If the Internet loves anything, it’s cats. And dogs. Just animals in general, really. Pet lovers are so dedicated to their furry companions that sometimes they even go and create Facebook profiles for them or enroll them in their very own social petwork. Not that that’s OK … just that it is a real thing that real people do.
But sometimes social media’s animal adoration can take a disturbing turn. Some users are taking to Instagram to sell their animals. It’s gotten so bad that the platform is actually being lambasted for allowing this kind of consumer behavior to go on without notice – animal-rights campaign group Animal Aid reportedly called on the Facebook-owned Instagram to ban “careless slave trading” of animals, some of which are even sold for sacrificial killings.
It’s only natural that Instagram is turning into a place people advertise things they’re selling – the hashtag #forsale yields all sorts of results like clothing, shoes, and accessories, very much like the sort of ads you would find at eBay or Craigslist. However, with the sort of freedom that’s afforded to Internet users all over the world, you can almost expect people hoping to pass on ownership of their pets for a profit to become instantly aware of this easy opportunity to make a quick buck, especially when browsing Instagram for cute #puppy pictures gets so much traction. So is there any way to know whether an Instagram #kittenforsale is OK or not?
Animal rescuers versus the pet mills of Instagram
Jen Walker, Volunteer and Education Coordinator at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, believes that using social media to encourage pet adoption (which she says is the organization’s preferred method of changing pet ownership, as opposed to being bought and sold) has been very helpful. “Rescues, shelters, and private parties are able to reach much wider audiences through these venues,” says Walker. “[However], there is sometimes a danger of pets ending up in poor adoption matches or in downright bad homes through these venues as well if the person looking to place the pet is not diligent in finding out information about the potential adopter and comparing that to the pets’ needs.”
The latter is vehemently confirmed by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and their stance on purchasing pets online. “We absolutely do not condone it,” says Melanie Kahn, Senior Director of The HSUS’s Puppy Mills Campaign. “You don’t know the origin of the pet – anybody can place a beautiful-looking ad and it may not even be close to reality. We find that more often than not, the people selling pets online – particularly puppies – are selling dogs coming from puppy mill environments.”
According to The HSUS’s definition, a puppy mill is an inhumane commercial breeding facility, but just so you know what a puppy mill environment is really like, here’s an unfortunate picture painted by Kahn: Dogs are typically kept in small wire cages for their entire lives. They’re never let out and never walked. They’re simply there to churn out litter after litter of puppies so that their breeders can sell them to pet stores as well as online. When their fertility wanes, they are either discarded or killed. For female dogs, that’s usually when they’re about six or seven years old if they’ve been used to breed every heat cycle and they’re just given enough food and water to stay alive. It’s the worst environment you can possibly imagine for keeping a dog in.
It’s definitely a tough pill to swallow, that something seemingly harmless as a #dogsforsale hashtag on Instagram can be directly connected to the monstrosity described above, but according to Kahn, more often than not, it is.
Are Instagram pet shops legal?
The federal Animal Welfare Act instructs the Secretary of the USDA to regulate any entity that purchases or transports live animals in interstate commerce in order “(1) to insure that animals intended for use… as pets are provided humane care and treatment; (2) to assure humane treatment of animals during transportation in commerce; and (3) to protect the owners of animals from the theft of their animals by preventing the sale or use of animals which have been stolen.” The Act also states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly sell, buy, transport, or deliver to another person or receive from another person for purposes of transportation, in interstate or foreign commerce, any dog or other animal for purposes of having the dog or other animal participate in an animal fighting venture.”
“We are finding that more and more puppy mill operators are utilizing the Web as a mode of sale because it’s unregulated.”
To fight this ongoing battle of sorts, The HSUS advises people who are interested in bringing a pet into their home to consider adoption first from a shelter or rescue. Yes, the Internet is an easier route, and finding your new pet on Instagram is an adorable story – but the platform is unwittingly aiding things like puppy mills. If purchasing a pet is still preferred by the prospective owner, they are encouraged to buy only from a responsible breeder they’ve met in person who is willing and able to show them where the pets are born and raised. “At the end of the day, responsible breeders want to know where their puppies are going, and they will absolutely not sell one of their puppies online to someone that they’ve never met just because they provide credit card information,” says Kahn.
“A pet ought to be adopted, not sold,” says Walker. “But if you are looking to place your pet in a different home, online venues can help you reach a wider group of potential adopters. Screening becomes very difficult if the potential adopter is not local, though.”
Is social media really the place to find your next pet?
The thing about pets is there are many things to consider before acquiring one that are pretty hard to confirm over the Internet. For instance, more important than paperwork regarding breed and pedigree, how can you really ensure that the animal you’re getting has the necessary inoculations? Part of responsible pet ownership is making sure that your animal is healthy and well taken care of. This is especially hard to ascertain early in the process when all you have is the word of a complete stranger. Sure, there are ways of finding out once you get the pet in person, but that would’ve been too late.
Another problem with buying pets via Instagram or other online avenues is that, simply put, people are horrible and social sites often cater to the lowest common denominator. There’s a thing now called “pet flipping” wherein unsuspecting pets wandering the streets are picked up by random individuals, and instead of being returned to their rightful owners, the pets are advertised online and are sold to the highest bidder. How can you be sure that the animal you’re thinking of getting is not already someone else’s pet, who was lost but never found?
Kahn believes that people who are selling dogs and cats over the Internet and social apps purely for profit are not people who any consumer (and animal lover) would ever want to purchase a pet from to begin with – pet adoption and rescue is by far the most humane way to acquire a new animal friend. “The Internet is not regulated when it comes to pet sales – regardless of what guarantees are all over websites and what pictures you see, you don’t know where the animal is coming from – it is highly likely that those pets came from a puppy mill.”
There’s a big difference between using social media as a tool to find homes for homeless animals and using it as a tool to make money off of live animals. Walker and Kahn’s organizations both utilize the Internet as a means to educate people and raise awareness on important animal issues. It is no secret that more and more people use the Web as their leading source for anything and everything, so it only makes sense for animal-rights organizations, pet rescue shelters, and pet adoption agencies to use the online method at every available opportunity they get to try and get usable and relevant information out to their community.
So before you check out #kittentogoodhome on Instagram, maybe just hit up the Humane Society’s official account to get your Instagram animal fix without aiding the negligent channels out there that are taking advantage of our social media pet obsession and Instagram’s viral nature.