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” (Examiner.com).
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?