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the Cure section of

Closing Statement

Assessing the Right to Claim the Moral High Ground

We pay gasoline taxes as a way of financing the highways and other infrastructure required to support automobile traffic. What could be more fair than to provide the services necessitated by the presence of canines, by taxing dog food?

Beverly Stein, then chairwoman of the county commission in Multnomah County, Oregon, wondered that same thing. In her neck of the woods, only sixty percent of the animal control budget was derived from dog and cat licenses. The rest was drawn from the county's general fund. That came to $1.2 million dollars a year; money that should have and, otherwise, would have gone for social services to be used to relieve human suffering. To top it off, even after bleeding the social service funds, there still wasn't nearly enough money to fully meet the county's animal control needs.

To correct the problem, Commissioner Stein proposed a five percent user fee in the form of a sales tax on pet food. Her plan was to eliminate the licensing fee altogether and run animal control on a break-even basis, using the increased revenue to extend operating hours as well as to hire more animal control officers to deal with the countless animal-related complaints that could not be attended-to under the old budget.

But when the county began holding public workshops on the proposed tax, pet owners and industry representatives came out of the woodwork and beat the proposal to death. In the process, Ms. Stein discovered why pressure groups are called that, as opposed to being called friendly, cooperative, working for the good of the public groups.

Local political experts noted that Chairwoman Stein's support of a sales tax on pet food may have seriously damaged her chances to move on to higher political office. They say it creates for her a great political vulnerability, because it positions her to be portrayed by her opponents as a heartless ogre who tried to levy a special tariff on little old ladies on fixed incomes who would have no longer been able to afford to feed their faithful old dogs because of her hard-heartedness.

It's a common enough sentiment, that those trying to maintain the status quo are the righteous guardians of the moral high ground while those working for change are dog-hating demons who oppose children, old people and all things good.

But Beverly Stein was just trying to stop the plunder of the county's general fund by supporting equitable and adequate funding for animal control services. Whoever dreamed-up the idea of portraying her as the enemy of the elderly and their faithful dogs is a master of cynicism, but it's typical of what politicians encounter when they champion meaningful animal control reform.

It is possible that, somewhere in Multnomah County, there is an elderly woman whose only joy in life is her dog. And maybe she's so hard pressed that a five percent sales tax on dog food will push her over the edge, and she will no longer be able to make ends meet. But how about the elderly lady whose Welsh Corgi is ripped apart before her eyes because there isn't enough money for the pre-licensing class that would have screened-out the unfit person who lost control of the Rottweiler that killed her devoted companion? How about the child in the playground whose face is ripped-off by a Pit Bull because there are no funds for the kind of performance-based dog-owner licensing exams that would have prevented the dog from being taken out in public? How about the countless dogs that suffer through miserable lives and die young because there are no funds with which to ensure that they are better treated? How about the lonely old man whose grown children refuse to come to his house to visit because they find the barking of his neighbor's dogs to be unbearably annoying? How about the disabled lady who yearns to spend time in her garden, but is afraid to go there because of the vicious dogs in his neighbor's yard that bark incessantly and throw themselves against the chain-link fence trying to get at her? How about the dogs that were eventually put to death because they were acquired by people who were unprepared for the responsibilities of ownership? How about the school kids savaged by Dobermans on their way home from school because the county couldn't afford to hire an extra animal control officer who could have picked the dogs up before they did the damage? How about all the desperately sick people who can't rest or sleep in their own homes because there are no funds for barking enforcement? How about the homeless people down to their last hope, the battered women and the sick, indigent children who can't get medical care? Think of all the vulnerable people who won't be helped because the money that would have gone to social services has been drained away by animal control to provide a subsidy for the pet industry, and for dog and cat owners who don't want to carry their weight.

Does anybody really think the executives in the pet food industry lie awake at night worrying about how the old people are going to come up with the cash to pay their dog food tax? If they were that concerned, they'd lower the cost of dog food. Moral high ground? Surely that coveted piece of real estate belongs to those working for change.

To Stand on the Side of the Angels

To work to change the system is to stand on the side of the angels. True enough, if these reforms are implemented, many irresponsible people will be deprived of the joys of dog ownership. But I'm proud to be among those saying that's a good thing. Dogs are living creatures, with needs, emotions, and a tremendous capacity for suffering. Every dog drawing breath deserves better than life at the mercy of an irresponsible guardian.

It's not only their dogs that suffer at the hands of such people, though. Irresponsible owners cause their dogs to behave in ways that sour the public on canines and result in the placement of ever-increasing restrictions on where dogs are allowed to go, and the degree of restraint that must be placed upon them. Curbing the behavior of irresponsible dog owners is the first step in creating a new ethic of dog ownership, and the start of restructuring the place of canines in human society. So that the conscientious among us might enjoy their companionship more frequently in a greater variety of settings, and in a less restricted manner.

Beyond a doubt, it makes life more complicated if we are required to take full responsibility for our dogs and to establish to the satisfaction of the authorities that we have done so. But that's the reality of life in a world where the population is growing dramatically. The more people there are, the more everybody's behavior must be regulated.

If you only have one automobile in your town, you don't need a traffic cop or so much as a single stop sign. But when you have a million cars you need a street department, a criminal justice system, and a supporting bureaucracy. Similarly, if you have a total of three dogs in your area, all you need is a can opener and enough dog food to go around. But when you have five thousand dogs, dog laws and a bureaucratic infrastructure become indispensable. That's just the way it is. Having an increased number of people and dogs necessitates tighter controls. We now have more of both than at any previous time in history, and that number is rising. Therefore, it is inevitable that someone's behavior is going to have to be regulated more rigorously than ever before. But whose?

These are the choices: Either we stringently regulate the behavior of malicious and irresponsible dog owners, or we will find that there will be ever-greater restrictions placed on all dogs and all dog owners.

It is time to end dog ownership as we have known it, and take our interactions with the canine species to a higher level. As a society, let us cultivate responsible owners and well-controlled, responsive dogs that are prepared to assume their rightful roles as well-integrated participants in the public life of humans.

Go to New Animal Control.Org for more information about animal control reform.

This page is part of Section Nine:
the Cure section of