Opinion: People living in poverty should not be punished for having pets

Oct 14 2021, 4:53 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Kathy Powelson, the executive director of Paws for Hope.

When I worked in BC’s social services sector, I had a conversation with a foster parent that has always stuck with me. She told me about a child that was in her care because the child’s family lived in poverty and wasn’t able to provide adequate food. In response, the Ministry of Children and Family Development removed the child and placed her into foster care. There, the ministry paid the foster family to adequately feed and care for the child. The irony and unfairness of the situation was not lost on the foster parent. 

Why hadn’t the government just paid the child’s family so they could provide food? That’s not how the system works.

This punitive model has driven child protection for more than 100 years. Kids are removed and placed in care when they are unsafe, but also for other reasons—if a family is in poverty or if a parent is struggling with substance use. Rather than being offered support, a family that is struggling gets punished by having their kids taken away.

The good news is that over the past decade, new family preservation models have been developed, largely in an attempt to reduce the number of First Nations children in government care. These approaches are premised on the belief that most children are better off with their families and seek various ways of supporting families before resorting to child protection orders of removal. This change is long overdue and will hopefully lead to a reduction in the number of First Nations children being removed and placed in government care.

However, just like the child welfare system, the animal welfare system also has a long history of penalizing families living in poverty or struggling with substance use. Animal protection agencies are quick to apprehend and remove pets who lack access to veterinary care — services that are then paid for, often by the very same agency. Then the animal is adopted out to a new, usually much wealthier family.

Animal cruelty is a very real problem, but in these cases, pets are not being removed because their people intentionally neglected or harmed them. These pets are being apprehended and removed because their people face systemic barriers that prevent them from having access to things that the rest of us take for granted — things like adequate pet food, veterinary care, stable shelter. And simply as a result of their circumstances — they lose a very important part of their family. 

If you are reading this, you likely know the effect an animal companion can have. And you can probably imagine the effect that losing one would also have. Without a doubt, having their pets removed would only further exacerbate the feelings of isolation and neglect that marginalized people already experience. What would you do, how would you feel, if your one comfort and companion through a life of hardship was stolen from you for reasons beyond your control?

The truth is that our society does not treat all of its citizens equally. Our society pushes some people to the fringes because of their race, gender, disability, sexuality, mental health, or history of abuse or neglect or substance use. Our colonial past has devastated generations of First Nations, Métis and Indigenous peoples who are still struggling with the legacies of colonization, residential schools, and the unjust legislation of the Indian Act. The truth is that the barriers they face are simply because of circumstance not of any personal fault or failure.

The media and politicians — and maybe you, yourself — often refer to these demographics as “vulnerable” groups or populations. But the language of “vulnerability” is a misnomer. In truth, vulnerable people are simply those who have been left out of policies and practices that primarily cater to the dominant groups of society and thus have no choice but to fend for themselves. Their vulnerability is a symptom of colonialism, racism, bureaucracy, and stigma. It is our fault they are vulnerable and it is our duty to right those wrongs and address that inequity.

We need to re-think and re-imagine how we respond to pets in need and recognize this fundamental truth in the work we do at animal shelters, animal protection agencies, and in community-based rescue work. It is time to outgrow the punitive approach to animal welfare that assumes every person behind a pet in need has done something intentionally to harm the animal.

We need to stop judging and punishing families if they are struggling to provide adequate veterinary care and instead reach out with compassion and support. We need to realize that poverty is not a choice nor a character flaw. We must shed our saviour complex and see ourselves as allies standing beside people, not flawless heroes rushing in to save the day. We need to apply what we know about ourselves and our families—the significance of a bond between people and their pets—to those we seek to help and support and prioritize keeping their families together too.

It would serve our organizations and our communities well if we no longer viewed the animal welfare sector’s work as distinct from the work of our colleagues in the social services. We are often working with and supporting the same families. Most often, when there is an animal in distress, there is also a family in need. Working together, our two sectors could have a profound and meaningful impact and make sure entire families are cared for, addressing inequality and providing support for pets and their people.

It’s the right thing to do and it is also increasingly necessary. If our shelters and foster homes keep filling up with pets that have been forcibly surrendered, but are loved and have people who miss them and could be caring for them, our sector will not have the capacity to respond and care for animals who are truly in distress or are homeless—we will be forced to turn away animals who need care and protection the most.

There will always be a need to protect animals from harm. Whether it be natural disasters, animal cruelty, hoarding, breeding mills, or supporting pets whose people are in crisis, our work will never be obsolete or unnecessary. There will always be work to do. But how we do that work needs to change.

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