Tuesday, September 7, 2010

People who don't take care of their pets are disgusting

The Grape is a great little animal lover. He has this adorable cooing sound he makes whenever he sees an animal of any description. He never makes that sound for people or things, just dogs, cats, birds, horses or whatever other creatures happen to cross his path.

He and Lucy, my tiny tortoiseshell terror, have become inseparable, despite Lucy's initial feline freak out when R. and I brought the Grape home from the hospital, and she realized the screaming bundle wasn't a mere house guest. My geriatric cat, Siren, ignores the Grape for the most part, and that's okay, too. He tries to pet her; she endures the attention for a moment and then slinks away. When he pets Lucy, she purrs and rolls over to offer her tummy. Hopefully the Grape is starting to figure out that different rules apply to different animals. As soon as we move into a larger apartment, we plan to add a dog to the mix.

So why am I boring you with this chronicle of domestic tranquility? Because I am appalled by the number of otherwise normal-seeming people who have suggested that babies and pets don't mix. When I was pregnant a few individuals (who obviously weren't close enough to me to be asking such things) actually inquired as to whether I would get rid of the cats before the baby came.

My stock answer: People who don't take care of their pets are disgusting.

Those who suggested I would love my furry friends less once I became a mommy just got a withering glare. If they persisted, they got the stock answer, albeit with a bit more venom.

There is no exception, at least in my mind, to that rule, and I am doing my best to make sure the Grape grows up feeling the same way. I think we're off to a good start. His first words included the names of my mother's dogs.

If you adopt an animal, you make a commitment to take care of that animal to the best of your ability for its natural life. Period.

And I mean you, the adult person. Not your kid.

I cringe when people say, "We're getting Junior a puppy. It's going to be his responsibility. Isn't that wonderful?" Um, no. It's horrible.

It's wonderful for children to learn responsibility and humaneness by helping to care for pets, but it's beyond the capacity of an average elementary schooler to be a dog or cat's primary person. Most rescues rightly turn down applicants who insist an eight-year-old will be responsible for training and maintaining a pet, because they've learned that if Mom, or whatever adult is home most of time, isn't on board with getting a dog, chances are good the dog will be returned to the rescue, often as a harder to place pooch with some bad habits.

I understand that maybe one dog out of a hundred really cannot live with a small child. When that happens, the responsible thing for the people to do is to re-home the dog to a more appropriate family. It's sad for everyone, but sometimes necessary. And in most of these cases, the canine-baby incompatibility isn't breaking news, so the people will have feelers out for possible new homes before things spiral out of hand. There are also the occasional sad cases of a child with a ferocious allergy to fur. Those tend to be heartbreaking for everyone involved; often the allergic child is the most crushed of all when it comes time to say goodbye to the dog or cat.

But, and this is a big but, I volunteer with a dog rescue.

I see the emails from dog owners who want to unload their pets on an already grossly overtaxed shelter system (between 3 and 4 million HEALTHY dogs and puppies are euthanized in this country every year). I talk to the volunteers who return their calls; most of the time, these new parents have come to view their previously cherished pets as superfluous hassles. Dogs who previously enjoyed the run of the house get confined to crates in the kitchen for most of the day. They get yelled at by testy visitors when they try to get a whiff of the new family member. And then the new parents marvel that Fido resents the baby. Sometimes, some gentle course correction from a good trainer can put everyone back on the path to happy coexistence, but oftentimes, people won't even listen to that suggestion. They've talked themselves into thinking they're dumping the dog because it's in the dog's interest to do so.

I'm calling bullshit on that.

Even worse are the visibly pregnant women (and expectant dads) who show up at the Animal Rescue League just down the street from me. Every few weeks you see one tearfully waddle in to turn over a confused and terrified pet, in anticipation of welcoming a new baby. "I won't have time," they say. Or, "My spouse says Beau here has to go," or "My mom told me cat boxes can kill the baby." (Cat waste can carry a harmful bacteria. It's very rare in indoor cats, however, and it's nothing good hand washing - which new parents should practice anyway - can't address.), or "We're worried about the wee one eating pet food." (The Grape has a surprising appetite for cat kibble. I figure a few organic crunchies can't be any worse for him than the sand he and his contemporaries shovel into their faces at the playground.)

The worst thing about all this is that these people, with very few exceptions, knew they wanted to have children when they took in a pet. Though most of them would never admit to being lousy pet owners, that's what they are.

Most dogs and cats can happily cohabit with kids. It's a matter of supervision, controlled introductions, good training and common sense. Numerous resources on introducing a baby to your dog or cat exist, and they're not even a little hard to find. The basic gist: the pet should associate the new baby with good things and the pet and baby should never be left unattended. Reputable shelters will happily give out the names of qualified behavior consultants and the internet has hundreds of articles that go into great detail on the subject.

I believe that, if the adults in the household are on board, pets are wonderful for children. Lucy and Siren enhance the Grape's life every day. And, no, I don't love the furry critters any less because I have the Grape. I hope our love of animals is something we'll continue to share forever. And I'm glad I'll never have to point to a photo and say, "I got rid of him when I had you."

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