Duty of Care


My wife and I lived way out in southeastern California’s Sonoran Desert for three years, where we saw a constant stream of stray dogs in our little town.  Big dogs, small dogs, dogs of every color and description, loose and cavorting in the middle of the street, jauntily bouncing down the sidewalk or tearing across someone’s lawn.

Some were picked up by the local dog catcher (oops, “animal control officer”), then housed at the shelter behind Ace Hardware, where they became stars ready for their close-ups to appear in the town’s twice-weekly newspaper under the heading “offered for adoption.”  In other words, come quickly, all ye animal lovers, and pay ye the fees for the dog’s shots and license lest this adorable pup (how can you resist such a mug?) be summarily sentenced to death by lethal injection without benefit of judge or jury.

Other dogs, I suspect, were better at eluding the net and remained on the lam for quite some time.  Some were escape artists, taking advantage of opportunities for freedom unwittingly provided by their people.  Dogs were supposed to be kept in fenced-in enclosures or on a leash.  But there were always pets that managed to jump the fence, burrow under it or find a gap to squeeze through.  Much like cats climbing trees without giving a thought to how they’ll get back down, dogs would devise clever methods of getting out, seemingly without giving a thought to how they’ll survive on the other side.

Like the wandering dogs of Sochi that we heard so much about during the televised coverage of the Winter Olympics, we’re pretty sure many of the dogs we encountered were actually abandoned pets, not strays.  It seemed as if no one cared what happened to them, whether they lived or died. Although they once had homes, they were no longer wanted and would be heartlessly tossed out of a car on the side of the road.  When I was growing up, my parents used to do this when one of their cats committed some offense that they deemed unpardonable (usually scratching someone, although I believe tearing about like a hellion qualified as well).  My father was the one assigned to doing the deed, which he referred to as “taking the cat for a ride.”  He’d drive several miles away, by which time the cat was generally sufficiently panicked to jump out voluntarily at the first opportunity.  At least once that I can recall, the cat managed to find its way back home.

As for the stray dogs of the desert, they’d bake in the 115°F heat that we “enjoyed” six months out of the year, desperate for a drink of water.  Some would hang out on the strip of fast food places down by the freeway, hoping for handouts.  Those were usually picked up fairly quickly by animal control officers on their rounds.

One night, my wife and I had to make a quick run to K-Mart just before the store closed, where we found a large dog pacing back and forth by the entrance and exit doors, just hoping that some kind person would grant it some attention.  We went to get it some water, but quickly discovered another good Samaritan approaching with a fast food hamburger and a drink.

There were stray cats, too, and we used to put out our leftovers for them as well as for the many hungry birds that inhabited our neighborhood.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about chickens.  Not exactly in the same league with dogs and cats, you may say, but I keep seeing these beautiful birds hanging out at a busy intersection in Yuba City.  To this city boy’s highly untrained eye, they all appear to be roosters.  We have no idea to whom, if anyone, they belong.  However, just like the stray dogs of the desert, we suspect that they were simply abandoned.  After all, they don’t lay eggs and they disturb the neighbors with their infernal crowing, so what good are they to anyone, other than for making soup or drenching their wings in barbecue sauce?  Passersby must be feeding these guys, else I doubt that they’d stick around.  I’m surprised they haven’t been picked up yet, but perhaps the local dog catcher doesn’t “do” chickens.  I am reminded of an incident, several years ago, in which an entire flock of chickens turned up beside a southern California freeway, resulting in much rush hour gawking, some near auto wrecks, and many people posing the age-old conundrum anew:  Why did the chicken cross the road?

So my question of the day is:  Do we have an obligation to care for abandoned animals?  And if so, is such obligation individual or communal in nature?

The Bible (while certainly not the final arbiter for many of us), appears to argue that we do have such an obligation, and that each of us is required to take on this responsibility personally.

“If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.  If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him.”  Deut. 22:1-2

The following verse underscores this point by stating “you must not remain indifferent.”  In other words, community assignment of an animal control officer does not negate our individual responsibility for caring for our fellow creatures.

Granted, the emphasis of these Bible verses is on helping avoid a loss to one’s neighbor rather than on assisting the animal.  The fact that the Scripture refers to animals that have “gone astray” seems to indicate that it would be unheard of to deliberately abandon an animal.  While this may be due to the economic value of cattle, sheep and donkeys kept as work animals or for sources of food and clothing, the concept of animals kept as pets does appear in the Bible as well.  I refer to the parable of the poor man who “had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought,” recited by the prophet Nathan to King David.  “He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children:  It used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him.”  2 Sam. 12:3

I find it encouraging that a source as ancient as the Bible, with its emphasis on justice and doing the right thing, recognizes that pets can be members of our families and demands that we care for strays rather than ignore them.  The implication, then, is that the Judeo-Christian tradition finds a moral imperative to attend to the needs of animals, whether we have voluntarily taken on their care as pets or whether we happen upon them along the road.

It is no secret that failure to heed this duty of care is likely to result in the death of animals that have no means to care for themselves.  While I rarely think of donkeys (or chickens, for that matter) as being strays, their mention in Deuteronomy reminds me of the fully-grown donkey that we found dead by the side of a state highway in the middle of the desert a couple of years ago.  We later learned that wild burros and horses continue to inhabit the Sonoran Desert, sometimes causing wrecks when they cross the roads (we had a close call with a wild horse late one night) and often dying of thirst, hunger and disease.

While most of us do not have the means of caring for every stray that shows up on our doorstep or is found wandering forlornly on a roadside, it is my belief that it is immoral to ignore these animals, hoping that perhaps someone else will step up.

Nor is it an excuse to insist that this is why we pay taxes to support animal control officers.  A communal conscience is certainly a good thing, but when stray and abandoned animals are likely to either be killed (I find the phrase “put to sleep” to be obscene) in so-called animal shelters, or to be run over or starve to death before they are rescued, it is difficult to deny that the responsibility for these creatures is ours alone.  Closing our eyes to this duty of care casts a dirty shame upon our supposedly enlightened society.

One thought on “Duty of Care

  1. Pingback: Do Dogs and Cats Have the Right to Live? | A Map of California

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