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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why Animals Cannot be Properly Bred for Profit

Our last post dealt with an extreme case of animal cruelty at a mill facility that produced rats and reptiles en masse for pet stores. Even though that was most certainly an extreme example of what can go wrong at a mill, that doesn't mean that other mills are doing things right.

The simple fact is that there is no way to breed animals for profit if you are doing things correctly. And it is almost impossible to do things correctly if you are producing animals in large numbers, which is a requirement if you hope to supply animals to big chain pet stores.

So let's go over some of the things a breeding operation would need to do in order to do things right. First, let's look at the animals' needs:
  1. Animals need to be fed a nutritious diet made up of healthy ingredients - especially pregnant/nursing mothers and growing young. A good diet costs money and often takes time to prepare. An establishment that is trying to make a profit will often cut costs by providing less healthy or incomplete alternatives. A bulk operation is much more likely to substitute a cheap processed food (eg, low-quality dog food made up of dried corn and meat byproducts and artificial preservatives) in place of a more expensive high quality commercial diet or a more labor-intensive fresh food diet.
  2. Animals need a clean and spacious place to live, with room for exercise. They need a stimulating environment with appropriate air-flow, temperature, and humidity. This means large cages/enclosures without overpopulation in a climate controlled building, with staff available to keep enclosures clean and safe.
  3. Mothers need time between litters to recover and regain their health. During this time, they still need to be fed and stimulated and cared for. Thus, they continue to cost money without producing any returns. Large mill-based operations are likely to overbreed their animals so that they continue to earn their keep.
  4. Animals need attention from their handlers. Many species need to be socialized so that they learn to trust people. Adult animals need care, attention, and stimulation from their people. All animals need someone to watch over their well-being and ensure they are not injured, ill, stressed, or otherwise compromised.
  5. Animals need veterinary care. Animals in an overcrowded facility are more likely to get sick or injured. A profit-based operation is likely to see vet care as being more expensive than that animal is worth. Sick and injured animals need medications, which means they also need qualified personnel to measure and administer the medications. Animals that are dying and cannot be treated need humane euthanasia options, but how many profit-based operations will pay for something that is going to happen on its own for free?
  6. New animals and sick animals need to be quarantined to stop the spread of disease. This requires a separate airspace and separate housing arrangement, along with vet care to properly handle illness and pathogens. A mill operation is not likely to devote the money or resources to proper quarantine, thus illness and disease are spread and carried by the animals in their warehouses. It is often less expensive to lose some animals to disease than to properly contain, control, and treat it safely for all animals.
But this is not all. To do things right, breeders cannot just look at the current generation of animals - they need to look at the future. They need to think about how their efforts are going to contribute and hopefully improve the genetics of the general animal population. Think about all of the devastating health problems that rats are susceptible to - many of these problems continue to torment the pet rat population because the majority of rats bred are bred by mills, by accident, or by backyard breeders who do not make any effort to eliminate them. Such breeding efforts/accidents just contribute to the widespread animal overpopulation problem and perpetuate the same problems that torment us today.

Sometimes breeding efforts are focused on working with specific colors/markings/physical features. But those are just superficial concerns that appeal to people but have little bearing on the well-being of the animals themselves. These goals should be secondary to those goals that promote the health and well-being of the animals.

Improving the health and temperament of a species/breed is a very difficult thing to accomplish and takes much time, money, and effort to make any inroads. Mills will always ignore these goals - they have one simple goal - that enough of the animals produced live long enough in good enough condition to be sold or to produce more of themselves. That is it. But the following are some of the things that a good breeder will do so that their efforts actually improve the quality of their lines and to ensure the animals they place find a good home:

  1. Detailed records from all lines must be kept, including pedigrees with information about genetics, longevity, temperament, and health conditions. Not all conditions are genetic, but susceptibility to contagious illness such as myco can be. The overall picture must be understood so that careful selection can be used to reduce such problems in future generations.
  2. Applications should be created by breeders and filled out by customers to ensure the animals are going to a home that is prepared to care for them properly. Care sheets should be prepared and distributed to all customers to make sure they have access to the important information they will need.
  3.  Necropsies should be performed in order to identify problems in the lines - both problems that cause death and those that had not yet progressed to the point of showing external symptoms.
  4. Some animals must be held back and kept by the breeder for the sole purpose of continuing to monitor what conditions pop up in the line. Breeders should stay in touch with customers so that health problems and longevity can continue to be tracked among the animals that are rehomed. It is impossible to know what problems exist in a line if one loses track of all animals once they reach independence and find new homes.
  5. Decisions must be made as to when to stop breeding from a given line because of serious medical problems in that line and when to continue working with the line to work out those problems. Some problems are so bad (eg, megacolon in rats) that they may warrant abandoning a line that has many other positives going for it. Trying to breed such conditions out of a line will continue to produce more rats with the condition and may continue to pass the gene along even if it is not expressed.
  6. Animals that should not be bred because they are known to carry a gene for a serious condition should be spayed or neutered before being sold so that there is no risk of that gene being passed on to future generations (whether on purpose or by accident).
It is easy to think that the only thing you need to breed an animal is a male and a female of that species and any offspring that you get are pure profit, but as you can see, the reality is quite different. It is actually quite costly and time-intensive to breed animals in a humane way - and even more costly and time-intensive to do it in a way that improves the species rather than just contributing to the pet overpopulation problem. When you do it as a business rather than as a hobby for the love of it, you have to add labor costs on top of everything else. Now consider that PetSmart currently sells a "Fancy Rat" (really just your plain old average pet rat) for $10.99. They bought those rats in bulk from a mill at a much lower cost - probably only a few dollars each. Given the high costs of care, even for a very productive species that is easy to breed, where does the profit come from? If there is no profit, there is no business.

The only way to make it work is to cut back on expenses - which means small inappropriate cages, poor diet, no handling or interaction with the animals, limited vet care, dirty environments, and overbred females. Even the pet store, just turning around the animals and reselling at a much higher cost, cannot make a profit on live animals. Their care and upkeep is usually more than they will ever sell for. The longer a given animal stays at the store, the more it costs the store. So why do they sell them if they can't make a profit? They sell live animals as a loss leader so they can then sell more profitable supplies: cages, food, toys, and accessories.

Unfortunately, pet store animals are readily available and easy. Locating an animal through a rescue or researching a good breeder takes work and time and effort - and sometimes a long drive to another location to pick the animal up and bring it home. Too many people settle for easy and never think about what the costs of that convenience are.

It would be nice if pet stores started to move in the direction many of them have gone with dogs and cats - to make it easier for people to find small/exotic animals from rescues.

Anyway, I apologize for the graphic nature of the video I linked to yesterday. I know it is hard to stomach. And it is not my intent to use this blog as a platform to preach pet politics as I try to keep an open and non-judgmental mindset. But it is just too easy to turn a blind eye to the reality of pet store animals because the truth of the situation is conveniently hidden from our view. I think it is good to try to look behind the scenes every now and then and take that into account before making any pet-related decisions. Having once bred finches for a conservation effort, I know how expensive and labor intensive it is to keep animals, and even moreso to breed them properly and successfully. It is just not possible to do things right and make a profit. The mills supplying pet stores make a profit or they go out of business - so that really should tell you everything you need to know.

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