On Why So Many Shop Rather Than Adopt
If the arguments in favor of adopting rather than having our animal companions created are so straightforward, then why are they not followed in practice ? What can be said for the other side—for those who think there is a prerogative to purchase from a breeder rather than rescue from a shelter?
The answer lies in our widespread treatment of animals as property, as objects for our own satisfaction rather than sentient lives with their own intrinsic worth. That we have the former basic orientation toward animals is evidenced by the fact that most people—including self-proclaimed “animal lovers,” who love cats and dogs—eat and wear other kinds of animals.31 People with means do it for their own convenience and pleasure, not out of necessity. Humans consume over fifty-six billion animals a year.32 Our fondness for cats and dogs is the absolute exception, not the rule. We are not even consistent in our reverence for cats and dogs. Though most Americans would never think of eating them, many of us do quickly dispose of them when they become inconvenient to us. The proof is in the millions of animals abandoned on the street or relinquished to shelters. Though some of these relinquishments may be due to inevitable tragedy, many are the result of feeling inconvenienced by a creature deemed first and foremost to exist to serve our desires.33 As a society, we endorse euthanizing abandoned animals by the millions rather than finding or funding some alternative. Palmer notes, “So, alongside the social recognition of cats and dogs as companions and family members lies the social treatment of them as expendable individuals that can be killed en masse at human will—or even whim.”34
It is no surprise that our treatment of cats and dogs reflects our fundamental orientation toward animals as consumables. Many people treat dogs or cats as fashion accessories. Dogs, for instance, are status symbols or cultural signifiers. How many tough, pick-up-truck kind of guys would be seen carrying around a Yorkie Terrier in the backseat? We have all seen the photos of Hollywood actors toting in their designer purses a teacup-sized dog with a Swarovski crystal collar. We oftentimes want the cat or dog who reflects something that we value, much like other consumables. This is the primary explanation for why so many people choose to purchase their pet from a breeder rather than a shelter.
People seek an accessory, an animal who looks a certain way and signifies a certain kind of identity. I do not deny that we can come to deeply love our animals acquired for these reasons. Yet in many cases they are acquired in the first place because they complement our own self-images.35 But this preference for purebred dogs from breeders cannot override a compelling duty to adopt instead. Morality does not let us ignore our obligations of beneficence for just any trivial preference.
Next, some people may prefer to buy from a breeder so they can “know what they’re getting into.” (There are similar defenses of procreation rather than adoption.36) Purebred dogs and cats are so meticulously bred that the personality types within a breed may offer more predictability than the average “mixed- breed” would.37
But a preference for a purebred does not rule out the option to adopt from a shelter. Twenty-five percent of the dogs that enter shelters are purebred.38 There are also breed-specific rescue organizations. After all, many of the people who think they want a certain kind of dog end up abandoning them when they become adults and less cute or when they tire of taking care of them. The negligence of others means that people who strongly desire a purebred can satisfy that desire through rescue too.
Some people worry that shelter animals may have had some traumatic experiences prior to arriving at the shelter, and they may be concerned that these animals will have behavioral problems or unpredictable personalities due to their pasts. Concerns about behavioral issues are not insignificant to our decision about which pet to choose. But one cannot assume that all or most animals in shelters are there for behavioral problems. Many shelter animals are relinquished because their owners died or could no longer care for them (due to a move or loss of job).39 The animals that are up for adoption are actually the select few. Recall that nearly half of animals who enter the shelter are euthanized. They are vetted for aggression and other behavioral issues. In fact, we can better predict an existing animal’s behavior than we can that of an unborn puppy. Shelter staff or foster families who walk with and care for the animals every day become familiar with their personalities and are in a position to know whether any particular animal has behavior issues. Adult animals’ personalities are developed, and adult dogs are usually housebroken. Finally, many behavior problems in cats and dogs are due to lack of training or education of their guardians.40 If you are not dedicated to walking your dog, providing it obedience training, or cleaning your cat’s litter box, you will have pet behavior problems regardless of whether you adopt or buy from a breeder.
There is a moral point to make, too. Yes, some animals have had trauma in their past. Some will find the shelter life itself traumatic. They might have behavior issues that will resolve only with a stable family and lots of loving care and training. But these constitute all the more moral reason for us to extend compassion to these dogs and cats and welcome them into our lives. It is really not all about us! The strong case for a duty to adopt requires that we justify our choice to buy from breeders instead. None of the above reasons justify that choice.