Adopt don’t Shop? Part I

With the spring quarantine, and now the growing possibility of needing to work from home as much as possible into next year, there has been an incredible boom in new pets of all species being brought home. Many folks have found themselves with plenty of time and a great need for non-human companionship.

But where to get your new companion? The process of looking for a new pet is usually broken up into “adoption” and “shopping.” I find this to be a bit of a false dichotomy- and the moralization that often accompanies it can be problematic. What we want to look for is an animal who matches our lifestyle, who we can maintain happy and healthy (to the extent possible); and, we want to avoid contributing to the production or marketing of animals who are purposefully harmed or neglected. That second half tends to be where we err on the side of adoption- which is great!- but does not preclude responsible (or dare I say ethical) breeders.

The “adopt don’t shop” campaign seems to have started to promote humane society adoptions (I’m going to dig more into the origin story, because I find such things fascinating!) It was generally targeting shopping as in puppy stores and the associated puppy mills. Even if puppy mills were completely ended- which would be unlikely as long as the anonymising storefronts are available- the store environment is not really ideally for a growing impressionable puppy. There’s plenty of socialization, but no exposure to home life- and that paper situation makes potty training a nightmare, which is the biggest reason puppies get re-homed or sent to shelters.

Of course, many shelters (especially high volume shelters) have similar environments. The difference, of course, is that shelters are populated by at-risk animals with nowhere else to go. It’s a safety net. Puppies in puppy stores were bred for the stores.

Unfortunately, the adopt don’t shop rhetoric often gets expanded to dogs (or cats, or hamsters, or horses, or even fish) purchased directly from breeders. There are many, many stellar reasons to adopt! There are also sometimes reasons to go directly to a breeder. Part of the ethical consideration of breeding is providing safety nets for all of your animals before they might be shelter bound- which also means that (ethical) breeders are not contributing to shelter overpopulation- often quite the opposite, as breeders become contact hubs for rehoming any animal, not just their own produce.

While I’ve never heard anyone advocate for only buying from a breeder (and never adopting), I have come across vehement lectures about avoiding “backyard breeders” or “buying mongrels” (including established crossbreeds), and of course the one that always catches my eye: that’s not a real breed.

But what makes a breed? Stay tuned for ReProducing Breed, maybe ~2022! For today, I’m going to shift that question a bit: Who makes a breed? The breeders of course. But not those breeders. They don’t count. They’re just backyard breeders.

So what is a backyard breeder? The term has been around for over a century, but didn’t always have the baggage it does today. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the implication of small scale, and a sense of breeding being a hobby rather than a profession.

But there’s the rub. When we talk about “reputable” or “responsible” breeders today, they are small scale- the opposite of a mill. Fewer litters per year, and fewer per animal. And despite the pricetags, breeders often don’t make much on pet puppies. So, yes, they’re hobbyists, too- most breeders have day jobs, so to speak.

I certainly did. I haven’t bred dogs, or cats. I’ve had clients and friends who did. They, like me with horses, bred at home. With back yards, or front yards, or side yards. That’s what we look for in breeders, especially for pets! Dogs and cats raised in homes learn so many skills, simply by being in a home and following their dams around- much like foals that learn to socialize with humans, to lead, and to trailer load simply by following their dams.

While today’s pet and livestock breeds are still dominated by a few large, wealthy establishments, these are both smaller and less influential than their analogs (or, themselves) a century ago; and anyone looking for a pet is unlikely to end up with one of their animals! Pets should all come from backyard breeders. Backyards are healthy and fun for growing pups.

I understand what is meant by backyard breeder: the implication is that they are nothing more than small scale puppy mills, concerned only with profit. But I still wince every time I see the term. It’s rarely true. And, most importantly, the term “backyard breeder” is bandied about with more of an eye towards the people than the animals: it is applied far more often to people of color.

There are also “reputable” breeders, with long lines of champions, who have little concern for the health or longevity of the animal- we see this in any breed, of any species, where a single physical trait becomes the overwhelming goal. I have experience with rescues that became hoarding situations.

And of course there are also breeders- large and small, for showing or sporting, or just for pets- that are fabulous, and who produce friendly, happy, healthy animals. And there are rescues and shelters that not only act as critical safety nets for animals who are lost, but also for those whose owners have health problems, or (as we are seeing here in California) are displaced by disasters, and who provide emergency boarding and veterinary care and low-cost training and education. The ethics of animal care change little whether we adopt or “shop.”

All that out of the way, we return to the question: where to get your new companion?

This is quite long enough, so that will be Part II.

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