You, young doctor or nurse, living in your privileged society of excess, with your years of study and work in an industry that exists largely to minimise animal suffering, have certain expectations of what ‘taking care of an animal’ looks like. This is not a standard achievable by many. Suffering and death will come to us all, including our animal co-passengers on this blue rock of ours. How soon we meet this end, and how unattenuated the associated suffering is will be very much dependent on the environment around you and the resources you have at your disposal. Of course as vets we should always strive to do the best we can for any animal in our care, but we need to learn to put judgement aside when an owner’s abilities don’t stretch to meet our expectations.
In rural Indonesia, the past is only a scooter ride away. Around the corner from cocktails and Instagram-feeds, the rhythms and traditions that lie at the heart of humanity still keep the beat of an ancient way of life. Over the last few years I’ve been helping a charity in rural Lombok with their desexing programme. Spending time in the villages away from tourist areas allows you a glimpse back through the millennia to when dogs and humans first domesticated each other: humans produced food, sometimes in excess of their own needs. Dogs started hanging out around humans to eat their excess. Dogs, being naturally territorial, barked at strangers and chased away wild animals. Humans initially simply tolerated the dogs, but then, seeing the usefulness of their new neighbours, started encouraging their presence by providing a more steady supply of food. What started out as a symbiosis morphed into a strong emotional bond. That bond, that need we feel to live in proximity to animals, must surely be etched deep into our genes somewhere.
The people of Lombok are not ‘dog people’ as such. There are cultural taboos that prohibit the intimate connections that many of us have with our dogs. You rarely see overt affection between people and dogs here, but don’t for a second underestimate the bond that the villagers have with their dogs. If you need proof, go dart a ‘stray’ dog to desex it without first carefully explaining to the villagers around you that you aren’t harming the animals, and see what happens. You’ll be exiting the village swiftly, your exit expedited significantly by the angry mob behind you! I can vouch for that. Yet, despite this obvious bond, these dogs are largely left to fend for themselves. They live free and seemingly happy lives, until they don’t. They roam, they play, they copulate, get pregnant, fight, get injured, get pregnant again, get sick, they suffer, they die – all in a relatively short space of time. It’s a story that must be almost as old the history of the co-existence of our species.
For someone from a culture where we have strong emotional bonds with our animals and resources to burn, which allows us to provide an exceptionally high level of care to our animals, witnessing this can be confronting. It’s very easy to judge the morals of the ‘owners’ of these animals for allowing this suffering. Until you realise that the humans in this relationship often share similar levels of hardship, and that what we tend to blame on a lack of caring is often just a lack of resources and information.
Would you tell these people that they shouldn’t be allowed to own animals?
Humans crave the company of animals, and animals apparently like hanging out with us, despite our obvious shortcomings. It’s often said that owning animals is a responsibility and a privilege and not a right – a sentiment that I agree with, but only in part: it IS a privilege, but not a privilege that should be reserved for the privileged.
Saying ‘if you can’t afford to care for a pet then you shouldn’t be allowed to own one’ is a subjective and biased opinion, and a vague one at that. What defines an appropriate level of ‘caring for your animal’ is based to a large degree of your background, your prior experiences with animals, and your financial circumstances.
Let’s agree that if you take an animal in your care it is your responsibility to meet it’s basic needs: make sure it doesn’t starve, freeze or cook to death, don’t cause it unnecessary suffering through wilful abuse or neglect, and satisfy at least some basic emotional needs of connection and freedom from fear and pain, where this is within your control. Beyond that, where is the line? We could argue that provision for core vaccinations should make the cut into what constitutes basic levels of care, but I can assure you that there are many unvaccinated animals around the world that live very happy lives. I’ve seen many colleagues spit venom about ‘careless owners’ who ‘don’t deserve to own an animal’ when a dog presents with a pyometra, so should we make neutering a minimum requirement of pet ownership? Should every pet owner have the means to pay for at least full bloods and an ultrasound? What about major life saving surgery? An MRI? Chemotherapy? Specialist referral?
If there is a line in the sand, then its poorly defined, and, like the line between beach and ocean, it’s a line that will shift with every wave, tide, and storm.
So how does this belief hold you back? If you subscribe to this way of thinking you’ll be on a constant collision course with a large part of the population. It’s a mindset that will set you up for daily antagonistic interactions with the people who present their animals to you, in stead of creating those all-important relationships that we mentioned in the previous post. None of this will benefit your patients, your clients, or yourself. To be blunt – you’ll only make yourself resentful and miserable.
Where things do become complicated is when individuals expect a high level of veterinary care without being willing to pay for it. When the burden of care and blame for lack of provision of gold standards of care is shifted solely onto the shoulders of the veterinary community the relationship starts falling apart. This, of course, is bullshit, and should be treated as such. It’s a problem that vets who who have the capacity to provide high levels of care will grapple with, and can be the topic of many more blogs. For the purpose of this piece, let’s just say we should aim, always, to help, to the best of our abilities and with a consistent level of caring and lack of judgement, any person who presents their animal into our care, despite their individual expectations and capacity of what constitutes a good level of care.