Jessica Scott-Reid is Canadian a freelance writer and animal advocate. She is currently based in Aalborg, Denmark
Canada has a dog-dumping problem. Scrolling through headlines from the past year reveals stories, spanning from B.C. to New Brunswick, of dogs dumped like trash, in forests, in parks, on roadsides and in actual trash. The latest to make news: a little white dog found duct taped inside a box last week on the side of a Manitoba highway. The truth is that for every disturbing dog-dumping story deemed newsworthy, there is an even more disturbing number of abandoned and surrendered pets not making headlines, and this is a sign of a much greater problem. As a culture, Canadians lack respect for the duties of dog ownership, and throwing away animals like garbage is just par for the cruel course.
Thankfully though, there is another region of the world that shows us it does not have to be this way.
Winnipeg veterinarian Dr. Jonas Watson believes the problem of dog dumping in Canada is due in part to not enough people fully understanding the scope of responsibility involved in pet ownership. "Some people make impulse decisions about pet ownership," he says, "failing to realize that a pet is a lifetime commitment, through sickness and health, and a responsibility that demands years of time, energy and resources."
Dr. Watson also points to the problem of unregulated dog breeding, the effect it has on Canada's pet overpopulation problem, and on the positioning of animals within our society. "Unscrupulous puppy farmers contribute to pet overpopulation by churning out an endless supply of tiny Chiweenies and Puggles, whose parents live caged in squalid conditions, all to cater to demand created by unsuspecting, willfully blind, or guilt-ridden adoptive families," he says. "The selling, or monetizing of adorable puppies and kittens may influence the way our society views pets. It certainly distracts from the fact that so many less-than-shiny-and-new animals are already in need of adoptive homes from shelters and rescue organizations."
Feeling the direct impact of irresponsible owners and unethical breeders is Tayna Thorpe, a co-ordinator for Freedom Drivers Animal Rescue Transports, a Montreal-based volunteer group that moves homeless pets out of overcrowded high-kill pounds to no-kill rescues throughout Eastern Canada [and for which the author is a volunteer]. Thorpe says the group transports up to 3,000 abandoned and surrendered animals each year and blames the prevalence of dog dumping on "our disposable culture. We get what we want when we want it, and toss it when we have had enough."
But this problematic view of dogs and dog ownership does not exist everywhere. Across Scandinavia, dog populations are under control and pet ownership holds an important and respected place within the collective culture. And there are no stray dogs. That's right, in an equally comparable northern, developed, socialist region of the world with a similar human population, there is no problem with dog overpopulation and animal in shelters are adopted quickly. Spaying and neutering is not even standard practice, and is actually illegal in Norway without medical reasoning. In fact, if a Scandinavian wishes to rescue a dog in need, the easiest route is to look to groups bringing in pets from other countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, where, like Canada, dog populations are out of control and many are euthanized.
So why does this comparable part of the world have dog ownership so figured out and we don't?
It starts with animal-welfare legislation. Canada has notoriously weak animal-welfare laws, while Nordic countries have some of the most extensive requirements for animal care and harshest punishments for animal abuse and neglect in the world. In Denmark, where dogs are commonly walked multiple times a day and it is illegal to leave them chained up for long periods of time, the law stipulates dogs be provided not only food, water, housing and medical care (as is all that is required by Canadian law) but also care for physiological and behavioural needs. "There are huge sections in the law regarding pet ownership and well-being of the animals you take care of," explains Danish veterinarian Dr. Johannes Fogh. "There are a lot of campaigns in Denmark to make sure that you take care of your pet and have the money and health insurance for your dog," he says. "Danish people are quite law abiding and are very good at helping each other, so if your dog has some kind of issue, people will often help you or tell you to go to the veterinarian."
Legislation and culture are much the same in Sweden. Birgitta Staaf Larsson, with the Swedish Centre for Animal Welfare, says dogs in Sweden are normally considered family members and are kept for their entire lives. She credits a culture of compassion for the reason why homeless pets are not a problem in the region. "We bother a lot for animals and feel empathy for them. Since we have quite cold weather during the wintertime in Sweden, like you have in Canada, we historically care about the pets." Larsson also notes that most dogs are enrolled in training activities, "and nine out of 10 dogs have insurances for medical needs." And like the rest of Scandinavia, she adds, "It is illegal to sell dogs in stores."
Dogs were domesticated by humans, and are now our responsibility. But many Canadians still regard man's supposed best friend as mere objects, to be bought, reproduced, sold and thrown away. As long as lax animal welfare laws continue to allow neglect and cruelty to go essentially unpunished, and unethical breeders continue to be permitted to reproduce and sell more puppies within our dire state of overpopulation, the position of pets in our culture will remain that of property. And the dog dumping will continue. A cultural shift needs to take place within our society that would make it taboo to buy rather than adopt a dog in Canada, make it unacceptable to not properly train, socialize or exercise one's dog, and make it unfathomable to even consider leaving a pet on the side of a road.