I was all set to take my dogs out for quality time in the park, taking full advantage of the snow that’s blanketed the Northeast — but now the dogs will have to wait until I finish this piece, a response to an article in Agence France-Presse identifying man’s best friend as “one of the environment’s worst enemies.” So, once again, pets are a conveniently silent scapegoat for the ills of modern living.
In their unfortunately titled book Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, New Zealanders Robert and Brenda Vale — self-described specialists in sustainable living at Victoria University in Wellington — charge that the carbon paw-print of a pet dog is double that of an SUV driving 6,200 miles a year, while a pet cat has an eco claw-print slightly less than driving a Volkswagen Golf for a year. Confirming these results, John Barrett of the Stockholm Environment Institute in York, Britain, said, “Owning a dog really is quite an extravagance.” Pets’ detrimental impact on the environment is not limited to their carbon footprint, the Vales insist; if permitted to roam, predatory dogs and cats devastate wildlife (squirrels, birds, frogs) while their fecal matter spreads bacteria and disease in rivers and streams, killing aquatic life.
What about the tons of chemicals poured into the environment every day by completely non-pet-related individuals and entities? If you happen to live in a city affected by Sunday’s blizzard, such as my home town of New York, you may notice the sidewalks and roads paved with ice-melting crystals. This toxic chemical “salt” may prevent pedestrians from slipping and vehicles from hydroplaning, but it’s corrosive enough to eat away at metal and poses serious health hazards to people, especially children, if ingested or splashed in the eyes. It also harms the environment by burning lawns and plants and contaminating well and drinking water supplies.
People with pets have first-hand and -foot experience with this caustic stuff. Walking a bare-pawed dog on a salted street, you’ll notice the dog pitifully stopping to lift a paw as if he or she just stepped on a nail — that’s how harshly this stuff stings. Yet it’s impossible to avoid, so wintertime dog walks are complicated by strapping on dog booties, if Spot will tolerate them, or following every outing with a thorough paw-washing (and, if the burn is severe enough that Spot keeps licking at his toes, an application of soothing Neem oil).
Interestingly, there is a non-toxic alternative — and it was developed by and for pet lovers. Safe Paw Ice Melter works just as effectively as the toxic stuff. It’s even used at airports, where metal corrosion is not good for business, yet it’s totally safe for children, pets, and the environment. So when dogs and kids are out sledding or making snow angels in the park, they won’t run the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals.
Pet lovers tend to be equal-opportunity: We care about other species of fauna besides our dogs and cats. We select cat litter made of corn so the material absorbing Fluffy’s waste will biodegrade. We take care to scoop Spot’s poop with equally biodegradable waste bags, also made of corn. You may think you’re “recycling” that plastic supermarket bag by reusing it to scoop poop, but it will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years, or get stuck in a tree and blown into the ocean, where its durable plastic-ness threatens marine mammals mistaking it for food.
Pet people are also, increasingly, adopting vegetarian or vegan diets out of a feeling that it’s somehow wrong to cherish some animals while eating others. OK, so our cats, being obligate carnivores, do eat meat — but many of us offset the impact of indulging our pets’ carnivorous instincts by forsaking meat ourselves. Some dogs forgo meat alongside their conscientious owners. Listen to Deborah Howard, a vegan and founder of Companion Animal Protection Society, the only national nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to protecting companion animals from cruelty in pet shops and puppy mills:
The raising of cows, pigs, and other animals for human and animal consumption is damaging to the environment. If animals and people alike were vegan, they would enjoy the benefits of good health and the environment would benefit. My vegan dog is almost 9 years old and runs about 50 miles a week; he is in such good shape and so healthy that everyone thinks he is around 2 years old. … I also strongly believe in having cats live indoors for their own safety (from cars, coyotes, and other creatures) as well as for the protection of wildlife. Other than feeding your companion animal a vegan diet, the other significant contribution you can make to decrease the carbon footprint of dogs and cats is to stop supporting breeders and pet shops. The thousands of high-volume, commercial breeding facilities, located primarily in the Midwest, that supply the pet-shop industry and online buyers, create large amounts of fecal and urine accumulation and run-off that pollutes our environment.
Other pets who live a vegetarian lifestyle include birds and rabbits. Incidentally, the Vales recommend rabbits as pets because they don’t eat meat — and add that when you tire of caring for Bugs, you can just cook him and serve him forth for supper! “Rabbits are good, provided you eat them,” Robert Vale has said. What kind of lesson in commitment and compassion does that teach children? What kind of heartless, unfeeling, Vale-like adults do such children grow up to be? Certainly not ones I want to know. Scrooges like the Vales overlook a simple fact: Pet lovers are among the most environmentally minded residents of the planet. Without them, and the economic incentive to create non-toxic products for their animal companions, the Earth would be a very toxic planet indeed.
Tod Emko lives in New York City with a dog and cat, both rescued, but his concern for the environment extends hundreds of miles — all the way to the Galapagos Islands, where stray dogs and cats have multiplied in recent years to such levels that they threaten endemic species, particularly sea lions, with the contagious diseases parvovirus and distemper, plus fleas, ticks, and other parasites. The Vales would argue that the easy solution would be to eat the strays. But Emko, who volunteered in Galapagos with the marine conservation society Sea Shepherd, has a kinder, gentler plan.
Emko partnered with the nonprofit Amigo Fiel (Spanish for “Faithful Friend”), and his goal is to build the islands’ first animal hospital and no-kill shelter to ensure that pets of the Galapagos receive proper medical attention and vaccinations so their peaceful coexistence won’t harm the local wildlife. Why should Americans care about pets in Galapagos? Because, Emko explains, “its wildlife replenish the oceans, and if we don’t work to protect all the islands’ animals from disease, then the entire world will suffer, because there will be no wildlife left.” (To inquire more or make a donation, go here.)
Like all equal-opportunity animal lovers, Emko is in good company. The Galapagos’ most famous advocate, Charles Darwin — played by actor Paul Bettany in the excellent film Creation, due out next month — also happened to be one of history’s biggest dog lovers:
“There are so many responsible ways to feed your pet while giving the ecosystem a break,” Emko points out. “Feeding McDonald’s products to kids has a much higher carbon consequence than feeding homeless cats and dogs. But people go after the animals who can’t argue back, since going after domestic cats and dogs is always easier than going up against the meat industry that’s devastating South American people, rainforests, animals, soil, air, and now-polluted waters.”
Animal lovers know that life on Earth would be nasty, brutish, and short without pets and the true, unconditional friendship they provide. Companion animals have been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, stress, and help people live longer, healthier lives. A world without pets would be a place populated by mean-spirited churls like the Vales. That’s not a world I’d want to live in — would you?