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Sunday, July 3, 2005

MEDIA MIX

This is Japan and yes, it's easy to net a pet to enjoy a dog-day life


Ten years ago I was in San Francisco and dropped by the local SPCA's pet-adoption facility in the Mission District to make a donation. When I was living in the city years before, I had adopted a cat there that was still living with me, and I wanted to express my appreciation.

I discovered that in the intervening years there had been a change in the organization's policy. In the early 80s, the SPCA kept its abandoned pets for a certain period. If no one adopted an animal after that time, it would be put down. By the mid-90s, no healthy animals were being destroyed. Any dog or cat given to the SPCA in San Francisco would be cared for at the facility either until adopted or until the animal died from old age or disease.

This policy is a rare instance of a public organization fulfilling its mandate to the letter: the SPCA is, after all, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When their policy included destroying dogs and cats it was more or less a surrender to economic reality, but it was obviously not something they carried out with a clear conscience.

Implicit in the policy is the idea that trading in pets for commercial gain is something we will someday move beyond if we want to think of ourselves as humane. Economically, the value of animals as companions is much less concrete than that of animals used for food, fur, or pharmaceutical testing. How do you put a price on companionship?

But pets aren't valuated in terms of companionship. They are valuated in terms of market demand, which has to do with breed. In Japan, the pet business is barely regulated, but what regulations do exist have been enacted from the standpoint of consumers.

The purpose of a new bill passed by the Diet, for instance, addresses the sale of animals over the Internet and through catalogues. People who sell pets through such means are called non-store agents, and until the new regulations were approved on June 15, there was nothing to stop these businesses from doing anything they wanted to do . In fact, all the regulations do at this point is mandate that agents register their businesses.

But there are guidelines. Agents must contract with courier services that specialize in transporting animals, and they must show veterinary certificates over the Internet for pets they are selling, proving that the animals are healthy.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, the regulations were enacted because complaints against non-store agents increased tenfold in the decade leading up to 2003. Most of these complaints were about the health of the animal purchased: many were sick when they arrived and some died not long afterward. Consumers also complained that some animals did not have certificates of pedigree, or that the animal purchased was older than advertised.

The increase in complaints can be pegged to the increase in such businesses as an alternative to conventional pet shops, which charge more for pets because they have to pay for things like rent and personnel.

However, the demand for cheaper pedigree dogs has resulted in another development, as shown on a recent installment of NHK's nightly news program "Closeup Gendai." According to NHK, puppies are often separated from their mothers and siblings before they are weened, resulting in " socialization" problems that make it difficult for a dog to understand the difference between scolding and encouragement.

In terms of "cost performance," it is more effective to sell a puppy as soon as possible, but there is also a cultural component. According to one expert interviewed by NHK, Japanese people prefer to buy dogs while they still look like newborns, and by the time a puppy is weened -- anywhere from two to three months -- they look like adult dogs, or at least they do to Japanese consumers, who won't pay full price for animals they think are past puppyhood. "They want to buy them when they are their cutest," the expert said.

Though this expert believes that greater government regulation of the pet industry is necessary, she mostly called for greater awareness on the part of potential pet owners. A woman who bought a Jack Russell terrier over the Internet said that she was totally unaware that she needed to walk the dog every day. Consequently, her pet showed signs of extreme stress. "I now realize that I have to adjust my own life to my dog's," she said.

Real pet shops are thus seen as better places to purchase pets because they can advise consumers on how to care for their animals, but a storefront is no guarantee of humane treatment. The environmental ministry conducted a survey of the retail pet business in 2003 and found that on average puppies were separated from their mothers 45 days after birth.

As long as pets are a business animal welfare will always be secondary to consumer interests. A pet's happiness is discussed only in terms of customer satisfaction. The experts on NHK repeatedly stressed that people must be responsible for the pets they purchase, but responsibility comes in many shapes and sizes. In the 80s, the San Fransisco SPCA's responsibility for the animals it took in extended to several months. Now, it takes responsibility for the entire lives of its animals.

People who purchase or otherwise take in dogs and cats and find that they cannot care for them properly or cannot find other homes for them may bring the pet to the local authorities to be put down. This is more responsible than simply dumping the animal in the local park.

But the bottom line is that at least 400,000 abandoned pets are gassed by local authorities in Japan every year, and that most of these animals started out their lives as merchandise or potential merchandise. Whether you refer to them as impulse purchases or surplus inventory, they're still dead.



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