Every year tens of thousands of healthy, adoptable animals are abandoned in New York City. Both the city and private animal welfare groups constantly struggle to cope with the tide of abandoned animals, but despite countless hours of selfless effort by hundreds of volunteers, some 30,000 New York City animals go to their deaths rather than to new homes every year.

Pets who end up in public or private shelters are abandoned for several reasons - people move, new spouses or companions don't like the animal, children become allergic, owners die or simply become bored with the pet, unspayed pets have litters that owners aren't prepared to find homes for, animals hit sexually maturity and owners can't afford to neuter or spay them.

A great many of those animals are abandoned by young people who take on the responsibility of a pet without understanding what caring for them will require.

We can't stop people from carelessly adopting pets, but we could regulate adoptions in a few critical ways, and in doing so, we would go from treating the symptoms of cat and dog overpopulation to addressing the source. Animal Friendly NYC would like to put forward a proposed law, the Responsible Guardian Act. It would:
  • ban the sale or adoption of animals to anyone under the age of 21
  • require any person, shelter or business selling or adopting out pets to provide prospective guardians with detailed information on the care of the pet, the costs and responsibilities of keeping the pet, its likely lifespan, the health and behavior problems likely to be encountered, etc.
  • require the state to launch an education campaign to teach responsible guardianship of animals, both in schools and to the public at large. A public agency, working in conjunction with private animal welfare organizations, would provide information for:
    • new pet guardians
    • school curriculums
    • public information campaigns
Why should we regulate companion animal adoptions?

Companion animals have enormous importance in our lives. Many of our deepest bonds are formed with our non-human friends. Repeated studies have shown the salutary effect of companion animals on the health and emotional well being of people. Though it's just becoming recognized, we grieve our lost pets with much the same sense of loss we feel when we lose a relative or friend.

We get great social benefit from our companion animals, and conversely, there are great social costs in not caring for them. There's a financial cost - staffing and maintaining civic pounds, boarding and, sadly, euthanasia. It costs taxpayers $175 for every animal who passes through animal control, whether that animal ends up in a home or dead.

And there is a deeper, human cost. When we break that contract of care with beings who bring us so much joy, we can't help but be diminished by it. It injures us; it coarsens our strong natural instinct to protect life.

Life as a Disposable Commodity

We teach our kids terrible lessons by our careless treatment of companion animals. On one hand, they are deluged with images on television, in movies and books that celebrate and idealize our relations with pets. On the other hand, we routinely abandon the same big-eyed, adorable animals children are encouraged to love and protect. It sends a terrible mixed message, and not just to children.

Ironically, parents often get pets for their children to "teach them responsibility," but children often learn exactly the opposite lesson. We don't teach children to value life if we routinely give them pets who get "passed on" when they're beyond the cute and playful stage, just to be replaced by another younger pet. We teach children that life is a disposable commodity.

We also put the city and the people who staff animal control in the awful position of killing pets - tens of thousands a year in New York City alone. That is a terrible burden to put on individuals who do the dirty work of careless pet owners.

Pets: A Commitment for Grown-ups

The Responsible Guardian Act would recognize humans' deep engagement with animals and would put into effect measures that reflect that emotional bond. It would require everyone adopting or buying an animal to think seriously about what she or he is committing to. Allowing only adults to adopt pets would teach children - and adults - that animals aren't disposable or replaceable toys, but serious commitments that grown-ups take on.

Though dogs and cats make up the vast majority of abandoned animals, this bill should cover all animals sold or adopted out as pets, including hamsters, guinea pigs, mice, rabbits, birds, and fish, whose lives are truly nasty, brutish and short. There is a staggering amount of first-hand evidence of the routine abuse these small, almost socially invisible, animals are subjected to.

There are several other ways legislation could address chronic pet overpopulation:
  • establishing city-sponsored low-cost spay and neuter clinics,
  • making housing for people with companion animals more available,
  • taxing commercial breeders.
But starting with a law that requires thoughtful and educated decisions about adopting companion animals and establishing public education about the requirements of responsible guardianship is a good start. Teaching respect for life is never a wasted effort.

Status Report and Next Steps

AFNYC's Responsible Guardian Initiative was first presented in a legislative analysis written for State Senator Liz Krueger's district director in February 2003.

It was introduced to animal activists in the media at an October 2003 Rational Animal forum to which AFNYC was invited to speak.

It was presented to senior executives at NYC AC&C and the ASPCA in January 2004.

Next steps: Finding legislative sponsors and building support in the animal and legislative communities.

In the coming months, AFNYC will be meeting with animal friendly legislators in the City Council and state legislature to begin to build consensus and support for the Responsible Guardian Initiative.

Work with us. This is an extraordinary time in animal rights. There's a wealth of talented, resourceful, innovative, committed people who can fashion truly humane public policy.

Together with caring legislators, we can reduce the population of New York's homeless animals and support better animal guardianship for years to come.

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