Who hasn't had the experience of receiving a Christmas gift that they didn't really want? An embarrassing reindeer sweater from Aunt Edna, a useless as-seen-on-TV gadget or a tacky tie are easy enough to return, re-gift or toss in the attic and forget. But when someone makes the mistake of giving a living, breathing, feeling animal as a "gift," the consequences can be disastrous.
In the days, weeks and months following the holidays, animal shelters across the country are flooded with animals who were given as "gifts," only to be tossed out like last year's fruitcake when the novelty wore off or when their guardians discovered that caring for rambunctious puppies and kittens is a full-time job.
One animal shelter in Texas reported a 25 percent increase in its population after the holidays as people gave up animals they had received as gifts. Most animal shelters are already bursting at the seams year-round with homeless animals. When the flood of surrendered animals hits after the holidays, shelter workers face the heartbreaking prospect of having to euthanize healthy, friendly, loving cats and dogs in order to make room for the newcomers.
Of course, many less fortunate animals don't end up in shelters, where they are safe, warm, fed, cared for and loved. Some people banish their dogs to a lonely life on a chain or in a cage in the backyard. Others hand their animals over to anyone who will take them, or they advertise them "free to a good home," putting their animals in danger of being used as bait by dogfighters, sold to a laboratory for experiments or even abused by cruel people. Still others simply dump unwanted animals on the streets or in the woods, where they are likely to starve, get hit by cars or freeze to death.
That's why if you're thinking about giving a furry friend as a gift this Christmas, it's vital to stick to the kind found in toy stores, not pet stores. Animals aren't like other gifts. They require lots of time, patience and money--all of which are scarce during the holidays. That cute puppy or kitten won't seem like much of a "present" after he chews up a priceless heirloom quilt, decides to use the Christmas tree as a fire hydrant, turns the house into a flea circus and racks up hundreds of dollars in vet bills.
Adding an animal companion to the family is an important decision that requires making a lifetime commitment to care for and spend time with an animal. A new puppy or kitten could be a part of the family for 15 years or longer, so it's important not to rush the decision and to find an animal who is a good match for his or her guardian's activity level, experience, abilities and personality.
If your loved one is prepared to make a lifelong commitment to a four-legged dependent and has plenty of time, money, patience and love to give, consider giving a "gift certificate" for an animal from a local shelter. That way, the recipient can decide which animal is best for them--and when. You'll be giving more than the gift of unconditional love and companionship--you'll also be giving the gift of life to a homeless animal.
Lindsay Pollard-Post is a research specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.HelpingAnimals.com.