War of words: how cute puppies become 250,000 abandoned dogs

WE don't usually hear the word "vigil" used for animals, but dog activist groups recently chose this word for an event as part of a social media campaign to force a government inquiry into the high kill rate at the North Melbourne Lost Dogs Home.

As one of the word's definitions includes "a period of watchful attention maintained at night or at other times", it was a strategic choice.

A specific discourse is at the centre of an ongoing campaign in Australia, and especially in Victoria, about the cruelty of puppy farms, the sale of dogs in pet shops, over-supply and high abandonment and kill rates. The vigil was part of this campaign. Put simply, the activist groups, and all who support them, argue that dogs are intelligent sentient beings requiring appropriate and humane care for 12 to 16 years.

Activists talk about abandonment and killing

Dogs are not consumer items to be bought on a whim and later discarded and killed. How many are killed? Images on the vigil Facebook page claim 49% of unclaimed dogs at the Lost Dogs Home are killed.

According to figures from the US, "shelter euthanasia" accounts for one-third of all canine deaths and was the leading cause for the three decades prior to the study.

We don't have comparable figures for Australia because, as RSPCA president Hugh Wirth notes in a 2008 report, we have no uniform recording system. In a society where all is calibrated, it's curious that no one except the RSPCA is keeping or communicating precise total numbers. Is it because they would cause shame? "Shameful" is how Wirth describes a human population of then 21 million generating his estimate of 250,000 dogs abandoned annually.

Another image on the vigil website shows the word "home" deleted from Lost Dogs Home, replaced by the word "hell". Language is crucial in any debate and "home", with its connotations of refuge and ongoing care, is at best cruelly ironic to describe a pound with a high kill rate.

But perhaps the most visible part of the current campaign was the January 2015 change.org petition (initiated by the group Rescued with Love), which received 10,000 signatures in its first week. The new Victorian state government ordered an investigation into the Lost Dogs Home. The government also promised a "crackdown" on puppy farms, in co-operation with the RSPCA, which had already begun under the previous government.

This crackdown, foreshadowed in the election campaign, involves enforcing strict guidelines, including a maximum of five litters per dog and a proposed ban on pet shop sales of dogs.

The link between high kill rates, puppy farms and pet shops becomes clear when one learns that the RSPCA estimates that 95% of dogs sold in pet shops come from puppy farms and backyard breeders.

Animals Australia, the peak body representing 40 animal rights groups, says:

"Unrestricted breeding of cats and dogs simply means that there are more animals than the number of responsible homes available at any one time."

The result is society's acceptance of "the killing of thousands of healthy companion animals". Wirth's report too makes an explicit link between the impulse buying of animals in pet shops and their subsequent abandonment.

Industry frames demand as a right

As well as the communication coming from the RSPCA, the government and activist lobby groups, creating the discourse that killing more than 100,000 dogs each year must be remedied by government action, oppositional communication is coming from another source: owners of pet shops and puppy farms. In a recent article, both the words chosen (and not chosen) and the syntax are striking.

The most notable absences are the words "kill" and "abandonment". Instead we have Melburnians, as the grammatical subject of the first sentence, who "will struggle" to buy a puppy, cast as the object, framed as something the speaker is constructing as our inalienable right.

But why? Perhaps lexical choices can provide some clues. The words "industry" and "business" are each used eight times in the short article.

In a slight attempt to introduce some "balance", the journalist briefly quotes a representative of Dogs Victoria, a group of smaller breeders of pure-bred puppies. She welcomes the legislation, saying that pet shop conditions are not conducive to dogs' welfare. This is the only appearance of the word "welfare" in the article.

Even the Dogs Victoria representative makes no mention of over-supply, nor the high rates of abandonment and killing. She does use "demand" twice, a word used three times overall: first to say that her members will not be able to keep up with demand when "the big commercial breeders go out of business". Here again, the dog is constructed as a commodity, not a sentient being, which consumers have the "right" to "demand".

The final lines reprise this construction when she says her "main problem" with the legislation is:

"… who is going to fill the gap for the demand for puppies?"

Earlier, the acting CEO of the Pet Industry Association of Australia says:

"The public want an eight-week-old pup, they want it for their kids."

As with most mammals, dogs are at their most appealing when very young. His word choice betrays the exploitation of this appeal by the "pet industry", in order that more dogs are bought on a whim, by the public whose rights are inalienable.

But the public appears to be starting to listen to the activist groups, judging by the number and type of comments in response to such articles. Change has begun, especially at the North Melbourne Lost Dogs Home.

But the proposed legislation will need to be well-resourced and strongly enforced to change entrenched attitudes and patterns of dealing with our oldest companion animal.

- Carolyne Lee is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at University of Melbourne

The Conversation

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