Pet news. It’s as if Columbia has ceded all power and control to those furry or feathered creatures, making them seem as if they’re more important than anything else. What with all the dust-ups involving Zootoo’s mysterious “up to a million dollar” makeover, the leadership shake-up at the humane society, a couple of teenage girls’ on and off and on again support for the animal shelter, the wrangling over city funding for spaying and neutering, the urban backyard chickens debate, and a dog killing by police, one would think we’ve got nothing else to think about. So, maybe, shooting dogs isn’t such a bad idea after all.
I learned this lesson a while back while I was in Mexico — legally, by the way. In those days, I was lucky to have a friend as good as Joe Sanchez, who treated me like the son he never had, so I treated him like the father I always wanted.
Joe lived in a house in Baja California about 30 miles south of the border, a few kilometers south of Rosarito Beach. High above a cliff overlooking the Pacific, I’d lie awake at night during my visits to just listen to the waves crashing against the rock wall. (Want to go? las-gaviotas.com). One time, my idyllic hacienda became the epicenter of conflict — over dogs.
It seemed that some of the gringos — American expats who lived in the development — were upset because the Federales in nearby Rosarito Beach had a pretty efficient way of dispatching stray mutts. You guessed it — exactly one strategically placed bullet. Those residents wanted Joe to sign a petition demanding that the police stop shooting dogs and that the city’s government set up a more humane way of dealing with the animals.
What Joe said has stuck with me. In a city where street urchins, wearing ratty hand-me-downs and covered with dirt, sell chewing gum for a few centavos so they can help support their families, it’s inappropriate to spend scarce resources on dogs. A bullet, Joe said, is quick, easy, practical, and cheap. It’s not your country, he told them, so let them handle it their way.
Now Columbia isn’t Mexico (though I’ll admit I was a bit confused when I first moved here because Missouri has one too), but maybe there are some things our city, county and state can learn about priorities. For instance, we can consider things like our financially floundering MU campus, the achievement gap and other crises facing our school district, the inability to provide adequate mental health and other services to needy individuals, poverty and a host of other critical human issues and then make decisions about animals that make more sense.
The Central Missouri Humane Society, for instance, spent nearly $1 million in 2008, according to its most recent federal filing, to prevent cruelty and to promote “responsible pet ownership,” including acting as the main animal shelter for 20 counties in mid-Missouri. From 2004 through 2008, CMHS extracted about $3.5 million from local communities — much of it from government agencies — funds that could have been used for things far more important than people’s errant pets. And that’s the rub. Is paying for pet owners’ irresponsibility a community responsibility?
For most individuals, pet ownership is a luxury, meaning it’s something they want rather than need. Asking people to bear the cost of their animals is no different than expecting a family to buy its own Xbox. So, for instance, when the Columbia City Council appropriates thousands of dollars to spay and neuter pets and to provide other services, I can’t help but wonder why the owners aren’t paying or what makes sense about taxpayers footing the bill. If you can’t afford a pet, why do you have it?
Cities and counties must rethink how they cover animal control costs and begin imposing fees and penalties that defray the public expense and deter bad behavior (No, bad pet owners! No!). They also need to get more efficient about disposing of animals when they become overly burdensome. Columbia’s ordinances, for instance, don’t impose license and redemption fees even remotely sufficient to reimburse the city. And in some cases, if a person can’t afford them, they’re waived.
I suppose there are people — like PETA members and utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton — who elevate animal rights to the same level as human ones. But I’ve experienced too many places racked by human suffering — including Columbia — and so my priorities evolved differently. Ultimately, animals are property that must be maintained safely and properly by their owners. Government is obliged to economically and efficiently manage the problems created by those who don’t.
A Remington .44 magnum round at Bass Pro costs about 70 cents. Make my day.
Michael Jonathan Grinfeld is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a co-director of MU’s Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and the Media.