Think before you buy that puppy
The story of Target, the heroic mongrel who thwarted a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, only to be euthanized by mistake in an Arizona shelter last month, evoked nationwide sorrow and outrage. But heartbreaking as that story was, a far greater tragedy is that an estimated 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized in U.S. shelters each year. Those numbers do not include others that are feral and/or homeless. Meanwhile, Americans buy animals from puppy mills, pet shops and breeders because they are fixated on owning a particular breed. Indeed, someone I know of recently drove several hundred miles to pay $1,600 for a puppy she had never met.
I understand loving the splendid variety that selective breeding can produce. As a child, I adored our family's Irish setter and Afghan hound, and I would pore over dog, cat and horse books memorizing the different breeds. Certainly the world would be a sadder place without the diversity of Neapolitan mastiffs or Egyptian pharaoh hounds. But while some people will always breed animals as a labor of love, the national obsession with owning "purebred" (really, selectively bred) dogs is narcissistic. Ultimately, it has fatal consequences for millions of deserving animals who don't happen to be status symbols. Which leads me to support what unfortunately is a radical concept: that people should select companion animals based primarily on their temperaments.
How does one judge an animal's temperament? One excellent way to know what you're getting is to adopt from a foster family, easily found through shelters, rescue groups or Web sites such as PetFinder.com. Foster caregivers can often provide more information than breeders about an animal's personality and in-home behavior. Most shelter facilities perform some level of temperament assessment on the animals they make available for adoption, which helps to ensure a better match between the animal and its adoptive family and to reduce the number of animals returned to shelters. But not all facilities have the resources to thoroughly evaluate animals, and some animals who are shy or shelter-stressed may perform poorly on assessments yet still make excellent companions. Focusing on personality, asking the right questions and keeping an open mind are far more likely to lead to the right choice than relying on breed stereotypes.
I don't come to this issue from the moral high ground. My first two cats were pedigreed Maine coons I bought in Seattle and shipped home to the District. They were magnificent animals and wonderful companions, but I now look at that phase of my life much as a vegetarian might look back on eating veal: an ethical misstep that was the product of ignorance. What changed this pattern was finding a scruffy little white cat in a remote area of the Blue Ridge while hiking with my boyfriend one frigid November day. This tiny cat was dirty, emaciated and coughing spasmodically, but she was smart and friendly enough to follow us for a mile back to the car.
When we tried to pick her up, though, she fought like a Tasmanian devil and we had to throw a towel over her and stuff her into my backpack to get her into the car. Fang, as we jokingly named her, eventually regained her health and is, as I write, napping contentedly in my lap. She may not have the regal ruff or tufted ears of a Maine coon, but she has about the best personality of any cat I've ever met - sweet, playful, feisty and polite.
As the saying goes, all dogs have a pedigree - it's just that some we know and some we don't. There is nothing superior about a "purebred" dog or cat; in fact, mixed breeds benefit from a phenomenon known as hybrid vigor, meaning that they are less susceptible to genetic disorders and live longer on average. Sadly, many "purebred" dogs come from puppy mills, which are still legal nationwide despite being scandalously unethical operations where animals are confined to small cages their entire lives, breeding constantly under factory-like conditions. And while feral and shelter animals can certainly have significant health problems, I've seen too many friends who purchased animals from breeders end up heartbroken to discover that their pets suffered from life-threatening congenital defects.
If Americans who plan to buy a dog or cat would just take a short walk through a shelter and look at the animals' faces, they would realize the impact their decision can have. Even people who seek certain breeds because of allergies can often find them at breed-specific rescue groups. Saving an animal from starvation and homelessness is its own reward, but the beauty of rescuing an animal is that, from an emotional standpoint, it turns around and rescues you right back.
Betsy Karasik is an artist and writer living in Washington.