Animal welfare in the United States is a hot topic and I agree that pet care in America can sometimes overreach into the realms of excessive doting. I used to own a sustainably-minded pet store, I get it. I have seen it. I may have even been guilty of it. As Americans, we must remember however that this is NOT the norm globally. I was surprised and saddened by some of the experiences I have had so far and it is important to note that these were not in undeveloped third world countries.
Before my trip, I’d been aware that Americans “do” some things differently – such as our approach to pets and animal welfare. Yet I was still surprised by how much of a contrast there was between the U.S. and the European countries I was traveling through, and how deeply I was affected by it.
It must be noted that I may not be the average animal lover. I have been what may be considered an animal empath from the time I was a young child. I can not remember a time when I have not had an intense connection with the animals I meet. Friends and strangers have commented on moments they’ve witnessed.
I will also clarify here, I am not a vegetarian. I support ethical farming and have many friends that raise animals kindly and compassionately for food to support their families. I support chefs that embrace ethical sourcing. I respect and support everyone’s choice. This post is not a discussion of dietary choices.
Animal Welfare in the United States – Pets as Family
In the U.S. we often dote on our animals. Pets are welcomed into our families and we treat them like children. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing, that isn’t up for debate here. I have no issue with people who want to dress up their pets, if the dog doesn’t mind, it isn’t hurting me. I do have an issue with people neglecting their pets and the animals who put their faith and trust in the humans around them.
In the United States, we are estimated to collectively spend over $69 B on our pets in 2017. $69 BILLION. That is more than the gross national income (GNI) of many European countries (2015 data found here). Undoubtedly we love our pets, and animals in general. Our historical stance on legislating for animal welfare can be seen as far back as the 1600s as this Wikipedia list shows.
It makes sense then that we are culturally ingrained to view our strong commitment to animal welfare as a key source of pride and a part of our national identity and ethos. This isn’t the case internationally, however, and when you are traveling for the first time outside of the United States, these differences may be startling.
Animal Welfare and Cultural Divides
It might be easy for us to walk into a country and yell “NEGLECT” and “ABUSE”, and while there ARE clear cut cases of both, it isn’t always a black and white conversation. Cultural differences are larger than us and make each person’s idea of right or wrong complicated. And that is the bigger discussion here – what constitutes neglect in the mind of an American who sees their dog as a beloved pet or family member versus someone in another country to whom their dog is seen as property, but not family.
Spay and Neuter
While in the U.S. we are slowly getting more people on board with understanding the need and value of spaying and neutering their pets, it’s seen as unnatural in some of the countries I have traveled trough. A reoccurring comment I’ve heard is that the pet owner wants their pet to experience motherhood because it is natural. Meanwhile, others have said that when the kittens or puppies are born, it is easier to release them into a group of strays, knowing that someone will likely see them and adopt them than try and find homes for them.
Some countries have tried implementing spay and neuter programs for their street animal communities.
However, the recent global financial crisis has eliminated funding to many spay and neuter programs, so the street animal communities have seen a resurgence in recent years.
My dogs have always lived in my home. They share my furniture, they go for walks, they experience comfort and protection from inclement weather. They get great medical care and great food.
What I have seen in my travels has saddened me.
Dozens of cats forced to eat from dumpsters or begging diners at restaurants for scraps. Dogs living in fenced dirt or concrete floored patio areas with only a small table with a plastic tarp thrown over it as protection from storms. Scraps, sometimes spoilt, thrown on the ground for them as their meals. No clean water. A family behind closed doors, laughing, while the dog sits day after day outside, never part of the family, only an object. I’ve also seen dogs and cats with severe untreated wounds, and these were pets, not strays.
There have been days I felt I was going mad, questioning how I can help the animals if I can’t get the people to see the animals as sentient beings they share their life with rather than as mere property, objects they own.
Some countries don’t recognize animals as sentient beings, which in and of itself is one of the biggest struggles animal cruelty legislation faces. Interestingly, while I found many countries have some form of animal welfare protection, it largely protected livestock and farm animals, with no reach onto pets or street animals.
Undoubtedly it is a global problem. In the U.S. we also have a problem with dog fighting, ill-equipped petting zoos, and illegally kept exotic pets. Yet in places like Albania, with street dogs in their capital city reaching near or over 10,000, rampant organized dog fighting rings, and wild bears held as a form of captive entertainment in restaurants, these problems are harder to solve when there is no enforceable legal punishment for the mistreatment and abuse of animals.
In each country that I visited there were a small handful of volunteers that were “fighting the good fight”. Exhausted, broken hearted, and sometimes financially broken from the cause, they stay committed because of the lives they save. Just when these people feel they might give up, something happens to recommit them. Sometimes it is just the look of thanks on a rescued dog’s face and sometimes it is a bear touching grass for the first time since it was taken into captivity.
Small animal rescue organizations trying to combat an hourly onslaught of incoming messages. Injured animals and emergency rescues that need to happen THAT moment while the organization faces logistical limitations. Most of these rescues appear large and official, yet they are often made up of only a single handful of men and women and a disproportionately small pool of money and volunteers to actually get things done with.
I’ve met a number of people who are inspirational. There is the woman in Albania who spends hours before and after work passing out food they cooked especially for the street dogs of Tirana. The men and women who create makeshift shelters for the street cats in cities in Cyprus, Latvia, and Serbia. Young people rescuing bears from tourist restaurants in small towns in Romania and Albania and getting them brought to sanctuaries across the Baltic region.
What Can YOU Do to Help?
The single most discomforting experience I have had while traveling this year has been seeing animals neglected and tossed aside. If you are like me, you’ll want to find a way to save them all. You can’t. Find something you can do that is manageable for you as a traveler.
Some of the things I did:
- Handed out food to the dogs and cats I knew were most vulnerable.
- Made a first aid kit that I walked around with in my purse – spray antiseptic, saline, scissors, ointment, clean napkins, and tweezers.
- Cleaned eyes and ears
- Removed ticks and trimmed away matted hair that was pulling on the skin.
- I took a dog to the vet.*
- Gave a friendly dog shelter one night from the chaos of a political protest in the area and the rain.
- Designed and had stickers made in Albanian to raise awareness to the need for care and respect for the street dogs in Tirana.
One of my best afternoons was spent sitting in the park with one girl who I met outside a shop when I bent down and caressed her face and told her how beautiful she was. She then followed me as I went to get coffee and stopped into a shop. It was a beautiful day so I decided to walk us to the park a few blocks away. We sat together on the grass and I spent the next three hours rubbing her belly and telling her what a good girl she was. This required only my time and kindness and it made a difference in her life.
Each traveler will have different levels of involvement they can offer, depending on their time or budget.
Don’t feel that you can’t make an impact on the animal welfare in a place you are visiting because you are just a traveler. There is always something that can be done, even if it is just showing love to a street pup who is usually ignored.
*I’m now trying to rescue this dog, whom I named Red and get him adopted outside of Albania. Recently a large number of street dogs have come up missing in the city of Tirana. Due to ever increasing risks to his safety because of the animal welfare conditions in Albania, and with the support of my friends and social network, I’m committed to trying to get him adopted into a real home. Stay tuned for more information on that mission and get in touch if you might be interested in adopting him. Please be aware that this might be a complicated process depending on where you are located.