The average American has paid little or no attention to the horrors in Zimbabwe under Mugabe, but now he knows just how awful it is. Because, after all, a recent news story designed to get our attention finally made the rounds of the mainstream media. Is it about the skyrocketing infant mortality rate? The appalling conditions for prisoners under the Mugabe regime? The fact that there's no food to be had and people are crossing the border in desperation?
Nope. This is something really, really terrible. People are (prepare to be shocked!) - eating their pets. The SPCA of Africa announces that it really can't do much about it and they can't humanely euthanize the animals instead of having them eaten by starving people. I'm not totally clear on why they'd want to euthanize them, instead of letting them be eaten by people who would otherwise starve. Death is death - I was taught that if you kill something, you'd damned well better eat it - that you honor an animal's life by not taking it lightly or wasting it.
Now don't get me wrong. I have 4 cats and 2 working farm dogs who I adore. They are all of them working animals, but that doesn't prevent me from loving them. Right now, Zucchini, our youngest cat, is napping on my lap, while Minnie, our senior cat enjoys the warmth of the monitor on this cold day. One of the great pleasures of living on a farm is having animals. They share my bed, they provide us with pleasure and comfort. And to absolutely blunt, if my kids were starving, we'd eat our pets.
I realize there is nothing on earth more likely to get me flamed from here to Sunday. Ok, I have four children, that's bad. Ok, I said we should fly less - that's really bad. But to pick on people's pets...that's beyond the pale. Because we have a very, very, very sensitive relationship to our animals. That's why the news story on Zimbabwe got far more attention than anything about starving people actually could.
The impact of industrial livestock production is tied up in our relationship with our animals. Most pet food manufacturers can and will take any source of protein they get a hand on. This includes diseased livestock that would otherwise be a complete economic loss for feedlot owners and cattle raisers, parts of animals Americans won't eat (this is not as many as you think - what do you believe is in those chicken nuggets or the canned beef stew?), roadkill, and the remains of euthanized pets from animal shelters. That is, most of us are feeding our own animals the products of industrial scale livestock production - including many of us who won't eat it ourselves. We're also saying we care enormously about animals, and then using the surplus population of pet animals to feed our own pet animals. http://www.alternet.org/healthwellness/54236/
The odds are good you know the statistics already. Feedlot animal production produces more greenhouse gasses than planes, trains and automobiles. 70% of all US grain goes to animals, enough grain to feed every hungry person on earth. The animals in these feedlots are tortured, the human beings are doing one of the most dangerous, underpaid and horrifying jobs in the US and the rates of disease, antibiotic feeding (which has led directly to antibiotic resistant infections) and every imaginable other horror are appalling. And pet owners are supporting and subsidizing this. I've not been able to find fully reliable figures on what proportion CAFO livestock ends up in our pet bowls (in fact, I've not been able to find a single study on the environmental impact of pets, which tells you something as well).
What I have found is that one out of every 7 cattle doesn't grade high enough to get on your plate (and let's be clear, standards aren't that high). Most such animals are sent to rendering plants, along with whatever else is lying about, and much of the protein is added to things like your chicken's feed, and your dog's food. As the article above notes, no rendering plants that the author was able to locate segregate out things like euthanized livestock, and that means those antibiotics and narcotics used on feedlot cattle and to euthanize someone's pet cat is now in your animal's feed.
My guess, and I am still seeking out fully reliable numbers, is that in total weight, 1/5-1/8 of all CAFO livestock protein ends up as pet food. That means that our pets may be responsible as 2-4% of all greenhouse gasses, in total. I don't swear these figures are correct - the petfood industry is notoriously quiet about where it gets its protein from, and it may be that our kitties are eating far more other kitties than they are downer cows. I suppose, from a purely environmental standpoint, that might be better...but...
I love my pets, and I want to see them survive and flourish, but not at this environmental price. I like cows as well as kitties - I don't think it is worthwhile to torture cows so that my cats might eat. Similarly, I love my dogs, but I love wildlife as well, and the grain we use to feed feedlot cattle is grown on monocultured land that supports virtually no wild animals.
For those of us who love animals, we have to find a better way of feeding them, and producing their food locally and sustainably. That means that for cats, which are obligate carnivores, it is necessary for us to produce meat sustainably and humanely for them. For dogs, who are omnivorous, a smaller amount of animal protein, mixed with a largely local vegetarian diet is far more sustainable than the present options. That means we're all going to have to get intimately involved with our pet's diets, and if we're not prepared to do that, maybe we shouldn't have them. And if we don't have some kind of long term plan for how to care for those animals without doing other harm, perhaps we shouldn't have pets.
And we probably have to have fewer pets in total. That's sad - but the truth is that the animals have ecological footprints too, and we cannot, simply cannot, at this stage take food out of the mouths of people to feed our pets. Nor is it just to allow cats and dogs to overpopulate, so that we can kill them and use them to feed the pets we do take care of. Just add it to the list of things we're going to have to face up to.