Slaves of our affection

Charles Danten

There is a persistent belief that pets are well treated in our society, that in fact they're often better treated than children. Owning an animal is often taken to be proof of love, respect and compassion. But the reality is considerably darker, and until we look into it, it's hardly possible to bring about a meaningful change.

From the time I began my veterinary career, I was never quite comfortable with my job and what our society is doing to animals and nature. I could never reconcile the welfare of my patients and animals in general with the interests of my clients and my financial obligations. You see, vets are not as much at the service of animals as they are at the service of the human clients who pay the bills. To be successful, a veterinarian has to make a lot of concessions that I eventually became unable to make. We have a very romantic idea about what a vet actually does. We tend to think he spends his days as James Herriot, rushing to the rescue of sick and injured animals. Although that part of veterinary medicine does exist, the work of a vet in general practice is not quite so exciting.

A veterinarian is responsible for the alteration, maintenance, repair and disposal of a commodity that we are consuming in unprecedented quantities. He softens and humanizes the use of animals, condoning it by his silence, active promotion and co-operation. He facilitates the use of animals as a renewable resource, all the while making the relationship seem heartwarming and generous. Without his services, our society could not use animals with such ease and so freely.

Alterations

To accommodate my clients, I was obligated throughout my career to perform many operations and procedures that I came to dislike enormously, like declawing cats, debarking dogs, trimming ears, cutting tails and feathers and removing anal glands from ferrets. (1) I even came to hate doing spays and castrations. These alterations make animals more appealing, easier to manage and less dangerous; they also eliminate unwanted, and sometimes embarrassing, ''uncivilized'' sexual behaviors and other biological functions that are out of place in a society that is not made for animals. These amputations are strictly for the benefit of the owner. They serve no therapeutic or medical purpose. They are not surgeries in the true sense of the word.

The word ''mutilation'' is much more appropriate.

Let me just stop here and clarify a few things about spaying and neutering and their real purpose. Although at this time, these procedures are essential, it is false to assume that they could be the answer to the population explosion. This problem is rather related to consumerism and a very aggressive promotion by the pet industry.

While the larger issues remain unaddressed, neutering at the consumer level has very little impact on the over-all numbers of stray and unwanted pets. In fact, it encourages consumerism by giving the consumer a false impression that the problem is being taken care of. This perception is largely responsible for the present unprecedented popularity of pets. America and rich Western societies have truly gone pet-crazy. As long as the pet industry survives, there will be incurable population issues.

It’s the same problem with the recycling of domestic wastes. In 30 years, the recycling rate for the United States has risen from 7 % to 28 %. Between 1970 and 1994, the recycling rate of paper for instance went from 15 % (6 million tons) to 35 % (28 million tons). Marvelous and a great step ahead for humanity. Right? So what’s the problem?  It's in what we are not being told:  in the same period of time we wasted 14,7 million tons more than in 1970.

In other words, neutering and adoption are like treating a fever instead of the infection; we are focusing on what is only a symptom of a society's quiet disease. Meanwhile, things just keep on getting worse. This point of view is mostly ignored by veterinarians and humane societies who study the overpopulation problem with the help of grants from the pharmaceutical and feed companies. I'll let you come to your own conclusions about why this is so.

In this context, having a pet spayed is like going to church on Sunday just so we can enjoy sinning throughout the week. It is a form of sentimentalism, a way to continue loving animals without having to pay the price: stop consuming and exploiting them for all the wrong reasons. Spaying and neutering, the possibility of adopting an animal from a shelter, and the existence of animal activists - all these things let us off the Hook easy. As long as we adopt a pet from death row and get him neutered, we feel clear of conscience. We feel it's up to humane societies to do the rest. We indulge ourselves in fantasies about the human-pet bond, confident that we've done our part to improve the fate of animals. We feel like a part of the solution.

But it's a con. Our society not only condones, but encourages our relationship with pets which is nothing but a subtle form of slavery. Shelters and humane organizations, these agents of virtue play a shamefully important role in this masquerade.

Maintenance

As a veterinarian, I spent a lot of time giving advice and instructions to my clients, most of whom were completely ignorant about animals. According to a 1992 survey by an American veterinarian, only one per cent of the population knows anything about the psychological and physiological needs of their pets. It's pretty hard under those circumstances to take good care of them.

My most common maintenance activity was giving needless, often ineffective, and sometimes very dangerous vaccinations. Why aren't we vaccinated every year - as our pets are - with six or seven different vaccines at once? The answer is that they're usually not only unnecessary, but risky as well.

Pet owners often rely on veterinarians to recommend brands and types of pet food. But the food we give to our pets, including the stuff made by companies commonly recommended by veterinarians, is a slow-acting poison, contaminated with toxins and chemicals, and hardly adequate nutritionally. It's made from the garbage of our own food-production processes, including dead, dying, decaying and decomposing animals. In some places, notably in Quebec but also in many states of the Union, even dead dogs and cats are picked up by rendering companies and mixed in with the rest of the unappetizing mess - along with their flea collars, identification tags and even the plastic bags used to carry their carcasses. (2)

Repair

I did spend some time treating diseases, most of them the result of domestication and a lifestyle that is not suitable for animals. Eventually, I came to realize the absurdity of making them sick on the one hand, and to go about treating them, on the other. Most of my patients were petrified, unable to understand the meaning of all these very traumatic manipulations. From the animal's point of view, each procedure could be considered as one more abuse. I finally realized that I was exploiting them even though my intentions were good. I often wondered who I was really pleasing.

Dogs are subject to more than 300 genetically-borne diseases a result of inbreeding (animal incest), consumerism and our esthetic whims. One out of four purebred dogs and many mongrels are afflicted with one or more serious defects that will lead to its destruction. Many of the others will suffer silently all their lives from incurable, manmade problems.

We nurture tight bonds with our animals, which makes them extremely dependent and infantile. Yet many of us do not hesitate to leave a pet alone all day, often locked up in a cage. Depression, neurosis, phobias, chronic seperation anxiety, and stress are the lot of animals kept as pets. Usually these problems are caused by endless boredom, confinement, poor diet and lack of exercise.

Animals have innate characteristics that are not compatible with the lifestyle we impose on them for our own pleasure and comfort. For instance, dogs follow their instincts to fit into a certain position in a pack. Dominance comes naturally to some dogs, which is good in a dog pack, but usually undesirable in dog-human relationships. Most people have little understanding of the laws that govern dog behavior, and when conflicts arise, it is always the dog that loses in the end. This is but one example of the incompatibility of animals and people that causes life to be stressful for pets.

Disposal

By far, the most devastating "disease" in pets is euthanasia. It's an epidemic of biblical proportions. A veterinarian often becomes a kind of a death specialist. Euthanasia, by definition, is the bringing about of a gentle and easy death in the case of an incurable and painful disease. But the afflictions of most animals that are put down are neither incurable nor painful. Euthanasia is in most cases a euphemism for the disposal of an unwanted pet.

If people have no money, if a couple breaks up, if someone moves, or if someone is tired of his pet or not satisfied for whatever reason, he can very well ask his vet to destroy him and dispose of him like everything else we consume. The owner has complete control over the life and death of his animal, and many people exercise it. Most people keep their pets for an average of two years, and about 70 per cent of owners eventually abandon their animals. Only 5 per cent of the general population of cats and dogs reach the equivalent of 65 human years. The claim that animal longevity keeps on improving is totally bogus, a well-planned marketing scheme from a very ruthless industry. (3)

In the United States, supposedly one of the most animal-loving nations on earth, at least 10 million dogs and cats are destroyed each year in shelters and ponds. And this number can easily be tripled if you latch on horses used for pleasure, exotic animals and pets destroyed in veterinary clinics and hospitals. Quebec, with a human population of 6 million, puts down 500,000 dogs and cats a year – one of the highest euthanasia rates in North America, rivaling that of Alabama and Tennessee - two states that provide small, medium and large sized disposable bins where you can throw away your unwanted, live pet.

Various methods are used to destroy unwanted pets. Decompression chambers and carbon-monoxide poisoning are common. Some pounds, like the one in Drummondville, hose down the animals with water and then electrocute them. In Mirabel they just shoot them with a rifle. At a pound in Saint-Hyacinthe (now closed), staff used to knock their victims over the head with a sledge hammer and drop them half dead into a lime pit - and this went on for years within shouting distance of the province's veterinary college. A few pets find a more humane death by injection of a lethal dose of a quick-acting barbiturate.

The bodies - and there are enough every year in Canada and the U.S. to fill the Titanic eight times over - are thrown into public dumps or are recycled as compost, fertilizers and animal feed. A small minority is incinerated. (4)

A perverse form of love

Although we all acknowledge what pets do for us, we seldom think about what we are actually doing to them. When you start looking below the surface, when you finally see the big picture, you come to realize that over-all, pets are not so fortunate, indeed no more fortunate than the other animals that we use for food, clothing and to test beauty products, or those that we hunt for pleasure.

This link is more difficult to make because the exploitation of pets operates perversely under the covert of good intentions. Precisely because of that, it is much more cruel by its hypocrisy and sophistication than the more obvious forms of animal cruelty. Our love for animals is a very selfish affair limited to the passions and interests they arouse. Even the humanitarian and the other animal defense groups profit from the exploitation of animals in their own subtle way. Why don’t they include the exploitation of pets in their often violent self-righteous crusade to end animal abuse?

A dog on a leash, a bird in a cage and a fish in a tank reflect the same greed, emptiness, boredom, self-centeredness and neurotic need for self-gratification that mark our relationship with our world; they are of apiece with the other problems that beset modern society: pollution, climactic chaos, the contamination of our food chain, the exhaustion of our natural resources, the breakdown of our social fabric, war, drugs, violence and a growing gap between the rich and the poor.

We use high sounding words like compassion, humanism, altruism, activism, care and love; they just serve as a verbal smokescreen that hides our tendency to treat not just animals, but other people and nature itself as mere merchandise, as objects of pleasure, comfort and satisfaction. In his book, Dominance and Affection: The Making of pets, Yale University professor Yi-Fu Tuan writes: «Affection is not the opposite of dominance: rather it is dominance's anodyne, it is dominance with a human face. Dominance may be cruel and exploitative, with no hint of affection in it. What it produces is a victim. On the other hand dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.»

Once you see the underlying truth, it is hard to continue to be a part of the system. The continuation of this whole relationship with pets is possible only if reality remains carefully hidden. It is false to think - as the industry and most vets would want us to think - that pets are often treated as well as our children, if not better.

Technologically, we have come a long way, but as far as our behavior is concerned, we are still very primitive. Until we change our values radically there is no hope for animals. The animal condition depends on the human condition, and that's where we need to concentrate our efforts.

Fortunately, many people are trying, in their own measure, in their own personal lives, to change their ways. Change has to come from individuals, and not from the top down. It has to be the result of a deep understanding of the issues at stake. It cannot be imposed by rules and laws. And it's no good to wait around for somebody else to do something about it.

Even the activists who belong to groups like the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), AVAR (Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) want to fix things only around the edges, not fundamentally. They typically own more animals than do most people, and have too much at stake to admit their own need to exploit animals and to sacrifice their reputation as great people endowed with superior human qualities.

Instead of relying on others, ask yourself, rather, what you can do for animals. Start by getting to know yourself a little better. Ask yourself what draws you to pets. Ask yourself if there is any love in possessing an animal solely for your pleasure and comfort. Because what we really need is a little more genuine love and tenderness and a little less affection.

I still have a cat - she's 15 now - but when she dies I will never have a pet again. I have come to appreciate going out in nature and watching wild animals, without interference, upon a chance encounter.

Animals honour us only when they are truly free.

Footnotes

(1) Let’s start with surgical modification. Although some veterinarians have given up on ear cropping, debarking dogs and declawing of cats, these procedures are still quite common and popular even in countries like Sweden that have outlawed them. Until breed standards change, we will continue to see dogs with cropped ears. Many breeders are now performing these operations themselves or hiring veterinarians to do them.

Declawing is very common in Quebec and elsewhere, even in England which is widely considered to be one of the most animal-loving nations of the world. Some veterinarians specialize in these mutilations. In many areas, you can go to a pet shop and buy a 2 month old cat sterilized, vaccinated and declawed, ready for use. France which has the highest number of pets per capita in the world refused to sign the European parliament‘s Charter of Rights for Animals, which proposes a ban on all such mutilations with the exception of neutering and spaying.

(2) The only advantage of pet food is its convenience. Many people, in fact, would not have animals without this commodity. And probably many more would give up on pets if they knew what was in their diet. Natural foods are never used as controls in the studies on pet disease for good reason - the effects on health would be readily apparent.

There are now many books and articles on pet nutrition, the pet food industry and the use of dead dogs and cats in manufacturing pet food. Some suggestions: Francis M.Potenger M.D, Pottenger’s cats: a study in nutrition, Price-Pottenger Nutrition foundation Inc. Dr Michael W. Fox, Inhumane society, the American way of exploiting animals, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1990; Ann, N. Martin, Foods pets die from: shocking facts about pet food, Oregon, New Sage Press, 1998; Ann N.Martin, «Does your pet food bark: a study of the pet food fallacy», Natural Pet Magazine, March-April 1995; Dr Tom Londsdale, Raw Meaty Bones, Pet foods’ insidious consequences (This book can be bought on line at www.rawmeatybones.com); Dr Richard H.Pitcairn and Susan Hubble-Pitcairn, Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, Emmaus (PA.) Rodale press, 1995 (available in most health food stores). See also: http://www.organicconsumers.org/madcow.htm

Recycling dead dogs and cats as animal feed has been confirmed in an interview with veterinarian Daniel Barrette, nutrition professor at Quebec’s veterinary college. Most veterinarians can tell you that their freezer full of dead pets is regularly emptied by a rendering company.

(3) The combination of bad genes, (the legacy of intensive inbreeding and production), an awful diet, stressful living conditions, anatomical defects and ignorance can dramatically shorten the lifespan of pets. Those who survive these problems are likely to face euthanasia. Few live long enough to die of old age. In fact, the most likely causes of death in order of importance are:

Acquisition: Death associated with the capture, waiting period, quarantine, shipment, breeding, raising, distribution and sale.

Many Third World countries are being pillaged of their fauna. In the Philippines and Indonesia for example, local fishermen are using massive sub-lethal doses of cyanide to capture seawater fish for the aquarium industry. It is estimated that more than a 1000 tons of this deadly poison, enough to kill 500 million people, have been used in the past decades. The devastation of marine wildlife is immeasurable. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that 30 000 primates, 500 000 parrots, 400 to 500 million aquarium fish, a 1000 to 2000 tons of corrals and an unknown number of various endangered reptilian, insect, mammalian and avian species are being traded on the black market. Many more, less threatened by extinction, are traded legally. Half to 90 % of these future «members» of our families, «livestock» as they are called by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Committee, die between capture and distribution. Only 2 % to 16 % of the surviving children manage to live for more than 2 years. Half a million purebred dogs are produced in puppy mills each year in the Midwest. The Amish of Ohio, in particular, have made it their specialty. In the United States, more than six thousand kennels of this type are registered with the minister of Agriculture, and many others that exist off the record, - curiously ignored by animal activists ? are busy breeding cats, birds, gerbils, rabbits, reptiles, tarantulas or whatever else we use to inject a bit of life and fantasy to our often boring and fastidious lives. In Quebec, Canada, there are about 1800 of these outfits since the commerce of puppies between Canada and the United States was outlawed. In Europe, especially in Holland and Belgium, there are hundreds of dog kennels of this type. The rules of genetics, physiology, ethology, hygiene, ventilation, and feeding are often not respected when the only real concern is profit. Industrial breeders are extremely reluctant to improve breeding conditions, or to pay for veterinary care, that would decrease profits made otherwise easily, although at the expense of good health. The animals they produce are only objects to them, merchandise they must sell quickly, before sickness or death occurs. Consumers are collectively responsible for the horrors perpetrated in these outfits, many of which operate under concentration-camp conditions. The guilt burden and responsibility is conveniently being shifted to the breeders so that we can all continue loving our pets in peace.

The euthanasia methods described in my article are common knowledge. They made the news each time they were discovered. Mr Pierre Barnotti director of the Montreal SPCA and Dr André Dallaire, vice-dean of Quebec’s veterinary college can confirm these facts.

(4) Pets end up being «put to sleep» in ponds, shelters, veterinary hospitals for a number of reasons. Genetic problems caused by inbreeding (animal incest) often prompt owners to get rid off their overbred pets. Psychosomatic and psychological problems caused by the stress of captivity and a carefully nurtured dependence - separation anxiety, various phobias and neurosis etc. – often lead to the death chamber too.

Pets are also put to sleep because they fall victim to one of the dozens of diseases and conditions brought on by poor nutrition and bad food – diabetes, allergies, bone abnormalities and intestinal problems, as well as thyroid, dental and urinary conditions. While we’re told to reduce cooking times, to eat a variety of fresh foods, to avoid junk food full of chemicals and preservatives and not to eat sweets, the pet food industry with the help of veterinarians has successfully managed to convince us that what is good for us is unhealthy for animals. We have been misled into believing that the insidious poison hidden in an attractive package is better than natural food.

There are other reasons why pets are killed too: disappointment with the reality of keeping a pet, ambivalence, lack of know-how; infectious diseases mostly due to bad breeding conditions, a break-down of the immune system due to poor diet and stress; death from anesthesia, post-op and treatment complications, abuse of often ineffective and dangerous vaccines etc.

The toll of these scourges on exotic species recently domesticated on a massive scale – they are as numerous as dogs and cats - is most dramatic. Incapable of adapting to their imposed lifestyle most of them die rapidly. Various breeds of cockatiels for example see their lives amputated by a factor of 6. Budgies, which can live for 18 years rarely reach the age of 6. The fate of the larger breeds of parrots is similar. Other more commonly domesticated species don’t fare much better either. Large breeds of purebred dogs like the doberman, great dane, german shepard, St-Bernard, Bouvier etc, don’t live for more than 10 to 12 years. The lifespan of the revered english bulldog or the Shar-pei, rarely surpasses 6 to 8 years. Some studies conducted in the 1970s and ‘80s, (curiously to my knowledge never repeated since) have shown that 50 % of dogs and 75 % of cats are less than 3 years old (the equivalent in human years is roughly 26). Half of the cat population is roughly 2 years old. The average age of cats and dogs is around 4 years. Only 5 % of the general population of cats and dogs manages to live for 12 years (65 human years). Only 15 % of riding horses manage to live 15 years. These numbers are quite surprising given that dogs can easily live 20 years, cats 25 and horses 40.

Bad as these numbers are, they are probably understating the case. Flawed studies consistently overestimate the average lifespan of pets. For example:
  1. Most studies start measuring lifespan from the date of adoption rather than the date of birth, leaving out the thousands of animals who die before they ever find a home;
  2. The average age of the veterinary patient does not give a reliable estimate of the overall population because many animals never go to the veterinarian and some of those that do go many times during the year artificially boosting the statistics;
  3. Although there seems to be more elderly animals than ever, there are 10 times more pets than in the fifties.
  4. There are no records prior to the seventies. It’s therefore impossible to really know if the progress is genuine.
  5. If you take into account all species of pets combined, in all countries, and not only the more pampered dogs and cats in some of the richer enclaves, you get quite a different picture.
  6. By artificially decreasing the potential life span you close the gap between life expectancy and the genetic potential creating the illusion that much progress has been made. In fact, no one really knows with certainty the genetic potential life span of any species including humans.
  7. Some studies are ridden with gross errors of calculation. The lack of rigor seems to be a common flaw according to a British enquiry on veterinary research.