On Owning a Pet

(This piece first appeared as a "Daily Rant" in my blog in October, 2002.)

©2002, Elizabeth Fuller


OK, I'm getting sick and tired of irresponsible pet owners. For the third time in the last four years, we've just taken in a stray cat -- not a feral cat born to the streets, but someone's pet who had clearly been left behind to fend for itself and ended up a skin-and-bones shadow, half-dead from hunger and parasites, and starved just as badly for human attention and affection.

Yesterday, my husband went out for lunch, and as he was walking home, "Popcorn," a skinny black-and-white "cow kitty," came right up to him, looking for attention and perhaps a small morsel of food. Now my husband has complained on more than one occasion about my soft spot for homeless animals (we currently have five cats of our own), but when he realized just how badly she needed help, he came home, found me and said, "You have to come visit a cat." So we went back, introduced ourselves, picked her up, wrapped her in my husband's sweater, and carried her home.

And if it wasn't clear from the cat's immediate responsiveness, trust and affection that she had been someone's pet, it was definitely clear from the old, scratched-up pink collar around her neck, which dangled a heart-shaped charm with her name, erstwhile owner's last name and a phone number. But when we called - immediately, on the street, from my husband's cell phone - we found the number had been disconnected, with no new information. And just to make sure we hadn't misdialed, we tried again - twice - from home, and got the same result. The owner had obviously moved, possibly out of town, and left no way to find her again.

Every day, I see ads in various classified postings from people trying to give away "beloved" pets. Most of them contain some variation of, "Please give my wonderful pet a home. I love him/her dearly, but my new place doesn't allow pets, so I have to give her/him up." And every time, I have to choke down an urge to contact the person who placed the ad and give him or her a variation of the following speech:

"Hey, idiot...what part of this process don't you understand? You got this animal because you wanted company, entertainment, affection or any of the thousands of other things companion animals bring to our lives. But an animal is a living thing, and once you agree to take one into your care, it's no longer about your own convenience. You need to commit to care for that animal for the rest of its life, and be just as devoted to it as it will quickly become to you. You don't tell a living creature, who loves and trusts you, that you will care for and love it only as long as your current lease lasts. And if you do, then you don't love your pet...not as it deserves to be loved. Once you have a pet, you have to understand, you have a pet. That means that you will no longer live in places that don't allow pets. You will no longer consider living in places that don't allow pets. You will no longer even look at places that don't allow pets. Because you have a pet. And you will have a pet next month, too. And the month after that. And, god willing, the month after that. So you need to realize that you have a pet, start looking for homes that will accomodate both of you, and turn down any that won't. Yes, it may take longer to find a place you like or can afford. But that's what you agreed to do when you agreed to provide a home for a pet. You agreed to provide a home for that pet...not simply turn it out on the street when you decide to change your decor. And if you can't understand that, you have no business whatsoever taking an innocent, trusting animal into your care...for any length of time."

There's an old Chinese proverb that says, "When you save a life, you become responsible for that life." Getting a pet is equivalent to saving a life. Because unwanted animals die. Either out on the streets or sent to shelters, unwanted animals die or are put to death. When you adopt a pet, you are not simply falling under the spell of a cute pair of eyes gazing longingly at you, you are accepting responsibility for a living thing, which in good health may continue to live for another 20 years. So you are not just getting a pet to keep you company this week, this month, this year, until you're tired of it, until you become bored or until it becomes inconvenient for some reason. You are signing on for up to 20 years of devoted service, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. And if you're not ready for that kind of commitment (single, highly mobile people, especially, please take note), then you're not ready to own a pet. Period.

OK, of course, people can die, become incapacitated or even develop unexpected allergies to pets, which make it impossible to keep otherwise loved and valued animals. And in those cases, the contract of responsible pet ownership requires that everything humanly possible be done to find the animal another home as loving and stable as the first. But if you're just moving to a "no pets" apartment across town, or even across the country, you don't just get to give up. You don't just get to say, "Gee, Popcorn, my new place doesn't allow pets and no one answered the ad I posted for you at the grocery store, so I guess you're on your own now, buddy. Have a nice life." Because that life won't be nice. That life will start with hunger and lonliness, and will quickly progress to starvation, disease and, eventually, death.

Simply moving to a new place, whether across the street, across the neighborhood, across the city, state or even country, does not give you the right to give up on your pet. Transferring to Thailand? Maybe. But I have friends who have lived on on four continents in the past 10 years...and their dogs have quite easily gone everywhere they have. So don't tell me it's impossible for you to take your "beloved" Fluffy, Ginger...or Popcorn. It's not. And shame on you if you can't do better by them.

Popcorn has gobbled up three big meals since we took her in yesterday, and has finally settled in to sleep on my husband's sweater, laid out under the nice warm lamp on my desk. So perhaps we've ended her starvation. Now we're going to the vet to get rid of the parasites, treat her nasty diarrhea and the infection in her left eye, and find out what else might be ailing her so we can nurse her back to health. And then, when she's better - and she looks like a cat again instead of a furry skeleton - we're going to find her a new home...a real home with people who truly love her, won't turn her out again when the lease expires (which is not love, no matter what all those "take my pet, please" ads say), and who will promise to return her to us first - and not put her out on the street again - if, for any reason, they become unable to care for her.