It’s 2016; the age of social responsibility, mindfulness and environmental awareness. Supposedly, we treat animals better than we’ve ever done before. At this point, over half of all households in the US own a pet and the pet industry now nets over US$60 billion annually.
As well as spending billions on toys and novelty outfits, Americans are spending US$23 billion on pet food and US$15.4 billion on veterinary bills annually. In a free market this is not really that surprising or harmful (if you forgive the extra consumption on a planet already ruined by human overconsumption alone), but, what can’t be forgiven or overlooked, is the US$2.1 billion spent every year on live animal purchases, the majority being domestic dogs and cats.
While pet adoption continues to rise in popularity in the US, due to increased knowledge about the rising population of stray animals, buying pets is still an accepted action, with 28% of all pets being purchased from breeders and over 70,000 new domestic animals being born each week.
The ‘invisible’ problem of stray animals
It’s easy to assume that if you don’t see stray dogs or cats on your streets then your city or town doesn’t have a problem. In reality though, within most developed countries, its more likely that the issue is invisible, with stray dogs and cats being dealt with swiftly, picked up by local authorities and charities as soon as they’re sighted. The speedy removal of these animals from the eyes of the public, however, is worsening the situation, and creating public denial or sheer ignorance of the plight of thousands of abandoned dogs and cats culled each year in overflowing animal shelters.
Yearly in the US, 7.6 million abandoned and lost pets wind up in shelters (roughly, 3.9 million are dogs). While the upside to this is that a third of this number are rehomed and many are reunited with their owners, the downside is that another 2.7 million are euthanized each and every year. That’s 2.7 million stray dogs and cats that could’ve been rescued if the public weren’t so unaware of the problem.
This is by no means just an issue for North Americans, and in many countries across Asia, it has become a very visible problem handled much less efficiently. In Europe, the situation is again often an invisible one, particularly within wealthy nations such as the UK. It is calculated that there are around 100,000 abandoned and stray dogs at any one time in the UK, with 50,000 being ditched every year by irresponsible owners. With shelters and charities already stretched, this has meant that approximately 14 dogs are culled each day in the UK.
In Romania, one of the poorest countries in Europe without the robust infrastructure to hide behind, it is estimated that the stray dog population sits around 600,000, and, in the capital of Bucharest, there is almost one stray dog for every 31 Romanian people.
How is this acceptable? Why can’t welfare laws disrupt the free market? Why aren’t more people aware that this is an issue caused by humans and yet also one that is easily prevented by humans?
Puppies for sale and the insidiousness of ‘cute’
Breeding animals has become, by consumer demand, a billion-pound industry, and, like all billion pound industries, there are a great number of people wanting in on the profits. Despite welfare laws, many breeders act outside of the law, breeding without licencing and advertising through classified advertisements or word of mouth. While many breeders are reputable and honest, the lure of easy money and the inability to police all breeders, leaves much opportunity for exploitation, particularly in places without robust animal cruelty regulations.
Despite illegality in many countries, so-called ‘puppy mills’ are commonplace around the world, catering to market demand, and are notorious for treating domestic animals as breeding machines in order to turn hefty profits. Just like poor, exploitative conditions for human workers means cheaper products and quicker profits for the company, puppy mills exist under the same principle; cut costs on care and quality and you will make more money, social responsibility and welfare laws be damned.
Sadly, often when consumers buy into the pet industry, both in stores and from unknown breeders, they are rarely allowed a true look into the ‘manufacturing’ process of their pet. Just as how meat-eaters will often not know how their meat was prepared, many people buying pets remain wilfully ignorant of their pets’ origins. Or, perhaps worse, they prefer to see themselves as ‘saviours’, rescuing their new pets from hot, lonely shop windows or other bad conditions.
This only serves to strengthen an industry which profits heavily from the weakness people have for ‘cute’ things, such as puppies and kittens (a weakness known in the marketing industry as ‘kinderschema’). This predilection is not such an awful thing in and of itself, but when it comes to the commoditization of young animals marketed to impulsive and unprepared buyers, our societal weakness for ‘cuteness’ is one we need to be aware of and attempt to control.
The importance of spaying
Of all the animals which enter shelters in the US, only 10% have been spayed or neutered. This percentage is markedly lower in poorer countries and means that while these animals are stray, the production of unwanted animals continues, perpetuating an already huge problem.
Homeless or not, if just one unneutered dog has a litter of puppies, this can theoretically lead to the births of 67,000 dogs in just six years. An unneutered cat and a litter of kittens is even worse – capable of creating 370,000 cats in just seven years.
Somewhat ironically, in the minds of some people across the world, in Asia in particular, spaying is considered inhumane and cruel. Remembering that five out of ten shelter dogs and seven out of ten shelter cats are killed however – totalling almost 80,000 each week in the US – should be more than enough to convince you that spaying is crucial.
Adopt, never buy: here’s why…
Regardless of whether you have, or know someone who has, bought a pet, it is so important that we as a society move away from paying into an industry which profits from breeding domestic animals. Instead, we have a responsibility to help reduce the number of perfectly healthy, loyal and tame stray animals that are culled every year as a result of humanity’s blasé consumer habits.
And it’s not just a matter of animal welfare, it’s also about sustainable economics. Despite the fact that the US is home to somewhere in the region of 70 million stray dogs and cats, an additional 70,000 cats and dogs are born every day nationwide. On top of the two billion dollars Americans are spending on new pets each year, they are paying a further two billion in tax for the government to shelter, kill and dispose of unwanted and stray animals. This is a cycle of breeding, spending and killing which really makes humanity look senseless as well as wasteful.
But education is key and common sense is the solution. Tell your friends and anyone you know about the importance of pet adoption, neutering and never getting drawn in by ‘puppies for sale’ advertisements. Remember, cute doesn’t necessarily mean harmless and buying pets only worsens the problem.
Learn more about pet adoption on The Shelter Pet Project website, which can help put you in touch with local shelters and pet adoption agencies.