by Daniel Meyrowitz
Daniel is a 4th year student at the University of Auckland, doing conjoint degrees in Law and English Literature and is currently a student in Animals and the Law.
Warner Bros creation Elmyra Duff of Tiny Toon Adventures is both amusing to watch and interesting to think about as a tool for social critique. Elmyra is modeled as a sort of female version of Elmer Fudd, ‘wabbit’ hunter and arch-enemy of Bugs Bunny. Instead of resorting to obvious forms of violence, as Elmer does, Elmyra chooses rather to love animals, although the net result of animal suffering is probably the same in both cases. Elmyra, however, is far more complicated in her motives and methods. Elmer Fudd hunts rabbits. It is simple and without equivocation. Elmyra, complete with her iconic gerbil skull placed in the middle of her hair ribbon, is a potent symbol for a more ubiquitous form of animal abuse. Elmyra’s abuse is pernicious, owing to the fact that it masquerades as animal love. Elmyra is a pet owner and collector. Elmyra loves pets. We all love pets. But all that love comes at a cost.
The pet care industry in Australasia is a multi-billion dollar operation. For the most part, it is an industry kept buoyant by the patronage of ‘animal lovers’, a great many of them like Elmyra. Her childish obsession with all things cute causes danger and discomfort to her pets. Unfamiliar with even the rudiments of animal care, she is guided simply by emotion, and a genuine, albeit self-serving, affection for the animals. The irony is plain to the viewers. Simply being enamored with animals will never be enough to ensure their wellbeing. We laugh at Elmyra, but is what we do so different? Unfortunately, it is these very good intentions that fuel the entire industry. People are allowed to make impulsive purchases of animals, and afterwards simply discard them with impunity. How can the law be of use in remedying this situation?
To my mind, the most objectionable outcome of the pet industry is the artificial creation of a demand for pet animals, through advertising, in order for the industry to meet that demand. When the full extent of the commitment of animal ownership becomes apparent, owners resort to various means to take care of their ill-conceived purchases. A commonly quoted statistic reported from New South Wales states that 60,000 dogs and cats are euthanased annually. It is safe to assume that the number is much larger, taking account of the people who ‘take care’ of the unwanted animal themselves and those who release the animals ‘back’ into nature. In all these scenarios, the animals are the primary victims. There are also wider societal costs, as well as costs to the consumer, the environment and the taxpayer. It seems that the only benefit is for the pet industry. There is clearly no shortage of supply of animals, based on the statistics of animals killed annually. Why then, do we allow this animal merry-go-round to continue, which is no fun for anybody involved, and sees hundreds of thousands of animals across Australasia put down, only to breed others to take their place? Does this make sense?
The Status Quo
The pet trade in New Zealand is regulated by a code of recommendations and minimum standards for the sale of companion animals, prepared by the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. They are not exaggerating when they describe the standards as minimum. In fact, it would probably not alter materially the nature of the industry if these standards didn’t exist. Most of the recommendations would be adhered to in any event, on the basis of self-interest as described by the liberal theory of ownership. Not to follow these practices would be to damage valuable merchandise, an unsatisfactory outcome for the owner. It is clear from this fact that the law is out of sync with the pressing needs and issues of the industry. The law’s current attempt to regulate the pet industry doesn’t even begin to address the problem of creating a demand for pet animals, while thousands of other animals are being killed on a daily basis. The law might work well for toaster ovens, but seems to break down when dealing with live animals.
What can we do?
One example of a piece of legislation that shows promise, is the recently defeated NSW Animals (Regulation of Sale) Bill 2008. As its name suggests, the purpose of the legislation was to impose strict regulations on the sale of cats and dogs, and to limit these sales to professional breeders and pounds. The legislation envisioned the role of the pet shop as that of agent, rather than unfettered vendor. It is easy to see how such regulation would contribute materially towards ending the impulse buying of dogs and cats, altering the nature of the industry. Curtailing advertising and ready availability reduces impulse buying, effectively ending the cycle. It is a bold example of an explicit provision designed to sidestep the balancing act, which lies at the heart of the failure of so much welfare legislation.
An outcome of this type of legislation will hopefully be greater regulation in the industry, effectively stopping unscrupulous commercial breeders. It’s a great first step but alone, it’s unlikely to solve the problem. Individuals should not be seen to be abdicating responsibility. Tighter industry regulation needs to be coupled with educating towards socially responsible pet ownership. It needs to be an issue on our national agenda. It is through a two-pronged approach of regulation and education that we can hope to affect real change.
Proposing a bill can help to this end. To the extent that law reflects society, it is impossible to impose from the top, a regime that is widely felt to be overbearing, draconian and unduly restrictive of personal property rights. However, a little social engineering never hurt anyone, and if it takes proposing a bill to thrust the issues to national prominence, it isn’t the end of the world either. It could be another strategy in educating towards socially responsible pet ownership because in the end, Elmyra Duff needs to be exposed. It needs to be shown that Elmer Fudd and Elmyra Duff are essentially the same person.