michael schaffer on america's relationship with pets

Posted by Dr. Jules Benson on Oct 23 2009


The Culture Clash
Why Does Dog-Fighting Persist in a Pet-Loving Country? Inside the Culture Clash over America’s Animals.
By Michael Schaffer

For pet lovers, the 21st century can seem like the best of times and the worst of times.

On the one hand, Americans are on track to spend $45 billion on their pets this year—a total that seems to be growing even though the recession has consumers tightening their own belts. For many people, pets have become full-fledged members of the family, meaning their care, feeding, and company get the same consideration that’s given to the nurturing of two-legged offspring. The phenomenon has given rise to whole new industries catering to those who want the best for their pet: Organic pet food, doggie day spas, space-age veterinary medicine, and pet-friendly airlines, among other things that not so long ago might have seemed improbable.

And you only have to glance at the array of media reports about America’s puppy love to know that some pet people take their devotion a step further: Ours is the age of pet chauffeurs, pet lawyers, and New York’s annual Pet Fashion Week.

On the other hand, there’s a drumbeat of more troubling news about pets in America. The age of the pet fashionista is also a time of shocking cruelty to animals. We’ve learned that many of the beloved pets people buy from stores were actually bred in horrific rural puppy mills, where animals are churned out as if they were bushels of tomatoes, the imperfect specimens killed off without a thought. We’ve seen catastrophic consequences of a pet-food market whose safety standards couldn’t cope with a mass poisoning. We’ve been buffeted by revelations about dog-fighting rings where animals are bred to fight to the death.

The financial crisis, too, has taken its toll: Even as pet spending remains remarkably resilient, there has been increase in abandonments, many of them by people who’ve been foreclosed.

How is it that one sector of the population can pay more attention to their pet’s nutrition than to their own, while another can see their death-matches as amusement? For those of us who live in Philadelphia, it can sometimes feel like we’re at the center of this national divide. On the one hand, the city is home to Petplan, a firm who’s very business—veterinary insurance—speaks to our growing devotion to pets. On the other hand, the city is also now the home to Michael Vick—the convicted dogfighter, NFL star, and walking, talking reminder of man’s capacity for viciousness towards animals.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years pondering our four-legged schizophrenia. I spent most of that time researching a book about Americans and their pets. The book, One Nation Under Dog, is a mostly happy story—a tale of how, over a generation or so, pets had wormed their way into a new place in America’s homes, hearts, and wallets. I came to the conclusion that the way we treat pets is a pretty good window into our national soul. The rise of ultra-premium dog food, professionalized dog training, and specialty veterinary surgeries is really a reflection of our evolving attitudes towards two-legged subjects like nurturing, education, and health. Walk the aisles of a pet superstore and you won’t just learn about pets; you’ll figure out all sorts of truths about us humans, too.

Some people seem to think there’s something creepy about all this: I can’t tell you how many people I met who seemed downright unhinged about how our allegedly spoiled pets are a sign that society is going down the drain. But I came to think of the new world of American pets as a mostly good thing. Pets make us happy. Pets teach us love. And, besides, we’d probably spend our money on useless electronic gadgets if Fido and Fluffy weren’t around.

As I did my research, though, I was always aware of a grim undercurrent—and I made it my business to seek out pet-lovers who had decided it wasn’t enough to simply protect their own animal. In humane organizations working to reduce pet abandonments, in political campaigns taking on puppy mills, and in outreach efforts teaching kids that dog-fighting is never OK, there’s a good deal of firepower aimed at overcoming various forms of pet cruelty. The fact that these campaigns get so much attention is evidence about how far we’ve come. (Could you imagine Senators from the 1950s holding hearings about dog food?).

All the same, the cluelessness of some of the bad actors—the puppy mill operators who don’t see anything wrong with keeping a breeding animal in a cage for her entire life, the guys claiming to be “too busy” to care for the pets they dump at an overcrowded shelter, and especially the dog-fighters who insist they “love” the animals whose lives they’re endangering—shows how far we still have to go.

Ultimately, what’s going on here is a culture clash, the same sort of thing that so passionately divides people about gay marriage or corporal punishment. Some people, and I’m one of them, think taking a pet on vacation is perfectly normal; other people think it’s bizarre. And if even I can say that’s a subject where reasonable folks can disagree, there are other places where it’s harder to find common ground. There are some people who think it’s perfectly OK to use your dog to show off your macho toughness, either by fighting them in a ring (which is illegal) or just intentionally training them to be fierce, loveless creatures who snarl at passersby (which isn’t). On the other side of the pet divide, the one that treats pets as family member, turning your pooch into a weapon is about as kosher as turning your five-year-old into one.

My hunch is that history is blowing our way. Not so long ago, making your pets sleep outdoors was common, too. Today, as behaviorists tell us that dogs need to be with their people, most people report that they at least keep pets inside, if not at the foot of the owner’s own bed. (When was the last time you saw a working doghouse?) From the spread of doggie day-cares to the number of governments that now permit people to provide for their pets in their wills, there’s a slow but steady shift towards a culture where a loving family attitude towards pets is normal.

But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try to hustle up those on the wrong side of this culture clash, especially the dog-fighters.

One October day in Harlem, I watched a particularly interesting effort to do just that. In tough neighborhoods across the country, a program called Training Wheels stages weight-pulling contests for dogs and their owners. It’s not much to look at: Competing dogs pull plastic sleds laden with bags of kibble; the much-advertised cash prizes are puny. That’s not the point: Staged in areas where casual, street-corner dog-fighting remains prevalent, the series of contests shows off another way to have some good, athletics alongside your dog—without hurting any animals or breaking the law. Owners whose dogs have fighting scars can’t win prizes, but everyone is welcome. The idea is to spread the word.

Based at an animal shelter in New York’s Hudson Valley, the Training Wheels program began with a fairly simple notion: If fewer people give up their animals, fewer animals face euthanasia at the pound. With maximum diplomacy and minimal judgment, volunteers would set out for high-abandonment areas looking for signs of pets who might face trouble—a dog chained up in a back yard, say. The idea was to initiate conversations where outreach workers could explain some of the concepts that are no-brainers elsewhere: Proper nutrition, spaying and neutering, accessing inexpensive training for snappish dogs. Access to such things would reduce abandonments. But it would also bridge some our lingering pet culture clashes.

The anti-fighting outreach, with its weight-pulling contests, came later. But after Michael Vick put that particular underworld on national display, the contests got significant attention, including an award-winning documentary on ESPN. They weren’t alone. Since the football star’s 2007 arrest, anti-fighting efforts have gotten a burst of energy. Tactics range from lobbying for more aggressive policing of animal-cruelty complaints to advocating legal changes that would throw the book at dog-fighters.

The most difficult part, though, remains the culture clash: How to reach out to those last, lingering, unconvinced people who think a little fighting is A-OK. Back in Philadelphia, Vick, of all people, has now joined this effort, speaking to school groups about his regrets. But the jury is still out on whether the kids see him as genuine or just someone trying to weasel his way back into respectable society.

One person who’s watching closely as the drama plays out is Jen Utley, perhaps the city’s best-known pet activist. Married to a star second baseman for the Phillies, Utley can also thank professional sports for her high public profile. But that’s about the only thing she shares with Vick. A board member of the state’s SPCA, Utley’s not content to stand pat with humane laws that have been toughened over the years. “The laws need to be stronger,” Utley says. “There need to not be warnings. There needs to be jail time. Remember, Michael Vick didn’t serve one day for dog-fighting. It was racketeering.” Today, now that Vick is back in football, Utley fears some people will celebrate his having “beat the system.”

Utley notes that prosecutions like the Vick case may become trickier as fighting rings morph into less formal, if equally cruel, phenomena. “The dog-fighting rings have changed. It used to be very, very structured. They have their own magazines, the people who do the rankings. It was a functioning business.” As those businesses—which represented a big, fat bulls-eye for law enforcement—go further underground, winning the culture clash is even more important. Until people stop wanting to stage dog-fights, no amount of police firepower can completely eradicate them.

On that front, Utley says, the attention brings with it a hint of progress. “I think it’s more socially unacceptable just because people know about it now. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say I cannot believe that it happens in Philadelphia,” she says. “There’s a strong level of education that we’re trying to re-ignite.”