The Dog Delusion

This year we’ll spend $49 billion on our pets, and kill four million of them

Last month, as the 133rd annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show got underway in New York, sheriffs were raiding a puppy mill in Sparta, Tenn. The emaciated dogs that sheriffs hauled from cramped wire cages could not have looked more different than the pampered pooches atop pedestals in Madison Square Garden. But they hinted at a common ailment: the commodification of our nation’s dogs.

Dogs have held a special place in our culture since their domestication some 15,000 years ago. Roman shepherds kept herding dogs, medieval monks first made them pets, and Victorian aristocrats groomed them to perfection. Today, four in 10 American households have dogs, and 94 percent of Americans say they feel close to their dogs—by contrast, just 74 percent say they feel close to their dads. This spring, 104 Harvard students enrolled in a new History of Science course, “Dogs and How We Know Them.”

At its best, this reflects the closeness of the human-animal bond. After Hurricane Katrina, one of the most moving stories told was of an old man found floating with his dog on a trailer tire. When asked to leave the dog, he refused, stating simply that he’d lose everything except the one creature he knew he could trust.

This dog love has also driven a flourishing industry. Most dog owners bought presents for their canine companions this holiday season, churning $5 billion into the American economy. For those with dogs wanting to bring in the New Year in style, the Ritzy Canine Carriage House in Manhattan offered a “Presidential Suite” for dogs at a cool $175 per night.

But the underbelly of the pet-breeding industry is rather less luxurious. Last month, sheriffs in North Carolina and Tennessee raided a series of puppy mills, large-scale breeding operations where dogs are confined in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Videos showed diseased dogs pulled from small, filthy cages, their paws mutilated by the wires.

The puppies from such operations are sent to pet stores across the nation, where unsuspecting pet lovers pay a premium for their pedigree. A recent Humane Society of the United States investigation found that Petland stores continue to source dogs from puppy mills.

Meanwhile, dog shelters across the nation are reporting record intakes as housing foreclosures and job losses force people to abandon their pets. Last year, an estimated four million cats and dogs were killed in shelters for want of adoption. This year, with fewer adoptions, that figure will likely increase.

For a smaller number of these dogs, the alternative to adoption may be a fate worse than death. In 1966, LIFE magazine shocked the nation with an expose entitled “Concentration Camps for Dogs,” detailing the gruesome trade of dog dealers who plied impounded pets to animal testing laboratories. And, though that trade has since been regulated, 70,000 dogs still go unwillingly under the vivisectionist’s scalpel in America every year, some of them former pets.

Some solutions to this crisis are obvious. President Barack Obama has publicly announced that he will adopt a shelter dog to be the First Pet—a noble example that will hopefully inspire others. Spaying and neutering have caught on across the country, though a quarter of dogs still slip outside the programs. Tighter regulations on puppy mills and animal laboratories would be a good first step to stopping needless suffering.

At a more basic level, we need to reconsider the legal framework that views dogs as commodities. While most dog owners love their companions, for other owners dogs remain disposable items to be cuddled when cute and cut when cumbersome. Sadly, the law still sides with this latter group in allowing the mass production and mass killing of pets.

A century ago, a young lawyer named George Graham Vest, later to become a U.S. senator, addressed a Missouri courthouse on a case concerning the killing of a pet dog.

“Gentlemen of the jury,” he declared, “a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground when the wintry winds below, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be by his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.”

Hopefully one day we’ll repay the respect.

Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.