More years ago than I care to count, there was a pet store in the Augusta Mall. I visited it many times, cooing over the cute, cuddly puppies on display in the glass wall of square enclosures and playing with the exotic birds perched in the back.
The puppies were all popular purebred varieties: Labs, Golden Retrievers, Boxers, German Shepherds, and tiny Chihuahuas, Poodles and Pugs. I wanted them all of course, but could never afford the price tag.
Years later, I learned the truth about the puppy mills and backyard breeders supplying the inventory for these stores. Mothers, or breeder dogs, forced to birth litter after litter of puppies, existed only to produce while living in horrible conditions, deprived of human contact or affection. Now, I know better, and I'm glad to have never contributed to the industry.
Instead, my pets originated from who-knows-where. Found roaming the streets or on my doorstep, I took them in, and though there was no price tag, they were treasured more than any possession ever could be.
One price I did pay though, in those early days of adulthood and pet ownership, was being ignorant about the importance of spaying and neutering. I thought that since my dogs were kept indoors, there was no cause for concern. My sweet, timid, spot-footed, mutt mix Bailey taught me different. Careful as I was about her outside time, one slip away from me resulted in a very unapproved hookup, and a few months later, saddled us with a litter of puppies.
Now, I know better. Bailey and her sister were spayed very soon after that hard-learned lesson, and every pet since has been sterilized as soon as their age permitted. And knowing what I do now about the incredible importance of pet sterilization to prevent unintended litters, which result in more homeless pets on the streets and in shelters, and needless euthanasia, I advocate for the cause to teach others to do better.
That pet store in the mall was eventually shut down amid cruelty to animals charges against several of its employees, and to my knowledge, outside of a few aquarium pet and bird shops, there are no "pet stores" in operation locally. Now, we know better, and as a community we are doing better through increased spaying and neutering, homeless pet adoption, and breeder research for those desiring purebred pets.
Last week, during the bitter cold weather, we were faced with another issue that begs us to do better. Two dogs were found in the backyard of an Aiken home after being left in the freezing elements without proper shelter or care. One suffered an assumed horrible death of starvation and cold. The other, though shivering cold, lived and is now being cared for by the SPCA Albrecht Center.
A day later, two more dogs were found by authorities in a neighboring county, also tied up in the cold with little to no shelter. Thankfully, they survived somehow and are also under the care of the SPCA.
Protecting our pets from the elements, sickness and danger comes as common sense to animal lovers and those of us who work in animal welfare. We would never let something like this happen to one of our own pets.
But what about the people who don't know better? While some of them may not care enough to want to do better, there are many who simply don't know of a better, more humane way. It is up to us who do know better to be advocates and protectors for the pets in these situations.
How? Start with education. Teach unaware pet owners who are open to learning how to treat animals more humanely. Show them what proper shelter looks like, and why life on a chain is never a good life. Point them toward affordable veterinary care and resources for training and behavior help.
And for the people who are not open to learning, stand up and speak out for the pets. Don't turn a blind eye and assume that someone else will help. If you witness animal neglect or abuse of any kind, call your local animal control or public safety department. In the City of Aiken, that number is 803-642-7620. In Aiken County, call 803-642-1537.
It's up to us that know better, to do better for all animals.
Sarah Neikam is the Marketing Director for the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. She is an Aiken native and has been with the SPCA since 2012. Sarah's family includes three adopted cats: Bastian, Luna and Grady, who are all living happy, loved lives thanks to the efforts of the SPCA.