The character flaws for which I deserve criticism are many. As a relatively new, relatively young farmer, criticism and its cousin, advice, solicited or not, are industry hazards that I must accept with whatever grace I can muster. I can tolerate criticism of my pig management from an older customer that “had a pig once as a kid” and tolerate the ubiquitous advice on corn and soy in feed from well intentioned customers who deserve praise for their knowledge of the issues and desire for a better system, but may be at a deficit when it comes to feed sourcing and pricing. Moreover, outside of these minor irritations, I regularly receive admonishment, both well intentioned and well deserved from habits ranging from my propensity for lateness to my insistence on doing things the “hard way” for as long as possible to the general disarray of both my house and the portion of my property not dedicated to farming. However, I will here now publicly defend myself against what I find to be one of the more surprising pieces of recurring criticism in my life: my practice of taking in stray dogs.
The number of stray dogs, whether escaped or dumped by owners, in our neck of the woods astonishes me. It is as if every person who has ever told a child that his or her beloved dog “went to live ona farm upstate” was dropped off on our road. To date, Claire and I have taken in about 12 of these (13 if you count city finds). In 2.5 years in Saulsbury, that amounts to one dog every three months. I discovered our first three, Australian cattle dog mixes that we called June, Loretta, and EmmieLou dumped in a culvert in the first few months of our arrival. Our most recent, Eddie, a yellow lab mix, left over Memorial Day weekend. During this period, we have come in for some unexpected criticism. These comments have ranged from the impractical (and potentially dangerous with all the deer around), “just look away” to the painfully obvious, “you can’t save them all.” Most of these criticisms have come at times where we sought to vent, sought financial help, or asked assistance in fostering (the latter two practices we’ve ceased completely at this point). I should stress that these were not offhand jokes, but contained a real dissatisfaction with our inability to pass on taking in a stray dog.
There’s a concept that I teach in ethics classes called the “Acts/Ommissions” distinction, which is way easier to understand than it sounds. A central problem of ethical theory is the question of whether we are as responsible for our actions as our failures to act. In philosophy we often illustrate this question with a type of hypothetical called a “trolley problem.” For example, you are (for some reason) taking a walk on a train track. You notice a train is barreling down the track towards a group of people. Youhappen to be near a switch. If you flip the switch it will divert the train onto a side track where there is only one person (or sometimes a car, but that’s not important right now). What should you do (no, you can’t shout at them, they can’t hear you. And yes, you are certain that things will work out this way)? Most folks say flip the switch. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” I quote from The Wrath of Khan after 90% of my students pick this option.
There is, of course, a way out. Maybe it’s important that I’m not driving the train. It’s not my fault that the train is speeding and there are folks on the track. If you are the one student that thinks this, you have made use of the Acts/Omissions distinction. That is, you think (quite plausibly) that we are not as responsible for our failures to act as we are for our actions themselves. Our aforementioned critics seem to make heavy use of this concept. It is, after all, not our fault these dogs have been dumped, lost, or escaped. Truly, we cannot afford the time or vet bills to care for these creatures. It is regrettable that they are sad and hungry. But, it is someone else’s responsibility.
As indicated by my predilection for intervening, I do not agree with this line of thinking. I know from experience there are three basic alternatives when there is a stray about that can be helped:
- Help it- accept the financial burden, the extra stress, and the mess in your house
- Leave it be- while there is a minute chance of another farmer taking this animal in, the most likely outcome will be a slow painful death from starvation or predation
- Kill it- This can be accomplished by weapon or by taking it to the local shelter
Option number two is the one that I simply cannot stomach. Wishful thinking aside, a stray dog’s most likely fate will be starvation or predation. I simply cannot abide a slow painful death for an animal. I fail to see how it makes sense to try to raise meat animals ethically, but fail to extend that humane treatment to a stray. Additionally, a hungry dog is highly likely to make a meal of your livestock (or someone else’s livestock) prior to its demise. Trust me, we lost 80 chickens in one afternoon to two stray dogs that were hungry enough to go through an electric fence.
What about option three? A quick death by an experienced hand is certainly preferable to a slow painful one withthe potential to cause the farmer problems in the meantime. It is often suggested that we ought to choose this option. Folks that encourage option number three have almost universally never shot a dog themselves. I have. For me, there is something cosmically wrong with this option. Maybe it’s 19,000-30,000 of domestication and co-evolution hardwired into me. Maybe, its coming in from the field to snuggle Lily, our bloodhound, on the couch and knowing that if we had been 15 minutes late picking her up when she wandered into our field, we could have found her murdering our chickens instead of asking if she could come live with us.
Perhaps we are unrealistic and naïve. Perhaps, we’ll overspend helping dogs and ruin our business. Our critics, after all, have been correct in many ways. We didn’t have the time. We didn’t have the money. But, we did it anyway.
And we’ll do it again.
 At the aforementioned 80 chicken massacre