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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Milled pets are altered (spayed, neutered or descented) at too young an age in order to ship them as babies to pet stores.
  4. 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:

  1. What percentage of abandoned or rescued animals come from their breeders
  2. The rate of disease among their animals
  3. 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.