For many years, Vermonters and Americans elsewhere have been recalibrating the way we live with our household pets — not so much those fringy ferrets and potbelly pigs, but, more specifically, our longtime favorites, the dog and cat. On the farm, of course, they were free to roam; farm families live an outdoor lifestyle and the same applied to their pets, as it did to the pigs, cows, chickens and goats around the place. (Cats had an actual job: keeping down the rodent population in the sheep stead and barn.)
But in villages and suburban neighborhoods, too, dogs tagged along with the children from backyard to ball field to corner store for a soda pop. Meanwhile, our feline companions did as they pleased, regarding the world from the windowsill or venturing out to see what’s what. Come nighttime, though, the last thing folks did before going to bed was to “put out the cat,” knowing Tabby would be there in the morning, meowing to come in and resume ignoring them.
Things have most definitely changed. These days, no police log is complete without reports of a dog running loose or left in a car. We demand more of pet owners, as well we should. Traffic is more abundant, placing our pets in greater peril; society’s expectations are more rigid (many villages in England have signs chastising “antisocial pet owners” who don’t pick up their dog poop), and children’s activities are more structured — instead of playing catch in residential streets and standing aside as cars go by, they’re apt to be at soccer practice or roaming a mall somewhere, while Fido waits at home.
In Vermont, this recalibration has recently taken new forms that are, in the context of the modern world, much for the better.
An example was provided last week by an article featured in the Addison County Independent. It described a new program called HUB, initiated by Homeward Bound, the county’s appropriately named Humane Society.
HUB came about in response to a survey the organization performed in its service area. Studying its results, Executive Director Jessica Danyow said, “The takeaway we got is that we should not only be focusing on the homeless pets, but also on the pets who have homes already, but whose owners need a little support to continue to offer a good home.”
To that end, Homeward Bound collected grants and donations, and coordinated efforts by volunteers and staff to create a resource for people struggling to pay for their pets’ needs. (Candidates are accepted in accordance with federal poverty guidelines.) HUB maintains a small pet-food pantry at Homeward Bound’s headquarters in Middlebury. It also helps people pay for flea-and-tick preventatives and de-worming products. Another primary focus is on spaying and neutering, to control animal populations.
As everyone knows who frequents a local dog park, Vermont is a haven for rescued animals, usually from the Midwest and South, where shelters are overrun by abandoned dogs who might be euthanized if dog lovers here didn’t provide an escape valve. Plus, the benefits that pets provide their owners — companionship, activity, amusement — are well-recognized. HUB sounds like a great program that should be replicated wherever possible in Vermont.
Another example of our evolving standard of care for animals is the burgeoning awareness of the harm that outdoor cats do to songbirds and other species. There’s a growing movement to convince people to keep their cats inside, all the time.
At first, such a campaign seems unnatural, a perverted imposition of the 21st-century human experience on animals who have a right to interact with nature. Yet the harm they do is real, and severe. A 2013 study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service identified cats as the single greatest cause of human-associated mortality to birds and mammals, killing an estimated annual average of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals in the U.S. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center reported that cats had contributed to 33 species extinctions around the world, adding to a diminution of biodiversity that ultimately will affect human beings.
Need more convincing? Last year, the Rutland County Humane Society provided a list of perils to which cats are exposed outdoors, among them unintentional poisonings, being killed by cars and wild animals, and exposure to serious diseases. The Society cited a cat researcher who concluded that the average life of cats spending time outdoors is reduced by about four years.
Times have changed for dogs and cats and their doting human servants. We should embrace these changes for the benefits they can provide us, our furry buddies and the natural world.