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Lassie Come Home – And Bring Your Friends

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Burden Lundgren
May 21, 2018

The year of 2018 opened with a report of a “service peacock” being denied boarding by an airline. This followed a year of issues including dog bites with traveling service animals. These episodes are emblematic of the enormous complexity that characterizes our relationship with the animals that share our planet. We eat many of them. They eat a few of us. They can give us a host of diseases, and we can give a few to them. We love them and fear them, and they us. It is a relationship we can’t escape nor should we want to.

In the name of love, Americans spend over $60 billion on their pets every year. While there are more pet cats than dogs (88 million to 75 million), more households own dogs (46 million to 39 million). Surprisingly, there are about as many pet reptiles as there are pet horses, and a couple million more pet birds than either of those. Likely the most studied pet is the dog which morphed from one of the most feared animals on earth to our best friend. The intelligence, sociability and pack instincts of the wolf remain making dogs smart, loving and loyal companions. But dogs are not pets universally. Some are working animals doing everything from sniffing out bombs to pulling sleds. In some parts of the world, loose dogs simply roam the streets accepted, but not loved. Elsewhere, they are consumed as food.

We define animals as “good” or “bad.” In this country, we have decided that dogs are good, and wolves are bad, although by DNA analysis, they are very nearly the same animal. Some of these good/bad decisions bite back. Research has shown killing wolves and tigers results in greater cattle loss since apex predators keep more numerous smaller predators out of their territories. Humans have attempted rat genocide through many centuries although those who own pet rats report them, like dogs, to be smart and sociable. Then, there are the animals also known to be smart and sociable but end up as bacon or KFC.

When considering feared animals, people tend to think in terms of tigers or bears — or often snakes.      Tigers and bears do little harm, but snake bites kill at least 100,000 people every year. The prize for human mortality, however, goes to the mosquito, the vector for malaria, yellow fever and other deadly diseases. Malaria alone kills almost half a million people each year. As etymologist Andrew Spielman put it, “No animal on earth has touched so directly and profoundly the lives of so many human beings. For all of history and all over the globe she has been a nuisance, a pain, and an angel of death. Mosquitoes have felled great leaders, decimated armies, and decided the fate of nations.” But our efforts to totally exterminate mosquitoes have resulted in little more than the near-destruction of other species. And, it should be noted that mosquitoes serve as a food supply for bats and birds.

In the case of yellow fever, other animals are involved too. Monkeys are both yellow fever victims and a reservoir for the disease. When the fever was brought from Africa to the Americas, it almost wiped out the howler monkeys in South America. Health departments in these countries regularly monitor the howler populations for yellow fever. In a current outbreak in Brazil, people have been killing monkeys in an attempt to wipe out the disease. Killing them is actually counterproductive since infected monkeys signal where the epidemic is spreading.

In public health, the inextricable relationships between humans and animals are well-recognized. One group that focuses on that link is the One Health Initiative (www.onehealthinitiative.com), an organization dedicated to improving the lives of all species by addressing research and policy issues that arise at the health and disease interfaces between humans and animals. Founded by two physicians and a veterinarian in 2006, the organization now encompasses major professional organizations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States Department of Agriculture and is endorsed by nearly 1000 scientists, physicians and veterinarians worldwide. The One Health concept has already been applied to the containment of pandemic threats such as avian influenza and SARS.

Obviously, the domain of public policy directly regulating animals is vast ranging from leash laws to rescuing vanishing species to heading off pandemics. Indirect regulation, e.g., allowing development that destroys habitat, increases pollution, hastens climate change affects them even more. Fortunately, we have an organizing principle. In the end, their health is our health and their welfare is also ours. We  need also to keep in mind the dictum left to us by Mahatma Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Point of columnist privilege: the dog in the picture is Nadia. My husband and I became her owners last October. By November, she owned us. Studies predict she will help us live longer and healthier lives — a phenomenon known as the “Lassie Effect.” Best of all, she makes us laugh every day.


Author: Burden S. Lundgren, MPH, PhD, RN practiced as a registered nurse, specializing in acute and critical care. After leaving clinical practice, she worked as an analyst at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and later taught at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She has served as a consultant to a number of nonprofit groups. Presently, she divides her time between Virginia and Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected]

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