Public Space, Public Health

Governor Schwarzenegger (after five years, it still gives me the jibblies to write that) has proposed a 9% tax on veterinary services. Here’s some info from the fact sheet I received when we took Petey in for an eye infection:

In this weak economy, animal owners are already making tough choices. Adding sales tax to veterinary services will force owners to make difficult choices about the health and welfare of their pets.

• Pets are members of the family and an important source of companionship. This proposed tax could add approximately 9% to the cost of veterinary care. The result will be that many animals won’t get the medical care they need and they will be abandoned or euthanized.

• Shelter populations are increasing beyond capacity as many Californians lose their homes to foreclosure. If people can’t afford to take care of their pets, they may be forced to abandon them to shelters, adding to the overcrowding and financial strain.

• More than 800,000 cats and dogs enter California shelters every year at a cost to taxpayers of $275 million. As shelters become filled beyond capacity, more healthy animals will be euthanized adding to the emotional strain of shelter workers.

There’s more on the sheet, including information about food production animals.

I know there are more pressing issues out there right now, and I’ll admit that I feel a little guilty posting an action alert about the well-being of pets when the well-being of other animals (and, you know, humans) is under more severe attack. And a 9% tax, although high, isn’t the end of the world (says the middle-classer with a single, healthy cat).

But a tax like this says a lot about how people view both health care and animal welfare. We still seem to insist that a trip to the hospital is a product, akin to a new purse or car or TV, and a patient is a customer who can simply choose to forgo care if they don’t have the money. Animals are considered luxuries; if you want a pet, go for it, but it really should be a low priority. Even if everyone grants that animals like seeing eye dogs are necessary, it’s actually pretty revolutionary to think of animal companionship as a right instead of a privilege. What if you need a companion animal for your emotional health? What if you view animals as friends and family members with unique personalities? (Filthy hippie! Go back to Berkeley!) Is that dog still a frivolous luxury? Should that bird’s well-being be contingent on paying a tax? If humans shouldn’t be taxed on vital medical care, why should animals? Because humans are just better? Because humans can speak out against it?

So while this tax is a relatively small injustice, it has much broader implications for how we view the health of our animals.

Also, while these two situations are in no way on the same level, I think that if you take this mentality to its logical extreme, you end up in the camp that claims that basic rights like having children should be reserved for the middle class and up. If your job doesn’t pay you enough to take care of your dependent, then the problem doesn’t lie with your job – it lies with your stupid, selfish decision to care for a dependent. And there seems to be an arbitrary and invisible income line below which people simply lose the right to have families (whatever those families might consist of).

The official action alert is here.

**

Also, a mural on the face of the former Valley Cities JCC building is facing sandblasting. Here’s a photo from the Jewish Journal:


Image description: a building with a lively and detailed mural depicting children dancing, reproductions of old photographs, and human hands touching. The words “VALLEY CITIES JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER” are written across the top.

My grandmother died two years ago, and we held her memorial in this building. Sherman Oaks isn’t exactly the most happening city on earth, and when I approached the building on the day of the memorial, I was struck by the little oasis of art on a street that housed mainly strip malls and unadorned housing.

Again, it’s not the end of the world if this mural is destroyed. And the new owners of the building are certainly within their rights to change its appearance. Except, wait – don’t they have a responsibility to the larger community? If the residents of Sherman Oaks value the mural, if they derive pleasure from viewing it, if it’s a historical artifact (Yiddishkayt points out that it contains one of the view remaining public displays of written Yiddish in L.A.), then shouldn’t they have a say in whether it stays or goes? If residents of, say, gated communities have to comply with their neighbors’ aesthetic preferences by keeping their houses uniform, why doesn’t that logic apply here? Why are “tidy” adornments like lawns more desirable than “messy” adornments like art? Does it really all boil down to money and power, or are there deeper cultural forces at work here?

This is kind of a tangent, but this situation makes me think of public space. Who does public space (parks, medians, sidewalks, etc) belong to? The easy answer is a city – but who does a city belong to, if not its citizens? How many of you view public space as forbidden areas – places that you can look at and sometimes walk on, but aren’t allowed to alter? I’ve been reading up on the guerrilla gardening movement, which targets public space and uses it to grow food and other beneficial plants. Who gets to choose what grows on public land? Why do we feel like we have no right to the space in our own communities? Why does planting food alongside a sidewalk feel so subversive that guerrilla gardeners regularly do it in the middle of the night? (Interesting note: many gardeners report that city officials visit the sites – not to arrest them, but to thank them for their work.)

One possible argument is that, if everyone felt we had the right to use and alter public space, there’d be anarchy – people pulling up each other’s crops all over the place. And I’m sure some theft and vandalism would happen, but why is the fear of chaos so overwhelming that we don’t want to risk it? Why not tackle the underlying causes of crime instead of living in fear of it? And why tax my kitten for the misfortune of having a clogged tear duct?

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

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