DEAR READERS: The personal enjoyment, educational and scientific value of keeping reptiles and amphibians in captivity are justifications that can only be validated by an anthropocentric view of other species. Such a view is antithetical to the principles of veterinary bioethics, because these animals are inevitably harmed and treated as commodities.
Effective international regulatory oversight of trade in wildlife species (including birds and mammals), and of captive breeding facilities to ensure basic health and welfare standards, are not realistic -- as evidenced by the well-documented high mortality rates reported in several scientific reviews. Most species bought as pets die within the first year, and the stress of capture, holding and transportation of those not bred in captivity results in unacceptable and unsustainable mortality rates.
The veterinary profession is caught in a bioethical dilemma: providing essential services for such animals kept as pets, and thus indirectly supporting the live-animal commodity market/industry. I was glad to read a recent report by Joanna Klein in The New York Times summarizing these same concerns from scientific veterinary articles under the heading, “Debate Grows About Keeping Exotic Animals.”
British veterinarian Dr. Martin Whitehead and associates conducted a survey of veterinarians in the U.K. and found that on average, vets believed pet reptiles’ welfare needs were not well met. There was overwhelming disapproval of keeping wild-caught reptiles as pets. Dr. Whitehead wrote the following to me: “Because it is difficult to recognize suffering in some species, we humans, including vets, tend to believe the suffering is much less than it is. And the less a species is like us humans, the less we care about the animal or regard it as important, so even when we see the suffering of a lizard, it doesn’t affect us -- ‘matter’ to us -- in the same way as the suffering of a dog.”
I would appeal to everyone not to support the exotic pet industry -- an industry that is not engaged in humane and sustainable business practices in accord with the principles of bioethics. Bioethics, like reverence for life, can help emancipate us, and all life, from what Pope Francis calls “a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” (from his encyclical “Laudato Si”)
DEAR DR. FOX: I thought I would respond to the letter from the man who wrote that he and his wife had recently rescued a Chihuahua mix, and were having a difficult time with housebreaking. I agree that the dog should be checked thoroughly by a vet, in case there is a physical reason. I also want to share our story.
We “rescued” (purchased) a Boston terrier, Mini Me, who was 13 months old. We knew the breeder, and had purchased a puppy from her a few years before. The breeder admitted Mini Me was not housebroken. As a matter of fact, I found out through a friend that none of their dogs ever gets to go outside. They all stay inside the house, and those dogs who get out of their kennels do their business on newspapers in the kitchen! I can only imagine what that house smells like!
Mini Me stunk horribly when we got her. We had met the breeder halfway between their home and ours, about four hours’ drive for each of us. Before we got there, they had taken her for a brief walk to get her to potty, but she did not go. They told us that Mini had never been outside before.
We discovered several things over the next few weeks. As soon as the food bowl went on the floor, she began gobbling as quickly as she could. The breeder had told us that Mini had to compete with one or two littermates in a small kennel, and if she didn’t dig in, she would not eat that day! She still does this somewhat, but not like she used to.
Mini had lived in that little cage her entire life until we brought her home with us. The breeders had kept her in hopes of showing her and/or breeding her, but luckily, she was too small for either.
When we got Mini home, I set her on the ground in our fenced-in yard. We had taken all our dogs on the drive, so they had a chance to get acquainted a bit on the ride home. Poor Mini did not know what to do, and it dawned on us that she had never touched grass before! Annie, one of our other dogs, began playing with her a bit, and within five minutes, she and Mini were running around and around the yard for Mini’s first taste of freedom in her life! They ran and played until they were tuckered, drank some water, rested a bit, then Mini was ready to go again!
Since Mini had lived her life eating, sleeping, pooping, peeing and “living” (if you could call it that) in a small kennel with one or two other dogs, she did not understand that living in filth was not normal. We had a tough time housebreaking her. We took her out frequently, praised her, and continued to clean the floors when she had an accident. It took over nine months, but it was so worth it. She does still have accidents, but not often. She lets us know when she needs to go outside.
I wish the folks in North Carolina good luck with their dog. All I can say is that patience, love and praise go a long way in training a dog! -- L.L., Branson, Missouri
DEAR L.L.: Your saga with Boston terrier Mini gives me hope in people like you -- and in my next breath, I feel that old, familiar despair that many people will never change, like the breeder of Mini who treated her like a mere commodity with little or no quality of life. Always visit the home/facility before ever purchasing an animal, never purchase over the internet, and ideally adopt from your local shelter. For documentation supporting these assertions, read Kim Kavin’s book, “The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores and Rescuers.”
You gave Mini a chance and she did recover her spirit. Good for you! I have seen dogs permanently crippled from living in small cages for years. There are many dog breeders and others out there who exploit animals for personal gain and treat them inhumanely. It is so important for the public to support local and national animal protection organizations and, like the Animal Legal Defense Fund does, prosecute these inethical people to the full extent of the law.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxVet.net.)