fireworks…let’s just not.
It’s July 2nd, and as I write this, my dog has been a panicky, uber-stressed mess for the past forty-five minutes. It began when the sun went down and so many lovely humans in my neighborhood began setting off what he must only believe are world-destroying light bombs. Every once in a while, he stops for a brief second to sit, stare, and hyperventilate in my direction, as if to say, “Mom! Help! We’re definitely all going to die!” In fact, twice since I began typing those first few sentences, I’ve had to stop and comfort him – once when he worked himself up so much that he started reverse sneezing (if you’ve never seen a dog do this, it can be quite alarming) and again to get him more water after he anxiously gulped down an entire bowl (before barking and howling his way back to every window and portal in the house). His only priority right now is to protect us from these never-ending sky demons. And as his doggie-mom, I am helpless. I can try to put him in his wildly ineffective “Thundershirt”, I can blast music as an attempted distraction, I can put him in a human snuggle restraint (his favorite during a thunderstorm) – but he will undoubtedly remain convinced that tonight, we all shall perish. Short of drugging him (not really my style), he is inconsolable.
This painfully sad behavior will continue for the next few weeks, it seems, because a half-hour long community fireworks display is not acceptably celebratory anymore. It is now commonplace to “celebrate” Independence Day for the entirety of July by setting off explosions in one’s own backyard. And perhaps this was always the case, but I have simply become more aware of (and annoyed by) this practice since adopting Shorty five years ago. The truth is that I could handle him for thirty minutes during a firework show that happened to be within earshot. But we play this game for a few hours, every night, for what seems like a month – because grown adults want to see glittery sky-bursts of toxic chemicals right outside of their home.
Unfortunately, Shorty’s situation is better than many anxiety-ridden pups. He is safe, inside, with humans to provide him some reassurance, no matter how small. Often, the impact of fireworks on companion animals is far worse.
Companion Animal Overpopulation
We can’t explore this whole 4th of July weekend problem without first acknowledging dog and cat overpopulation.
To begin, we need to recognize that there are an estimated 70 million stray animals living in the U.S. at any given time. Yet, many humans apparently believe we need more. For-profit businesses, such as pet stores and independent breeders – and yes, I will group these businesses together, no matter how “responsible” you believe a breeder may be – continue to exploit animal reproductive capabilities for money. There is no denying the simple fact that these operations bring more animals into a world that already has an astounding surplus of adoptable companions. And don’t even get me started on the horror that is “puppy mills”, from which an estimated 2 million dogs are sold – either online or in pet stores – each year.
So of those 70 million strays or abandoned animals, the ASPCA reports that only about 7 million dogs and cats are able to enter shelters in the U.S. each year, and nearly 3 million of those are euthanized (over 1 million of those being dogs). This means that when we look at dogs alone, only about 35% of shelter dogs are adopted, while 31% are euthanized. And only 26% of lost dogs who enter shelters are eventually reunited with their humans.
A quick side note, from the vegan lens: Let’s look at the numbers again. Two million dogs are sold from puppy mills alone, and that’s not including dogs from breeders, and only a little over 1 million are euthanized in shelters each year. This means:
Dogs created and sold > Dogs who are killed in shelters
So pardon me if, when I find out a person has bought instead of adopted a dog, I cry a little inside as I quite literally imagine a smiling, healthy shelter dog who could have been someone’s most loyal pal being put to sleep for no other reason than that there wasn’t enough room for him.
The Impact of One Weekend
So how does this all relate to our fireworks dilemma? Many animal shelter employees and volunteers work their butts off for this cause every day, but it is easy to gather from the aforementioned statistics that they most certainly have their hands full. Most shelters are already at capacity. Unfortunately, high-kill shelters and pounds choose to euthanize animals deemed “unadoptable”, or those who have been there the longest, in order to make room for new strays or “owner surrenders” whom they believe may have a better chance at finding a home. Because of their euthanasia policies, even no-kill shelters must sometimes turn animals away if they don’t have the room, resources, or volunteers available to foster these abandoned animals.
And then comes 4th of July weekend. I’m sure you may have read the articles about dogs leaping fences, digging out of their yards, running into traffic, or even jumping out of two-story windows. And where do the luckiest of these escapees end up? Definitely not at your local pet store or even with your backyard breeder. They end up at shelters – with humans who share the goal of helping animals, not profiting off of them. On average, animal shelters see a 30-60% increase in lost companion animals during this time of year. One California shelter reports taking in about 250 dogs and cats by the morning of July 5th each year. And sadly, many of these furry friends do not find their way back home.
So it is no secret that animals react unpredictably to the abstract danger that fireworks present. But can’t we just take necessary precautions during this time of year to help “keep our animals safe” and out of overpopulated shelters? There are about a billion well-meaning infographics floating around right now. Microchip your dog. Close windows and doors. Play calming music. Create a safe haven for them to hide. Distract them with toys and treats. And my personal favorite: look up information about local firework displays and be prepared to keep animals inside during these times.
Okay. Sorry, but that is simply not going to work for me.
Because it is now July 3rd, and as I write this, the sun is still shining, and my dog has been periodically freaking out since noon, when the first fireworks were set off in my area. Our community firework display is not until tomorrow night around 9 o’clock. So I’d like to present an alternative solution.
Let’s Just Not
I mean, personally I could do without firework shows at all. Aside from companion animal issues, fireworks are also an environmental concern for human and non-human animals alike. And perhaps most ironically, these celebratory symbols of “freedom” can trigger PTSD in veterans, an experience that one veteran actually describes as an overwhelming “feeling of terror”.
But I am not even suggesting a complete halt on the participation in this deeply rooted tradition. Keep your planned fireworks show, and I will sit with my frantic pooch for those thirty minutes of intense and devastating fear until he calms down. Even veterans have said that they can best handle the whole firework situation if they know when and where it will be occurring.
But unexpectedly setting off fireworks in backyards at all hours of the day and night for weeks on end…can we just not?
On Entitled Freedom
Living as a vegan, I often pose the question, “Will this action cause the least harm?” Of course, the answer to this question regarding neighborhood fireworks is an overwhelming no. It will actually cause much unwarranted stress. Yet, people do it anyway.
And I think this speaks to a larger problem. And I think it’s related to freedom, the very thing we are all aiming to celebrate.
You see, the only reason I can see for shooting fireworks off in a backyard is pleasure. Because certainly, this action will do no good in the world. It helps no one and actually harms many. As evidenced by the above research, this action very obviously contributes to a variety of problems. But humans will do it because they believe they are entitled to this freedom. They will do it because they believe they are free to enjoy a few moments of fun, regardless of the consequences or effect on anyone else.
The same is true for humans who enjoy a plate of meat, or buy a dog instead of adopting. They want something. They can have it.
To me, freedom does not mean I am able to do whatever I choose, despite the impact of my actions. It does mean that I am free to educate myself with available information and make calculated decisions that reflect my morals. And for this freedom, I am grateful.
Like everyone, I am still a work in progress. But each day, I challenge myself to ask the simple yet important questions: Who/what might this harm? Is it worth it? And so, I challenge you to do the same.
Wishing everyone a safe and peaceful weekend.