Thursday, November 8, 2007

Putting Pets before People

There's a lady in the Chronicle Herald who has a lifestyle column every week - Dawn Henwood. She likes to quip about her family and kids and stuff - and last week she chose to talk about the dog lifestyle. Big mistake. I wrote a letter to the editor that is below. I'm not going to preface it too much - you can draw your own conclusions from the article - and maybe you'll come up with the same answers - which are yuck, yuck, yuck. Yuck.

Here's her article:

Putting Pets before People

APPARENTLY, October isn't costume time just for humans. This is also the time of year that pet stores start promoting costumes for cats and dogs, such as rain boots and coats. Just the other day, my son and I noticed a new pet store advertising a sale on "outerwear." "Outerwear for dogs?" I asked. "Isn't that called fur?"

We snickered over the silliness of grown-ups dressing their animals in doll clothes until my son pointed out that this is becoming a disturbing fad. We started to count on our fingers the number of local stores that have recently sprung up to cater to the whims of doting pet owners and soon lost track. With a nine-year-old's earnestness, my son put the cultural ramifications in perspective. "It's as if we're pagan Egyptians worshipping cats and dogs," he said.

Bear in mind that this comment comes from a child who wheedles me daily to buy a dog to befriend the family cat. This is also the child who wants to give the same cat, Sugar, a seat at the dinner table. For an animal, Sugar enjoys quite a few indulgences. Last spring, for instance, we all joined in the celebration of her first birthday. I myself stuck the candle in the birthday "cake" of canned cat food.

Nonetheless, in our household, we draw a sharp line between family and feline. Let me put it this bluntly: There's a dollar limit on Sugar's life. It may sound hard-hearted, but my husband and I have established a maximum amount that we're willing to pay for food and vet bills. As grateful as we are for Sugar's companionship, we're unwilling to spend more than our monthly food budget to keep her alive.

Animal activists might call that cruel, but I call it realistic. While living creatures should never be mistreated, I don't see anything unethical about refusing to go to extraordinary measures just to keep a sick or injured creature alive. In fact, I could argue that it's actually unethical to spend large amounts of money on pet care. Is it right to lavish thousands of dollars on an ailing animal while ignoring the greater needs of the hurting people all around us?

Two recent news stories have brought this question to the top of my mind. The first appeared in this paper on Oct. 18. On the front page of the Mail Star section that day, two headlines appeared side by side. One headline, speaking to the recent murder of a schizophrenic man in the north end of Halifax, read "Slain man wanted to go back to school." The other headline, sandwiched between two photos of soft-eyed puppies, read "Puppies weren't shown love." It prefaced a story about a boxful of puppies abandoned beside a highway.

I didn't have to get a ruler out to see immediately which story got the most section-front space. Who wouldn't rather look at pictures of cute, cuddly pups than read about a man's struggle with a devastating disease?

The second news story also came to light last week, when Sobeys decided that its new "freshness policy" required stores to pull day-old baked goods from their shelves. Voices from the anti-poverty movement immediately pointed out that the grocery giant had effectively put an end to a cheap food supply for poor Nova Scotians. Shortly after I read this article, the veterinarian's assistant left a phone message to follow up on Sugar's annual exam. Having sent us home with two samples of high-priced cat food, she wanted to know which brand Sugar had enjoyed the most. It seems a little odd to me that the grocery store should turn its back on poor consumers craving a stale cookie while the pet store (which is what most vets have essentially become) goes out of its way to satisfy my cat's palate.

If I could dismiss the exaggerated concern for my cat's taste buds as a lone incident, it would indeed be odd. Statistics suggest, though, that such fussing plays along with a growing trend. Last year, the pet industry in Canada swelled to $4.5 billion. The average Canadian family now spends $377 a year on products to feed, groom, entertain and insure their pets. Business commentators attribute the boom in the pet industry to the increasing "humanization" of pets. Because growing numbers of childless couples and empty-nesters are adopting pets as substitute children, we're witnessing an increased demand for doll-like clothing, accessories, dishes and food.

While I admire the inventiveness of the entrepreneurs who keep the pet market simmering, I also have to wonder what all the doggy T-shirts, jewel-studded collars and organic pet treats say about our culture at large. They're all Zsa Zsa Gabor fabulous, as long as animal fashion doesn't distract us from such unfashionable human issues as mental illness and poverty. Although they don't tend to be especially photogenic, the people who live these issues have the greatest claim on our compassion, our creativity and our resources.

and here's the letter I submitted today to the "Letters to the Editor":

I really don't understand why Dawn Henwood's son finds the expanding pet industry so disturbing. Is it so horrible to have affection for our companion animals? Am I not allowed to spend my own money on the things I want to? And Dawn Henwood is worried that animal fashion is going to distract us from "unfashionable HUMAN issues like mental illness and poverty". Well I don't know about Dawn Henwood - buy my capacity for love and compassion is boundless - I feel like I have enough love to go around. I have enough love and compassion for my companion animals AND the social issues that I've chosen to focus my life on. That's all you can ask for. Why can't we live our lives AND dress all the members of our family fashionably at the same time - including our dogs - if our dogs can handle it? Who is it hurting? Dawn Henwood's sensibilities? Well, that's too bad - but my dogs' are not going to shiver all winter just because someone might think that a starving homeless person needs that coat more than my dog does! Ms. Henwood shouldn't be judging companion animal owners based on how spoiled she thinks dogs are becoming. Maybe that dog coat was bought at the recent NS SPCA dinner auction for an outrageous amount of money - with all the funds going to that rescue organization. As a dog owner who likes to spend money on my animals - let me do it in my own way, Ms Henwood. I also spend money on humans too - I've got enough love to go around - it's too bad that maybe, you don't.

Joan Sinden


  1. Awesome letter Joan. Kat submitted a letter last week as well - unfortunately, they didn't print it. I've only seen one letter in the paper, and it wasn't nearly as strongly worded/to the point as your/kat's letters were.

  2. Anonymous2:31 AM

    I read the same thing the other week as well Joan. My main thought was- who the f&ck is this lady writing this column. My second thought was- I feel bad for her kids because in her world, everything is either black or white and most of all, it was plain sad she didn't have enough affection/ love to go around to even share with her own cat. Lousy column, BTW- not even sure why the CH even printed it.

  3. Anonymous12:52 PM

    Very well said as always Joan

  4. Anonymous10:10 PM

    Great email Joan. I wish I had a way with words like you.