Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dogs, Cats, People, Celebrity and City Council.

Boy, what a day it has been, especially for creepy old white guys. Bob Novak, fresh from his hit and run, now has a brain tumor. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was indicted in a massive corruption scandal. Jerry Lewis was busted for carrying a concealed weapon (and the cops say it was not a prop gun, as Lewis's manager claimed). And Bob Barker, he of "The Price Is Right," was in Chicago, arguing for a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance.

This is like a segment on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." Okay, panel, which story did Chuck find interesting enough to comment on further?

The answer, from the Chicago Tribune, is here.

The issue is more interesting than you might think.

The article covers it much more thoroughly than I will now, so by all means read it. The proposal supported by Barker would require all dogs and cats in the City of Chicago to be spayed or neutered before they are six months old. It is supported by PAWS Chicago and the Humane Society, but opposed by the Chicago and Illinois Veterinary Medical Associations.

This is a great example of people talking past each other because they see the issue in such completely different ways. Barker and the animal advocacy groups are all about the animals and what is best for them, whereas the vets have their own practical concerns about how such a law would be enforced and, in effect, they speak for their customers, the pet owners, not the pets.

Put that way, it sounds like Barker et al are the good guys and the vets are putting their business interests ahead of the best interest of their patients, who are the pets.

But it's not that simple. Both sides have fairly elaborate arguments, most of which sound very sensible, but there is something they're not telling you, at least they're not telling it the way I'm going to right now.

To the extent there is a pet overpopulation problem, the default solution is to kill the excess. Please understand I'm not advocating that or anything else. I'm just trying to cut through the rhetoric and state the issue simply. Killing the excess is only a bad idea for one reason, it's cruel. In every other way it is a good solution, with regard to cost and other practical matters.

Here is where the divide starts to take shape. On one side are people for whom preventing that cruelty is just about the highest value there is. Difficult and expensive to enforce? Intrusive on individual rights? Not proven effective? None of those things matter, because we're saving cat and dog lives.

On the other side are people who regard animals as property, cats and dogs just like pigs and horses. If an animal is no longer needed or wanted, killing it in a humane way is something the animal's owner should have an unfettered right to do. Ownership of abandoned animals defaults to the state, which has no reason, aside from the cruelty argument, not to kill them immediately, in the most humane and expeditious manner possible. In fact, when we were a much more agrarian society and more people depended on animals for their livelihood, often in ways that required animals to be killed, as in eaten, that's exactly what people did. If a cat who was hanging around the place had kittens and no one wanted them, they were taken down to the stream and drowned.

It was sad, it was unfortunate, but what was the alternative?

Again, I don't seem to be saying anything that makes Barker et al sound wrong, but consider this. If we have the government force us to spay and neuter our pets, because voluntary spay/neuter programs haven't solved the pet overpopulation problem, what will happen if the mandatory spay/neuter regime also fails to reduce pet overpopulation? What will they try next? You--meaning all you irresponsible pet owners--have shown you can't be trusted with a companion animal, so now we're going to have the government take your pets away from you. Pet ownership will be a privilege, not a right, and harboring an off-the-grid pet will be a worse crime than owning an unlicensed handgun.

What the vets fear, of course, is that they are next, that they will be required to spay or neuter any pet they see that is more that six months old. How can they be forced to perform a procedure over the objections of the owner? Who will pay for it? Maybe the vets will just be required to report non-compliant owners to the spay/neuter authority.

Their fear is that people will just stop using vets, which will be bad for business but also bad for a lot of pets, who will be deprived of proper medical care.

However, one might argue by analogy that human doctors are required by law to report suspected child abuse? Isn't failure to spay or neuter an animal also a form of abuse? What's the difference?

Do you regard that as a perfect analogy? Or as a perfectly abominable analogy? That, ultimately, is where this issue goes. It is about the relative value of human and non-human animal lives, and the relative value of human liberty when compared to the value of a non-human animal life.

To use an old expression that seems apropos, I don't have a dog in this fight. Because I don't have a dog or cat, I'm not affected no matter how all this turns out, which makes me a pretty neutral observer. For that same reason, I'm under no obligation to resolve the conundrum. It's people who have animal companions who have to take a stand.

Barker et al have such a visceral certainty that it probably is futile to suggest they should see a bigger picture, which is that they stand for the proposition that at least some non-human lives (cats and dogs), maybe even all non-human lives, are just as important in all respects as human lives. There are people who are willing to go that far and who are, at least in the abstract, willing to live with the consequences of that world view. If you are not willing to go that far, if you believe human life is inherently more valuable than non-human life, and you too are willing to live with the consequences of your world view, then you probably should think twice about supporting mandatory spay/neuter laws.

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