Ask Not What Your Pet Can Do For You, But What You Can Do For Your Pet


An uncharacteristically soft column from right-wing commentator Paul Sheehan was intended to promote kindness to animals. It missed the mark, writes Jordan Sosnowski.

As an animal lawyer and long-time vegetarian, you might think I’d be commiserating alongside Paul Sheehan about the “great loss” it is that pet ownership is in decline in Australia.

But the thing is, I can’t help thinking it might be a good sign. Perhaps even a harbinger that our empathy towards animals is on the rise.

You see, less puppies sold does mean a decline in Pal and hydrobath sales (boo hoo pet shops). But there’s an important thing Sheehan seems to have overlooked: less puppies sold also probably means less puppy farms. And this can only be a good thing.

Of course the Australian Companion Animal Council are sad that pet sales are in decline – it’s an organisation that primarily represents breeders, pet shops and purebred associations.

While the ACAC says its mission is to “promote socially responsible pet ownership”, it’s doggone crazy to think pet shops are aligned with this objective.

Many potential pet owners are reassured by buying from a “registered breeder”. But being registered doesn’t mean diddly. Let’s see this ruse for what it is: a breeder is just another name for a puppy farmer. A person who grows puppies. Many registered breeders sell puppies via the Trading Post where lack of oversight means customers are duped and the factory wheel keeps turning.

If we’re honest, it’s the breeders and pet shops who are responsible for the huge number (more than 250,000) of healthy dogs and cats who are destroyed every year in Australia.

Sheehan laments “we are losing cats and dogs” because over the past 20 years, pet ownership has decreased by almost 20 percent. But more recent studies show there are 19 dogs for every 100 Australians. And Australia still has one of the highest levels of pet ownership, with 39 per cent of households owning a dog.

(IMAGE: Sergey Norin, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Sergey Norin, Flickr)

After reading Sheehan’s great article about Australia being bipolar when it comes to the treatment of animals, I was disappointed to see him treat companion animals like commodities.

He mourns over the loss of millions of dollars to the Australian economy because of loss in pet food and animal care sales, yet mentions nothing about the intensive breeding issue. He grieves over the potential billons lost because decline in pet ownership apparently spells disaster for our mental health.

Most disturbingly, Sheehan points out that sheep and cattle dogs “work hard at little cost” to prop up Australia’s $17 billion livestock industry. While no doubt Sheehan was well-meant, in his defence of more “palatable” animals like dogs, he endorses an industry synonymous with animal cruelty. And inadvertently gives a firm stab in the back to animals like cattle and sheep.

Sheehan also dons rose-tinted glasses when he characterises the Aussie farmer’s relationship with animals: “Working dogs are also usually found travelling in the front seat with their owner, which suggests the relationship is usually more than mercantile”.

But this romanticised view completely ignores the harsh reality I’ve witnessed growing up in the bush. Many unwanted working dog puppies are callously killed. Or worse, they’re “set free”, left to fend for themselves and in an effort to survive end up killing local wildlife.

This example epitomises the very bipolar attitude Sheehan referred to when he said Australia has “one of the world’s most entrenched systems of factory farming… co-existing with one of the world’s highest rates of animal companionship.”

(IMAGE: Eric Sonstroem, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Eric Sonstroem, Flickr)

Domestic animals – all animals for that matter – are not just statistics. They shouldn’t just mean something to us because of their contribution to the economy.

Of course it’s sad that pet ownership is down. But not for the pet shops, the animal care industry and our mental health. It’s sad because there’s literally thousands of dogs out there who still need a home.

The decline in pet sales might actually mean we’re being a little bit more discerning when we decide to take on the responsibility of having another being enter our life.

If we really want to care for animals, we need to stop asking what they can do for us and start asking what we can do for them. We can start by banning animal sales in pet shops. We can put a cap on the number of animals kept by breeders or better yet, get rid of breeders’ associations altogether. We can make it a criminal offence (as has already been done in the ACT), to intensively breed dogs and cats.

As a start, we can think more about the consequences of buying animals. Whether it be a dog from an adoption centre or a cow from the supermarket shelf.

Jordan is the Advocacy Director at Melbourne-based organisation Australia for Dolphins. She graduated from Monash University with a Master of Laws, Juris Doctor. Jordan was admitted as a lawyer in NSW in 2013 and is an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.