What do you do when your TV, microwave oven or vacuum cleaner breaks? Do you take it to be fixed or do you spring for another one? Even if the repair costs only a couple bucks most people will justify buying a new one. ‘The TV/toaster/vacuum cleaner is getting old, it’ll probably break again soon, so we might as well buy a new one before we drop more money on the old one.’
Some call that “planned obsolescence,” which is where the manufacturer builds the item in question with the intent, the plan, that it will break down within a short period of time. Part of that planned obsolescence is that the item is relatively low priced to begin with, so that the pain of buying a new one isn’t such that the person will hold off springing for the new thing. That’s why some folks think microwaves are comparatively cheap. When they first came out, they were pretty expensive. Today you can get one with more power than the first microwaves for literally a quarter of the price of those original machines.
Is there such a thing as planned obsolescence? I don’t know. I doubt it. If the companies in question were ever shown to have produced stuff with the idea that they’ll break or wear out within a short period of time so that more of those things could be sold, those companies wouldn’t be around for long. The push-back against them would be too strong to survive. The reason things get cheaper over time is that we’ve gotten more efficient. Using microwaves as an example again, they’re cheaper because the underlying technology has gotten cheaper: it’s no longer novel, it’s accessible and more people understand it and can work with that technology. Also, the microwaves are built with cheaper labor. All that leads to cheaper machines. But the point is that we as a culture have gotten used to the idea of getting rid of things when they are no longer quite perfect, when there’s something wrong – even when that problem is an easy, cheap fix – because a new item (TV, microwave, vacuum cleaner) is relatively cheap.
The sad reality is that this attitude has carried over into many segments of our society and in all aspects of our lives. Companies will lay off long term workers in favor of younger workers because those younger workers earn less. Alternatively, the younger applicants will get the nod over the older ones because the younger ones will be thought to be trainable and, again, cost less. It’s not right but it’s the way it is. But the truly sad thing is that animals seem to have become part of that throw-away culture. And the form that takes is heart rending, frustrating and, in the end, infuriating.
A few years ago, I saw an orange cat dashing out of my house on a fairly regular basis. My former cat, Annie, was a nervous sort and wanted the back door open during the day. She’d only go outside first thing in the morning, roll around for about 15 seconds, then come dashing in for her favorite part of the day: feeding time. But the door stayed open for her. I work out of my home, so it’s not a safety issue. Be that as it may, this orange cat would sneak in, grab some food and when either Annie or I came near, out he’d run.
Annie seemed to be afraid of this other cat, hissing every time he came into the house and she wasn’t sleeping. After a while, she seemed to tolerate him but he was never a part of the family. She would get upset – visibly upset, hissing and puffing out, fur on end – when he’d come into the house and she saw him. I’d chase him away, wondering where his people were that this cat would be hanging around, eating my cat’s food (her favorite pastime was being served her meals).
While jogging through the neighborhood, I saw this other cat around the neighborhood, hanging out in front of a rental house where some college students lived. I thought ‘oh, so he just comes by for some extra food.’ Thinking he was getting regular food, I wasn’t as troubled by chasing him off.
Well, something changed. He started hanging out more, sleeping in our herb garden, sneaking more of her food more often. He was still pretty skittish, running off whenever he saw or heard me. I wondered what had happened and why he was hanging out as much as he was. Why wasn’t he with the students?
So I made a point of looking for his house while jogging. The students had moved and, apparently, left him behind. He wasn’t a stray, he had been abandoned. Essentially thrown away, like the broken TV, microwave, or vacuum cleaner. That put a different light on things. After that, I didn’t get as annoyed when he’d sneak Annie’s food and stopped chasing him off. He was still cautious around me, but a little less fearful.
A couple of days after Annie lost her fight with cancer, I was in the backyard and saw this orange cat. He had taken to sleeping on an old chair we had on our patio, a chair that had a towel and other things that he made a nest out of. He started to run from me, but I called to him, softly and gently so he wouldn’t run. I petted him. That became my therapy for my loss; nothing would replace Annie but touching another cat helped.
I had to wash my hands every time I petted him because he had something on his fur that irritated my skin. After a few days of short petting sessions, he started looking for me at the door. I’d go out and sit with him and, after a few days, he started to climb into my lap and fall asleep – yes, while I was in my backyard. Understand this happened in August, so it was pretty warm, but this cat wanted or needed to sit in my lap.
Ever so slowly, he came to trust me more and even sneaked into the house to sleep. We had some late summer storms, and he ran into the garage to hide from the lightning, thunder and rain. Eventually, he started sleeping in the house, on a chair I had by the back door. He wasn’t very obtrusive, he kept to himself, accepted what little attention I gave him and was content. I noticed also that he started to take better care of himself, for example, cleaning himself more frequently. That was really appreciated because it meant I didn’t have to wash myself within seconds of finishing petting him; whatever he had on his fur he’d cleaned away.
Over time he insinuated himself into the house and is now part of the family. His favorite thing (other than mealtime) is to sit on my lap and sleep. He’ll do that for hours. He gets agitated when I don’t come out of my office in time for “our” lap sessions. He’s a really cool cat too: he’s calm and good-natured, and doesn’t get angry or upset when I move him from the couch or my lap. It takes a lot to get him upset.
But, perhaps because of the throw away culture we have, the college students felt okay leaving him behind. They’d taken the time to raise him to adulthood, helped him mature into the calm, content animal he is but just *left* him when they moved, graduated, whatever. They didn’t seek him out, try to take him with or even take him to the Humane Society (we have a no-kill shelter so he wouldn’t have been put down).
This cat was perceived as disposable. And as a culture we encourage that.
We will be judged by how we treat the least of us. That’s true, whether we’re talking about our military veterans (we treat them really badly), the elderly (cut Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security, anyone?), children (how often do we hear of abused children put into our foster care ‘system’?) and, yes, animals.
We have an obligation to those who are least able to take care of themselves. Those who serve in the military deserve more than our thanks; we owe them more than we can ever repay. Our elderly helped make this country what it is, worked all their lives, and thought they’d be provided with some minimal level of health care and financial security that they paid for whilst working. We owe them as well. The children are our future. You have children, you take care of them. Period.
And when we take an animal in, we’re responsible for that animal for its entire life. They depend on us, rely on us, need us. They can’t really take care of themselves if we don’t. They’re not like a broken TV, microwave oven or vacuum cleaner.
They’re living, breathing, sentient creatures. They’re not disposable.