In recent weeks, with the summer heat upon us, we have seen a disturbing upsurge in the number of cases of children and pets left in hot cars, sometimes with fatal consequences. Clearly, some folk need to be educated about the dire impact of extreme heat on young nervous systems. Many more probably just need better systems for jogging their own memories, so that they don't absent-mindedly drive off to the office, forgetting about the kid in the back seat whom they were supposed to drop off somewhere en route. Over the last few decades, all kinds of "safety" measures have been adopted in the automobile industry, many aimed at making that smartcar smarter than you are. Have they done more harm than good?

When I was a kid, cars didn't have lap-belts or shoulder-belts, let alone airbags. Air conditioning? Forget it! Interestingly enough, I did have a carseat, at least until I was about two or three. It hooked over the front seat, in the middle (yes, cars usually had bench-style seats in the front, so you could comfortably seat three people), where both my parents could keep an eye on me. The three older kids sat in the back, bickering over who had to sit in the middle over the big floor-bump. The doors did lock, but there was none of this instant locking business to keep children from escaping once the doors were closed. And in summer time, sans air-conditioning, we usually travelled with all the windows wide open, so a child who was so inclined could easily have escaped. I don't recall ever trying, though I did sometimes clamber over the front seat to get from the back into the front, or vice versa. And apparently I did once toss a pair of running shoes out an open window while we were barreling along some high-speed road or other. And yes, once I was about six or seven, I think I did sometimes get left in the car while mum or dad ran into the store to get something. The point is, I could easily escape if I wanted to.

In the first place, the car windows would be wide open. I wasn't strapped into a carseat by that age and I knew where the doorlocks and doorhandles were so I could easily get out of the car if I felt overheated or impatient. Not that I'm saying it's a good idea for a young child to get out of a car and wander around a busy parking lot, you understand! And of course, if we're talking about pets, most pets (Ikea monkeys notwithstanding) don't have the wherewithal to open car doors.

Then too, it was a more innocent time. Many people didn't bother locking their house doors during the day, let alone their cars. And there didn't seem to be the same hysteria about sexual abuse or abduction of children by strangers or noncustodial parents. Sure, I got the standard admonitions like "Don't talk to strangers." And as I was a rather literal-minded child, I'm sure a lot of kindly adults in the neighbourhood (who were still strangers to me) or salesclearks in shops were a bit bemused as to why I was so timid and fearful and often wouldn't even reply to a direct question! But nowadays, in this age of "helicopter parenting", is it possible that some folks are carrying perfectly normal apprehensiveness to paranoid extremes?

It doesn't help, of course, that parents are often parenting in a kind of fishbowl, always worrying that if they utter a harsh word to a child, or swat the kid on the bum after he's just trotted in front of a still-moving car, or if they've dressed the baby in a jacket that looks just a teensy bit too light-weight for a cold winter's day, that maybe someone will call Children's Aid on them and junior will be hustled off to a foster home and eventually adopted, whereupon they won't set eyes on him until he's twenty-one - if then!

So are cars and drivers and children in vehicles safer than they used to be? At least back then, people didn't talk on cell-phones or text while driving! The specific risks out there may vary a bit from one generation to the next, but I suppose they're always there and you just have to decide how great they are.
In today's blogcutter café, I'm going to tackle the question: Is pet ownership a right? Already I can almost hear your snorts of derision. But bear with me.

First, a brief aside. I'm using the term "pet-owner" as a kind of shorthand here. I'm well aware that we don't truly "own" another living creature.

Numerous studies suggest that pet ownership is THE most important factor in determining life satisfaction. Yes, more important than having good relationships with friends or family (of the human variety); more important than whether you have any life-threatening disease; certainly more important than how wealthy you are.

At the same time, many folk buy into the "deserving" vs. "undeserving" dichotomy when it comes to things like health care. Some feel that if you smoke heavily, or are an alcholic or drug addict, or otherwise engage in high-risk or self-destructive behaviour, you should pay higher health care premiums than if you do not do these things. Of course, private insurance agents do typically charge more in premiums for people in some of these categories. And don't get me started on some of this country's policies with respect to immigrants.

So given that pet ownership has such a positive effect on a person's mental health - in itself a benefit to society as a whole, before you even begin to factor in the reduction in the number of unwanted animals - would it not in a way make sense to offer lower insurance rates to people who have pets? Maybe even government-funded medicare should be extended to our four-legged friends? Perhaps it should be a violation of the human rights code for a landlord to refuse to rent to a pet-owner, for public and inter-city transit vehicles to disallow pets on board or for business-owners to refuse entry to people who arrive with their pets. Don't laugh - it's already become a human rights issue to disallow guide-dogs for the blind in such situations so if we're talking allergies here, it's just as possible to be allergic to a guide-dog as it is to some other kind of dog!

Part of the resistance to labelling pet ownership a "right" may be the way people tend to feel that "right" is the opposite of, say, "responsibility", or "privilege". And it ain't necessarily so. Pet ownership is DEFINITELY a responsibility. I'm not suggesting for one moment that someone who is unable or unwilling to properly look after an animal, or who (for example) has a somewhat erratic or itinerant lifestyle,
or whose environment is unsuitable (e.g. living in a small apartment with a large dog which needs lots of exercise), should embark upon inappropriate pet ownership. On the other hand, I'm not so sure financial considerations alone should necessarily preclude pet ownership. (For example, the Public Citizen in today's Ottawa Citizen dealt with a woman who had agreed to have her cat picked up by the Ottawa Humane Society for some urgent medical attention - if the OHS does decide to proceed with the treatment as opposed to euthanasia, the woman will not be allowed to have the cat back, even though it seems she has done nothing wrong and the cat is something of a lifeline for the housebound owner; it's all making me seriously reconsider my membership in and future donations to the OHS.)

As for "privilege", I'm also well aware that it's definitely a privilege to earn the affection and trust of a companion animal - something that can at times be an up-hill struggle, even for the most kindly and attentive of pet-owners.

As modern medicine becomes more sophisticated, it make sense to devote more time and energy to PREVENTATIVE measures rather than simply after-the-fact fancy pharmaceuticals and technologies. I say, let's start looking at pet ownership as proactive health care!

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