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Can Dog Ownership be Sustainable?

Posted Oct 11 2011 9:16pm

This month's Green Mom's Carnival topic is about green pets in honor of National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month.  It is hosted by Lisa at Condo Blues .  

After reading many blogs and articles about sustainable pets and I came to the conclusion that pets are not sustainable.  Sustainable means that a practice does not use more energy and resources than it puts back into the environment.  I can imagine raising chickens in a sustainable way and maybe goats.  The chickens scratch a living in the yard and give you eggs.  You need to feed them grain and protect them from predators.  Cats and dogs (the way we raise them) need food that you either buy or make.  They require medicine, kitty litter, beds, toys, leashes, and other accouterments.  I read a book that changed my mind about pet sustainablity, at least about dogs.

The book, “A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life” by Steven Kotler, is about the author and his girlfriend, Joy, who moved from the fast paced life of LA to a small town in New Mexico.  Their lives bottomed out in LA and theywere looking to change their lives.  Joy is a dog rescuer, mainly of almost hopeless cases, mostly chihuahuas. I have heard of dog rescues for various breeds but I really did not understand it until I read this book.

Dog rescue involves a passion and devotion to dogs that most of us do not have.  For dog rescuers, a respect of animals and nature is a vital part of their view of the environment, that none of us creatures is better than the others and that no creature deserves to be hurt (we are not talking predator/prey relationships), especially by humans.

Kotler quotes philosophers, environmentalist, biologists, geneticists, among others to discuss dogs, nature, and human behavior.  He weaves this information into his own story of becoming a dog rescuer and convinces the reader of the value of the dog’s special relationship with humans.  
Dogs came directly from wolves.  The split between dogs and wolves occurred because of cohabitation between humans and wolves, perhaps before we became human, in other words, it happened with our primate ancestors. These ancestors may have begun to cooperate with wolves on the steppes of Eurasia 100,000 years ago. The idea is that wolves figured out that human dwellings, whether a cave or a village, always had garbage nearby.  This garbage heap had many things that wolves could and would eat.  Those wolves that could tolerate being uncomfortably close to humans and that could eat in the presence of humans got more to eat.  More food meant healthy parents and bigger litters of pups. This continued for thousands of years while humans favored the cutest and tamest pups.  We may have gotten intelligence and self-awareness from our primate ancestors but we got cooperation, patience, devotion to family from the wolf.  So we have evolved to cohabit with dogs which makes them pretty important to human life and vice versa.

There are two opposite ways to see animals and humans and their place in nature. One philosophy is from Descartes who believed that animals were machines with no soul, no thoughts and no feelings. During his lectures, he would nail a dog to the wall and tell his audience that the screams were not different from the squeak of a screw being turned in a tight hole.   Obviously he thought that animals could not suffer. Another similar philosophy derived from the old testament is that man should have dominion over the beasts.  Both of these ways of thinking make valuing the beasts and their habitats unlikely.  In fact, most scientists agree that we are in the throes of a mass extinction.  One of every two species is in decline and one in four is at risk of extinction.  So how are we doing at stewardship and being the thinking/feeling species?  It’s not working out so well for the beasts. 

The other way to think of animals and humans and their place in nature is called deep ecology which is a philosophy described by Norwegian ecophilosopher, Arne Naess.  He says, “The right of all forms to live is a universal right  which cannot be quantified.  No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species.”  This means that humans are not special nor do they have dominion over nature.  This philosophy means we should care for all aspects of the earth as we would our homes or our families or ourselves.  I feel that this way of thinking is vital to environmental health and life on Earth as we know it.  It is not the thinking of the general public.
How do we get humans to value animals (as well as all the natural world) as organisms with a right to live on earth with us instead of valuing animals for what they can give us or do for us?  We can start with the animal that we are closest to, the dog.

Having a dog for a pet teaches children about many things like how to care for the animal, animal behavior, reproduction, birth, death, love.  Dogs improve (Erika Friedmann) survival rate among heart surgery patients,  lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, improves sleeping disorders, helps with depression, and they are just plain wonderful companions.

Having a dog (okay cat lovers, cats are included here) teaches us and our children about nature. They are the door to the natural world.  If you can’t have a dog or cat, then other pets will do - fish, mice, lizards, snails. Now I feel that if pets help us humans value nature and increases our desire to care for the environment, having them is SUSTAINABLE.
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