Christmas time gives us “paws”

Many recent media reports serve to remind us that our holiday gift-giving choices may have unintended consequences. A prime example of this is the popular present of a new puppy for Christmas.

Puppies can be a wonderful gift. Innumerable studies confirm that caring for an animal teaches children responsibility, empathy and compassion. In their 2001 study, Nicholas Fawcett and Eleonora Gullone of Monash University observe: “Research has also shown that humans can benefit significantly from their relationships with non-human animals. For example, studies have indicated that even the mere observation of animals can result in reduced physiological responding to stressors, and in increased positive mood.”

With all this as context, the Christmas puppy sounds almost idyllic. Unfortunately a growing body of evidence suggests that many puppies are the products of unregulated and often horribly cruel puppy mills.

While there are many reputable, humane and professional breeders, there are a sufficient number who operate otherwise that the issue deserves national attention.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals describes a loophole in U.S. laws that permit a vast economy of cruel commerce, “…under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), commercial breeders selling to pet stores must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, the AWA does not regulate breeders that sell directly to the public, including over the Internet… If you buy a puppy over the Internet, not only are you risking supporting puppy mill cruelty, you’re also risking being scammed out of your money.”

Owing to its lax culture of animal welfare laws and expansive rural areas, the Natural State is apparently rife with disreputable breeders. In their annual rankings of U.S. states’ animal welfare protections, Arkansas scored in the bottom half of surveys conducted by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society of the United States. ALDF ranks Arkansas at 27th and the HSUS ranks us at 30th in terms of animal protections.

In response to these rankings, critical readers’ comments across various news sites deride these lists as the work of “radical animal rights groups.” As the old saying goes, when you know the facts are against you, criticize the messenger.

As recent studies have demonstrated, dogs have a capacity to reason, they have emotions — and they most certainly experience physical pain. They need not be exactly like us to deserve a life free from torture, disease and mistreatment. Of course there are plenty of people all too ready to be cruel, to exercise their dominion over animals… and to do so with a wanton indifference to the harm they cause.

If we really want to honor the spirit of the season, we need instead to remember the principle of “…unto the least of these…” As such, a great place to start is one of the countless overburdened animal shelters that dot our country. If you want to model compassion and find a life-long friend, those places have thousands of cats and dogs who’ll be all too willing to help.