The first time my father held me after I was born I puked on him. Then I peed on the nurse. Years later, I was a tedious child to potty train. But my parents chose to have me, and because they loved me very much and continued to be patient, eventually I developed normal, healthy bathroom habits. Now I’m 31 years old and, despite causing my folks plenty of grief over the years, they love me as much as any parent could conceivably love their child.
So, what do all these embarrassing admissions have to do with cats and dogs, or the question of pet ownership? I’ll try to explain.
I am an animal lover. Like many people, the pets I’ve had over the years feel very much like members of my family. I’ve been responsible for feeding them, taking them for walks, making sure they get proper medical attention when they’re sick, and I’ve likely cleaned up as much piss, shit, and puke off of my floor than any daycare worker known to man. I’ve rolled around on the floor playing with strings and jingly balls to entertain cats, damn near wrestled with a stubborn dog in order to get him to take his medicine and, whenever disease or dysfunction zapped away an animal’s expected quality of life, I’ve made the always difficult, always heart-wrenching decision to have them put to sleep; and I’ve stood crying in the veterinarian’s office as an animal I loved took its last breath.
So why do animal lovers do all this? Because our dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, or whatever other animal we share our homes with are very much our friends. Like children, we care for them and we love them unconditionally. We understand that taking on the responsibility is serious. While it can be extremely rewarding for various reasons, we also know it can a huge pain in the ass at times. It takes up time and costs money and, as much as you love them, sometimes they piss you off or break your heart. But because the good far outweighs the bad, and because nothing can ever replace the feeling of a cat using your body as a bed, we sign up time and time again to do it.
Keeping a pet is not a responsibility that should be taken lightly. And that is why it disgusts me to no end when I see animals neglected, mistreated, or otherwise cast aside like so much trash by ignorant assholes who just don’t seem to care all that much. Understand I am not merely talking about people like Michael Vick, who drown and electrocutedhis dogs when they no longer met his needs. Nor am I only talking about the people one might see on television programs like Animal Cops who provide woefully inadequate food, shelter, and medical care for their animals. Though the people who are guilty of these actions are very much on my mind, I am mainly thinking now of folks very much like you who may be reading this blog.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a friend or acquaintance tell me that they needed to get rid of their cat or dog. Usually there is a very cheap, insufficient reason. Maybe they’re allergic. Maybe they’re moving to a new apartment. Maybe they just preferred the cat when it was a kitten or the dog when it was a puppy. Well, sorry, but I don’t have much sympathy for that. Their reasons are rarely good enough. These people chose to take on that responsibility. And though I’d rather see their animal living in a place where they were wanted, it disturbs me to know that there are people with such callous disregard for their pet that their primary concern seems not to be how they can improve its life, but instead how they can get rid of it.
I went on Craigslist recently and was looking at listings of cats. One person openly stated that if they didn’t get rid of the mother and her kittens by a certain date, they would be be dropped off at a location to fend for themselves.
Someone a relative of mine works with asked if she wanted a cat because, as it turns out, he was getting rid of his. When asked why he was getting rid of it, he responded that it was pissing in his house. Apparently he thought the proper way to handle this problem was to let it piss in hers instead.
An old neighbor of mine simply put his cat outside one day and refused to let it back in. Oh, occasionally he would stoop down and give it a quick pat on the head as he walked from his car to his front door, but he didn’t think much of feeding it any longer. When his wife was pressed for an explanation to all this, she simply kept repeating, “He loves that cat.”
If these stories were not of cats and dogs, but of children, people would be mortified. Those involved would be arrested, trials would be convened, and prison sentences would be meted out. It is unacceptable to treat a child in the way many of these people have treated their animals. And yet there is not much of a penalty for someone who dumps off the cats he doesn’t want anymore. There is no prison time served when a family stops feeding their dog. What punishment I have seen adjudicated on Animal Cops has been in the way of small fines. And it bears repeating that the Michael Vick case revolved not so much upon the atrocious acts of torture and murder of the animals themselves, but in Vick funding an illegal dogfighting and gambling operation.
So why is it that animals can be treated so cruelly and, at least judicially speaking, our society doesn’t seem to care much? I maintain it is because we think of pets as being property, and not as living creatures worthy of protection. We can see it in the language we use. We call each other pet owners. We have many legal rights to do what we want with the things we own. We can do just about anything we want with our possessions. We think nothing of leaving old books to get dusty on a shelf, or of tossing out old clothes, and nor should we; they are our belongings! But living, sentient beings, whether human or canine, cannot and should not be considered mere property to be owned.
Instead, I propose considering oneself as pet guardians. Guardianship signifies much more of a responsibility for the health and well being of your animal. It also infers a much greater responsibility than ownership, since guardians are accountable for safety as well. I think it is well past time to hold people seriously and legally liable for neglecting or mistreating their pets. I think it should be met with moral outrage when people speak casually about the petty reasons they have for desperately needing to be rid of the burden of their animals. And I think the only way any of this can happen is for more people to talk about it. Let’s not wait around until the next time a sports star funds a dogfighting operation, or for the neighbor down the street to decide his cat shit outside his litter box once too many times this year. It’s worth speaking up about, so do it.
My parents didn’t get rid of me because I wasn’t easy to potty train. And hopefully, if you are a parent, you wouldn’t think of pawning your child off on the neighbor because you have to move to a smaller apartment. Pets, like children, aren’t always easy to deal with. But if you understand the love and responsibility one puts in when you welcome a pet into your home, you also know without question that there isn’t a simple reason that can be found to accept another cavalierly putting theirs out. So draw a line in the sand because, quite frankly, I’ve had it. Enough is enough.