For Cate (and others in her place):

Last week the news on the pet food recall was grim. Among the stories of loss we shudder to read about came the “revelation” that more pets were affected than has likely been reported by the pet food companies. Then finally, on Friday, news out of the FDA of another toxin: melamine. Though its role is unclear, it plunges vets and owners ever deeper into the confusion provoked by the initial recall.

By Saturday, Menu Foods had received 300,000 complaints and the FDA tallied 8,000 reports. The owner-advocate organization,, had gathered almost three-thousand specific self-reported cases of death. And VIN (the Veterinary Information Network) had received over seven hundred a week ago—reported directly by the limited percentage of vets who are VIN members. And yet the death toll is still listed as a paltry sixteen.

Of course, all but the official sixteen are classified as “unconfirmed.” But, as is the case with VIN’s numbers, these are also the most obvious ones where owners have had the funds to pay for advanced care or seek euthanasia as a financial or humane alternative. True “confirmation” of cases is likely to take months (if lots of clinical information has been gathered before and after the event) and only if both vet and owner are proactive enough to seek justice in each specific instance.

My own sick patient is doing much better. After two weeks in hospital her creatinine is now down near normal and she feels so much better. The pet food company in question has agreed to foot the bill. But that doesn’t mean she’s numbered among the confirmed cases. Far from it. Her owner has a long way to go before she’ll get the justice she’s due. From my point of view, the vet bill is only restitution. Justice comes later when the dust settles and we can see clearly who did what and when they did it—and only if we all have the courage to demand it.

But I have a prediction: most cases will be almost impossible to confirm. And then they’ll get lost in the sticky human mire of grief, ignorance and frustration.

People will get discouraged. Or perhaps the payment from the food companies will satisfy them sufficiently that they might not seek legal means to achieve the justice they know they deserve—because they don’t know how to go about it or because it’s hard to get things done when people are feeling angry and hurt.

Their stories will no longer be in the media. And the loss of a pet has a short-lived shelf-life as far as most of the world is concerned. (“After all, there are people dying in Iraq and Darfur. Get real, it’s only a cat!”)

But justice is irreplaceable—whether we’re talking about your cat, your car or your brother’s life. Without it, we have no right to consider ours a civilized nation.

As a close family member of someone who was killed by a foreign government not long ago, I know well the stress of the crisis that comes after the loss. I see it as a completely distinct emergency, one that requires an almost complete dedication to the cause of justice—even from the beginning, as you’re grieving.

Can you imagine how sickening it must be to talk on the telephone with reporters and lawyers when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and die? It makes the anguish of loss almost surreal. And it inevitably makes justice that much less tenable.

Most people can’t move themselves to do what’s necessary to secure appropriate redress—for obvious human reasons—while those that can usually don’t know how to make things happen. And the learning curve on legal means of achieving justice against a big institutionalized player is steep, indeed, whether we’re talking about foreign governments or multi-national consumer product conglomerates.

In my experience, the issue of legal ignorance is the real problem. How do you keep an issue alive long after your cat is dead or has finally recovered? When your opponent is a powerful industry that wants this handled as quietly as possible and has the money to make that happen? When your friends and co-workers are starting to look at you like you need therapy more than justice? It’s not easy. I know. I’m not insensitive.

I was recently chastised for being careless to the feelings of those directly hurt by the pet food recall. (See my satiric piece on Dolittler’s Pet Food Recall Awards.) Though it’s my honest belief that the owners of affected pets need all the support we can give them, emotional support is perhaps the tiniest piece of what we can and should offer them.

Because those of us not directly affected have the luxury of being possessed of more dispassionate reason, we should take our role in this case as seriously as those seeking justice directly for their pets’ sake. After all, it could have happened to us. And if we care about living in a civilized world where individuals, corporations and countries, alike, are held accountable for their actions, then it’s as much our responsibility as it is theirs—more so perhaps, as we don’t have to push back tears as we do the necessary work.

Write to your State Veterinarian. Write to the FDA. Write to your local congressional representative. Write to your local newspaper. Check out PetConnection's list of to-do's. Call your friends if it helps but, whatever you do, don’t stop talking about the recall.

And, Cate, we really are truly sorry for what you’re going through. Moreover, I’m sorry if anything I said made you feel as if we didn’t care as much as we do.