I have been wanting to write about the massive — in the hundreds of millions pounds — recall of tainted pet food sold in America, but there hasn’t been time for reflection and distance to help provide context and meaning of pet owners unwittingly killing their pets with food they purchase to keep them healthy.
I realize now is the moment to step forward in light of today’s New York Times article — explaining how it is a conflict of cultures, an acquiescence of values, and a shared economic drive between companies and countries to save as much money as possible — that threatened our animals and killed our pets:
ZHANGQIU, China, April 28 — As American food safety regulators head to China to investigate how a chemical made from coal found its way into pet food that killed dogs and cats in the United States, workers in this heavily polluted northern city openly admit that the substance is routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein.
For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here. “Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”
Melamine is at the center of a recall of 60 million packages of pet food, after the chemical was found in wheat gluten linked this month to the deaths of at least 16 pets and the illness of possibly thousands of pets in the United States. No one knows exactly how melamine (which is not believed to be particularly toxic) became so fatal in pet food, but its presence in any form of American food is illegal. Is it scrap melamine that is making our pets sick?
Is it tainted wheat gluten? Is it something else we don’t know about yet? One good thing about ordering pet food online is the breadcrumbs that interaction leaves behind. We received notice from our online pet food merchant that the elite Iams cat food we bought for Jack The Cat was part of the massive recall — but by the time we received notice of that recall he’d already eaten the food two months before. We wondered back to the time he was eating the food to think if he was sick or not.
We couldn’t remember any negative consequence. Our vet told us to keep an eye on him and if anything extraordinary happened, we should bring him in right away. We’ve been lucky so far that Jack seems fine. The one thing we cannot yet know is how the ingested tainted food will affect our pets in the long run. Are Jack’s kidneys damaged? Is there some other pernicious ill effect on his body to come?
Is the people food supply safe or not? As global economies stretch and national borders constrict to become common and less international, we are faced with stark differences in healthcare and unilateral crises in Public Health. How do we — as a culture of advanced science and urbanization — deal with agrarian nations that do not yet have the same human or animal protections in place as part of their governance of society and want for citizen longevity? In America, we are beginning to realize pets are more than property even though the law does not allow for that protection.
Today, if your pet is killed by someone — or some pet food company — you can only collect on the value of your pet at the time of “purchase” and, like a used car, the longer you “own” the pet, the lower the depreciation. You cannot be compensated for “pain and suffering” and emotional loss if your pet is unwillingly taken from you. Pets, under current law, are things, not beings.
What the current law fails to concede is pets grow in value — and never lessen in want — the longer you have them in your life. As we move forward as a society, so too, must the community relationship we have with our pets. We were made aware of this disconnect between the law and emotional society during hurricane Katrina where people were forced to abandon their pets if they wanted to be rescued. Many pets were lost and killed in that hurricane and its ongoing and devastating aftermath. Cities like New York realized their emergency evacuations for people must also address the inclusion of pets in an organized escape to safety.
We used to live in an agricultural society where animals were work machines and had no value other than their meat and their muscle. Killing animals for profit — or because they had outlived their economic usefulness on the farm — was ordinary life in the fields and valleys. Our living and our economy is now based more in the urban core and our understanding of the importance of animals has changed as well. Instead of seeing them only as beasts of burden we can also relate to them as friends and associates.
For many today — especially those stuck in the urban core — pets have replaced children and the connection people used to have with their children they now have with their pets. Some may argue pets are a harder and a deeper personal commitment than having children because pets are like perpetual two-year olds who always need to be bathed, fed, walked and cleaned up after — they will never be totally self-surviving without direct intervention. With the added emotional value provided to and from our pets today, the argument for us all now becomes one of how we will properly honor our pets as a society.
While the death of a pet may not compare to the death of a person under the law — we must admit that, for many, the loss of a pet is just as emotionally devastating and psychically wounding as the loss of a human beloved — and the law must begin to recognize, and compensate for, that loss. Is asking for $10,000.00 USD for the emotional loss in a purposeful killing of a pet appropriate compensation or not? If we are to honor each other and have dominion over animals, our first instinct must be to love our pets first and then value them always.