There is much to love about the holidays: the lights, the music, the traditions, the togetherness and, of course, the food. But there is one aspect that most of us dread: returning unwanted gifts. Not only is it inconvenient, there's just something sad about seeing the lines winding through stores on the day after Christmas and thinking of all those gifts being unceremoniously returned for cold, hard cash.
But there is another kind of after-holiday "return" that is far sadder. Every year, in the weeks and months following the holidays, animals who were given as "gifts" and are no longer wanted flood into animal shelters across the country. One shelter in Texas even reported that about a third of the animals who were adopted as "gifts" were returned to the shelter within three months.
As confusing and frightening as it is for animals to find themselves dropped off at a shelter, never to see their families again, dogs and cats who make it to a shelter are the lucky ones. They will have a warm and dry place to sleep, nutritious food, veterinary care, attention from staffers and volunteers and a chance to be adopted by someone who will love them for life -- not just for the holidays.
Many animals who are given as gifts or purchased on a whim aren't as fortunate. When their novelty wears off and their families tire of them, many are dumped on the streets or abandoned in wooded areas. Their days become a constant struggle to survive starvation, the elements, diseases, predators, traffic and other dangers, and few make it on their own for very long. Other animals are banished to backyards -- sentenced to a lifetime of blue Christmases in a lonely pen or on a rusty chain.
Unlike slippers or scarves, animals need our attention and care from the moment they come home. They need gentle, consistent and positive guidance to help them learn the "do's" and "don'ts" of their new surroundings. They need daily walks and playtime, even when we're busy or when the weather outside is frightful. They need their litterboxes scooped, their teeth brushed and their nails clipped. They need spaying or neutering, vaccinations and regular checkups. And they need someone who will love them, for better or for worse, for their whole lives -- which could be 15 years or more.
Even the kindest people can find themselves unprepared, overwhelmed and unable to care for an animal when all these responsibilities are unexpectedly foisted on them.
Many families also fall for the Christmas-card appeal of having a puppy or kitten under the tree, without fully considering the ramifications of taking home an animal during the holidays. All animals, especially puppies and kittens, require time, attention, patience and money -- all of which are in short supply during the holidays. Amid parties, shopping, traveling, hosting guests, cooking and all the other activities of the season, creating a calm atmosphere and consistent routine to help a new animal adjust to a home can be next to impossible. Families don't have time to bond with their newest member, and animals are bound to make mistakes -- and sometimes be unfairly punished for them -- because they don't know the rules or because their needs are not being met.
We may not be able to escape the return lines after Christmas, but we can avoid causing a holiday heartbreak by never surprising anyone with an animal and by waiting to adopt one for ourselves until after the holidays, when our routines have returned to normal and we can give our new family member all the attention, care and love that he or she deserves.