The dilemma at my doorstep

Rating: NNNNNIt's christmastime, and as it has for the past 10 years, the Toronto Humane Society has taken over choice.

Rating: NNNNN

It’s christmastime, and as it has for the past 10 years, the Toronto Humane Society has taken over choice window space at the downtown Bay store to showcase kittens and cats from the shelter available for adoption. Though each window is beautifully dressed with tiny seasonal decorations, the main attractions, of course, are the snoozing furballs within. Heartwarming stuff, especially since we all know unwanted cats and dogs face grim alternatives to adoption.

The windows remind me that I am deeply torn over the issue of pet ownership, though, for the record, I share my home with two cats and my front porch with a small army of strays, whom I feed daily.

Though I know plenty of pet owners ­– me included ­– would sooner empty their savings accounts than see their charges go without needed medical care, I can’t quite get past the chilling truth that the same ethical ambiguities that allow me to “own” my cats also allow factory farms to slaughter millions of pigs, cows and chickens for human consumption.

Because I’m not prepared to risk reincarnation as a cruelly imprisoned veal in exchange for cheap burgers in this life, I’m operating on the premise that there is no distinction between cats, cows and kids, and that all sentient creatures occupy the same moral plane.

Yet somehow, even among vegetarians like myself, moral issues concerning domestic animals and wild and farm animals seem worlds apart.

“Discussing domesticated companion animals is difficult because we’re starting from a compromised place,” says Lesli Bisgould, an animal rights attorney. “If you’re an animal rights advocate and you believe that people don’t have a right to use animals for their own purposes, that includes not having them as companions.

“That seems absurd to some people, because they love their pets like children and spend millions of dollars pampering them. But that’s not the whole story of animal ownership. For all the people who are good to their animals, there are people who aren’t.”

Is there a difference between keeping an animal for one’s own pleasure and eating another for dinner? And can we risk having some animals placed in abusive hands so that the rest of us can exercise our right to be pet owners?

I’m not sure, particularly since it’s a seldom-discussed topic. Marie Crawford of the Animal Alliance of Canada concedes that many animal rights activists own pets, “usually because they find strays on their doorstep and don’t have the heart to take them to the Humane Society to be killed.”

Does that mean opening your abode to a fur-bearing being is only virtuous when the stray chooses you? And is that the same as rescuing creatures from the Humane Society ­– the pedigree of my two acquired cats?

Bubbly and upbeat, the Society’s Amy White is the kind of person who doesn’t sound maudlin even when she tells you with absolute frankness that working at the River Street shelter is tantamount to having your heart broken every single day.

Current laws, she says, uphold the notion that all animals are merely chattel, and their welfare is at the discretion of their owner, not the state. There are no tough penalties for those found guilty of cruelty to pets.

Even the Humane Society, she confirms, is not an animal rights organization but an animal welfare group, the distinction being that the welfare of an animal rests with their biological fitness rather than with issues concerning their broader autonomy.

All of this is academic to the lodgers downstairs in the kennels. They’re unaware that in 1999, 132 cats and 64 dogs were euthanized at their owner’s request, or that an additional 2,957 cats and 656 dogs were euthanized by the shelter, often because they arrived too injured to be saved. In all, 20,000 animals passed through the shelter’s doors last year.

But if the city’s residents love domestic animals as much as they say they do ­– and the sheer number of vets listed in the phone book would seem to corroborate that ­– then why is the Humane Society’s business thriving alongside pet shops?

If ever there was a place to gauge just how crazy people are about their pets, it’s Petsmart. Almost everyone in the store is trailing an occupied leash. People queue to have Rex’s photo taken with Santa, while clerks madly ring up cat beds and doggie cardigans.

Felines get windows at the Bay canines get Saturday in-stores at Petsmart. Today, there are two adult mixed-breed dogs on offer. Like all caged animals, the pair are at once frightened-looking and seemingly hopeful that I’m the one who will deliver them.

Pet stores are popular because not everyone wants their creatures to be runaways or cast-outs, and because pets with refined ancestry offer special appeal. “The thing about purebred animals,” notes the Animal Alliance’s Crawford, “is that people who buy them think of them as an object, as a status symbol, that will enhance their own personal qualities.”

Otherwise, why wouldn’t everyone adopt exclusively from the pound?

The fact is, they don’t. Take a peek at PJs Pet Centre at Yorkdale, the granddaddy of all the retail pet stores in the GTA. Teeny tiny Jack Russell terriers, beagles, boxers and labs sleep piled up on top of each other.

Here, city people without the inclination to search out country breeders come to buy their preferred pups. At PJs, there’s no mistaking the animal’s commodification: ink markings on the tanks advertise 25 per cent off Maltese and poodles of various prices.

Staring at the caged puppies and kittens, I’m consumed with sadness. I want to take them all home, but I know I can’t. And even if I could, would these creatures really be better off with me? Sometimes I’m cranky and I work weird hours.

Just then, my eye is drawn to a darling little girl who’s maybe four. Shopping with her dad, she stops in front of the tank containing husky pups. One of them playfully rises to its feet and nudges its nose against the glass, where the child ­– Laura ­– is squatting.

She squeals with glee. “Do you think he likes you?” her dad asks, and I realize that Laura, like millions of others considering pet adoption, is perpetuating the ongoing animal trade.

Simple as the transaction seems, her choice has an impact on thousands of animals in shelters, puppy mills and retail marts citywide. It reinforces our attitude that it’s OK to use animals as sources of food, entertainment and medical experiments as long as they’re considered property.

Property doesn’t have a bill of rights. But Laura doesn’t know this. All she knows is that the husky is soft and cute and cuddly. Just like her.

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