My dog Ken has been looking as sad as a basset hound recently, and I think I know why. Somehow, Ken must have taken a look-see -- instead of just a raised leg -- to a recent issue of New Scientist, which reports on a new book called Time to Eat the Dog: the real guide to sustainable living. Authors Robert and Brenda Vale claim that medium-sized dogs like Ken are trotting around with oversized ecological paw-prints, even worse than what a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV produces. Now, dogs are not only taking the heat for their real canine sins (such as stealing chicken legs off the plates of unsuspecting diners), but polluting our rivers and even contributing to the decimation of certain species of birds (such as European nightjars). As soon as I read about this threat, I sat bolt upright and immediately asked, What in the world is a European nightjar?
Cats are not off the hook, either. Feckless felines who leave excrement in inconvenient locations are presumed to spread the disease Toxoplasma gondii, which has been implicated in the killing of sea otters.
These are heavy charges indeed. No wonder Ken feels so beagle-eaguered.
Dr. John Barrett of the Stockholm Environment Institute in York, UK told the New Scientist that "owning a dog is really quite an extravagance, mainly because of the carbon footprint of meat."
I didn't need the New Scientist to suggest to me that having a dog is an extravagance, but I never guessed his carbon paw-print was to blame. The "extravagance" of owning Ken (excuse me...serving as his human companion) became devastatingly clear after we brought him home as a puppy, whereupon he promptly mistook the couch for a giant chew toy. This required ongoing apologies to guests for the state of our furniture, which made Salvation Army offerings look like something out of Metropolitan Home. When our déclassé décor became intolerably embarrassing, we had to swallow the cost of a new couch the way Ken had swallowed the stuffing out of the old one. Additionally, what I recently paid to have Ken's teeth professionally cleaned would have paid for ten cleanings for each of the human members of the family.
The enterprising Vales concluded that it takes 1.1 hectares of land per year to create enough chicken, beef, and lamb for a medium-sized dog to eat, in contrast to the gas-chugging Toyota Land Cruiser SUV, driven 10,000 kilometres a year, which requires less than half that: only 0.41 hectares.
I don't know what the heck a hectare is, but I do wonder: why are we now searching for eco-tragedy in the bow-wow's bowl? How small does our carbon footprint have to be to satisfy environmental puritans, who might otherwise call for us to be eaten as a punishment for our terrestrial sins?
While "experts" like the Vales have looked with an actuarial eye to the physical costs of having pets, I doubt they have factored in any of the blessings we receive from our animals' simple and unalloyed devotion to us. Those are spiritual factors, which are rarely, if ever, taken into account in what many environmentalists see as a zero-sum-game. They may even view some of these benefits, such as the demonstrably lower blood pressure among people who pet their dogs and cats, as a negative. After all, people with lower blood pressure live longer than those with high blood pressure, and are sure to just gobble up more of the Earth's resources!
The Vales aren't anti-pet, however. They'd just rather have us trade in our dogs and cats for smaller, greener pets, such as fish and hamsters. This is a terrible idea. Goldfish have the lifespan of a soufflé, upsetting children whose excitement over their new fish can turn into wails of grief within hours. And hamsters, "green" as they are, are smarter than they look, and can squeeze out of the skinny slats in their cages, forcing a most unpleasant game of hide and seek in the house. I speak from experience on both counts.
They also recommend hens, whose eggs would surely qualify as both organic and locally grown if they are laid in your backyard. But wouldn't the neighbors complain about the squawking? Moving slightly higher on the food chain, Mr. Vale recommends rabbits, "provided you eat them," he says.
I'd be surprised if the Vales are parents. Most parents would have factored in the carbon footprint of having to shuttle Amanda and Sammy every Wednesday afternoon to the therapist to deal with the emotional trauma resulting from having come home from school one fine day only to find that Fluffy the Bunny has been skinned and roasted for dinner.
Of course, most red-blooded American dogs will refuse to become vegetarian, even if you explain to them how beneficial this gastronomic change can be for Mother Earth. Last time someone made the mistake of trying to take a steak bone from Ken, he snarled in a way that conveyed in no uncertain terms, "The only way you'll take my meat is to pry it from my cold, dead paws."
Meanwhile, I'm going to be a lot more careful about what reading material crosses Ken's four-legged path. I'm trying to cheer him up with a few extra chicken strip treats, followed by spontaneous runs in the park. If these fail to restore him to his usual mental state of mindless happiness, I'll just sit him down and say, "Listen, buddy: you've still got it better than me. Last I checked, the public option for health care only applies to humans."