Tragic animal stories and individual responsibility

I am, as we know, a tremendous softie, and I always get very sad when I read tragic animal stories, which are the bread and butter of a huge number of websites, whether they’re highlighting the horrors of what we do to companion animals or telling success stories. I generally try to avoid these stories just because I hardly need more lessons in why humanity is terrible, and also because they speak to two interlinked but really disturbing social trends that actually perpetuate the very situations under discussion.

You know the kinds of stories I’m thinking of: Horrible animal abuse, animal with serious injuries, animal born with a congenital impairment, etc etc. It’s sometimes framed as a sad thing, usually with a plea to contribute to a fund or adopt an animal about to be euthanised — high kill shelters in particular just can’t deal with the volume of animals they see every week even when their staff are loving, committed to animals, and so very frustrated with their kill rate. At other times, it’s a happy story — this cat was burned badly in a house fire but recovered and found her forever home. Sometimes it’s just gross inspiration porn — look at this cute widdle puppy that got a wheelchair because he was born without back legs. The goal in all cases is to appeal to our love of animals.

And the thing is, I do love animals. And in the case of tragic tales, I do get deeply upset, and happy endings make me happy to read (on the rare occasions I link such stories, I always note whether there’s a happy ending so people can decide if they want to read them). But the thing is, there are two problems with the way these kinds of stories are treated and discussed.

Problem the first: There’s usually a rush of support for the animal being profiled, and it’s one that quickly overwhelms the shelter/foster/vet/rescue/other organisation managing the case. Which on the surface is great, especially when it leads to the animal getting adequate care, and to the animal finding a safe, loving home (or living out her remaining days in hospice). It’s even better when those contributions continue as unrestricted donations and end up being used to help all animals at that facility — if a shelter has one victim of dogfighting, rest assured, it has many other dogs, cats, and other animals that you aren’t seeing because their stories didn’t quite capture the media’s eye for various reasons.

And it’s heartening to see so many animal lovers come out, it really is. But the problem is this: These problems already exist in their own communities. A trip to the local shelter will yield a bunch of lovely companion animals who need homes — you don’t actually have to ship the cause du jour directly to your front door, and in fact that’s a huge waste of energy, stress, time, and resources. Instead of insisting that a shelter send you the cat with terrible burns that you saw on television, head to your local shelter and rescue a kitty in your own community. Seek out a high kill shelter and rescue a cat with hours left to go on the clock. If you specifically want to help an animal with medical issues or an abusive past, believe me, shelter staffers will be more than happy to introduce you.

There’s a tendency with these stories to ignore problems in local communities, and it comes up with other types of sob stories too — which leads to people not sinking resources into local food banks, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, rape crisis lines, disability services, and other social services provided by charitable organisations because the state can’t be arsed to maintain its part of the social contract.

Which brings me to part the second: These stories are heartbreaking because they reflect not just that people are awful, but that the system is broken. Every year, 7.6 million animals enter shelters in the United States. 2.7 million of them don’t make it out alive, despite the fact that many of those animals are healthy and happy, with no behavioural problems whatsoever. Those statistics are much, much better than they have been in the past, but they’re still not very good. Rescuing a single cat, dog, or other animal is a really great thing, and it’s why I’ll likely never live without cats, and why I’ll always choose to adopt rather than buy. And rescuing animals with specific needs, or coming to the aid of an animal with a terrible story, is a genuinely kind thing to do that gives me a sliver of hope for humanity.

But we need to talk about the larger structural issues that contribute to these problems. Like the fact that high kill shelters aren’t high kill because they hate animals, but because they have limited space and resources. Most of them are run by the government, and they have a mandate to provide animal care and control services across the community. They can’t be choosy, like the rescues that carefully handpick the most adoptable members of their population (yes, rescues do this — very few actively seek out animals with health problems or behaviour issues, along with elderly animals, which is what makes organisations like Cat Town so important). They are required to take all who come through their doors and to triage when they are running out of space. To fix that problem, you need to create more space, whether that’s through funding expansions of their facilities and staff or supporting the growth of rescues in the area (or transfers to areas where there’s a shortage of and demand for rescue animals, which some groups do — sadly, said demand is typically highest for purebreds, which is why you’ll see purebreds traveling across multiple states to rescue groups).

We need more aggressive funding to provide free spay/neuter for all species, and better TNR and management of feral cat colonies. Unwanted pets happen because cats and dogs breed, and often because owners can’t afford spay/neuter services or because they ‘think they don’t need them’ or because ‘they need to have at least one litter.’ One litter of kittens or puppies is a lot. Where do all those animals end up?

We need to stop treating animals like disposable commodities and start respecting them as living beings with specific needs, instilling that respect in future generations as well. Animals are not presents, and taking one into your home is a responsibility for the life of the animal, not a whim. We need to fight breed-specific legislation that keeps healthy, happy dogs out of some communities and housing because of incorrect and dangerous attitudes about some breeds and types of dogs. We need to fight discrimination against animals in housing in general, with a growing number of homes closed to people with pets.

This is yet another example of the individual versus the institutional. In this country, people tend to focus on the individual and personal responsibility instead of reevaluating and looking at the larger picture, and it’s a problem with a host of social issues from disability to racism to rape culture to, yes, our homeless animal crisis, which reflects yet another facet of our cruelty and inhumanity. We can’t even treat each other with basic dignity, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that we leave animals out in the cold.

Image: puppies 7 weeks, Hedgehog Fibres, Flickr