“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
~ Mahatma Ghandi
Take a trip to your local animal shelter and you’ll soon notice that there are very few, if any, empty cages. You might see Dogs and Cats in makeshift pens and crates stacked up in corners, hallways, and lobby areas, too. It seems that space for unwanted animals is a rare commodity.
Before we explore the reasons for this, let me begin by saying the solution to this problem is unequivocally and absolutely NOT to kill animals to make more room. The outright murder of healthy, conscious, self-aware beings, no matter how it’s spun with words like “euthanasia”, or “mercy killing”, is a shameful and inexcusable act of violence. This is not the point of this article. I am simply asking the question: “Why are there so many unwanted Dogs and Cats?” According to some research, it’s simply a matter of dissatisfaction with the relationship (Collison, 2015). However, there are specific reasons that contribute to relinquishment. What follows is an incomplete list of these possible reasons why, and my hope is that it will begin to get you thinking more about our relationship with non-humans.
- Too Many Dogs and Cats.
This seems an obvious point. However the question is why are there so many? The answer is simple: We continue to create them.
Whether it’s the deplorable practice of puppy and kitten mills that mass-produce animals in the cruelest and most vile conditions, just to make a profit – or the elite show-Dog or Cat breeder that exploit their animals for fame and money – all breeding must come to an end. It is morally reprehensible to “manufacture” conscious life for amusement and profit. Unfortunately, organizations such as the American Kennel Club continue to promote “responsible breeding” (whatever that means) for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the breeds. These are not automobiles, where continuing to build Volkswagen Beetles is a nostalgic undertaking. Most of the breeds that have been manufactured are no longer serving their original intended purpose. We have created Dogs with strong predatory drives that are no longer based on hunger, and therefore live with constant frustration from an itch they can never scratch. We’ve genetically constructed Dogs and Cats with distorted faces and skeletal structures that create chronic health issues (just look at a bulldog or a munchkin cat), Dogs have been genetically manipulated to behave in ways that are not acceptable in our (uptight) culture, such as herding Dogs or livestock guardians. This is not the fault of the Dog, we made them that way, and then we set up the rules in opposition to the very drives we installed in them in the first place. We make more and more and more – and at the same time there are so many discarded lives in need. All for our own use and pleasure.
2. The “Disneyfication” of Dogs and Cats.
Turn on your television at any moment, and you’re sure to see a commercial for Dog food, Cat litter, or some other pet related product. Do the animals in those commercials really behave that way? Probably not. Sure, the manufacturers of those products would like you to believe if you buy their product your own Dog will become that way – just as the Marlboro Man image was used to sell cigarettes (and we all know how that worked out). This imagery paints an unrealistic picture of living with animals and creates unrealistic expectations. When reality hits, we give up on the animals. It’s the same with popular movies, books, TV shows, etc. They present Dogs and Cats, even when they are mischievous, in an unnatural way (Beethoven, Marley and Me, That Darn Cat, etc.). To me, this is disrespectful. If we love Dogs and Cats, then we should love them as Dogs and Cats, not as caricatures.
3. Ego-Centric Animal Shelters.
Where I live, in Northeast Pennsylvania, there are two animal shelters within close proximity, and like Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. One shelter is run smoothly, efficiently, and most importantly, compassionately. They put the needs of their animal guests first, and the egos of the staff and management last.
The other one has been riddled with problems. It is run by leadership that has, at times, put control over compassion and procedure over purpose.
Running an animal shelter is not an easy task. I lived it – I was the Director of Operations and Behavior for five branches of the Pennsylvania SPCA for a few years, and spent the past 35 years consulting to shelters across the Northeast U.S. It take a tremendous amount of time and dedication, and it means being selfless – always putting the mission of the shelter above your own needs. Therefore, when a shelter is not managed in a compassionate and effective way, the animals suffer. Fewer adoptions are made and morale of the staff, volunteers and the animals sink. It becomes a vicious circle that ends in misery for everyone.
I’m going to tread lightly here, as this topic deserves a much more in-depth discussion, but I will express a few relevant points. Speciesism is: “the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals.” When we feel that our lives matter more than that of our Dogs and Cats (or any sentient being), we have no problem “disposing” of them if our relationship with them isn’t perfect. Our society doesn’t value Dogs or Cats as much as people.
Statistically, the number one reason animals are surrendered to shelters is economics, where someone’s living situation has changed and they can no longer afford to keep the animal. We don’t give up our children, spouses or family members in these situations, yet our culture views Dogs and Cats as less important, so the available financial help is non-existent. This is putting one species above another. It has been shown that the relationships between a human and and animal is just as emotionally binding as that as human to human (Smolkovic, Fajfar, Mlinaric, 2012) , yet our politicians, landlords, etc. don’t see it that way or they just don’t care. Therefore, when tragedy strikes, once again it is the Dog or the Cat that suffers, and in many cases, the Human suffers just as much.
Avidya is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “ignorance”. “Vidya” (the root of our word vision) means “to see”, and the prefix “A” means “non”. So Avidya literally means “not to see”. So what is it that we don’t see that contributes to the over population of unwanted animals?
As I eluded to in the previous section: Speciesism. We don’t see Dogs or Cats or any non-human as our equals. When we see them as pets, or tools, and when we see ourselves as owners instead of friends, then we devalue their lives. We separate ourselves from them and lord over them. We have traded connection for control.
Some of this perception comes from the dominion mandate, but that concept has been debated even among theological scholars. All life, whether it’s life that we “manufactured” (domesticated), or wild life, is part of, and has, as Henri Bergson describes, an “Elán Vital”; a Vital Spirit or Life Force. Every living creature that walks, swims, crawls or flies – has consciousness (The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness). They may be different in how they manifest that consciousness, but it makes it no less important than our own. Suffering is suffering is suffering.
So, what can we do?
1. First, STOP ALL BREEDING! I know this is a lot to ask, especially with the multi-billion dollar pet industry that benefits from the mass production of “pets”. It begs the question, Is the money worth the suffering? “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) We need to devote our energies to caring for the ones that are already with us, and stop making more and more.
2. Enjoy watching the movies and television shows that present Dogs and Cats in an unrealistic light, but remind ourselves that it’s not reality. Give our Dogs and Cats a hug and tell them we love them ‘Just the way they are’.
3. Support animal shelters and rescue groups that really care about the animals. There are so many that need help. Do Your Homework! Adopt, Foster, Donate, Volunteer.
4. Patronize those business establishments that are welcoming to animals. Enlighten and educate those who are not. Try to refrain from using animal products, and avoid those companies that test on animals. Send a message that their lives are as important as ours is.
5. Lets end our obsession with control, and strive for connection. Rather than trying to forcibly thrust away the darkness, all we need to do is bring in the light. If we truly open our eyes and see that non-humans are equal to ourselves – that they suffer, aspire, love, feel, and think; that they are self-aware and self-determined – then the lives of millions and millions of Dogs, Cats, Horses, Birds, Cows, Pigs, etc, etc. will be greatly improved. And since we are all connected – we are all part of a great interrelated continuum – our own lives will be improved as well. Then, perhaps, animal shelters will become only a distant memory, because everyone will have a home.