Monday, February 28, 2011

Animals in the News

Animals are in the news every week, and indeed, not a day goes by when a Google News search for the term “animal” does not bring up multiple hits: dog fighting rings busted, another hoarder found with dozens or hundreds of animals, a handful of animal abuse or neglect cases making their slow way through the court system, and happier stories of animal heroes, events benefiting animals, and people who have dedicated their lives to saving animals.

But non-human animals can also be found hidden in the margins of the rest of the news. Even when they’re not included in the news stories, they often have a stake in the news, are impacted by the news, or play a hidden role in the news.

For example, many news items appear daily regarding the continuing problems in the US economy, and how states and cities are struggling to balance their budgets in the face of declining tax revenue and a loss of federal support. We hear about the tough choices that governors, mayors and legislators are having to make, and the potential impact of those choices on people. Wages and benefits are being cut, as are social services, making it hard for many citizens already struggling to keep their heads above the poverty level.

But animals are also impacted by these budgetary cuts. As animal control agencies find their budgets slashed, they must make difficult choices too. Some agencies are electing to cut important services, such as picking up stray animals, or providing low-cost spay/neuter services, which will cause more animal suffering. And at the same time that these agencies are facing a loss of needed income, they have a greater burden on their hands, as more people abandon their animals because they can no longer afford to care for them. Each new foreclosure and layoff potentially can mean another animal ends up at the shelter.

In other news, the world has been watching the events unfold in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Iran with a mixture of wonder, concern and excitement. For many Westerners, the revolutions and unrest in these countries is a positive sign that the dictatorships that have long run many Middle Eastern countries may be coming to an end, hopefully to be replaced by democracies and human rights. Others are worried that with the end of these regimes, we may see more instability in this region, and possibly a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment.

But these political changes have impacted non-human animals as well. In Egypt, for example, animals like camels, donkeys and horses are starving to death, as the tourist industry has dried up and the animals’ owners could no longer feed them. Many other Egyptians have abandoned their companion animals, leading to greater numbers of dogs and cats on the streets, fending for themselves in the chaos. Even Egypt’s famed cats, so much a symbol of both ancient and modern Egypt, are suffering.

In Christchurch New Zealand, which was recently hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, hundreds of people have died and the city is reeling; a week later, rescue crews are still locating survivors and finding dead bodies amidst the rubble. But while it is not covered in the international news, we know that wherever humans suffer, animals tend to suffer as well. So what of the missing and dead animals? Or the animals who are separated from their human loved ones, who are not allowed to return to the devastation of their homes until authorities declare the areas safe? Luckily, New Zealand has a well-developed network of animal charities working to save animals and reunite animals and humans after the disaster.

In my state of New Mexico, we were recently slammed by a record-breaking cold front which devastated the state and resulted in the loss of gas—and heat—to thousands of New Mexicans during the coldest week in decades. Luckily, no people died during this crisis. The news has not reported on whether any animals suffered from the cold, but given how many animals in New Mexico live outdoors—from horses and goats and cows to dogs and cats and rabbits—it is most likely the case that at least some animals froze to death. That was certainly the case with 35 animals who died in the cold at a zoo in northern Mexico in early February.

But my point is that our lives are intertwined, human and non-human, and our fates, good and bad, are similarly interconnected. Sometimes you have to read between the lines in the daily news, but if the news impacts more than a few people, it probably impacts more than a few animals as well.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Another holiday, another throw away animal

Another holiday, another excuse for throw-away animals.

For rabbit lovers, it was bad enough that Easter is the time of the year when uninformed families purchase pet rabbits to give to their children. Because of Easter’s long association with rabbits (which itself derives from the rabbit’s connection to the moon and association with rebirth and regeneration), the rabbit is the go-to animal to not only symbolize the holiday, but to purchase, in live form, as a gift for it.

Baby bunnies, as well as chicks and ducklings, are purchased at pet stores and feed stores every year as gifts, and every year, many of those same rabbits find themselves abandoned at animal shelters, or worse, in the wild. Those that aren’t often don’t survive because the purchasers were not planning to commit to these animals for their lifetimes.

February 3 marks the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit, which occurs once every twelve years in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and is celebrated throughout Asia and among Asian communities everywhere. Communities around the world will hold festive celebrations, ushering out the Tiger and in the Rabbit.

The bad news is that because rabbits are considered especially auspicious during its special year, many people want to get rabbits to keep in the house during the year. Unfortunately, this will result (as it did in the last Year of the Rabbit, 1999) in countless rabbits being abandoned after the year is over.

Why are animals such intractable symbols for holidays such as this? I suppose on one level, rabbits should consider themselves lucky that they’re not turkeys. Turkeys famously represent Thanksgiving to Americans, commemorating a harvest feast held by American colonists in 1621. This symbolic association results in some forty-five million turkeys being raised and slaughtered every November.

But even without that wholesale slaughter, rabbits still do not fare well at Easter, and nor, evidently, do they fare well during the Year of the Rabbit. House Rabbit Society Singapore points out that during the last Year of the Rabbit, in 1999, over twice as many rabbits were abandoned at that nation’s shelters than in 1998. This year looks to be no different.

In addition, many Chinese restaurants are now offering rabbit-meat dishes to commemorate the New Year, leading to yet more suffering. In the United States, rabbits are not covered under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, so killing them is not regulated at all, and they are not stunned prior to death.

Going back to the ancient belief that a severed rabbit’s foot is “lucky,” rabbits who are considered to bring luck to people end up suffering in a myriad of ways.

It would be wonderful if one day we could create holidays with animals at their center where the animal was truly celebrated, rather than intensively bred, abandoned, or slaughtered.