Friday, October 29, 2010

Animal Sacrifice

In the United States, October is known for Halloween. Millions of kids and adults will dress up as their favorite monster or celebrity and go to parties and trick or treat.

But in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, October is known for festivals involving animal sacrifices on a massive scale. In Bangladesh and some parts of India, the festival of Dussehra involves the ritual slaughter of thousands of animals at temples in honor of the Hindu goddess Sati. During the festival of Durga Puja, in order to honor the goddess Durga, animals are also slaughtered at temples throughout India and Bangladesh. In most of India, animal sacrifice is illegal and authorities and animal welfare organizations have been working to convince locals to replace the animal sacrifice, known as bali, with other offerings like pumpkins, cucumbers and other foods.

But no festival in South Asia demands more animal lives be lost than Nepal’s festival of Dashain, which began on October 15 and runs for fifteen days. Each year, hundreds of thousands of animals are sacrificed for the goddess Durga. In temples around the country, thousands of water buffaloes, pigs, goats, chickens and ducks are killed in order to please the goddess and protect against evil. So many animals are needed that they need to be trucked in from India and Tibet; one news report said that 20 truckloads of buffaloes are arriving daily. In 2009, over a million animals lost their lives in this two week period. Another Nepalese event is the month-long Gadhimai festival, which occurs every five years in November and likewise involves the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of animals to the goddess Gadhimai, in order to end evil and bring prosperity. Gadhimai draws millions of attendees from both Nepal and India, who come because animal sacrifice is legal here.

In recent years, Nepalese animal rights organizations like Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN) have been attempting to stop the sacrifices and substitute new activities for the celebrations, but have thus far been unable to sway public opinion. AWNN argues that animal sacrifice is not consistent with Hindu values, and that goddesses like Durga, who is a symbol of both power and motherly love, would not want animals to be slaughtered in their name.

Proponents of animal sacrifice in South Asia note that not only are these practices cultural traditions that date back thousands of years, but that the animals live better lives than the billions of animals who are raised and killed for food every year in Western factory farms. We could also add that Westerners’ distaste at practices like this stem in part from the very public, and very bloody, way in which the animals are killed. In the United States, animals are killed in slaughterhouses which very few of us will ever see, in conditions which are, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Their suffering is thus invisible, allowing us to conveniently ignore it. The killing of animals in India, Bangladesh and Nepal is, for sure, brutal (many of the animals are hacked to death and beheaded), but comparatively speaking, even a few hundred thousand animals who lose their lives this way (in countries where meat consumption is quite low) is relatively minor compared to the billions of animals who lose their lives every year in the US.

On the other hand, if local activists are ultimately successful in ending, or even minimizing, the slaughter in Nepal, as they appear to be in India, hundreds of thousands of animals per year will be saved. Then the spotlight will be even brighter on Americans, who so often take the moral high ground when it comes to the practices of other cultures, but whose own behaviors are hardly morally pure.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Getting animals out of War Zones

In my Animals & Society class this semester, one of my students is a dog.

Actually, one of my students is a veteran of the Iraq war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who brings his psychiatric service dog, Rock, with him to class. Service dogs who assist veterans are able to help these men and women cope with problems like depression, anger, social isolation, nightmares, and panic attacks. Dogs like this protect the veteran from crowds and situations that might make them anxious. They provide a loving, calming presence to these people, can act as a social lubricant in social situations, allowing them to re-enter society, and turn on lights and check rooms to help their person feel safe.

This particular student has shared with me that his wife, also a veteran, has been fighting to bring her service dog home with her from the war. Many Americans don’t realize that dogs have long served with the American military—as guard dogs, to retrieve injured soldiers from the battlefield, as messengers, as scouts, as trackers, and, in recent wars, to detect mines.
The life of a military dog is, as one might guess, very dangerous. There are no estimates for how many dogs have been killed or injured during war, but thousands have died in the Vietnam war alone. War is not only dangerous for dogs, but as for people, it is stressful. It is only in recent years that scientists recognize that dogs can be afflicted with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Another very sad reality for military dogs is that since World War II, when surviving military dogs were able to return home after the end of the war, it has been American military policy to not allow war dogs to return to the United States. Instead, the dogs who served their countries, and saved the lives of American soldiers, have either been left on the battlefield or killed outright. At the end of the Vietnam War, most of the American military dogs were either killed or left for the South Vietnamese Army; many of those dogs were no doubt eaten. After years of public outrage, in 2000 legislation was passed to allow retired military dogs to return home, where they either live with the soldiers with whom they served, or can be adopted into new families.

Even with the new law, it is difficult for many soldiers to bring the dogs who they served with home with them. Many remain at war to serve with a new soldier after their previous handler has been discharged. For those that are allowed to retire, they are carefully evaluated for aggression or other temperament issues that would make the dogs dangerous at home, and are only placed with families (or law enforcement agencies) who understand the responsibilities of owning such unusual dogs. Adopters must also sign an agreement that absolves the US government of liability for damage or injury the dog may cause.

Many other soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan have befriended local dogs and cats, and on discharge from the military, have sought to bring those dogs home. Historically, this was impossible as the US military did not allow soldiers to bring home animals adopted from other countries, and in fact, often killed animals found wandering around US bases overseas. In recent years, though, animal protection organizations have rallied support and resources to allow soldiers to bring home animals that they’ve befriended.

The ASPCA International has a project called Operation Baghdad Pups which helps soldiers to bring animals home from Iraq, and a British-based organization, founded by a former soldier, Nowdaz, brings back dogs from Afghanistan and Iraq. (Nowzad also offers resources to help dogs, cats, horses and donkeys receive better treatment in Afghanistan.) These animals have provided comfort to soldiers during war, and most people agree that they should be allowed to come to the United States with their adopted soldiers. In addition, they often risk death or starvation if left behind, as neither Afghanistan nor Iraq currently has a culture that is very dog or cat friendly—especially when it comes to stray dogs or cats. Unfortunately, even with the US government permits the animals to come home, soldiers must fill out mountains of paperwork and must arrange for the dogs to be vaccinated and transported out of a war zone—which can cost thousands of dollars.

Projects like Operation Baghdad Pups and Nowzad recognize that the dogs and cats that the soldiers have found while at war not only helped them to cope with the traumas and anxieties of serving at war, but also can help the soldiers to reintegrate back into society when back home. And perhaps more importantly, they recognize that the soldier’s motto, “leave no one behind,” should extend to non-human animals as well.

To help get animals out of war zones, and into the families of the soldiers who love them, visit and

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New semester brings new promise

Yesterday was the first day of classes at my college, Central New Mexico Community College. For me, this was a more exciting day than usual because I am now teaching, only for the second time at this school, a sociology course I created called Animals & Society. From my syllabus:

“This course is designed to bring into the realm of sociological inquiry the relationships that exist between humans and other animals. A major focus will be on the social construction of animals in American culture and the way in which these social meanings are used to perpetuate hierarchical human/human relationships such as racism, sexism, and class privilege. Animal/human interaction in several major social institutions will be studied. We will also examine how different human groups construct a range of identities for themselves and for others through animals. Finally, we will examine several of the major philosophical positions about human social policy regarding the future of animal/human relations. What are the ethical, ecological and societal consequences of continuing our current patterns into the 21st century?”

As readers of this blog most likely know, courses like mine are relatively new in American colleges and universities, but thanks to the work of human-animal studies scholars, and the efforts of ASI, they are becoming more prevalent every year. The ASI website lists 245 HAS courses in North America alone (not counting law school courses), with an additional 38 in Australia and New Zealand, and 12 in Europe, plus a number of online courses and degree programs. Students today with an interest in human-animal studies have more places to go and more courses and programs to take than ever before.

In the case of my new students, I took a brief survey yesterday to find out why the students took the class. While many just took it because it fulfills an elective requirement and “sounds interesting,” a number of students registered because they have a strong interest in (or love of) animals and want to pursue that interest more deeply. One student is planning to become a veterinarian and another is working on her prerequisites for the CNM Veterinary Tech program (in which I also teach a section).

Realistically, I know that of the 25 students who showed up for class yesterday, about a third will drop out before the end of the semester. That seems to happen in all my classes. But of the students who remain, I feel confident that all will be challenged by the end of the semester to think about animals in a different way, and that, in turn, will most likely affect how they will treat animals.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Banning the Sale of Pets

Here are some headlines from this week’s news sites: “San Francisco’s War on Pets” (AOL News); “Put Down the Hamster and Slowly Walk Away” (NPR); “Squashing Children’s Dreams: San Francisco Considers a Ban on Pets” (

It would appear from these stories that San Francisco, well-known for its controversial, “only-in-San Francisco” policies on everything from gay marriage to plastic grocery bags to cell phones, is planning on banning the keeping of pets within city limits.

As an animal lover, I would be indeed shocked by such a proposal. Why would San Francisco, named after St. Francis, patron saint of animals, suggest banning companion animals?
In fact, San Francisco’s Commission of Animal Control and Animal Welfare had proposed asking the Board of Supervisors to ban selling animals in the city, to cut down on the number of animals sold, abandoned, and then euthanized at the city’s shelter. Yet the commission’s meeting last Thursday night was so contentious, and the subsequent news reports so antagonistic, that the Commission ended up tabling the proposal.

Why was what seems to this writer to be such an eminently simple and straightforward proposal mocked and opposed so vehemently? Predictably, the pet store owners (and animal breeders who supply them) would be opposed to any proposed law which would cut into their profits. But why was the public—and the media—so overwhelmingly opposed to it?

I have to say, I am confused. Everyone knows the numbers—every year, between 3 and 4 million dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals are euthanized in this country’s public and private shelters. While San Francisco Animal Care and Control’s numbers are not publically available, Oakland, which is just across the bay, euthanizes close to 40% of all animals surrendered to the city’s shelter every year. That comes out to be 2631 animals in 2009. Oakland is just one of over two dozen such shelters in the bay area, all with their own euthanasia numbers. Nationwide, the numbers are even higher, with an average of 50% of all animals surrendered to animal shelters being euthanized due to behavioral or health problems, overcrowding, and lack of a good home.

The loss of life and the suffering that this entails is enormous. The cost to taxpayers is also substantial. It costs taxpayers about $105 for an animal control officer to pick up a stray dog or cat, transport the animal to the shelter, provide food and water for the animal, euthanize the animal if not adopted or reunited with his family, and send the body to the landfill. Animal control programs in this country alone cost $2 billion per year, and this does not count the millions that private animal rescue groups spend to rescue and re-home animals.

Sure, there are all kinds of complicated and simple reasons why people abandon or relinquish their companion animals: the owners were not educated as to the needs of the animal; the animal’s care was more than they expected; the family’s situation—finances, housing, marriage—has changed; the animal did not get along with other family pets or family members, etc. etc. But ultimately, the problem comes down to one thing: the breeding and sale of companion animals when there are not enough homes for them.

San Francisco’s Animal Welfare Commission simply decided that, on top of all of the other programs that the city is engaged in (promoting low cost spay/neuter; increasing foster homes; providing low cost behavior training; humane education, and the like), prohibiting the sale of animals within the city would discourage people from impulse purchases and encourage folks who would like a pet to visit one of the city’s shelters or rescue groups.

Sadly, this simple proposal was shelved, because not only do the pet stores need to safeguard their profits, but because much of the public apparently feels that it would infringe upon their rights—to buy a purebred animal, to buy a young animal, to buy an animal without any sort of adoption screening, to buy an animal at the neighborhood pet store rather than adopting from the local shelter, and to buy an animal without having to be educated on their care first.

But what about the right of animals to not be bred so that they can be sold into a family, abandoned when no longer convenient, and then put to death by the very same animal care staff whose jobs it is to care for them?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Profits before Lives

This week, the Chicago animal rights group Mercy for Animals released a chilling undercover video showing workers at Conklin Dairy Farms in Plain City, Ohio kicking, stomping, stabbing and beating dairy cows and their calves. This video, and the countless other videos, reports, and materials about the lives of dairy cattle (and their infant sons, who become veal calves), is vivid proof of the brutalities of the dairy industry.

Yet for industry apologists, that's not the case at all. If anything, Mercy for Animals' investigation only demonstrates that there are a few "bad apples" in every industry or workplace, and that the actions of these few workers do not reflect on the industry as a whole. In Conklin's case, the employee featured in the video was fired by the company, and remaining employees will be retrained, according to a company statement.

This response, which follows undercover investigations conducted at slaughterhouses, biomedical labs, circuses, zoos, pig, poultry, egg, and dairy farms, and even pet stores, is typical of industries trying to protect their image and maintain their profits.

But it's not just the animal exploitation industries which offer such automatic, predictable responses when they are caught engaged in such abuse. Whether it's British Petroleum after the recent (and ongoing) massive oil spill in the Gulf or Massey Energy after the April mine explosion, companies routinely take the position that "mistakes were made" which led to these deadly disasters, and that those mistakes should not reflect negatively on the companies.

Only in the left wing media is serious attention paid to the ways that companies like Massey, BP, or dairy, poultry or pig farms routinely engage in practices which put humans, animals, or the environment at risk. While mine explosions or oil rig explosions may be accidental, in the sense that no one intended for those tragedies to occur, and while the employee manuals at poultry or dairy farms may not require employees to beat animals, these occurrences are not aberrations; they are standard and expected occurrences for industries which put profits above worker or animal safety.

Just this week, documents surfaced that showed that British Petroleum used a cost benefit analysis in 2002 in order to help them decide what kind of housing to build for its workers at a Texas refinery-inexpensive trailer homes which would have no chance of surviving a refinery blast, or concrete and steel housing which would cost ten times as much, but could withstand such a blast. The document, which used the "three little pigs" fairy tale (and was even illustrated with drawings of three pigs) as an analogy, recommended the cheaper housing. Another BP document put a ten million dollar value on the workers' lives (based on estimated costs incurred in possible lawsuits) and even with that figure, the cost of cheaper housing combined with the potential lawsuits was still recommended over the more expensive housing. Three years later, the refinery caught fire and 15 workers (most of whom were in the trailers) were killed and 170 others injured.

This week, BP responded to these documents by assuring the public that BP takes worker safety seriously, and that "those documents are several years old." Just a few bad apples, and not at all indicative of the cost-control measures that BP takes on a daily basis. Yet it appears that BP is continuing to put cost-savings (and profits) above safety. The Deepwater Horizon rig explosion may well have been prevented had BP installed a $50,000 acoustic trigger which would have shut off the well when the explosion occurred. A $50,000 savings in exchange for 11 worker lives, and an oil spill that is still, five weeks out, gushing millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf, threatening the lives of marine plants and animals for decades-or centuries-to come.

Animal industries too, maximize profits by cutting costs, and usually those costs are borne by the animals themselves, who endure living conditions which are unceasingly brutal. Activities that could provide pleasure--like a soft bed, fresh air, grass, the ability to run and play, the ability to nurse and raise one's offspring--are disallowed because they don't add to the company's bottom line. Even beating and stabbing animals at farms and slaughterhouses makes economic sense--when workers are under pressure to meet unreasonable quotas, they often respond by beating the animals to make them move faster.

Ultimately, the worker at the center of the Conklin Dairy Farm abuse scandal will be arrested and will face prosecution for his actions. Whether he will pay a penalty of any kind is questionable, given the scanty legal protection for farm animals in this country. But regardless of the price paid by this one man, this one "bad apple," and regardless of his motivations, dairy farms like Conklin will continue to put profits above animal welfare. Because it just makes economic sense.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coping with Fatigue

Another week, more bad news for animals.

After last week's stunning Supreme Court decision to throw out the 1999 law banning crush videos and other videos depicting animal cruelty (U.S. v. Stevens), animal activists and animal lovers were stunned. If the filming of blatant (and illegal) acts of animal cruelty is now a protected form of free speech, then we can expect not only the revival of the crush video industry, but all manner of videos showing unbelievable cruelty. Luckily, just one day after the Supreme Court's ruling, Representatives Jim Moran and Elton Gallegly have introduced a new bill which would more narrowly focus on crush videos and thus not antagonize the hunting industry who sided with the Supreme Court's ruling.

Last week also saw the collapse of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, which resulted in the deaths of eleven workers, and five thousand barrels of oil being leaked into the Gulf every day. While the Coast Guard has been attempting to burn off some of the oil to keep it from entering sensitive wetlands near Louisiana, officials have not yet been able to plug the leaks. Animals who live in the area and who will be impacted form the spill include sea turtles, whales, porpoises, dolphins, tuna, sharks, pelicans, oysters and crabs and a variety of migratory shore birds and song birds. Many of these animals are in the midst of their spawning and nesting seasons, which means that future generations of these animals could be lost as well.
Then of course, like every other week, new cases of animal cruelty keep appearing in local news, such as the two cats who were doused with gasoline this week in Quincy, Massachusetts, resulting in their deaths.

And those are just the news items for the week. Animal activists are burdened with information that is not reported in the news. We know, for example, that every year, 10 billion domesticated land animals are slaughtered for food in the United States, which breaks down to 27 million each and every day, approximately 20 million vertebrate animals are used (and most of them are ultimately killed) for medical research and testing in the US, which breaks down to about 55,000 animals per day, and that 30 million animals are slaughtered for their fur every year, or about 82,000 per day. In addition, the federal government kills about 2 million wild animals per year (about 5,500 per day) at the behest of hunters, property owners and cattle ranchers, and an unknown number of animals (also in the millions) are killed by hunters every year in this country alone. We're also aware of the fact that about 4 million former pets are killed at animal shelters every year, or about 11,000 per day.

Those are very big numbers, and that is a lot of killing. How can we deal with the enormity of these figures? How do we deal with it?

Obviously, many of us have made changes in our personal lives--we may no longer eat animals, wear them, or participate in activities that cause them harm. Countless others are involved in activism--in educating our friends and families, in writing letters and blogs and petitions, in pushing for meaningful social change. Many of us volunteer or work at the local level, in our animal shelters, for example, or have gotten involved in state or federal or international organizations that work to protect animals.

But it never seems like enough, honestly. And sometimes the fatigue of knowing how much suffering exists feels overwhelming. Known as "compassion fatigue," animal welfare workers, volunteers, and activists are all at risk for being overwhelmed and traumatized by the constant suffering, and the knowledge that what we do is never enough. Many of us are depressed, and deal with that depression in unhealthy ways. Many of us use food or alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.

But thankfully, many of us also take solace in the community of animal lovers and activists who share our values and our convictions. We find communion with others like us who put the lives of animals, and the protection of the planet, above our own needs. We form networks with like minded people, supporting each other, sharing stories, having fun together, and forming life-long bonds.

And we try to learn to take care of ourselves, through engaging in activities that bring us relief and happiness. Sometimes this is the hardest lesson to learn--when animals are suffering so much, why do I deserve some happiness? But it may be the most important thing we can do to ensure that we continue to help others. And sometimes this can be as simple as hopping over to your favorite cute animal website for a quick pickup. For me, that site is Pick your own, and visit it often. You deserve it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Animals in Captivity

The recent case of a SeaWorld trainer who was killed by Tilikum, a performing whale kept at SeaWorld in Orlando, has generated intense debate about whether marine mammals like Tilikum should be kept in captivity at all. As expected, the animal welfare community, and a surprising number of supporters from outside of this community, recommend ceasing the practice of keeping marine mammals as entertainment, while representatives of marine mammal parks and zoos advocate keeping captive wild animals, arguing that shows like the Shamu show at SeaWorld are less about entertainment and more about education and conservation. The Academy Award-nominated film The Cove, which highlighted the gruesome manner in which dolphins are caught (and killed) in Japan, added fuel to this debate.

It is shameful that it takes the tragic death of a woman, SeaWorld’s Dawn Brancheau, or the covert filming of thousands of dolphins being brutally slaughtered, to shed light on these issues. For much of the public, it is difficult to see the harm in keeping wild animals captive, when entertainment venues such as circuses, marine mammal parks, and even zoos hide their morally unpleasant dealings behind a façade of glitzy performances or even conservation rhetoric. What’s wrong with visiting the zoo, or the circus, or a marine mammal park?

In my adopted state of New Mexico, residents were recently horrified to hear that Kashka, a “beloved” sixteen-year old giraffe kept at the Rio Grande Zoo, was dumped in a zoo dumpster and carted off to the landfill after being euthanized last week. What was the outrage about? Were people horrified at the callous treatment of an animal who brought profits to the local zoo and pleasure to local residents?

It turns out that dumping dead zoo animals in the landfill is standard procedure after an animal has died, but that Kashka’s body should have been driven directly to the landfill, rather than placed into the dumpster for pickup with the rest of the zoo trash. A worker is currently under investigation for this breach in protocol.

But apparently no one cares about the fact that Kashka, a 2200 pound animal who, in Africa, would roam with her family over a range that extends up to 100 square miles, and could run as fast as 35 miles per hour, was kept in an enclosure at the zoo which was a tiny fraction of her natural habitat. Kashka should have been living in Africa with her kin, traveling and mating and socializing with her fellow giraffes, foraging for food, and even dying in the wild. No one had a right to take her away from that life and to force her to live in a tiny space, to give birth to babies who will eventually be sold to other zoos, all to entertain and “educate” the public. And while she certainly should not have been dumped in a dumpster after her death, the reality is that that sad ending was only the final sad coda to a very sad life.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Registry for Animal Abusers

Not a week goes by without a story in the news of a case of animal abuse or neglect somewhere in the country. This week the big story was in Great Falls Montana, where John Carman appeared in court to face charges of aggravated animal cruelty, stemming from leaving over 200 animals in a barn without food or water. All of the animals starved to death. Unbelievably, Carman is only facing a $2,500 fine, and a maximum of two years in jail. While Montana is one of forty-six states with felony-level charges for animal cruelty, it was recently ranked 35th in the nation by the Humane Society of the United States for its animal protection laws, so the likelihood that Carman will truly pay for his egregious crime is slim.

California, on the other hand, was ranked number one in the rankings thanks to its laws protecting companion animals, horses, farmed animals and wild animals from a variety of abuses.

California’s animals may have even more protection soon, if a proposed state law creating a criminal registry for animal abusers passes the state legislature. Last week, state Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) proposed the bill, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, and would require anyone convicted of felony animal cruelty to register with the police, as sex offenders are required to do under the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Act. In addition, the law would also mirror Megan’s Law, which requires states to notify the public of sex offenders in their communities. SB 1277 would require that California not only maintain a database of animal abusers, but that names, addresses, and photos would be posted online. (Currently, there are a handful of private websites that list such abusers’ names, but none are comprehensive.) The bill would be funded by a tax on pet food.

What would be the effects of such a law? According to a 2009 study, Megan’s Law has failed to deter sex crimes or reduce the victims of sex crimes. Still, the public still supports both the sex offender registry as well as the public notification requirement, and proponents claim that it allows parents to better protect their children, since parents can find out whether sex offenders live in their communities.

SB 1277 could be expected to function in a similar manner. While it would likely not discourage people from abusing their animals, it would give the public—in particular those who either sell or adopt out animals to the public—a way to find out whether potential adopters are convicted animal abusers. Currently, those of us who run animal rescue organizations have no way to find out the background of potential adopters, and this could be one more tool to help us to evaluate strangers.

Of course the proposed legislation will be heavily fought on the grounds that it curtails the civil liberties of those who have broken the law and who have “done their time.” But unlike sex offenders, animal abusers—even those convicted of felony abuse charges—rarely pay more than a small fine and even more rarely serve any time in prison. In one recent case, Liz Carlisle, a young Petland employee who drowned two rabbits and then posted a photo of herself--smiling gleefully--holding their soaking corpses on her Facebook page, plead guilty to two counts of animal cruelty and was sentenced to probation. At least with an animal abuser registry, not only could animal adoption agencies find out about Carlisle’s past, but future employers—like Petland—could as well. This is a woman who should never be around animals again, and unfortunately, there is currently no legal way to keep animals safe from her.

Finally, one reason why sex offenders—and not bank robbers, drunk drivers, or even murderers—are the target of legislation like Megan’s Law is that they are especially prone to recidivism. Animal abusers are too. Hoarders, for example, are especially likely to offend again, and a law like Florez’s would provide the public with enough information to make it at least more difficult for them to acquire animals again.

Ridiculously Cute Photo of the Day

From Cute Overload, where else?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Stray Animals and the Poor

This week, the lieutenant governor of South Carolina, Andre Bauer, compared children who get subsidized school lunches to animals when he told a story about his grandmother instructing him not to feed stray animals. "You know why?" he asked in a speech, "Because they breed! You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a human ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."

Like Missouri State Representative Cynthia Davis, who last year opposed government programs to feed hungry children and famously said “hunger can be a positive motivator,” Bauer, who pointed out the correlation between low test scores in school and children who receive subsidized lunches, concluded that it is free lunches that cause the low test scores, and not poverty.

Commentators have pointed out the insensitivity and ignorance of Bauer’s remarks and the inevitable conclusion: that starving poor children will reduce poverty because it will stop them from breeding.

Bauer, who plans on running for governor of South Carolina, has now apologized for his choice of metaphors, but stands by the sentiment—that providing food or assistance to the poor keeps them dependent, and thus contributes to the continuation of poverty.

But on top of apologizing for insulting the poor by comparing them to stray animals, and implying that too much free food is to blame for their poverty, perhaps Bauer should consider apologizing to animals for his faulty logic in the first place.

Why does Bauer (or his uneducated grandmother who originally taught him this lesson) think that the problem of stray animals lies in their being fed?

Dogs and cats are stray not because they are fed too much, or even because they reproduce too much. They are stray because they have been abandoned, and prior to their abandonment, they were most likely bred by someone who wanted to profit off of the birth of puppies or kittens, wanted to experience the “beauty of birth,” or simply did not take the responsible position and spay or neuter their companion animal.

That stray animals breed is a function of the fact that they were never neutered or spayed—this, like the fact that they were abandoned, is not the fault of the animal but the “owner” who was responsible for them.

Animals are stray not because they breed, or because they are fed too much, but because no one cared enough about them to start with. They were intentionally, carelessly, or casually bred, and were then left to fend for themselves when caring for them became too much work.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, 6-8 million former companion animals enter animal shelters every year, and of those, 3-4 million are euthanized. Many of those animals were surrendered by their families, and many were found as strays, wandering city streets. In either case, these animals were once bred or allowed to breed, by humans, and were ultimately abandoned to fend for themselves.

That Bauer, or anyone else who shares Bauer’s sentiments, could assume that feeding unwanted animals is what causes or even exacerbates the problem is not just ignorant and insensitive, but cruel. While feeding a stray animal will not solve the problem of homeless animals—spay/neuter programs, public education, increased shelter adoptions, and legislation mandating responsible care and treatment of companion animals are needed for that—it can certainly make one hungry animal’s life a little bit easier. That the potential future governor of South Carolina would deny hungry animals food, just as he would deny hungry children food, is a scary thought indeed.