Dogs' breakfast, paws for thought

What pets eat determines the size of their ecological paws. Is the resulting footprint a crime worthy of capital punishment, or have the professors miscalculated?

We’re debating eating dogs, again. The SPCA must be having kittens. Thankfully, this time, they’ve had the good sense to keep quiet.

Back in August, the SPCA called for a law change, following its investigation into the humane killing and cooking of a pet dog by a Tongan family in Auckland. Maybe cultural imperialism doesn’t wear the guise of cruelty quite so well, when the controversialists are Professors Brenda and Robert Vale, Victoria University of Wellington academics, and authors of Time to Eat the Dog? Their book got publicity this week around the world—including, apparently, the front page of the Toronto Star, where it provoked indignant correspondence (the book, not the dog, was the environmental crime according to the letter writer; it was a “waste of trees”).

As described in the New Scientist, the Vales measured pets’ ecological paw prints. They analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food, extrapolated quantities consumed by a pet to raw quantities of meat and cereal, and calculated the land area that it takes to produce them. They compared this against the footprint of a 4.6 litre Toyota Land Cruiser driven 10,000 kilometres a year, taking into account the energy to both fuel and build it. They concluded that the Land Cruiser is twice as eco-friendly as a medium-sized dog; the Land Cruiser’s footprint was half that of the dog’s.

The title of the book, Time to Eat the Dog?—as well as, evidently, a great publicity hook—relates to the further deduction that the only eco-friendly pet is one that produces food, such as chooks, and can itself be eaten on expiry.

“We used to have lots of cats. But we’ve got to the point where we feel that we shouldn’t,” Robert Vale said Monday from Wellington [to the Toronto Star]. “It’s quite sad. We were very fond of our cats.”

I know how he feels; this had crossed my mind, too. But whilst sympathetic to the overall message—that pets can’t be omitted from ecological footprint calculations—aspects of the argument warrant some unpicking.

First, “pets you can eat” is oxymoronic. Not for nothing are pets called “companion animals”. Smallholder and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, tells people: never give meat animals names, or forget their higher purpose. What the Vales are saying is: don’t keep pets.

Second, there may be a fallacy built into their study: that the land in question produces food solely for cats and dogs. I’m not convinced this is very likely to be the case: a vet told me once that most pet food is mechanically-reclaimed meat from, for example, chicken carcasses, offal, blood, skin, and so on. It’s a byproduct of our own consumption.

We don’t even approach eating the whole animal. Last weekend I met an elderly gentleman buying ox kidneys in the butcher; he extolled the virtues of them devilled, on toast, for breakfast. They must have been stoic, the days of his youth. Wondering what would make me as happy as he was about the kidneys produced this shameful answer: a perfect mug of freshly ground homemade coffee (“black as the devil, hot as hell … sweet as love”), followed by a well-made pastry-ish thing or two—chocolate éclairs more generous with the custard than the cream, or a big slice of fruit tart.

Of course, even if my byproduct thesis was true, supermarket pet food comes packed in aluminium foil and cans and plastic. It is also true that, if meat and dairy consumption were adjusted to sustainable levels—so that we were eating less of them in total, and using more of each animal—the byproducts wouldn’t feed as many pets, so here again, the Vales have a point. But whether the animal eats fresh offal and line-caught fish trimmings, or prime cuts of steak and tinned tuna, is bound to make a difference to its pawprint size—as Robert Vale does seem to acknowledge in the New Scientist, though it hasn’t been picked up.

The danger is that people write this off as a gimmick, or laughably unsustainable, if not downright offensive, when the problem is valid, and might have a valid solution.

Dogs and cats and humans have been friends for a long time —since Kipling—without wrecking the planet. Cats take care of rats in the barn and mice in the house for a bowl of leftover milk from the dairy. Dogs hunt down game, herd stock and guard the house for a meaty bone. We might not hunt or farm these days, but the unconditional love and loyalty (conditional only on the cupboard) supplied by a furry soul is comforting. Who finds that so often, that they can throw it away?

Declaration of interest: Claire Browning does not own a dog. She shares her house with some cats, and her garden with some chooks. It would be folly to kill the chooks, whose eggs are warm and brown and plentiful, for the sake of a bit of tough meat, and besides, they all have names. Only one of the cats dines on finely chopped steak and tinned tuna—or sometimes, a few morsels of free range chicken—but that is because she’s a little refugee, a little bit special, and ever so grateful for the kindness.