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Irresponsible and Underprepared: Animal Ownership in the Pandemic Era
By: Jordan McKay
Despite the apparent common-sense nature of caring for animals, there are no formal qualifications to ensure you do it right. As a self-proclaimed animal enthusiast, Lauren Murphy tells Jordan McKay that wanting an animal is not enough.
I got lost on my way to visit Lauren Murphy just outside of Montreal’s West Island. I got confused about which street I was on, and where I was supposed to turn in the vast open space. When I eventually found her, naturally she was outside with her dogs. As an animal rights enthusiast and animal lover, she prides herself on spending as much time as humanly possible with her pets.
Her two dogs, Clara, a large sheepdog, and Olive, an energetic Labrador, were excited for a visitor. As a former dog owner, I was not surprised when they nearly knocked me over. Clara’s jump left me slightly breathless, but she did it simply to get my attention. However, Olive was so excited her energy had nowhere to go but up and at me as I made my way into her backyard.
As we sat down, Murphy shared a story with me. A couple weeks back, she made the trip to a local pet store and found their usual animals missing. "I didn't even piece it together that the animals were all adopted," she told me in disbelief. "I asked the lady where they all went, and she told me they'd all been adopted."
Her face grew more somber as she shared what the employee had told her, "after covid if you're looking for a dog or something, just look on the street because that's where they're going to be."
While frank, what the pet store employee told Murphy will likely come true, and it deeply concerns animal rights enthusiasts. "We need licenses to drive cars," Murphy told me fervently, "but we don't need one to own a living being."
When I went to the same pet store Murphy told me about, I found what she described. Empty cages, no animals, and an eerie sense of dread.
In the spring of 2021, Lauren Murphy, a dog lover, and self-proclaim animal activist, finds herself increasingly concerned with the rise in animal adoption rates in Montreal. As the covid-19 pandemic forced us into our homes, people found solace in the companionship of animals. As Murphy speculates, the lack of formal adoption screenings and prospective pet owner’s under-preparedness is a recipe for disaster, and one we won't feel the full effect of until after the pandemic.
Each year the SPCA publishes a report outlining their work in Montreal. In 2019 they reported having taken in over 1,000 dogs and nearly 5,000 cats. The report boasts a 90% survival rate for cats and dogs.
Across the country, Humane Canada collects data from the Humane Society and SPCA shelters. According to Humane Canada's statistic report, in 2019, just over 30% of cats and dogs in shelters were surrendered by their owners. Of those that remained in shelters, roughly 2,800 dogs and 11,700 cats were euthanized. Unfortunately, the numbers are likely higher in recent years, as Humane Canada reported fewer shelters participated in their yearly survey, and many others were excluded entirely.
As for Montreal, in an article in 2018, the Montreal Gazette reported that of the 26,000 animals taken in by shelters, roughly half were put down yearly. The Gazette article claims these statistics revealed that Montreal had the highest rates of animal abandonment and euthanasia in all of North America.
Though statistics for 2020 have still not been released, Lauren Murphy claims that the rise in adoption may temporarily drop euthanasia rates, but any reprieve would be short lived.
In Montreal, current bylaws dictate that new pet owners must obtain a license to own a cat or a dog. This license requires that dog and cat owners provide proof of microchipping, sterilization, and an address. It also acts as a quick screening process by which the city may reject an application if charged with a crime related to animal welfare, leash laws, or euthanasia.
At the SPCA, adoption procedures require applicant profiles match the needs of the animal and a phone interview be done before adoption. For Rosie's adoption, a Montreal non-profit shelter, the application is slightly stricter, citing the right to refuse adoption.
For Murphy, however, it's still not enough. Lia Pasternak, a pandemic adopter, faced little to no opposition to the adoption of her cat Ringo. Initially, she and her roommates took Ringo, part Bengal and feral kitten, as a foster pet, but adopted shortly after. As an experienced cat owner, she was prepared for the challenge of domesticating Ringo, but says that not everyone is. "Every day, I sit with him for two hours just being silent and letting [Ringo] come to me," she said. "He needed someone that was going to be patient and quiet."
Sarah O'Neil, another pandemic adopter, quickly realized she forgot the responsibility of caring for a puppy. "My dog has separation anxiety already, so I'm sure being a pandemic puppy amps it up," she says. "It's really hard for him to watch anyone leave the house."
O'Neil says she fears many new dog owners face the same issues as her. Though she's already made plans to hire a dog walker, she admitted that they should have thought about it before adopting. "It's all happening a lot sooner than I was expecting."
Pet stores and breeders are not required by law to screen families looking to adopt. Many adoptees housing situations alone are ill-suited for pets, like that of Murphy’s friend. "They live on the 16th story of a condo,” she told me confused. “Australian Shepherds are farm dogs; you know, they aren’t made for that type of life."
For Murphy, the current laws and procedures are certainly not enough to ensure animal welfare and prevent killing animals.
Ideally, Murphy wants lawmakers to implement procedures designed to weed out the irresponsible. For her, measures like mandatory background and credit checks, training sessions, and even licenses could help prevent unnecessary euthanasia.
In Berlin, lawmakers have gone so far as to introduce a "dogs driver's license." The permit requires a new dog owner to prove a dog is trained to allow it off-leash. Though still not as strict as Murphy suggests, the concept is similar. Last year, a German minister introduced a bill forcing dog owners to walk their pets twice daily. It also forbids owners to leave dogs alone or tied up all day.
According to numbers published by the Canadian Animal Health institute over 58% of Canadians own pets. For Lauren Murphy, that statistic is enough to justify stronger regulations around pet ownership. "Not everyone's fit to have animals. Covid doesn't automatically make you a pet person."
Regardless of the numbers, Murphy is still concerned by the under-preparedness of many pet owners. For her, introducing more stringent adoption procedures for shelters, stores and breeders is necessary. "Everyone has the right to have a child or an animal, but it's a very big task, so I do think there should be very big rules."
Though Murphy feels there is nothing more currently being done, she remains hopeful that the fallout might bring change.