Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Pet adoption: a few thoughts

Over the years, my partner and I have found homes for several kittens--despite our efforts to keep the local population of floating felines vaccinated, neutered and spayed, we just know that sooner or later, a young cat will arrive triumphantly on the doorstep showing off her new litter, pretty much smirking, see, see, you didn't get me.
The results have been mixed. Not everyone who loves animals can live with them. Not everyone who knows they can handle a kitten (or a puppy) can handle the adult animal. Many people are taken aback by the costs involved in taking care of a companion animal; many are well-meaning but don't realise that an animal member of the family will require as much care as the human members.
If you're considering adopting an animal from a friend or a local shelter, good for you. In urban areas, companion animals are often abandoned or dumped when families move or realise that they can't handle the responsibility. Stray animals often make great companions, but there's always a surfeit of new litters who have no homes, and life on the streets is just as cruel to unwanted animals as it is to unwanted humans.
But here's what you might want to consider:

1) Given love and proper care, cats can live from roughly 8 to 15 years; dogs can live much longer. (Birds? Well, most birds shouldn't be caged, and buying caged birds in order to "free" them or look after them only encourages the illegal trade in birds.) If you're taking an animal home, bear in mind that she or he might live for a decade or two. You're making a commitment that will last the span of a human childhood, adolescence and early maturity.

2) The ASPCA has an excellent page on guidelines for families. One of their suggestions is that families with very young children shouldn't adopt animals until the kids are old enough to understand the needs of animals. Very young children don't always understand how to handle kittens, puppies and other small animals, and might mistreat them or hurt them inadvertently. And try not to give in to your children's urgings to adopt kittens and puppies without the entire family being willing to make the necessary commitments. Some of the saddest stories in animal shelters are the stories of animals who have been adopted as kittens or puppies, given a great deal of affection, and then been abandoned when they grew too big to be "cute" or when the family decided that they were "too expensive" to maintain.

3) Think about adopting a stray rather than a pedigreed animal. Most strays are hardy, friendly and very bright; and many breeders who specialise in "pedigreed" animals do their breeding in conditions that are extraordinary cruel. One of the dogs we rescued years ago was a puppy who had been stuffed into a sack and tossed onto the pavement by a breeder: his excuse was that she was the wrong colour for her breed. I've had a very personal grudge against breeders ever since. A well-run animal shelter will be able to help you find an animal companion who will fit well into your family; friends and acquaintances are likelier to point you in the direction of good, healthy animals.

4) Animals make messes; animals require healthy food; animals need good living conditions. Don't adopt a big dog if you live in a small apartment with no access to parks; don't adopt fish if you're unwilling to clean out the tank; don't adopt animals unless you're willing and able to spend time with them. It's cruel to put cats on a vegetarian diet, even if you are vegetarian yourself; dogs, on the other hand, do very well on balanced vegetarian meals.

5) If you spend most of the day out and still want animal companionship, you might want to consider several options. If you spend a reasonable amount of time at home but need to go out for a substantial chunk of the day, consider adopting a pair of kittens--but make sure that the two animals are compatible and enjoy each other's company. Dogs who're left on their own for large periods at a stretch don't do very well; they need company, preferably the company of the humans they consider their family. If you spend almost all of the day out but still miss animal companionship, consider dropping by a local animal shelter. Shelters always need people to help, and sometimes help can mean just spending time with the animals there, taking them for walks, chatting with them.

6) Try and make sure that you sterilise the animal companions you're planning to take home; unless they're very young, this should be possible. If they are very young, make sure that they are sterilised within six months of bringing them home. Dogs and queens (female cats) need more care after sterilisation than tomcats. Very few Indian animal clinics and centres will hold sterilised animals for a day after the operation, so you must be prepared to deal with your companion animal's disorientation and recovery. Cats and dogs can vomit after they come out of anaesthesia; queens need attentive care for the week after sterilisation to make sure they don't undo the stitches; and all animals, like humans, may be disoriented or traumatised for a couple of days after the operation.

7) Before you bring a companion animal home, factor in the costs: medical and food bills, grooming gear and sometimes the cost of improvements to the home to prevent animals from accidental injuries or to prevent them from going into the street. Animals don't cost as much as children, but they do need to be looked after. Discuss the costs with the family before you adopt an animal; please don't decide to cut down on care because it's too expensive once you've made an animal part of your family.

If you're bringing a companion animal home, you're making it part of the family--with everything that implies. There's responsibility involved, and a commitment. But there can also be tremendous joy and a great deal of pleasure. It's something of a privilege to be allowed to share in the life of a member of another species.

For me, personally, being adopted by a young, imperious kitten who rejoices in the name of Mara and has the fastest paws in the West was a tremendous adventure. Mara brought other animals into our lives, from Torty to Tiglath, Phash to Goopy and Bagha. She made me look at neighbourhoods differently and see the invisible scent maps that animals use to navigate their world; she and Tiglath alert us to the presence of birds, the occasional urban simian visitor, the odd roaming pig and the long extended family of Other Cats who drop by for a chat.

They have complex relationships: the birds chitter at the other cats indignantly, but eat leftover food from their bowls; the monkeys rarely bother the cats but make rude remarks at the crows; the Other Cats have cat wars but also cat friendships and alliances, as when Powowowow and Patience Waddle team up to raid the food bowl of the long-suffering Alsatian next door. (The odd roaming pig, poor soul, was lost and only quit making protesting noises when it was returned to its humans.) And there was, once, a camel sighting, but after taking a long, hard look at this beast, Mara retired under the bed and declared that she refused to believe in camels.

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