Patricia A. Kossmann
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You be good; see you tomorrow. I love you”—the final utterances of Alex, a 31-year-old African Grey parrot, to his significant human, Irene Pepperberg. The story of Alex’s life and death, his cognitive accomplishments and learned skills not only made headlines but “revolutionized the way we think of bird brains,” noted Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College in New York City. As Verlyn Klinkenborg pointed out in The New York Times (9/12), the value of Pepperberg’s and others’ scientific research “lies in our surprise, our renewed awareness of how little we allow ourselves to expect from the animals around us.”

As we approach the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4), we are reminded of the valued place of animals in God’s creation—and in the human heart. According to the 2007 National Pet Owners Survey, 63 percent of American households (71.1 million homes) own a pet, mostly dogs and cats. And the numbers keep increasing. We have relationships with our pets and treat them as family members. We lavish love on them—and sometimes needed punishment (not harm)—and they return both with an equal measure of unconditional love. We recognize and accept our responsibility to our animal friends. Regrettably, though, such is not the case with every pet owner.

Whether from mental or emotional stress or a lapse in moral rectitude, some owners willfully inflict untold abuse on their pets. We read the stories and hear them on the radio over and over again. The population of stray animals is staggering. Many have simply been tossed out of a home and dumped miles away. The dire plight (and number) of unwanted or rescued animals has prompted more and more volunteer groups to spring into action.

Many of the dogs they have taken were from so-called “puppy mills.” These factory farms breed helpless puppies, who are then kept in unacceptable conditions until the next “auction” or order from pet stores around the country.

The summer issue of Best Friends magazine reports that animal welfare organizations estimate “there are between 4,000 and 5,000 puppy mills in the U.S.,” located primarily in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. They specialize in purebreds. The commercial pet trade is all about profit and loss. Though the breeders are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, evidence suggests that there is a severe dearth of inspectors and investigators. Many breeders are not in step with the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act. Regulation needs to be strengthened—but how is that possible with fewer than 100 inspectors overseeing thousands of breeders?

If all who are interested in acquiring a pet (or at least a purebred) were fully aware of the situation, they might think twice about it. Puppy mills and pet stores go together like kibbles and bits. The troubling fact is that only half the puppies from these mills ever make it to a pet shop. “The other half die,” reports Best Friends, from the mills’ “squalid conditions, hypothermia, starvation or the horrors of transport.” It is a contentious issue, to be sure, with legislators and special-interest groups not able to get into the same book, let alone on the same page.

We might, therefore, consider adopting our next best friend from a local shelter or rescue group. There are still a few “no kill” facilities, but most shelters lack sufficient space to accommodate the continuing influx and turnover of pets. Hence, many are euthanized. So by adopting from there, we not only save a life but offer a new and better one. Anyone who cares about what’s really happening “down on the farm” should make their voices heard.

Religious services for blessing animals remind us of the worth of all God’s creatures, how we connect and the glory they give God too.

This fall brings a new, large assortment of pet books. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen offers Good Dog: Stay (HarperCollins/Nov.), an ode to her Lab named Beau. Also coming are The Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health—in Everyday Language (Merck/ Oct.) and Good Catkeeping: A Comprehen-sive Guide to All Things Feline, by Diane Morgan (T.F.H./Oct.).

May you and your own best friend know how lucky and special you are.

Patricia A. Kossmann is literary editor of America.

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