Each morning when I check my daily Facebook feed, I am greeted by the large, lovely eyes of dozens of cats. These are not the scrunched up, comic faces of LOLCats or YouTube clips featuring a fluffy gray kitten adorably attacking apples on her owner’s bed. Instead, these are the faces of the cats scheduled to be euthanized at the animal control centers in my native New York City, where an estimated 12,000 animals are put down annually.
Unfortunately, New York City is not alone in the staggering amount of animals it puts to sleep every year; the problem is ubiquitous across the nation. Here in the United States, we euthanize approximately five million cats and dogs every year. Euthanasia at animal control centers is by far the leading cause of death of cats and dogs in this country. Many of these animals are either perfectly healthy and adoptable, or suffering from only mild colds or other maladies that could be treated with routine antibiotics or the most rudimentary vet care.
Such numbers should shock us, yet many times when I relay this fact to others, I am met with a shrug of the shoulders and some words of resignation. Among pockets of the conservation community and even animal welfare groups, these deaths rates are not only accepted, but adamantly defended. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the most aggressive animal rights organization in the country, often cites euthanasia as the most humane option for directly addressing pet overpopulation. Likewise, many wildlife advocacy groups have taken a stance supporting intensive culls of outdoor cats in order to protect songbirds and other small wildlife species cats prey on. In general, the issue of pet overpopulation and high euthanasia rates is often considered one wholly separate from, or even at odds with, our environment.
Yet this issue should be at the forefront of environmentalists’ concerns. Few other issues embody the waste ethic of Western culture than the way in which we use and dispose of our companion animals. For many of us, our companion animals serve as our only personal connection to the larger animal kingdom, and so to the natural world. If we cannot find a way to extend empathy toward our pets, how can we be expected to extend welfare concerns and protections to wildlife and livestock?
Companion animals have the closest, most personal relationship to us than any other non-human species. They are unlike the livestock we have domesticated to provide our food, clothing and transportation, or the wildlife we have come to view as competitors for our planet’s ever-dwindling resources. The primary purpose of dogs and cats — indeed, their sole purpose for many — is to play the role of friend and family member.
Ironically, even as so many die every year, we also have proven ourselves to be a nation enamored with our pets. We spend about $38 billion every year on their comfort and care. Bereavement counseling for people whose pets that have died has become a burgeoning industry. Many of those who are childless or now have empty nests come to view and treat their pets as surrogate children, or at least good and loyal company to stave off loneliness. This emotional attachment translates into reluctance to put down pets.
According to an AP-Petside poll conducted earlier this year, 71 percent of people favored euthanasia for cats and dogs only in those instances when the animal is “…too sick to be treated or too aggressive to be adopted,” and not for the purpose of population control.
Still, millions of animals are surrendered to shelters and animal control centers every year. According to the National Council of Pet Population Study & Policy, “moving” is often cited as the number one reason owners surrender their animals, with “landlord issues” and the “cost of care” close behind. Furthermore, a poll conducted by the Humane Society of the United States showed that 35 percent of people without pets would have one if their rentals permitted animals.
This suggests that if sufficient resources were allocated for finding new homes for pets, advocating for municipal and state policies that would better enable people to retain their pets (through the increased availability of pet-friendly housing and affordable vet care for low income pet owners), and encouraging adoption over breeding, we could end (or at least minimize) the cycle of suffering and death that takes place in thousands of shelters in the US every day.
The situation reminds me of Annie Leonard’s remarkable animated film short, “The Story of Stuff.” In the film she laments how 99 percent of of all the resources Americans extract and use winds up in the trash within six months of its manufacture. Although animals are not objects marketed by corporations, it seems clear that much of our collective frenzy to buy and then dispose of things has extended to encompass our pets. We surrender 12 million animals to shelters every year, half of whom we kill. In my volunteer work working to rescue cats from euthanasia, I routinely see “Do not want anymore” or “No time for them” as the reason marked by owners for a pet surrender — reasons that seem to be more applicable for throwing away one’s old shoes or video games than a living being.
I have tried to make sense of the contradiction in our treatment of our companion animals. I can only guess that there are either two groups of people with differing value systems; or that, much like our obsession with the “stuff” that we treasure and then quickly trash, we easily bore of our pets in favor of something else.
One argument in favor of continuing the cycle of disposal of companion animals is that there are “too many animals, too few homes.” This may be true. Yet less than 15 percent of the dogs and cats brought into new homes each year are adopted from shelters and rescues, meaning that the bulk of companion animals in American homes were bought from breeders or pet stores even as millions of animals already born succumbed to the gas chamber or lethal injection. This despite the fact that between a quarter and a third of euthanized dogs (and many cats) were originally bought as opposed to adopted — showing that animals that come from breeders are ultimately not valued any higher than those from shelters or the streets, and probably less so since the buying framework objectifies the animals and reinforces their value as that of an expendable commodity instead of a lifelong companion. We are a nation obsessed with “new” and for which “second-hand” — whether it be an thing or a being — carries a stigma we do not wish to be associated with.
Photo by Randen Pederson
Unlike the stuff that Leonard’s documentary focuses on, the animals we are throwing away are living creatures, capable of pain, fear, grief, joy and — as many who have had them in their lives know — love. After they are put down, the carcasses of these once-feeling animals are sent to nearby landfills, incinerated, or rendered for pet food. In up to 33 states, dogs and cats that are not euthanized may be legally sold to research laboratories in a nefarious practice known as “pound seizure” and subjected to cruel experiments. (Three states — Minnesota, Oklahoma and Utah — mandate that shelters relinquish animals to laboratories upon request.)
Unfortunately, many animal control centers not only condone the public’s treatment of animals as expendable commodities, but often set guidelines or are beholden to municipal policies that enable the perpetual disposal of our pets en masse. For instance, the New York Animal Control Center of New York City release their “kill list” to local rescue groups only 12 hours before intended euthanasia, offering little time for the animals to be networked and saved. (Budget limitations are also an issue. When so many animals are crowded into poorly ventilated spaces, disease travels and, lacking resources, the animals are euthanized rather than treated. Better sanitation and medical care of animals would help prevent the spread of kitty colds and kennels cough that lead to premature euthanasia of otherwise healthy animals.)
Many shelters (as well as many of the large animal welfare organizations that support them) preach the importance of spay/neuter programs, adoption over buying, and owner responsibility and obligation toward their pets. Yet many of them that are professing a respect for non-human life are treating the animals in ways that can be construed just as flippant. For example, according to records from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, PETA euthanized more than 27,000 companion animals at its headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia since 1998. That’s over 95 percent of the animals it took into its facility that year. Just last year, PETA euthanized 1,965 of the 2,050 animals surrendered to their organization.
As long as we have animal control centers that continue to mainly serve as warehousing and kill centers for our discarded animals, we will have a public that will continue to treat their pets as objects that can be readily disposed. And a nation that continues to view its closest animal allies as disposable will not be able to extend compassion toward wildlife, livestock, or even members of our own species. This is especially true for those growing up in our increasingly urbanized and ecologically disconnected world.
I grew up in a sullen, barren section of Brooklyn where the sounds of gunshots were not uncommon and the only wildlife that could be seen were pigeons and rats. Trees were sparse and grass sparser. But my family always had a small menagerie of pets, usually a dog and a couple of cats. My grandparents, who raised me, were hardcore pet lovers. My grandmother made sure to adopt all but one of the dozen dogs she had over the course of her lifetime from the local pound. All of our cats were former street cats we took in. For his part, my grandfather never met a stray he couldn’t help but rescue. He would feed the bony dogs that followed him home and take them to a vet to be fixed and vaccinated on his own spare dime (and we were a poor family). He would then find a family for them on his own or wait until there was an opening for them at the North Shore Animal League (the nation’s largest no-kill animal shelter, based in eastern Long Island) and drive them the two hours to drop them off there. Our own pets were considered prized members of the family — they slept in our beds and ate our food scraps.
My childhood pets served as “gateway animals” to my introduction to bigger environmental concerns and challenged me to critically consider my (and humanity’s) impact on other species and the landscapes we co-inhabit with them. Being an inner city kid who breathed smog and whose toes hardly ever grazed a blade of grass growing up, I doubt I would have chosen such a path without my pets or my family’s value of them to guide my way.
Many people may argue that there are many worse, more pressing problems than the pet overpopulation and euthanasia crisis. But if we cannot properly take care of those animals with whom we live with and love, then I doubt there is any hope for us that we will make any real effort to address more distant ecological concerns.
Pet euthanasia is the ultimate symbol of our selfishness, wastefulness, and lack of foresight and compassion that is contributing to so many of our environmental ills. Our ability to be empathetic and responsible pet owners is one of the biggest tests as to whether we are capable stewards of this planet.
Right now we are failing that test.