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Pets Are Not Trash

Cognitive dissonance in our attitudes toward companion animals

Source: Flickr: Castaway in Scotland/CC

If you want to feel bad about humanity and how we treat animals, spend some time hanging around the intake desk at your local animal shelter. You will witness all manner of offensive and irresponsible behavior and will likely leave feeling pretty sad about how people treat our so-called companion animals.

I’ve had occasion to be at the intake desk more than I would like these past few weeks. My family has been fostering five orphaned puppies who were rescued from South Dakota and transferred to our local Colorado shelter. The foster coordinator works at the desk next to the intake coordinator, so as we wait to fill out foster forms or stop by to get more bags of puppy food and puppy pads, we witness the flow of animals into the shelter. At one desk, the shelter works tirelessly to save animals; at the next desk over, the work is undone.

The most distressing of these intake desk experiences occurred last Tuesday. It was 11 o’clock, just as the intake and foster desks were opening, and the heat was already stifling. A couple of teenagers walked in ahead of us, carrying between them a filthy, dilapidated cage. Underneath a broken plastic shelf, we could just make out a bit of fur. As we waited for a new supply of puppy pads, we heard the teenagers explain that they had found the cage by a dumpster, and we could now see that there were two young Guinea pigs hiding under the shelf.

Several days prior to this, we walked in while a mother and her teenage son were relinquishing another pair of guinea pigs. I overheard the intake coordinator running through the list of questions on the relinquish paperwork. “What is the reason for relinquishing?” The answer: “We have too many animals.” A dog was also brought in that day (“Doesn’t get along with other dogs in the house”). The time before, two more dogs.

The question you might ask is “how have we gotten to a place where pet animals are treated like garbage?” But this isn’t the right question, really, because there is nothing new about what’s happening. It is a festering problem that never seems to get better, even though our rhetoric about animals may have changed and we may hear pets more and more frequently referred to as beloved members of the family.

There is a large measure of cognitive dissonance in our attitudes toward companion animals. We profess one set of beliefs, yet seem to act according to a wholly other set of values. On the one hand, academic researchers and the media repeatedly claim that pets are being treated differently, that we value their lives more and better, that our love for them is growing. But our collective behavior toward pets is strikingly at odds with this glowing family and love-centered image.

Why do some people—too many people, surely—continue to treat pet animals as trash? There are countless complex answers to this question, but here are a few possibilities: Animals are marketed and sold as products in shops specially designed to make the pet-keeping enterprise seem normal and good. The animals are sold cheap. Guinea pigs cost about $20 each. The fact that we put a price tag on their heads, and that the price is lower than the cost of a T-shirt, reinforces the belief that their lives have little value and that our commitment should about match our commitment to a piece of sewn cotton. Don’t like the T-shirt anymore? Throw it away. Aren’t pleased with your Guinea pig purchase? Toss them out.

Although I have the deepest respect for the work of our nation’s shelters, they may allow irresponsible behavior to continue unchecked. The fact that you can take your unwanted and gently used Guinea pigs to the local humane society, and be assured by the friendly staff that they will be well cared for, simply lets people off the hook. (To the mother and son bringing the excess Guinea pigs, the intake worker said “Don’t worry! We’ll take really good care of them and find them a good home.”) Even the word “relinquish” is, in my opinion, an unhelpful euphemism. The connotation of the phrase “to relinquish” is to give something up, even though you really don’t want to. And sometimes, of course, responsible and caring pet owners are forced by circumstance to relinquish an animal even though it causes them profound distress. But the majority of relinquishments don’t fall into this category—animals become inconvenient and abandoning them is the easy way out. (As a side note on the use of euphemism in the shelter industry, I recently saw a study investigating how animals wind up in the shelter system. Those animals, like the Guinea pigs by the dumpster, would fall into the category of animals who were “set free” by their owners.)

My emotional reaction to the people who abandon guinea pigs by a dumpster in the middle of the summer and who can’t control their urge to buy too many pets is one of anger and disgust. Although I think these feelings are appropriate, I also don’t think that irresponsible pet ownership is “their” problem; it isn’t just something that other people do. We are all responsible for the plight of animals, because we live in a culture that encourages impulsive acquisition of pets, that sells animals as objects for human entertainment in the home, and that allows irresponsible behavior to continue unchecked. Social disapproval is a strong shaper of behavior, and those who treat animals as garbage should be subject to stronger negative peer pressure.

How can we increase the odds for animals, and help them avoid the intake desk? First, we can prohibit the sale of live animals like Guinea pigs in stores. Many communities have already done this for dogs and cats; we can also do this for small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. There are plenty of homeless animals—enough to fill the current demand. Second, those who have decided to bring an animal into their home can adopt from the local shelter. This is just as important with small mammals, birds, reptiles, and other creatures who often have a harder time getting out of the shelter system than dogs or cats. (Not all shelters take birds, reptiles, or exotics. But many communities have rescue organizations that handle these species. Our community, for example, has a reptile rescue.) Third, all prospective pet owners (or guardians) can make sure that the decision to acquire an animal is well-considered and not made on impulse. We ought to recognize that an animal is not an object, like a T-shirt or new pair of shoes, that can be recycled or thrown away. Taking care of an animal is time-consuming and expensive. The monetary cost of an animal is not a reflection of their value and even “cheap” pets like Guinea pigs require effort, money, time, and long-term commitment.