As I may have mentioned in an earlier column, I have gone back to school to become licensed as a veterinary technician. I am loving the program so far, and enjoy learning more about the nitty-gritty workings of my animals alongside likeminded people. The other students range from farm kids to generic dog and cat lovers to a canine behaviorist looking to expand her career options... and a couple animals rights types.
Last week I found myself in a conversation with a girl in the cafeteria who told me that owning animals as pets is exploitation. I replied that I think my dogs have a pretty wonderful life—they sleep on the bed all day while I work or go to class, get high quality food and are provided with exercise and entertainment (the amount of dog toys in my apartment borders on the absurd!). She was getting ready to leave and replied, “But do you think that they are better off than if humans were never involved?”
I said yes.
I wish that I had more time to elaborate on my response, because that “yes” is not a skin-deep answer.
If my dogs lived in the wild, they would have the freedom to determine their own schedules and wouldn’t have to follow the rules that I and human society in general impose on them. But they would still have to follow the rules of their pack and hierarchy or risk being kicked out, injured, or killed.
If my dogs lived in the wild, they would eat whatever they want whenever they wanted. But they would be dependent on what foods were available in the area and what they could get—nature does not guarantee a balanced diet, and obtaining food of any sort can be difficult and requires hunting or the know-how to dig for root vegetables or pick berries. Human owners panic over food recalls due to contamination, but dogs in the wild are constantly exposed to food that is potentially tainted, rotten, or poisonous. And what if that is all that is available?
In the wild, dogs have to find sources of water. Those sources may or may not be clean. My pet show dogs are provided with fresh, clean water all day, every day. If a stream runs low, the wild dogs are out of luck and have to go elsewhere to find water. If a water bowl is getting low, I refill it.
Because they are my pets, my dogs have shelter from the elements and predators. They live in a warm, dry house and get to run in a fenced yard that keeps other dogs and animals away. They don’t have to dig holes in the ground or fight for prime den sites. When traveling, we stay in a hotel room or sleep in the car. When wild dogs roam, if there is no suitable shelter nearby at the end of the day, they have to curl up in the open—rain, snow or shine.
My dogs have access to medical care, an industry that exists because of humans. They are tested or checked for parasites every year, and if an infestation is present, they receive treatment. Because they are my pets, my dogs get heartworm preventative, and if I ever happened to get a dog that had heartworms, he or she would be treated. Dogs living wild that get heartworms die. Period. My 10-year-old bitch tore her cruciate ligament running around in a field just like she might in the wild. The difference? Because she is my pet, my show dog, my companion, she had surgery and is now back to 100%. If she had been living in the wild, she would be permanently lame at best.
Do my dogs live perfect, totally ideal lives? Of course not. My landlord doesn’t like the idea of a dog-door through his wall, so the dogs have to ask me to take them outside. I am required to be useful to society in some way, which for now means that I attend classes and soon will mean that I will go to work, so I can’t be around 24/7 to keep the water buckets spit-free. They aren’t allowed to eat anything any time (if I free-fed my dogs, one would be a fat blob and the other would starve to death). Sometimes our walks get cut short due to bad weather or because I am sick. Sometimes they get bored.
But I don’t live a perfect, totally ideal life either. I have to pay for my apartment, which means that I have to go to work and earn money, whether I want to or not. I have to wear clothes in public even if it is 95 degrees. I have to wait in line at the amusement park. If all of my dishes are dirty, I have to wash them. Sometimes things that I want to do get canceled because of bad weather or illness. Sometimes I get bored.
No one gets a perfect life. But that doesn’t mean our lives can’t be good and happy! And I firmly believe that my dogs are happy and healthy. I can’t force their eyes to sparkle when I come home, and I can’t force my young dog to lure me into playing tug-of-war with her. When we go for hikes in the woods and they run around off lead, they always come back to me. We have fun. We’re a family.
I understand the basic angle of the animal-rights-leaning youth. They want animals to be happy, and “animal rights” has a great ring to it. The problem is that they don’t look at the full picture, let alone the motives of the hardcore animal rights activists. Animals being kept as pets are not equivalent to slaves. However, if a pet was to be “set free,” he or she can still never lead an equal human life. Dogs cannot operate cars and computers, and don’t care about who is running for president or what functions the next iPhone has. They don’t follow a calendar that tells them when to vote or when the next dog show might be.
Dogs can never have equal rights to humans because our society was fashioned by humans, for humans (they same goes for societies in any other species—a dog cannot have equal rights in bee societies, lion societies or pigeon societies and neither can humans—it just so happens that human societies take up an awful lot of space and resources on this planet at the moment). That doesn’t mean that dogs are inferior—it just means that the rules of our game were made for us. And being unable to have full equal rights—voting, formal education, owning property, etc—does not mean that they do not deserve good, happy lives. Hence animal welfare, and the people and laws that work to make sure that dogs and other animals in human care are provided with everything they need to lead quality lives.
Animals that live in the wild, while free of human rules and restrictions, are subject to nature and every other species out there. Most animals in the wild have much shorter lives than those that live in human care, and many of those deaths are violent. Exotics and undomesticated species do often have trouble living in captivity due to a
variety of factors, but domesticated species have been evolving for thousands of years to live and work—to coexist—with humans. This is the niche that has allowed them to thrive.
I believe that the vast majority of humans take good care of their animals, be they dogs, horses, cows or hamsters. And I believe that living with humans is beneficial to these animals, because they reap the benefits of humans’ advancements in food science, medicine and sanitation. It works the other way too—think of all the ways that animals have benefited humans. Dogs alone help with search and rescue, detecting cancer and aiding the blind. Humans and dogs belong together.
Frankly, it is very bizarre to me that a student studying veterinary technology would believe in animal rights extremism, especially that all animals would be better off without any human intervention. The field of veterinary medicine by definition is humans interacting with animals… and improving their lives through that interaction. She also said that she has a dog and was eating a bagel with cream cheese. Obviously she either doesn’t fully understand the implications of animal rights, or is just incredibly inconsistent in her ideologies.
Over the next two years I will continue trying to gently show her and others like her how people and animals living and working together is a good thing that is worthy of being continued. The hardcore AR-types are beyond help, but I think (and sincerely hope) that America’s youth can be shown the light. It’s been said before and it will be said again: educate, educate, educate.
For now, I am off to feed my dogs their balanced dinner and take them
on a nice long walk. And we’ll all benefit from it.
From the monthly column MY DOG IS MY HOMEWORK, ShowSight Dog Show Magazine - November 2015. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.