SixTAY Days of Writing 2019 Day Twelve- The Dog Movie Stereotype that must Die

I’m still going through a bunch of movies, and it’s amazing how many movies I’ve owned for years and not actually seen. So before they go into the sell/keep pile, I’ve been giving them the 15 minute Rule. Meaning if it isn’t interesting/engaging/building up to something in the first fifteen minutes, into the pile it goes. Some movies have turned out the be really cool, like Salt, others have been real stinkers, like Knight and Day.

Another movie got thrown into the sell pile for a different reason though, and that’s because it infuriated me so badly. Dog movies for kids tend to be fairly universally terrible, as they rely heavily on physical, cliched humor (poop, pee and drool jokes) and very predictable plots, but sometimes even a dopey, predictable kids’ movie can still be a lot of fun even if it’s not high cinema. Not Hotel for Dogs though, because it relies heavily on one of my least favorite tropes, one that NEEDS TO DIE. And that trope is Pet Store Good, Shelter Evil.

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Since seemingly the beginning of cinema, dog catchers and animal pounds have been used as antagonists, mean spirited beings and places that only exist to murder innocent dogs. And through the 19th, and larges parts of the 20th century that was true. Street animals used to be a huge problem in the US, and spaying and neutering dogs and cats was almost never practiced. Packs of feral dogs were common in large cities, often carrying diseases like rabies and could be incredibly dangerous, and often, animal control picking up the animals and euthanizing them was the only choice as people rarely adopted street animals. It was far more common for people to get their animals either from a neighbor’s litter or a pet store. And people would let their dogs and cats roam free, creating more street animals as they would breed with the feral dogs and cats, compounding the problem. It made sense for a movie like Lady and the Tramp, from the 1950s based on the early 1900s, to feature a city pound as one of the most depressing places in the world.

The problem is that this has changed dramatically. While cat adoption is low (sadly, municipal animal shelters have an average adoption rate of only 33%, even in high adoption communities) the prognosis for unloved dogs is much better. The average adoption rate for dogs is 55%, which is still not ideal, but does mean a shelter dog is more likely to find a home than not. Routine campaigns to get dogs spayed and neutered reduce the creation of unintended litters, chipping has made reuniting lost animals with their homes significantly easier and stray packs of dogs are becoming more and more rare.

Municipal shelters often bend over backwards to find homes for their animals, working with other adoption organizations to sponsor drives, ship out excess animals to save them from euthanasia, or straight up ignoring city ordinances. In my home state the director of the Jefferson County Municipal Animal Shelter was FIRED because instead of putting down animals when their time was up, she’d reenter them into the system as new cats and dogs. Animals up for adoption are featured on websites, programs are arranged so the right animal is placed home to prevent returns and Spay Mobiles are sent into the lowest income areas in order to provide low cost vet care so people aren’t forced to surrender animals they can no longer afford, or unintentionally create litters of mutts.

And yet movies, particularly kids’ movies, show animal control officers with Nazi imagery, giving them black uniforms, stove pipe boots and leather gloves, showing shelters as dark, dismal places filled with animals about to walk The Last Mile. Babe Pig in the City came out in 1999, and Hotel for Dogs was from 2009, YEARS after most shelters modernized their adoption centers to be as welcoming and inviting as possible, and real animal control officers look more like police or fire fighters. Their job isn’t just to catch strays, but also investigate and bring to justice people who abuse and neglect their animals.

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Contrast that with the way most pet shops are portrayed. They are usually shown as happy places full of playing puppies, a cheerful parrot greeting the customer and some folksy old owner ready to give the protagonist all sorts of useful advice. But the opposite is true. Those pet stores at the mall? Fucking evil.

The majority of puppies that are sold in pet stores come from puppy mills. Legitimate breeders don’t put their animals in stores because they want to meet the potential future owners face to face, and want to keep the animals with the parents as long as possible. Puppies from pet stores are often underaged as well, as the younger the puppy, the cuter it is and the most likely it will be sold. But puppies taken from their parents before 8 weeks of age tend to have tremendous health and psychological problems, as the premature separation makes them fearful, and the lack of continuous contact with an adult, mature dog means it doesn’t have enough time to learn how to dog. And that cute lil’ puppy pit where they are all playing and snuggling together? That’s only during store operation. At night, the back is usually tiny cages where the dogs are either overcrowded to save space, and left entirely alone. And if that puppy doesn’t sell after a few weeks, guess where it goes? Either back to the mill to fates unknown, or the community animal shelter anyway.

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But that’s still better off than a lot of the other animals. Mortality is incredibly high for animals sold in pet stores as the staff usually isn’t specialized in the care of the species they sell. Fish and reptiles need highly specialized care, rabbits need lots of space and low stress environments, and parrots need access to clean food and water at all times. It’s not unusual to see dead fish rotting in tanks for days. And you know what happens to rodents like hamsters and guinea pigs that are considered too damaged to sell because they have scars or ripped ears? They’re feed to the reptiles to save money on feeder mice and rats.

Even stores that don’t sell cats and dogs, and instead offer to ‘adopt them out’ like PetCo or PetSmart have their own dirty little secrets. While some of the drives are from legitimate shelters, many are not. When my neighbor didn’t spay her cat and ended up with a litter of kittens, she sold the kittens for $10 a head to PetSmart who turned around and ‘adopted’ the kittens out for $250 a piece. At least when animals are surrendered over to shelters, a punitive fee is expected for dumping your animals. And since these major chains also sell huge quantities of other animals, the problems of smaller stores with uninformed staff gets exacerbated.

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Yet very little kids’ media shows it accurately. Off the top of my head the only movie I’ve seen where an animal shelter is shown as a good place to get a loving pet is Bolt.

But what does it matter, it’s just a kid’s movie, right? Problem is, people are very influenced by the media they consume. After Jaws, shark populations plummeted, and after the release of 101 Dalmatians there was a flood of new puppy owners that quickly learned the breed is not particularly friendly or playful, leading to Dalmatian rescues being overwhelmed. And I don’t want to even think about the number of dead clown fish from people who saw Finding Nemo and missed the entire goddamn point. While censorship is bad, and storytelling should be allowed to do what they want, children’s media should be held to a higher standard because it’s so influential. The trope of Pet Store Good, Shelter Evil is why people continue to support the puppy mill industry, and why those averages for adoptions are still too damn low. People and their kids see these movies and assume that the animals in shelters are no good, or too bleak to spend time in when it’s quite the opposite. Dogs of any age, breed, temperament are available. My dog Athena was a purebreed German Shepherd who filled my life with joy for a decade, and I got Selene when she was a mixed breed puppy and cute as a fucking teddy bear. Both from the Denver County Municipal Shelter. Plus there are other animals too. Rabbits, horses, guinea pigs and cats are also regularly brought to shelters and need homes. Adopted animals are chipped, spayed/neutered, given their shots and often provided with samples of food.

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It’s 2019, even if creating kids’ media is incredibly lazy, Hollywood needs to catch up for the sake of dogs and the hard working government workers who just want to find these critters homes.

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