My Dog Doesn’t Match My Carpet

Dog on carpetby Julie at ProgressiveKid

We look for more from mothers. Since they are fonts of life, we think they must be more tuned in to life’s value, its beauty and fragility. We expect that their experience giving birth and raising kids will make them more compassionate toward other living things, more invested in Earth’s environment, more concerned with setting positive examples for their children. With notable exceptions, this notion is simply wrong. Speaking as a mother, we can be as shallow, selfish, and, well, ruthless as the rest of the population, and perhaps at times even more so. Take the online moms forum I subscribe to. It’s a large, influential network in my community, and the women who participate in the forum often wax sentimentally about what a wonderful group it is, in an exceptional community. We do have an exceptional community here. We are by and large more educated, liberal, green, and privileged than most. So when the mothers on the forum do irresponsible things it is especially egregious, quite simply because we have options and should know better.

There are many reasons to be irritated, even occasionally outraged, by the forum, but the prevailing attitude about animals among the participants is deeply disheartening. Although we have a local PAWS adoption outlet, a nearby Humane Society branch, a local shelter for rescued dogs and farm animals, and a shelter for rescued rabbits—all of which are perilously underfunded and overrun with homeless animals—moms regularly write in wanting to buy pets or get rid of them. Just yesterday a mom wrote to find out where she could purchase baby bunnies. Once in a while a mom writes in asking for tips about how to catch the “adorable” wild rabbits at the park. The mothers who write looking to “rehome” their cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, and sundry other “pets” cite reasons ranging from moving to going on vacation to not having time because of a new baby to intolerance for high-maintenance older animals. One woman I heard about at the animal shelter dumped her golden retriever because it didn’t match her new carpet. Another had her dog euthanized after it nipped her toddler, only to discover the dog had had a severe untreated ear infection and was reacting to the pain of having its ear pulled.

The worst “pet” betrayals do not get aired on the forum because mothers know they will be censured. Yet it is commonplace for these women to give each other tips about how to kill mice, destroy bees and wasp nests, fumigate for spiders and ants, and “relocate” raccoons, opossums, and other pesky wildlife who had the misfortune of having intolerant humans build a house on top of their habitat.

When I judiciously write to inform forum members of the animal shelters in our community as sources for adopting animals or to encourage them to consider not destroying hives of bees because they are a nonagressive species currently in precipitous decline, I inevitably receive defensive forum-wide responses and private ones expressing gratitude. It is nice to know that others agree with me, but it is disappointing that my moderate attempts at expressing a more compassionate approach to sharing the planet are regarded as subversive enough to merit only private encouragement.

Granted, compared to the worst abuses that animals endure at the hands of humans, most of these mothers’ crimes are misdemeanors. They usually do not rival the cruelties inflicted by laboratory researchers, squalid breeding factories like puppy and rabbit mills, exploitive zoos and circuses, industrial animal farms, and slaughterhouses. Yet these mothers’ actions are crimes nonetheless. Most obviously they are crimes against the helpless animals whose lives they can preserve or destroy in one stroke. But their crimes also offend their own children by modeling lack of respect and compassion for other living things and nature itself. Through rationalization, willful ignorance, and mass denial, these women model for their children an abuse of privilege and power that is deeply immoral. It is also profoundly damaging to the fundamental sense of interconnectedness that children are born with. By undermining that connection to nature, parents deprive their children of the natural humility, compassion, and joy that develop from loving and caring for other living things.

Messages that animals are accessories in the house, that they are only worth keeping around insofar as they are cute or convenient, that it is acceptable to buy bred animals when millions of unadopted homeless ones are euthanized each year, and that wild animals should be killed or relocated (often to places that are not viable and result in their death) are lessons that lead to at best further callousness and at worst neglect and abuse. Such lessons make our children ugly, spoiled, arrogant, and cruel. They also dislocate our children from their animal natures—their most adaptive, bright, curious, thoughtful, empathetic, joyful, and fully alive selves. We owe them more than that. We owe it to them, to the other species in our world, and to ourselves.

Our rabbit was injured as a baby by a dog and left for dead by the dog’s person. As a result she suffered a spinal injury that makes her incontinent. Rather than confine her, we cover our rugs with mats so she can be part of the family. The mats are ugly and along with her they require frequent washing. Our house is sometimes smelly now and messy, which is compounded by the comings and goings of two cats and two dogs. But the fact is I love my rabbit and dogs and cats more than I love having a perfectly tidy, pretty house. That is a lesson I am proud to teach my daughter, and it is a lesson she is happy to learn.

Julie Hall is the author of the new book A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids: Understanding Climate Change and What You Can Do About It and the founder of the green online store ProgressiveKid.

Image by Christopher Woo, 2007, Creative Commons license

©2008 ProgressiveKid

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