I am pretty old and I’ve lived for many years overseas, where animals may be petted and fed, but that’s about it. With this information as backdrop, I have to admit I’m pretty shocked by current American attitudes toward and treatment of pets (including my own!). I have been confronted, sharply, with this issue in the last few days, having selected a cat (Gwendolyn) from the pound and brought her home. The result is that I’m struggling with serious pet-related moral dilemmas. Gwendolyn herself cost $20, plus $5 for the cardboard carrying case. These minor expenses were, however, just the beginning.
We first went to Petsmart to buy a litter box. Knowing we would be travelling from time to time, we reasoned that we should have one of those self-cleaning kinds—the $100 price tag was our first surprise. We also realized we’d need some more cat food ($20). We forgot to buy the kitty litter, and had to make an extra trip to the grocery store for that ($6+ gas)—total expenditure for the day: >$165.
By the second day, we’d realized that Gwendolyn liked scratching up the door frames, so we returned to Petsmart to buy a scratching post ($20)—not, incidentally, one she’s so far deigned to use. While there, we realized that we might do better with some self-feeding dishes (another $20 for the two, for water, food). The SPCA had also offered us a month’s free insurance. When I called to activate the insurance, I was persuaded (remembering the horror tales of my friends and students about the cost of medical care for pets) to buy a year’s insurance (~$100). Total expenditure for the day: $144.
On the third day (today), I took Gwendolyn to the vet. The SPCA had offered, and indeed required, an immediate visit to the vet, which was advertised as ‘free’. At my ‘free’ visit, I was advised to 1) get (and pay for) a booster shot for feline AIDS , 2) begin a two-shot process to immunize against feline leukemia, 3) screen the cat for intestinal parasites, and 4) have a pedicure (all totaling $74)—none of which seems to be covered by the insurance. As I was leaving, I inquired about a flea collar and was advised to buy an ointment, which turned out to cost $90 for a year’s supply! Total expenditure by 11 AM: $160.
Now let me back up a bit and explain that Gwendolyn is a delightful little creature. She weighs a mere 8 pounds, is ‘dilute calico’ in color, and has no tail. Apparently in line with her Manx breed, she follows us around like a puppy dog (not, however, getting underfoot), she sleeps peacefully outside our bedroom door at night, she often sits quietly by me when I’m in repose, and delights us with various vigorous antics as she occasionally tears around the house. She purrs loudly, cries softly, and her fur is about the softest I’ve ever felt. We love her.
My dilemma has to do with my intellectual realization/awareness that if I were asked to assess, beforehand, the advisability or even morality of spending roughly $500 in three days on a perfectly healthy, happy cat (especially knowing that such costs will recur), I would have said ‘you’re crazy.’ Yet I just did that. I believe there are far more worthy causes on which I would choose to spend this money (despite my utter enjoyment of this cat), were I being rational.
I tried to analyze what prompted me (us) to do this—we did, after all, have some idea that there would be costs associated with pet ownership. But the scale of expense has still been a surprise. [I am reminded of the shock I saw on the face of Totok, an Indonesian driver at my husband’s office, when he learned that we were prepared to contribute Rp. 200,000 (about $20, but also perhaps half of his monthly salary) to the local version of the SPCA, when they accepted four stray cats that had been dumped in our Jakarta front yard —he was ready to ‘get rid of them for us’ at no charge.]
I know that in the US context, I have responded to social pressure (some quite subtle)—from kind-hearted SPCA personnel, the vet, and the social and financial world in which I live (near Ithaca, NY, full of pet-loving folks whom my husband describes as ‘hyper-liberals’). I share many of their values—I too love animals. But another part of those values, one far more fundamental in my mind, is a concern about people in other parts of the world (or even in our own country) for whom I’d consider a contribution of $500 more sensible. I would think carefully, normally, before making such a contribution even for human beings!
I suspect I’ll continue to provide this care for Gwendolyn; she is an adorable creature and I already love her. But I remain uncomfortable with my behaviour, sitting firmly, awkwardly, on the horns of this difficult dilemma. Why do we spend such vast sums on animals when there are so many human beings in such dire need? Is not a starving child [and there are many in the world] more sensible to save than taking preventative actions for a recently stray cat!? My value system comes down squarely on the starving child, while my behaviour has opted for the cat….