An article in the San Francisco Chronicle last week reported on the city’s new proposal to ban the sale of all companion animals except fish (including not just dogs and cats, but hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, lizards, snakes, etc.). To which all vegans and animal rights activists in San Francisco (and there are a lot) cried, hooray! I think the article did a nice job of covering both sides of the issue from a mainstream perspective – unfortunately, there’s no mention of the ethical issues of treating companion animals like property you can buy and sell rather than as family members you adopt (maybe I’m just jaded, but I’d be utterly shocked if a mainstream newspaper gave credibility to such “radical” philosophical ideals). However, they do include quotes from shelter and rescue groups talking about the high rates of euthanasia among smaller companion animals, hamsters in particular, and the paucity of rescue groups to help compared to those for dogs and cats.
The quotes from pet store owners, though, illustrate exactly the attitude that leads people to continue to purchase their companion animals rather than adopting them from a shelter. I’m ashamed to say that not too long ago, even though I was raised in a household in which “puppy mill” was a dirty word and we would never, ever consider purchasing a dog or cat from a pet store, I bought a leopard gecko from a reptile store. Why would I have thought that this was any different? I can only blame my own ignorance, and one of those convenient false dichotomies that we humans so love to construct in our own minds (for instance, the division between “animals we eat” and “animals we love”).
And even then, I considered myself an animal rights proponent! Just as I will spend the rest of my life apologizing through my actions for every factory-farmed cow, chicken, and pig whose suffering I endorsed through my meal choices, I now use what voice and influence I have to try to prevent other people from repeating my mistakes and purchasing their pets. So I’m summarizing some of the most common arguments made by people who support pet stores, or at least don’t see a reason to oppose them. Hopefully, we can all slowly get through to the people who don’t yet see that lizards and hamsters deserve the same respect that we give to dogs and cats, but who – like me (and probably many of you) – have the potential to change our points of view.
● “As long as their cages are clean and they have decent food, it makes no difference to the animals whether they come from a shelter or a pet store.”
I hear this argument a lot: “But look, they have a nice big cage and lots of people petting them! What’s wrong with an animal being in a pet store?” Even assuming that the animals are well cared for in a pet store (which is not usually the case, in my experience), it’s less about the situation of the particular animals in the pet stores, and more about the industry that their sale supports. Most of the animals sold in pet stores originated in warehouse breeding facilities, where living conditions are truly horrifying. When you give your money to a pet store, you are directly supporting facilities that exploit, neglect, and abuse animals, especially the breeding mothers, no matter now cozy that pet store cage looks.
● “If you buy an animal at a pet store and it doesn’t work out, you can just take it back.”
If this were true, where on earth would all those pets in shelters come from? The truth is, while many pet stores do have the usual return policy for a couple of months, people usually give up their animals after a longer period of time – once they’re no longer cute little babies, or have outgrown their cages and are eating twice their weight. So all these unwanted pets go straight to shelters, or if they’re lucky, a rescue group.
● “People who buy pets from a pet store are just as committed to pet ownership as people who adopt from shelters.”
Just like adoption agencies for children, shelters and rescue groups who adopt out companion animals interview potential families and work hard to make sure that their new companion is a good match. Most also have spay and neuter policies that help enormously to curb the overpopulation caused by home breeding. If a family is struggling with their new pet, shelters offer resources, advice and training about how to resolve the issue rather than surrendering the animal. People can’t adopt an animal on a whim or as a gift like they can in pet stores, screening out a lot of the people who wouldn’t make dedicated caretakers.
● “This would hurt local businesses, and people would just buy pets from pet stores in other cities.”
This is the same basic argument as, “What difference does it make if I eat a hamburger? My actions don’t directly affect anything.” My answer is always the same: No change can occur without the actions of many individuals. We can wait for a federal law, or for huge organizations like PeTA to do something, or we – as individuals, as communities, as local governments – can take the first step ourselves. If it shuts down businesses that perpetuate injustice and suffering, then all the better.
● “People opposed to pet stores, and animal rights activists in general, are just against people owning pets at all.”
While it’s true that there are some animal rights activists who do not support people having domesticated animals for philosophical reasons, there are plenty who do. And those who oppose pet ownership generally oppose the idea of breeding, selling, and owning animals as though they were property; I’ve never met an activist who thinks it’s morally wrong to adopt a pet form a shelter in need of a loving home, whose only alternative is euthanasia. In fact, most of the vegans I know make extraordinarily enthusiastic adoptive moms and dads for pets. People who want to have companion animals have lots of alternatives to buying them from pet stores, and eliminating these stores would not prevent dedicated families from adopting new members.
What other barriers do you encounter from people who support pet stores, and what other information can we give them to change their minds?
About the Author: Kayla is a 23-year-old psychology researcher, yogini, and amateur chef. Her preferred method of activism is to feed people delicious vegan food.
Editor’s note: anyone looking to adopt a cat, dog, bunny, hamster, ferret, horse, pig, reptile, or bird should visit petfinder.com! Petfinder is currently “The virtual home of 340,358 adoptable pets from 13,411 adoption groups.”