A lot of folks have been rolling their eyes at the recent proposal in San Francisco to ban pet sales in city limits. Just another example of the nanny state and big government trampling on our liberties. As far as libertarian thought goes, this response makes a great deal of sense. But ED Kain links to (and expands upon) a pretty good counterargument:

No one need suggest that a kitten’s life is morally equivalent to a human’s to observe that something is terribly wrong when we casually dispose of one much as we would the butane in a Bic lighter: that is the mark of a callow society, a cruel society. It does not speak well for us that we kill millions of sentient, sensitive animals every year through grotesque, painful methods such as gassing and heart-sticking. Pet stores are one of the main reasons we do this.

The author, Claire Berlinsky, goes a step further than I would in supporting the ban of pet shops everywhere. I’ll get into why I am not on board with that idea later.

If one does not accept government intervention for the welfare of animals under any circumstances because animals are no more than property, there isn’t much that can be said to convince you. But for the rest of us, pet shops represent a real problem for the welfare of animals even if we don’t find the sale of living creatures distasteful (which I don’t) or oppose the captivity of creatures to the whims of measly humans (ditto).

Pet shops, by virtue of their trade, make it their business to sell pets. That means convincing people that they want pets. The problem is that while someone can change their mind after buying an iPhone and be left with nothing left than a hunk of plastic that they don’t want to use, someone that changes their mind after buying a pet has a living, breathing creature to care for. This is inherently more problematic. Even if they return it (if they can), if they got a puppy they have put the animal in a position where it is less likely to be adopted in the future (“So someone else didn’t want this animal, so why should I take it?” and “Oh, well I was hoping for a puppy under 12 weeks for training purposes”).

Further, unlike with other things that we prohibit the sale of, such as narcotics, we are not denying most people that genuinely want the product the ability to get it. You want a dog? You can still get one! You just have to go to the pound! They’re being put to death because not enough people want them and not just dogs that have something wrong with them. So the usual fears about a deathly black market don’t really apply so much. The number of people so dead-set on a purebread puppy that they would be willing to break the law and enter into a black market is relatively small. It’s mostly just a preference. And an availability. And that the most obvious answer to the question of where you get a pet is a pet store.

One of the counterarguments I am hearing is that a society that eats meat cannot care about animal welfare. Usually tossed in are the profound insights that we tend to treat different animals differently. Some suggest that our choice of dogs and cats to be family friends is a random accident or at least a subjective choice with no particular value.

To me, though, there is no inconsistency inherent with treating different animals differently. People, in the aggregate, have basically made different arrangements with different animals. And with arrangements come relationships. Dogs and cats were not chosen as housepets by random or cause they’re just cuter than the rest. Our relationship evolved from the fact that dogs and cats have something specific to offer us. Dogs and cats are smart enough to be useful (herding sheep, catching rodants) but dumb enough to, in the aggregate, be controlled. For that matter, horses proved themselves useful for riding. And so we put them to work and became fond of them. This is pretty natural and it takes something external, like a religious prohibition or a lack of available animals, for this kind of relationship not to develop. And besides all that, to the extent that we use them solely for companionship, they’re particularly useful for that, too! They’re the right size and have the right temperament.

Other animals, though, are primarily useful only insofar as we eat them. So while we can form a relationship with a dog or cat based on what they do for us around the house (they make excellent vacuum cleaners) and the convenient companionship they provide, we form relationships with cows based on how tasty they are (or how tasty their milk is). Because they have no other use to us, it’s hard to look at them any other way. They’re too dumb to be useful in another capacity. They’re too big to be kept in the house. I don’t know how smart chickens are, but they’re not entirely convenient to have in the house the way a dog or cat is. From what I understand, pigs are smart and are domesticatable, but their size and the habits they form make them inferior pets to dogs, so they’re applying for a job that has been filled by the most qualified applicant.

So we have a relationship with dogs and cats that is particular. We will hold them hostage, but we will also feed them. We will feed them food they disfavor compared to the food we eat, but we will give them shelter. We will treat them in a lot of ways that they do not understand, but we’ve worked it out that so long as we rub their tummy, they’re happy. Not having owned any cats nor desiring to, I don’t have as many insights to our precise relationship with them, but I assume that there is something similarly worthwhile about them.

It seems to me that adding (in the aggregate) to that arrangement that we will take minimal efforts to see that fewer of them are needlessly killed is not particularly unreasonable.

Above I said that I would not go as far as Ms. Berlinsky. Here’s why: sometimes people really do need to buy a pet. Some people really have their heart set on a particular breed and getting a mutt from the pound is not an acceptable substitute. I would prefer the government not prevent that from ever happening. I think as long as we make sure that’s what they want, we can push the fence-sitters to the pound. But even if we don’t want to accommodate those, there are some that need need purebreds or dogs with traceable lineage. If the dog is being trained for a very specific task, some breeds are better than others. If a police department is going to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars training a drug-sniffing dog, they are going to want that dog to be of the right breed (or make sure that it doesn’t have particular other breeds in him or her) before they do so and that is not unreasonable. There are also people, like the President of the United States, that need hypoallergenic pets.

I am hoping that Clancy and I will be getting a new dog in the next month or two. I have a natural preference for mutts over purebreds and so I would probably go to the pound in any event, but things that would push me in that direction and away from breeders are good steps. Making purchasing a bred dog less convenient, for instance, or more costly. As it stands, I may well get a for-sale dog if the local pound doesn’t have what I want. I am not above such selfishness simply because I want a dog of a certain size and a certain age. Probably not because of my preference for mutts as well as having the point hammered into my head by my ex-girlfriend the former dog trainer (Julianne), but in a better world it wouldn’t even be a close call or something that I would consider.

So what to do? My preference would be to tax the hell out of purebreds (and use the money to take care of the mutts at the pound). At least try it and see how it goes. I have no illusions that there won’t be a fair number of unreported sales, but they’ll have a harder time setting up shop at the mall or widely advertising their services. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. But I think it’s worth a shot.

Category: Market

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10 Responses to Pet Shops Horrors

  1. Peter says:

    Sugar gliders are marsupials, not rodents.

  2. trumwill says:

    My bad. That paragraph shouldn’t have been there anyway.

  3. Bob V says:

    Will, I have a few issues.

    >If [you think] animals are no more than property, there isn’t much that can be said to convince you.

    I disagree on this point. There is plenty to say. I know many people who say that animals are no more than property, but almost all of these people would squirm at the thought of someone strangling kittens because they like the sound they make. In other words, people like to argue that animals=property when they are justifying, say, they’re eating habits, but they don’t really buy the equivalence internally.

    >To me, though, there is no inconsistency inherent with treating different animals differently.

    Your reason that we use different animals for different purposes and thus have different relationships with different species is valid, but I would also offer that it is easier some compromises in the name of animal welfare than other ones. For example, I would never tell someone who has been eating meat all their life that they are amoral for doing so, because I know too many people who have tried to convert to vegetarianism and failed despite their best efforts. It is damn hard to do. On the other hand, for the typical dog owner, making do with a pound dog is unlikely to be an arduous challenge.

    >sometimes people really do need to buy a pet. Some people really have their heart set on a particular breed and getting a mutt from the pound is not an acceptable substitute.

    Yes, people are interested in getting specific breeds. However, exceptions could be made for working dogs, e.g. drug sniffers, police dogs, seeing eye dogs, military dogs, etc.

    For the rest of us who might prefer hypoallergenic dogs, frankly there are plenty of these at the pound, and puppies show up too. It is interesting that you cite the president as needing a hypoallergenic dog. Obama actually promised to bring the first rescue dog to the White House. This was good news for animal lovers who would have loved to change prior precedent. Instead, he got a super-ridiculously-exclusive and expensive dog. (I guess you could count it as a broken campaign promise.)

    >pet stores vs. breeders

    You seem to refer to these interchangeably. If you buy a “purebred” dog from a pet store, it was in all likelihood produced in a puppy mill or something just barely exceeding the requirements to not be considered a puppy mill. These places focus on getting dogs to breed as fast as possible so they can ship them off to malls across America. You may think that in getting a puppy from one of these places you are doing yourself a favor, but the dogs are not socialized with humans, their mothers, or with each other. Basically, they make weight before being shipped off. The mill makes no attempt to identify problems with the breed, so your purebred is likely to be a prime candidate for breed problems like hip dysplacia, eye issues, etc. You can get a hint by the fact that you are probably getting screwed if you have absolutely no way of talking to the people who actually raised the dog and are instead just handing money over to a teenager at a cash register.

    A responsible dog breeder on the other hand, will actually live with the dogs they are breeding. You will get to meet the parents. You will not be allowed to take puppies from their mother in the first several weeks. The breeder will be asking you as many questions as you ask them because they want to ensure that their dogs go to suitable homes. Further, they will not dump the dogs they can’t sell on the pound or on the side of the road.

    >My preference would be to tax the hell out of purebreds (and use the money to take care of the mutts at the pound).

    This seems like the bare minimum that should happen, even if you think animals are property. Dog pounds are a cost created by puppy mills and breeders who produce more dogs than they can place. These places need to be forced to cover the costs of pounds rather than they having to rely on overworked volunteer labor and donations. Such a tax is the bare minimum needed to compensate for the societal externality–no acknowledgment of the moral value of animals is needed.

  4. trumwill says:

    Good points all.

    Regarding hypoallergenic dogs, one of the problems you don’t always know is whether the dog is truly hypoallergenic or not unless you know it comes from a hypoallergenic stock. That means traced lineage, which the pound is not in a position to do. Even if a husband and wife are not allergic to a particular threat, they might worry that since allergies run in the family that their future children might. I can understand the need to steer as clear as possible from potential allergies.

    Regarding pet stores and breeders, I put them together mostly because they are both affected by the law. You’re right that they are different, though “breeders” encompass a wide swath of morality. They’re the ones that sell animals to pet stores, but they’re also the animal-lovers that would never dream of inbreeding or kicking a dog to the curb. Likewise, there are pet shops (co-ops, sometimes, or shops within larger pet product stores) that simply take dogs from the pound and use their location to try to find homes for animals that otherwise might be put to sleep.

    Regarding morality and pounds, if one believes that animals are no more than possessions and not deserving of any dignity, pounds are not a product of pet stores but rather our unwillingness to kill them the same way that we just kill rodents. So I think some acknowledgement of the moral value of the animal is needed.

  5. Escapist says:

    Hey all,

    Random thoughts from the laptop-fried at the end of a busy day:

    I agree re the idea that animals do have a moral value and at least some degree of rights. Even something as minor as picking food where the animals are relatively well treated hopefully makes a difference.

    Sometimes there are local animal help charities* that are more efficient (in terms of overhead level and non-bureacraticness) and kinder (e.g. no-kill) than the Animal Control people and even the big charities like SPCA and such. If you have one in your area, it’s nice to support it as well as SPCA (SPCA typically does a good job also).


    *I got Sexy Pterodactyl from one for recovering PUAs 🙂

  6. trumwill says:

    Interestingly enough, the SPCA does not have much presence in Arapaho. There are a lot of places for me to look when the time comes, though. Dogs are particularly popular out here. Especially big dogs, which is a bit problematic since I am looking for something smaller than big.

  7. no more mr nice guy says:

    I think it’s stupid, animals that end up at the pound in many case are seen as indesirable by their owner because they’re aggressive or not obedient. Therefore they would probably not find another owner.

    People purchase animals because they expect them to not be aggressive towards them and to be obedient – and even if you buy them in a pet shop, it’s not always the case.

    Furthermore many animals don’t end up in pounds, they are abandonned by their master or killed and thrown in the garbage. So I don’t think you will have a larger choice in a pound than in a pet-shop. And I don’t think that animals are more well treated in pounds than in pet-shop or by breeders.

  8. trumwill says:

    You almost always have a larger choice of animals in a pound than a pet shop. That’s not a speculative statement. Where you have a greater choice in a pet shop is when it comes to really young puppies as there is greater age variance at a pound.

    I don’t think people buy animals from pet stores because they believe they are trained. I think pet shops in particular specialize in impulse buys. Breeders succeed on the basis of the traced lineage. And both succeed because they can offer very young puppies.

    As Bob points out, a lot of independent breeders treat their dogs very well. The result can often be, though, dogs that end up in the pound or dead despite the breeders’ best efforts. Breeders that sell to pet stores are less likely to treat their dogs well (and less likely to do things like avoid incest) as it’s mostly a way to make a quick buck.

    The main thing, though, is to simply reduce the number of pets out there needing adoption so that they don’t have to be kept in cages and then killed after three days. The pound mostly deals with the consequences of the actions of the breeders and pet shops.

  9. ? says:

    This was an excellent post and a good ensuing discussion. I just wanted to add to BobV’s point that dogs from reputable breeders can typically cost upwards of $1000. I would think that a price tag like that would keep away the kinds of people who make rash pet purchases; indeed, they keep away even otherwise conscientious middle-class people like ?.

  10. trumwill says:

    It’s not the reputable breeders I’m worried about. They’re kind of collateral damage in all of this. If it were possible to get the puppy mills and leave them alone, I would prefer that option.

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