Financial Hardship and the Human-Companion Animal Bond
As you may have noticed, the number of articles and reports about animals being given up or put down because their owners lack the financial wherewithal to provide for them has increased as the general economic picture has become bleaker. In virtually all of those I’ve read or heard, the implication is the same: there is a clear connection between terminating the relationship with an animal and the lack of money. But is this necessarily true?
I’d argue that this it isn’t a financial problem. It’s a bond problem. There are plenty of people in good economic times as well as bad who, to use the old saying, “don’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of” who love and cherish their animals and wouldn’t consider giving them up because they have so little. Street people dumpster-dip for themselves and their pets, poverty-stricken women remain in abusive situations because they won’t give up their animals, elderly folks share what little food they have with their nonhuman companions: the examples are numerous and varied in nature, and independent of the value of the stock market or gross national product. No matter how little these people have, they’ll share it with their animals rather than give them up.
So, what kind of bond problems are contributing to the current increased number of animals being given up for adoption, conveniently “lost,” or euthanized rather than treated for treatable medical conditions? One disturbing possibility is that this could be a result of the way animal-related services and products are sometimes marketed and advertised to the public. In these situations, the service or product is touted as the only thing standing between the animal and some horrendous consequence. Other times (and sometimes at the same time) the approach links the use of the service or product to the existence of a quality human-animal relationship. If owners actually believe either of these contentions, then they logically could assume that a change in finances that makes it impossible for them to provide those services or products makes it equally impossible for them to have a healthy well-behaved animal with whom they could share a quality relationship. The next obvious conclusion would be that, if they really cared about their pets, then they would give them up to a shelter or rescue group in hopes that someone who could afford those services and products would adopt the animals.
While you don’t need an MBA from Harvard to recognize the bottom line potential of these service and product sales strategies, I find it incredibly sad because it creates an erroneous connection that sets up unconfident folks to give up pets in financially hard times whom they could keep, albeit perhaps not in as lavish a style. When this kind of connection is perpetuated by those who claim to have the animals’ best interests at heart, it’s even more difficult to comprehend.
On the other hand, I also can see what a difficult to the point of no-win position those who have used such sales strategies could find themselves in in tough economic times. If they maintain the same approach, they increase the probability that those who believe it will give up their animals. But if they admit that less frequent or even temporarily suspending use of the service or product will not result in dire consequences for the animal, that’s the same as admitting that they’ve lied in the past.
But sad as these cases may be, I suspect they’re in the minority. What we’re seeing now in my opinion isn’t a new trend at all. People whose relationships with their animals aren’t working have always used financial reasons to rationalize giving them up. And the reason they do this is because it’s the reason that’s most likely to be accepted non-judgmentally or even with a certain amount of sympathy from others. It’s the reason most likely to make what is often a difficult and highly personal decision the least painful for owner and animal alike. As I discussed in last month’s commentary, there’s no shortage of self-proclaimed animal-lovers who wouldn’t hesitate to criticize, browbeat, or otherwise harass people who do animal-related things with which the critic and browbeater disagrees. For those who have allowed such people to force them to keep animals with whom a quality relationship doesn’t exist, the recession with its socially acceptable reason to give up an animal might seem like a gift from heaven.
Looking at the larger issue here, we’ve all heard that pets are supposed to be members of the family and it seems obvious that, if this is the case, they should be comparable to one of the kids. But the reality is that our species differences make us more akin to housemates from very different backgrounds. We don’t share the DNA that links us to our kids. Nor do our pets have the same needs and perceptions of reality that our kids do, no matter how alien that teenager’s view might strike us. Granted, human and animal willingness and ability to recognize and properly address these differences can result in strong and lasting relationships that will withstand bad times as well as good. But if the patience and commitment isn’t there to do that, then all that’s left is a lousy relationship that benefits neither.
Our culture has a highly inconsistent view of relationships. Many of us readily acknowledge that it’s possible to fall in love with another in an instant. When this occurs, it doesn’t matter that we have little in common with the other or lack the ability to fulfill any needs the other may have. Add a dog from strong working lines with great intelligence and a low stimulus threshold to our complex and crowded suburban environment? No problem. We’ll let him run loose for a few hours every evening and he’ll do great. Add a Persian cat to the household who needs daily grooming to keep her coat healthy and mat-free when we work 10 hours a day? Not to worry. She’s so adorable we’re convinced she’ll be fine if we do it once a week or so.
At the same time as we have faith in the chemistry that leads to us to recognize the right animal companions for us in an instant, we deny the possibility that we or they might recognize the relationship is over in an instant, too. One day we look at that off-the-wall Lab who totally ignores us as he bangs around in our tiny kitchen and it hits us: “What in the world ever made me think this dog and I were a match?” When the cat digs her claws into us yet again as the two of us spend yet another miserable weekend tackling her mats, we know whatever it was that attracted us before is no longer there. But in theses case, there’s no body of romantic poetry, songs, books, movies, or breeders or shelter or rescue personnel to support us when this happens. Quite the contrary. Many folks don’t want to know that happily ever after isn’t a guarantee and that sometimes those who share the same space lose their bond with each other.
When this occurs, some people may terminate the relationship immediately and deal with any negative repercussions doing so may precipitate. Meanwhile, other owners may consciously or subconsciously create situations that would make it acceptable to others to end the relationship. The incessantly barking dog with whom the owner never shared a sufficient bond to support changing the behavior might progress to biting someone because of the reactive way that person relates to the dog. While few people would condone terminating a relationship with a dog for barking, most people accept this as a viable option when the animal poses a physical threat to others. Or perhaps the stress the animal experiences so undermines her immune response that she succumbs to one medical problem after another. Few would question euthanizing an obviously suffering animal, either.
A third group lives in a state of paralysis. There isn’t enough of a relationship to try to make improvements, but they also don’t want to face the criticism they’ll almost certainly receive if they don’t try. Instead, they do just enough to result in a tolerable relationship. For these folks, a problem with the animal that requires a substantial financial outlay coupled with a reversal of their own financial fortunes or those of society in general can provide a socially acceptable way to terminate the relationship.
As with relationships with other people that depend on outside factors to make them work, hard financial times possess the potential to either make or break human-companion animal relationships, too. If the intangible elements—mutual love, respect, and commitment—are there, these outside factors won’t matter. But if those intangibles aren’t there, when the money goes, the relationship, such as it is, goes with it.
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