Written by Laura Kiesel
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.
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