I recently mentioned the Tyranny of the Binary and how it forces people to conform along rigid male/female and gay/straight dichotomies in ways that do not reflect human diversity.
I’m a Philly girl at heart. I may have been born and raised in the Northern Cuban Annex, but I’m a Philly girl. I love organic produce, CSAs, the Gay and Women’s Rights movement, cycling and recycling. And I punch the hoods or doors of cars that block the cross walk or drive illegally close to me in the bike lane. My favorite bar is Oscar’s Tavern — you know, a Philly girl.
So it was that as I was finally leaving Philly, I had an idea. One of the trending meme categories on facebook is animal abuse and neglect. Sad puppy faces on abandoned dogs with pleas to their former or future owners saying, “I just wanted to be loved.” Others are grisly images of abuse, as in this facebook post. As an economist, I tend to look at people as automatons rather than individuals. It’s less human than most people consider ideal, but it’s a fabulously effective way of finding solutions to problems of mass lack of responsibility.
An automaton is a programmed, automatic decision maker. You feed in the right circumstances and the output is predictable. Here’s an example: People exposed to small, baby animals, playing clumsily in a store window will want that small animal. People exposed to a long list of consequences and expenses of owning a small animal will want that animal a lot less. People handing a list of consequences in a shop while also staring into the puppy eyes of an unclaimed baby animal will buy that sucker faster than a corrupt politician will buy your votes.
Many people, normal people, people who look at other people as, well, people, will see the problem of irresponsible breeding and pet store impulse sales and try to dissuade the buyers from succumbing to temptation. I, as an economist, who sees people as automatons, knows better than to hope that after thousands of years of humans succumbing to temptation that suddenly, with the right combination of pathetic eyes and horrific tales of breeder irresponsibility, that people will suddenly resist the temptation to own those big watery eyes in the pet shop window. Instead, I see that if one wishes to change the outcome of the puppy* mill economy, one must change the rules and incentives of the market. Here is my idea:
Consider the Philly attitude regarding GMOs and organic produce. For the longest time grocery stores and restaurants were offering us deeper and deeper discounts on food until we have the $1 menu at MacDonalds where you can buy a burger made out of mystery non-meat filler product and pink slime slapped between two dilapidated pieces of flour product with a single pickle slice and a smearing of red high fructose corn syrup and tomato product. Doesn’t sound appetizing at all when you describe it as what it really is. In some ways, the cheaper prices came to us through better company management and improved harvesting, transporting and storing technology, but they also came to us through imitation food substitutes which were cheaper than the real products we were tricked into believing we were buying. The trick came through marketing. For example, on interstate 70 in Illinois you can see pictures of farmers wearing overalls and straw hats next to the words “I live for the land and the land is my livelihood” and the logo of Mon Santo Corporation. No one is lying to us to say that Mon Santo is composed of a network of old fashioned farmers, or that their food actually comes out of the ground and isn’t made entirely out of corn byproducts, but no one is actually telling us the truth of where our discount produce is actually coming from. Enter the organic and non-GMO food movement.
What organic produce does is tell us a more accurate picture of where our food came from and what went into producing it. We know that organic produce relies more heavily on non-chemical methods of controlling pests and fertilizing the soil than traditional farming. In principle this means that the land that supports organic produce is healthier for the surrounding flora and fauna that are necessary for life on earth, but that don’t get sold at the supermarket. What the organic and non-GMO movement do for us is give us, the consumer, a more accurate picture of what we’re buying. In turn, it makes the traditional, cheaper foods, appear less attractive. The key to this movement’s success is, however, not making up rules that we can’t enforce or guilting people into avoiding the foods that they’ve come to accept as, well, acceptable, but it’s in providing a cheap, easy, and meaningful way to differentiate between responsibly produced foods and irresponsibly produced foods. We can do the same for the animal farming industry.
The people who take the biggest hit with irresponsible pet farming are both the owners who sincerely hoped for an animal they could love and cherish, and the animal shelters that are overwhelmed ever Christmas with impulsively bought and impulsively dumped kittens and puppies and ferret kits and bunnies who never did anything wrong other than to exist, and even that wasn’t their choice. So I suggest that animal shelters provide a rating for breeders across the country that summarizes their impact on the health and welfare of companion animals as well as the burden their poorly homed pets lay on public resources. Here are some side effects (referred to in economics as “externalities”) to consider of irresponsible pet breeding and selling:
- Milled pets are less healthy genetically than independently bred pets. This means that not only do they degrade the stock of that animal, but also that they are more expensive to own in the long term because of degenerative diseases like cancers.
- Pet store pets who rely on impulse to make sales are abandoned more often than adoptions. These animals become strays, over filling the shelters and using up public funds to take them off the streets, often with euthanasia as the end for the animal.
- Milled pets are altered (spayed, neutered or descented) at too young an age in order to ship them as babies to pet stores.
- Milled pets may be kept in poor conditions and unsocialized leading to a lower quality pet.
Because animal shelters see so many animals, they are in a position to provide information to the public that the pet stores and pet mills are reluctant to give. Each pet store/mill would receive (or lose) points for:
- What percentage of abandoned or rescued animals come from their breeders
- The rate of disease among their animals
- The average life span of their animals
None of this information requires an inside view of the milling operation and all of it can be provided by the owners of the pets and to some extent gleaned by the pet shelters from the animals they take in. A central organization could then keep track of the scores of the various breeders and provide recommended sources for acquiring pets to pet-parents to be. A lot of the difficulty with animal milling is that people who want to acquire a pet don’t know how to do it, so they go to the pet shop, a surefire way to get a milled animal. To the extent that the recommending service is made widely available, perhaps publicized through InstaYouTwitFace etc, breeders will then have a reason to want to be listed, because it will give them more and better business. Eventually, the businesses associated with animal mills will have no choice but to start being more responsible because the shops they do business with will lose their customer base to those whose animals are healthier and end up being abused or abandoned less often.
In the end, the trick here is just to get information together and disseminated in a way that it’s useful to people who actually have the power: the people who buy pets. We can’t just hope that if we scream loud enough that people will listen. Instead, we have to make it easy to listen, and meaningful to listen at the critical time that the decision is being made.
I have a tense relationship with social media and online forums. Both suffer from what I have decided to call “anonymity assholification.” It’s a syndrome exhibiting a number of symptoms including the marked tendency to say things that you wouldn’t dare say in person, excessive use of swear words and increased aggression towards strangers. As a result, I wax in and out of contact with the digital world.
My most recent experience with anonymity assholification was in the comment thread of a Savage Love Letter of the Day. The writer wanted advice on how to interact with a gay and Christian lover who was fighting with religious guilt over his identity. Dan called the Christian narcissistic and advised the writer to keep a reserved distance from his ex lover’s personal turmoil. Over half the comments on the post were vicious, calling the Christian names and advising the writer to avoid him like plague. Many praised Dan for his intolerance of the Christian boy’s problems.
As a former Christian and a present day Yogi, everything I read that day hurt me. I hurt to read of the boys’ lost romance, and of the pain that the gay Christian’s upbringing was causing him. I am all too familiar with what life feels like under the belief that the most supreme being in the whole of existence loves you less for the way you were born and that there is nothing you can do to erase the sin of your existence. I was hurt to read the venom with which these boys’ plight was received. Below is the letter I wrote to Dan knowing that it was unlikely that I would be heard, but desperately needing to speak nonetheless.
For years now my friends have all been encouraging me to read your column or listen to your podcast. I’m a big fan of sexual expression and freedom and in that arena we share similar views.
So I’ve been following your column for about six months now and there are a few philosophical threads that I’ve started to pick up on. One, in particular, is that religion is bad and Christianity is the evil Boss of them all. I agree with you that organized religions have caused a lot of pain and suffering and have often failed in spectacular ways to improve the lot of the human race. But religion has been part of the human condition for longer than history has, and it does wonderful things, too. Religion, at its most basic level, is a moral guide that provides people with comfort and hope in difficult times, though these successes are more privately experienced than its failures.
It’s certainly the case that the monotheistic religions of our country are in desperate need of some accountability. But we have to remember that being members of a persecuted group does not give us the right to respond with hatred and intolerance of those who we see as privileged. Often, and not with religious topics alone, but also with lifestyles that you don’t approve of, I notice your advice and your criticism bordering on the same lines of bigotry that you criticize in the Christian and Conservative Right. I remember the day when you said that “polyamory is not an identity, it’s a choice” and the familiarity of your words struck me with such force it sent chills down my spine.
Because we are embroiled in what may be rightly considered a war of social justice, I appreciate the need to call for change which is above and beyond a reasonable medium. We have to demand extremes in the knowledge that what we may get is at best a compromise. However, if we do not remember that tolerance and compassion apply to every human regardless of his or her (or xir) race, identity, or creed, then we are no better than those whom we seek to overthrow. As a public figure and a role model that people look up to, I hope that you will commit your media presence to freedom and respect for all humans, not just those who are lucky enough to be outside of the mainstream.