We are paying them and they are using our money whether we approve of their behavior or not. Public service is not for everyone and we should not confuse branches of municipal government with private businesses which are more insulated from public comment.
I'm sorry we failed you, Jackson. I will not be silent. I will not go along to get along.
National Puppy Mill Awareness Day is recognized in late September of each year. It is a date used by animal welfare advocates across the country to bring awareness to the topic of the commercial dog breeding industry and to what many people now call "puppy mills." I believe, as do many of my advocacy contacts, that once the American public is educated on the topic of mills they simply will not stand for them.
I have written on the topic of mills a lot recently in advance of this annual observance and as a result of my volunteer work for nonprofit groups who focus on mill dogs and ridding our society of this insidious industry. Although there are some differences of opinion on what the phrase "puppy mill" means, it refers to two separate businesses for me. For me, a puppy mill is: 1) any dog breeding operation, large or small, where the focus is on profit and where the well-being of the dogs themselves is of little concern; or 2) any commercial dog breeding operation where large numbers of dogs are bred for profit, regardless of the conditions in which those dogs are housed. Although I am not a fan of breeding dogs, I fully recognized that there is such a thing as a responsible breeder. There are people who breed and then sell dogs while taking excellent care of the parent dogs and while doing all they can to perpetuate breed standards and have healthy puppies for people to buy as family pets or to use in some service capacity. There is a continental divide between a responsible breeder and a puppy mill, no matter the size of the mill.
Most of the people I know who have companion animals are good people who mean well, regardless of how they acquire their pets. Most of them just don't think about the subject of puppy mills because they don't feel personally affected by it. Those people I know who are not "animal people" and who don't have pets at all consider themselves further separated from the topic of mills because they don't think mills have anything at all to do with them. But, you see, they do.
We are all affected by puppy mills and the commercial dog breeding industry due to one factor: money.
When it comes to bringing a new dog into a home, people have a lot of options. They can buy a dog at a pet store and will probably be told the dog comes from a licensed USDA kennel (which in all likelihood is still a puppy mill). They can buy a dog through the internet using a website. They can buy a dog from a local breeder who will probably let them meet the parent dogs and see the conditions in which the dogs live. They can get a dog from a friend or family member. They can get a dog from a flea market or from the parking lot of a store or strip mall. They can get a dog through a newspaper ad. Or they can get a dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Although we don't like to think of it this way, the business of marketing and selling dogs is big business. Many of us react to the marketing we see much like we do for other products and with little regard for the fact that we are actually talking about a living, breathing, sentient creature who will spent 10 to 20 years with us and have the cognitive function of a toddler.
On one end of this options spectrum we have the commercial dog breeding industry. Commercial dog breeders, both large and small, produce millions of dogs every year. Some are sold at auction much like other forms of livestock, some are distributed to pet stores across the country by Choice Puppies (formerly known of as the Hunte Corporation) in industrial tractor-trailers, some are sold on-line using polished looking websites (which bear little resemblance to the conditions in which the dogs actually live), some are sold through newspaper ads and some are sold in Walmart parking lots. Regardless of how those dogs get to us - the consumer - we're talking about millions of dogs being infused into the pet industry each and every year. Those in breeding circles would argue that the dogs are bred simply to meet public demand and they are, to a degree, correct. They would tell you that there is a demand so they create the supply.
The bigger story is that we have been conditioned as a society for more than a hundred years to believe that pure bred dogs are superior to mixed breed dogs. We have also been conditioned to judge dogs the way we do other mass-produced products: be equating cost with value or worth. Surely, the argument goes, the $3,300 dog from a pet store is superior to a dog from a rescue group. Surely the $2,000 dog from a breeder is superior to a dog from an animal shelter. For all of our talk and back slapping to congratulate ourselves for being such an animal friendly society, we really are in many ways just a huge society of dog snobs. We are told that pure bred dogs or certain breeds of dogs are superior (when they often have a host of health issues, many of which have been bred into them to create a certain "look"). We are told that mixed breed dogs or certain breeds of dogs are either inferior or inherently dangerous. And we just buy all of it without exercising any independent thought at all because it's easier and because it's what we've been doing as long as anyone can remember.
On the opposite end of the options spectrum, we have shelter and rescue animals. At the same time that dogs are being bred by the millions, we are destroying dogs by the millions in municipally funded buildings we have the arrogance to call animal "shelters" even though most should just be called disposal facilities. Yes. Some of those animals we destroy using your and my tax dollars are truly suffering and for those animals, euthanasia is the only responsible and merciful alternative. There are also dogs entering our animal shelters who are genuinely so broken, for a host of reasons, that they are a risk to public safety and cannot be adopted out into homes in our communities. The rest of the animals we destroy in shelters in all but the most progressive communities are healthy and treatable animals whose only mistake is one of being unfortunate enough to have ended up in a building where they are treated as disposable. (It is estimated that 25 to 30 percent of shelter animals are pure bred.) In some communities, as many as 90% of shelter animals are destroyed using our tax dollars while we call it euthanasia or "putting them to sleep" or "putting them down" or some other euphemism to make ourselves feel better about the process. The vast majority of them either were, or could have been, someone's beloved pet. The consequence of this culture of killing savable animals is dire. Because we destroy them using our collective funds, we are conditioned to believe that something must be wrong with them or that they are somehow not worthy of sharing our homes and our lives with us. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this form of negative bias is incredibly difficult to overcome. When we add to the negative stereotype about shelter animals the fact that they are poorly marketed for the most part and it's no wonder that many people would never even consider adoption a dog from an animal shelter.
Back to the connection and why you should care about and learn about National Puppy Mill Awareness Day. Even if you are sure you have never financially supported a puppy mill or you are sure that your dog came from a reputable breeder, the subject of puppy mills and the commercial dog breeding industry affects all of us. We produce dogs by the millions when we already have millions of great dogs already needing homes. As long as we allow dogs to be produced in this volume and we ignore our broken animal sheltering system, people will continue to get dogs from sources other than animal shelters and rescue groups. And we will continue to destroy animals by the millions using our tax dollars for no good reason at all. It is our public shame. But it is also something we can all learn about so we can make better individual choices which affect us all.
I encourage you to find a Puppy Mill Awareness Day event near you and attend. Many are family friendly so you can bring your children and help educate them while you are educating yourself. Perhaps if you learn a little more about where our dogs come from, you will consider making better choices in the future which are more consistent with your individual values and with our values as a society. If you are not able to attend an event, I encourage you to learn more about this industry. You may not think you are supporting puppy mills, but in the end, we are all paying for them.
ASPCA Puppy Mill Information
Dog by Dog
Harley, The Little Dog with the Big Dream
National Mill Dog Rescue
National Puppy Mill Project
The Puppy Mill Project
The Dog Merchants
I was on my way to work and stopped at a light when I detected movement to my right. I looked at the vehicle next to me and that's when I saw it. A small white dog, sitting on the lap of a woman driving a mid-sized sedan. She was talking to the dog, stroking his ears and just before the light turned green, she kissed his head. At a glance, the image was sweet. She clearly loves her dog. But inside I was seething and mentally trying to find a way to communicate with her before the light changed.
I am the first to admit that I have strong opinions on a lot of issues and that I sometimes use my blog to rant. Well, - Rant Alert.
Traveling in your vehicle with pets, dogs or cats, is the same as traveling in your vehicle with small children. You would not hold a baby in your lap and you would not put a toddler in the bed of your pick-up truck. When you take your pets with you in your vehicle, it is your responsibility to ensure they travel safely from point A to point B. You may be the best driver on the planet. But the drivers around you are not. We have seen time and again how the increased used of phones and electronic devices while driving can lead to disaster in the blink of an eye. You can engage in defensive driving and situational awareness all day long, but you cannot control the driver next to you who is sending a text or who is so caught up in a phone conversation that only 20% of their focus is actually on driving.
There was a time when I really didn't give a lot of thought to how pets travel in vehicles. I am old enough to have grown up at a time when there were no seat belts and no such thing as a car seat for children. I often wonder how we all survived, but we did. I completely changed my mind on the topic of pet travel safety about 15 years ago and as a result of the tragic loss of a co-worker. I will spare you the specific details. I will say that when you are in an accident with your pet in your vehicle and your pet is not restrained, her or she becomes a living projectile. You can do your best to react quickly enough to try to keep your dog or cat from flying forward, backward or to the side, but is it unlikely that you will succeed. If your pet is anywhere near an airbag, he or she will probably be killed. If your pet is unrestrained in a back seat, as was the case with my co-worker's dog, he or she is likely to be thrown toward either a window or windshield, causing catastrophic injuries.
If you really love your dog or cat, as the woman I saw this morning surely does, do not travel with them in your lap, standing up with their head out of a window, in a seat near and airbag or unrestrained in any way. A split second can mean the difference between life and death for both you and your pets and since you surely will be wearing a seat belt, your pet should be safely restrained also.
Because of the size of our dogs, I am partial to the Sleepypod Clickit Sport Harness. It comes in sizes to suit most dogs and is the only harness approved by the Center for Pet Safety. If your dog is smaller or you are traveling with a cat, you can use a travel carrier that is designed for inside of a vehicle. It took Aspy a couple of trips to get used to his harness, but once he figured out that he could stand, move around and put his head out the window, he stepped into it easily. I dare say that he enjoyed wearing it because he knew he was safer and he could lean just a little further out the window and smell the life going on all around us. I know that I always felt safer knowing he was restrained. He might have broken a bone in an accident, but I knew I had done all I can to keep him safe and with no regrets.
I hope the woman I saw this morning made it safely to her destination with her dog unscathed. As long as she continues to carry her dog in her lap, she is risking the life of her dog with every mile traveled. Should something happen to that dog, it will surely change her life forever and that's just incredibly sad to me.
Be safe. Be responsible. Please.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson