Whenever I write about an incident of animal cruelty, I always get a few nasty letters that come awfully close to ... well, not defending what happened, but certainly minimizing the significance of such crimes.
These people nearly always preface their remarks by claiming to like animals. But then they take me to task for not thinking about people, as if caring about animals leaves no room in your heart to feel horror over a crime against a fellow human being.
Typical was a letter I got a couple of years back after writing about Leo, the little dog who was killed when he was snatched from his owner's lap and thrown onto the freeway by a man enraged over a fender-bender. "You wouldn't care if he'd thrown a baby into traffic," wrote a reader who was angry at all the attention the case had generated. "You animal freaks are all alike. It's just a dog, for heaven's sake!"
What the letter writer missed was that the death of Leo was as much a crime against his owner as against a fluffy little dog. The man who killed Leo wanted to hurt his owner, and chose her dog as the means to his end. Anyone familiar with domestic violence will nod in recognition at the connection: It's common for abusers to threaten the lives of pets -- or even kill them, sometimes in front of family members -- to keep a mate terrified and under control.
And that's not the only link between cruelty to animals and crimes against humans.
The prisons are full of violent criminals who became hardened to cruelty by seeing it perpetrated on animals, and then by practicing on animals themselves before moving on to people. Further, some of history's most infamous mass murderers -- Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo and Jeffrey Dahmer among them -- honed their "skills" on animals first.
Once it puts down roots, cruelty only grows stronger, becoming bolder as it chooses its victims. A cat, then a child. A dog, then an elderly woman.
I was thinking about the link between animal cruelty and crimes against people in relation to recent events that happened within a couple of days of each other -- the barbecuing of a live kitten by a group of men in Missouri, and the kidnapping and murder of a young girl in Southern California.
There will surely be those who'll fault me for caring about the death of a little gray tabby when a beautiful girl's life has been cut horribly and tragically short. But the fact of the matter is that I care about the kitten not just because I care about animals, but also because I know there's a connection between someone who can torture a kitten and someone who can kill a little girl.
The facts speak for themselves.
It's important to us all to take animal cruelty seriously and prosecute it vigorously, and not minimize it because the victim is "just" an animal. The man responsible for the kitten's death has been charged with a felony, and this is as it should be. For when we fight cruelty against animals, we not only help animals but also spare the human victims that almost always come later.
And that might one day make a difference to the parents of another beautiful little girl.
PETS ON THE WEB
Christmas comes early for pet lovers, with the launch of the online edition of the Merck Veterinary Manual (www.merckvetmanual.com). The print version of this essential reference has been a mainstay in nearly every veterinary hospital since it was first published in 1955. The introduction of an online version immediately makes the site one of the most significant animal-health resources for every pet lover.
Every search of the Merck manual turns up interesting information: Did you know, for example, that based on 1995 U.S. figures, dry foods constituted 58 percent of $3.5 billion spent on dog food, compared with 24.8 percent for canned and 2.6 percent for semi-moist? (The remainder consists of smaller categories, such as frozen.) Of the $2.17 billion spent on cat food, 43.1 percent was classified as dry, as compared with 51.7 percent canned and 2.4 percent semi-moist.
Almost any healthy food you fix for yourself can also be shared with your bird, such as pasta, rice, casseroles, meats and cereal. Try to keep fatty and sugary foods out of the mix, along with dairy products. (Because they're not mammals, birds don't have the ability to digest regular or large amounts of dairy products.)
Another cross-species surprise: You can occasionally add dog kibble or monkey food (the latter is often available at bird-supply shops) to your pet bird's meals.
Sharing your meal with your pet bird helps your relationship, too. So knock yourself out fixing fabulous meals you both can enjoy. Just keep your portions separate: Your bird shouldn't eat food that has been in your mouth and vice versa.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I was reading your article on training collars and I do agree with you, for the most part. I own a 6-month-old Border collie/Newfoundland pup named Skip, who takes me for a walk, because he weighs 45 pounds already!
My local pet-store worker, a breeder of champion German shepherds, showed me how to use the training collar. Within 10 minutes, Skip was barely pulling. And when he did decide to pull, a quick reprimand usually stopped it.
I am also taking Skip to obedience training, in the hopes that I won't need to use the training collar soon. Lately, I've tried to attach the leash to his leather collar, using a technique I'm learning in obedience class. I do still put the training collar on him as a backup, should he start pulling too much. -- G.M., via e-mail
A: Your letter makes my point exactly. When used properly, the "choke" collar is a useful piece of training equipment. But it's not meant to be used for life, and it's difficult to use properly.
Before I wrote my column on collars, I spent a few days paying close attention to people walking their dogs. I observed that the overwhelming majority of people who used a "choke" collar were doing so incorrectly -- they either had it on wrong, kept it constantly tight, or both. The collar should be put on so the free-running part goes over the dog's neck, not under it, and it is meant to be tightened for a very brief second and then released.
Because these collars are so difficult to use properly, I've given up on them as a useful tool for most people to train their dogs. Instead, I like to recommend head halters, such as the Gentle Leader, which are easier on both people and dogs. Although I don't like the looks of a head halter -- it looks too much like a muzzle for my taste -- they work very well for many pet lovers and aren't as difficult to use.
Q: We keep our two young dogs (both over 65 pounds and around 2 years old) in the garage when we are not home. It stays pretty cool in there because it is well-insulated, but I feel bad leaving them in there all day long. They're in the house whenever we are, but they are destructive when left alone inside. They've done too much damage to our yard to be left alone out there. We take them on long walks every night and to the dog park on the weekend. Is it OK to leave them in the garage during the day? I feel like I'm not being a good dog-mommy. -- M.J., via e-mail
A: You can stop feeling guilty. If they're cool, safe and provided with water and some good toys, your dogs are fine in the garage while you're gone -- especially since they're getting lots of exercise and companionship when you're home. It's the perfect compromise for dogs who can't be trusted to have the run of the place when you're not around.
You may be preventing a behavior problem by keeping them in your garage. The sound-dampening qualities of an insulated garage minimize noises and other distractions that keep your pets from napping away their day. That will reduce their stress and keep them from barking out of protective instincts or boredom. The garage will also muffle any noise they do make. And I'm sure your neighbors appreciate your dogs being quiet while you're gone!
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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