Big Brother And The Hamster Company

Amelia Glynn at San Francisco Chronicle:

The sentiment has been expressed in different words and languages by the likes of Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, President Harry S. Truman and (perhaps most dubiously) Mahatma Ghandi:

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

In 1998, Cardinal Roger Mahony famously said: “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.”

Enter San Francisco’s newly proposed and seemingly well-meaning ban on the sale of companion-animals within city limits, which aims to protect pets, down to the littlest guinea pig. More than 630 comments have already been posted to the original Chronicle article that was published this morning. They run the gamut from anger and cries of “Nanny state” (“Where does this madness end? I for one am sick of how our liberties are being violated each and every day”) to general predictions of doom (“When pet-selling is outlawed, only outlaws will sell pets”) to, my favorite, humor (“When hamsters are outlawed, only outlaws will have hamsters”).

I adopted my dog from a rescue group in the city and do not consider myself a “designer breed” kind of gal. And while I may be impulsive about handbags, I’ll never take a hamster home without giving it a lot of thought in advance. To be truthful, I’ve never been a big fan of rodents. The neighbor’s hamster took a chunk out of my thumb when was I was a kid and I never looked back. Reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in grade school gave me a greater appreciation for rats, but after having a pair in the classroom (aptly named Nicodemus and Jennifer), I never wanted one as a pet. But I still care about their beady-eyed well-being.

I find it interesting that the ban only targets pet stores and does not include our fine, finned friends. (I guess it’s still okay to flush fish down the toilet because they can’t feel anything anyway. Or can they?) True, an astonishing number of pet stores get their animals from mills where breeding practices and overall conditions are spotty at best, but many online classifieds are also selling overproduced and under cared for animals. So why is one kind of pet business deemed acceptable whereas the other is not?

Jeff Blyskal at The Consumerist:

The impetus for this is not stray cats, dogs, as you might expect. Their welfare and rights are protected from Dickensian puppy mills, animal abuse, and life on the mean city streets, thanks to plenty of compassionate citizen rescue groups. Rather, the real problem, ferreted out by reporter Carolyn Jones, is that too many San Franciscans buy hamsters as an impulse purchase!

Now I, personally, have never seen any buy-me bins of hamsters at the checkout next to the candy, gee-gaws, TV Guide, and supermarket tabloids in my 10 years of travels in this city, home to Consumers Union’s West Coast office. But I take CACW’s word about the secret of hamster hoarding. Unfortunately, the novelty of owning a hamster soon wears off, and folks abandon them at the San Francisco’s animal shelter, where they are euthanized at a rate of 30 percent vs. just 13 percent for cats and dogs, the Chron reports.

Pet store owners and their Washington lobbyists are fit to be tied over this nanny commission proposal, and  rightly so. This ill-conceived law annihilates the convenience and free choice of all responsible pet buyers to prevent the poor judgment of only a few customers. That’s like banning parking for all cars in this city (where finding an empty parking space is a nightmare) because some drivers park illegally.

Might I propose a simpler solution that preserves consumer free choice and shopping convenience and more directly attacks the actual problem? Ban the sale of hamsters only, if necessary, but leave alone people’s freedom to responsibly buy other pets, thank you.

James Joyner:

Granted, this is inspired by a reasonable concern and driving to another town isn’t exactly an arduous burden for most people.   Still, this seems rather silly.

Why not, instead, have some sort of cooling off period?   Say, you have to leave a deposit and then come back three days later if you really want that puppy?   Surely, that would be both less an infringement on liberty and more effective than making people go to Oakland for their hamsters?

Dan Riehl:

Well, I half-way expected to read the argument that pets were akin to slavery, so it isn’t as bad as I thought Heh! It’s simply to control the behavior of consumers because they are such impulse buyers when it comes to pets – all except those purchasing pet fish. Evidently, fish keepers are well disciplined deep thinkers when it comes to pet purchases, so their actions don’t have to be controlled. There is no action the uber-liberal does not wish to control through government.

Nick Gillespie in Reason:

This comes on the heels of a ban on sodey-pop in City Hall vending machines and Commandante Newsom’s bold attempt to grow food on road medians while cutting bagel halves into quarters. Seriously.

Hell, even former SF Housing Authority Commission member and cult killer Jim Jones let his followers have Kool-Aid.

As Eric Burdon could tell you, if you can’t understand what’s going on there, save up all your bread and fly Trans-Love Airlines to San Francisco, USA. Just make sure to bring your own stash of Coca-Cola, full-size bagels, and chinchillas.

James Lileks at Ricochet:

Is there a larger issue? There’s always a larger issue when government regulates in the littlest things. Every little ban is a reminder that any theoretical goodness, however indistinct, is a sufficient reason to deny you a freedom you currently enjoy. Of course, if the Goodness does not materialize in sufficient quantities, it only proves that the initial ban was too narrow, and must be expanded; hence the ban on selling hamsters becomes a ban on having them.

Two: even the advocates for the littlest among us have to respect the imperatives of nature. Snakes eat rodents, you know, and the ban would be unfairly impactful to the Snake-American Community – so they’re considering letting stores sell rodents if you want to feed them to your 10-foot reptile.

The ideal solution: require the Humane Society to feed hamsters to snakes, squealing with horror, instead of putting them down by gaseous means. Perfect. I’d make a reductio ad absurdum line here about government health care, but I don’t speak Latin.

Claire Berlinski at Ricochet, responding:

James, I’m guessing you haven’t spent much time in animal shelters. Every year in America, five million cats and dogs are gassed to death or lethally injected with sodium pentobarbital in these shelters. The word ‘euthanasia’ is a grotesque euphemism. There is no mercy in these deaths. Most of the animals are healthy, rambunctious, and young. They die terrified, and they die pointlessly: very few are vicious; most are capable of forming deep affectionate bonds with humans. This is what happens — what really happens — every day in these shelters. The links are graphic and upsetting. They’re also reality.

Concern for the welfare and dignity of animals is not confined to nihilist Leftists such as Peter Singer or local totalitarians who seek to regulate pets out of existence. Have you read Matthew Scully’s immensely moving, immensely disturbing book Dominion? A completely conservative case can be made, should be made, for treating animals with mercy and respect. Animals are not ordinary commodities, they are living creatures, and they feel pain and fear. No one need suggest that a kitten’s life is morally equivalent to a human’s to observe that something is terribly wrong when we casually dispose of one much as we would the butane in a Bic lighter: that is the mark of a callow society, a cruel society. It does not speak well for us that we kill millions of sentient, sensitive animals every year through grotesque, painful methods such as gassing and heart-sticking. Pet stores are one of the main reasons we do this.

Now many people may wonder and ask, just why are are there so many unwanted pets in the first place to create this tragic situation and where so many unwanted pets are killed in shelters, whether by gas chamber, heartstick or even by injection to begin with? First, there are the puppy and kitten mills that are still prevalent and where animals are bred and bred and bred, over and over again. Thankfully more and more of these mill type breeders are being shut down. These breeders crank out animals like an assembly line and usually wind up in pet stores for sale. And don’t kid yourself, it’s not just a little local pet shop that sells puppies or kittens from these mills, but also some of those fancy high-priced pet stores in Beverly Hills, California where the likes of celebrities will get their dogs from, and they aren’t even aware that those animals are coming from mills.

Yes, snakes eat rodents. Yes, tigers eat gazelles, and yes, nature is savage and cruel. That doesn’t mean we need to add to the misery. They have no choice but to be beasts: We do. If air conditioning is the mark of an advanced civilization that has elevated itself above the State of Nature, even more so is the mercy we display toward animals.

E.D. Kain at The League on Berlinski:

This is a compelling argument, I think, and one that we should take seriously. Obviously people would still go elsewhere to buy pets, but maybe more people would also go to puppy rescues (where we once found and adopted a beautiful little puppy) or human societies and save some of these animals from senseless death. Shutting down puppy mills and other animal mass-producers might go against the libertarian grain, but then again I find that questions of life often do. And perhaps they should.

Life and liberty are anything but mutually exclusive, but there is certainly a tension between the two, whether we’re talking about abortion, slavery, or the pet trade. These are not easy questions, and they don’t have easy answers packaged neatly in comfortable ideological wrapping paper. If there is a market solution to this problem, perhaps it needs to be nudged along.  Could a temporary ban be coupled with some sort of new standards for pet sales including requirements that pet stores and shelters coordinate efforts?  I think there are a number of solutions to make this work, but something certainly does need to change. Whether a ban is the right ticket is a harder call, but it’s a start at least and a good enough time to have the conversation.

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Filed under Animal Rights, Legislation Pending

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