By Rachel Fraser
Modern pet ownership is a fraught endeavour. Balancing a sacred responsibility for the wellbeing of a sentient creature with respect for the rights of one’s neighbors and other environmental concerns walks a delicate line. As a pet mom to two precocious beasts, the struggle is real.
My dog, a Finnish Spitz (aka “the barking bird dog”), is bred to hunt birds and small game by treeing one and barking incessantly at the base of the tree until the hunter arrives to kill it. I don’t hunt, but my dog is a workaholic and has taken it on herself to single-handedly manage the local “squirrel problem”. Spitzes are considered a primitive breed, in that they are closer to their wolffish ancestors than more domesticated breeds. Less trusting, less eager to please, less attached, exceedingly smart and trainable, but ultimately less controllable. Incidentally, Finland holds barking competitions. Champion Finkies can bark 110 times per minute. (Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you all about how I ended up with this cross to bear.) While generally polite and charming, she barks. And she barks more if she doesn’t get enough exercise. And exercise is running all over the woods, barking at squirrels. How lucky for everyone around us at any time. Those on the trails, but especially those unsuspecting folks who owned houses around the one I bought.
My kitty, on the other hand, is timid and sweet, but also built to hunt. It’s estimated that domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually in the US, and though the majority of that is attributed to unknown cats, one assumes the number attributable to Canadian pets is also breathtaking. We also know from perennial poisonings that free-roaming cats poop in their neighbours’ gardens. And the life expectancy of an outdoor cat is only 2-4 years, a fraction of the 14 year average lifespan of one kept indoors. Therefore, responsible cat ownership requires keeping kitties inside.
The Lady of Shallot, a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, tells the tragedy of a woman cursed to view the world through a mirror, from inside a tower, condemned to die if she tries to leave. In the end, she chooses to die, to leave her tower and see the outside world just once. You see my dilemma.
In a town of outdoor enthusiasts, we all make choices balancing safety, environmental responsibility and our own quality of life that many could judge irresponsible. What kind of life is lived as a hostage? Always enclosed by windows or restrained by a leash? I struggle with the morality of pet ownership at all in anything other than a rural setting, where pets can have some level of free rein without disturbing the peace. As a city-, and now village-, dwelling animal-lover, I’ve tried to err on the side of giving my pets a reasonable level of agency while doing my best to be conscious of and reasonably minimize the effects on my neighbors and fellow trail users. I appreciate every ounce of grace that has been shown to the three of us.