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What does “responsible” pet ownership really look like?

Kenny Lamberti reflects on what it really means to be a responsible pet owner and who gets to decide.

What Does “Responsible” Pet Ownership Really Look Like?Would your organization adopt to a family with a young child? Why or why not?Animals live in communities that cross racial, cultural and economic boundaries, but we have carved out this space that focuses solely on animals, far too often at the exclusion of people and the more humancentric work being done in every community.Do your adoption policies consider each person's specific circumstances and environment?What gives anyone the right to label others as “irresponsible”? Of course, real cruelty exists—but it is the exception, not the rule in terms of how people treat animals.

“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”  Thomas Berger

I’ve often found that people who ask lots of questions tend to be very thoughtful when making decisions. The best teachers and mentors I’ve ever had encouraged me to question things before accepting anything as fact. When we have the courage to question, paired with the willingness to be self-critical, we are ultimately much more effective when serving our communities, so here are a few questions to ponder.

•    Is it “irresponsible” to have a dog who lives entirely outside?
•    Is it “irresponsible” to feed and care for cats who live outside in my community?
•    Is having an intact pet “irresponsible”?
•    Have I ever done anything with my own pet that I would label “irresponsible” in others?
•    What gives me the right to label anyone “irresponsible”?

I’m sure most people reading this have already answered these questions, but I have one more to ask: Is it appropriate to label any person “irresponsible” without first asking questions and getting background information?

The phrase “responsible pet owner “ has always bothered me, and I’ve often wondered if it’s become part of our language so we could feel better about passing judgment on people we know very little about. Of course the word “responsible” isn’t inherently bad, and neither is the phrase “responsible pet owner.” But when arbitrarily used to label specific behavior, it takes on a different meaning.

I would even take it a step further and say it is intellectually lazy to label anything or anyone without first considering their specific circumstances and environment—yet we do that regularly in regard to people who choose to share their lives with cats and dogs in ways that are different than the ones we would choose.

We spend an inordinate amount of time creating guidelines for what makes an individual a worthy pet adopter, what qualifies someone to own a certain size or breed of dog, how many cats can a person have before becoming irresponsible, etc. These guidelines are typically decided arbitrarily and vary depending on who creates them, and after all that time and energy creating rules, the system remains flawed.

The best example of this may be the process we force people to go through in order to adopt a pet. Do you have a fenced yard? Do you have experience with large-breed dogs? Are all of your pets current on vaccines? We ask this long list of questions to a potential adopter, who by making the choice to adopt in the first place may have already given us all the information we need. Maybe the “responsible” thing for those of us in the animal welfare field to do is to think twice before imposing our personal opinions on the general public.
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”  Ernest Hemingway

We in animal welfare can do better if we are more open to self-critique and learn where our true responsibility lies. For many years I’ve wondered what our mission truly is in animal welfare, and if we even have one unified objective. Is it even possible to identify our collective responsibility without first embracing a mission statement? Is our responsibility to protect animals from cruelty? Is it to provide resources and information to animal lovers? Is it to be the voice for the voiceless and tell their story? Is it all these things? And does our mission include any responsibility to people?

Maybe our first responsibility needs be to look in the mirror a bit more often. How much of what the public believes about animal cruelty and neglect comes from our own messaging?  What stories do we tell for fundraising purposes? What data and stats do we use to gauge and promote success? Have we written an accurate and honest narrative, or have we told a story that makes too many people look cruel and us heroic? Of course, real cruelty exists—but it is the exception, not the rule in terms of how people treat animals. If we told the truer, broader story of the millions of people who wake up every day and choose to share their lives with animals, who want the best for them and will work hard to provide it, what would change? What if we focused more of our energy on providing information and resources to them so they can provide the quality of life for their pet they wanted to all along? We might not get as much credit for being heroes, but significantly fewer animals might need “saving.”  I challenge us all as professionals, advocates and volunteers to spend significantly more time examining our own policies, words and behaviors for fairness, clarity and helpfulness, and a lot less on determining whether or not pet owners are “responsible.”
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”  George Bernard Shaw

The world is changing rapidly, and so is the way people share their lives with animals. It is incumbent upon us in animal welfare to evolve with our environment. Animals have always been part of communities, yet we in animal welfare have marginalized ourselves. We have been existing in this self-imposed animal welfare vacuum for far too long, and I for one can feel the winds of change blowing. I question if there is even such a thing as “animal welfare” or if animals are just part of the larger public health and social justice spectra. Animals live in communities that cross racial, cultural and economic boundaries, but we have carved out this space that focuses solely on animals, far too often at the exclusion of people and the more humancentric work being done in every community. The fiber of this country is in the midst of a true metamorphosis. Issues of race, gender, economics, climate, etc. are influencing policy and legislation exponentially more now than at any time in our brief history, and animal issues haven’t quite caught up. In recent decades much of the animal welfare community has embraced the idea of being a fringe movement, and it has intentionally separated itself from human welfare. It’s time to collectively wake up and join the party, and work towards the greater good alongside people working for equality, fairness and social justice, struggles that have been going on since the dawn of time. If we hope to build a more humane global community we must ask more questions of ourselves and have the courage to change. That is our primary responsibility.
Until then, what do you think our true responsibility is as animal advocates? What does a “responsible pet owner” really look like, and who gets to decide? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below.

Whether you agree or disagree, we hope you’ll join us at the next Animal Care Expo. And check out our thought-provoking 2016 special session, What Does "Responsible" Pet Ownership Really Look Like? And Who Gets to Decide?, sponsored by Petco Foundation, during which we discuss how our work with animals intersects with more humancentric initiatives, and how we, as animal advocates, can more effectively bring animal issues into the mainstream consciousness. Together we’ll explore a new way to look at animal welfare.



About the Author

Kenny Lamberti was acting vice president of the Companion Animals department at the Humane Society of the United States.