Furry friends and convicts

“Cat lady keeps 200 cats in one room apartment.” “Couple’s basement held 100 dogs.” Headlines like these are commonplace. The owners’ responses? “I love my animals” – “I am keeping them safe and off the

“Cat lady keeps 200 cats in one room apartment.” “Couple’s basement held 100 dogs.” Headlines like these are commonplace. The owners’ responses? “I love my animals” – “I am keeping them safe and off the streets” – “it is in their best interest.” But these pet owners overlook the fact that they cannot afford to feed all of them, treat them, or even bring them out into the daylight. The animals they are keeping “safe” are routinely malnourished, in need of medical treatment and abusively neglected.

I tried to figure out where this type of behavior, this attitude of benign neglect, comes from. How do people think that abusing living creatures is helpful? It boggles my mind that these abusers truly believe they are providing a selfless, necessary service. To their disappointment we do not issue community service awards for abuse. Or do we?

It seems the problem lies not in these people, but in society. When I read about dogs kept in boxes and cages stacked on top of each other, underfed and unattended, I cannot help but think of my friends and associates currently locked up in our own little basement of neglect – the prison industry – human storage on a national scale.

I know about storage. I worked in logistics and warehousing for over a decade. But that was all about things: objects and products, military equipment and parts – not people. The prison system is literally dehumanizing; people warehoused as objects. The different buildings and institutions are designed for efficient human storage: short-, mid-, and long-term. Efficient, not humane. But hey, they are only criminals, right?

Wrong. Some are still waiting for a hearing or trial. Some have never been convicted. Some have never been sentenced. In 2002, only 35 percent of Philadelphia prisoners had actually been sentenced to serve time, with the rest awaiting hearing or trial. The annual report lists 16 prisoners released not by court order, bail, or time served but by the very last category on the chart – death. Some are juveniles as young as 14 and though the system proudly proclaims it protects and segregates juveniles “by sight and sound from the adult population”, my associates inside tell me otherwise. Little things like heat, food and medical care are routinely neglected and sometimes used as behavioral rewards. Too many puppies and not enough care to go around. Then we are surprised and angry when they bark and bite?

From the Prison system’s Web site:

“The city’s first jail was a seven-by-five-foot cage built in 1683 for the detention of miscreants… Conditions in Philadelphia’s early prisons were deplorable, and a board of prison inspectors was created in 1790. The board immediately undertook to separate male prisoners from females and convicts from untried prisoners.” Obviously we have regressed to 18th century policies, since most of the Philadelphia prisoners are “detainees” – the untried prisoners we sought to protect in 1790.

So if the way some people are treating animals horrifies and sickens you, look in your own basement first. Your tax dollars support this same brand of benign neglect. Like institutionalized elder care and hospices, we isolate people not in their interest but ours. Let’s admit it, we just don’t want to see them or deal with them and pay to keep them out of sight and out of mind. Granted, there are some criminals that need to be removed from society for our protection, but not the vast majority of those in the Philadelphia prison system. Like those dogs and cats housed in boxes and basements, underfed, unattended, and unloved, a little attention and care can make a world of difference, sometimes even the difference between life and death.

There are too many programs to list here that allow for you to spend a little time and attention on people who desperately need it. An hour’s visit, a few pairs of socks and underwear, a book, a letter, can all make a big difference. If you think animals need interaction, attention and sunshine, try to remember that people do too. Care and compassion are important parts of being human. Try them. You may not be able to control your tax dollars and a national institution of neglect, but you can control your own time and energy. You can make a difference in someone’s life.

Glenn Reitz can be reached at Greitz@temple.edu.

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