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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Jennifer Graham

‘Free’ comes with a price

Tragedy of ‘Puppy Doe’ highlights problem with giveaways on the Web

Katherine Streeter for the Boston Globe

CRAIG NEWMARK created his online classifieds to serve the public good, not to slaughter puppies by proxy. But to hear the outcry over the ghastly fate of Puppy Doe, you’d think the Craigslist founder is another Craigslist killer.

Thousands of people have signed online petitions calling for the website to stop advertising pets after a puppy obtained on Craigslist was found tortured in Quincy. “How many more times does this have to happen before Craigslist stops allowing people to give their pets away to strangers without any background checks or accountability?” asks one petition, started by a Boston-area woman.

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The answer is difficult, but essential: It will happen forever, as long as there are people who have no other way of disposing of unwanted items — including unwanted animals — than by letting strangers have them for nothing.

This is not because Newmark and his CEO, Jim Buckmaster, are insensitive to the horrors that can emerge when free (or nearly free) stuff is offered on a free website in a free society. In fact, they responded sorrowfully and appropriately on the Craigslist blog but pointed out that, when it comes to animal abuse, “direct rehoming via classifieds is a solution, not a problem.”

Buckmaster suggests that anyone trying to place pets via the site request a rehoming fee. This may not prevent animal abuse by any lottery winners, but should slow down the sadistic knuckle-draggers, the “Dexter” wannabes, who presumably have more malice than money.

For that matter, a rehoming fee — in creaky, old-fashioned parlance, a price — would be useful not just in protecting animals, but more generally in bringing some restraint into the world of Craigslist and Freecycle. A price tag serves as a pause button that overcomes the gluttonous euphoria of being surrounded by all this glorious free stuff in a secondhand society.

Want prefinished maple flooring? A 10-foot-by-10-foot woodshed? A full-grown Japanese maple tree? Come and get it. Buyer’s remorse has devolved into free-stuff remorse, in which something that looked so good on the side of the road looks progressively worse the closer you get to home, and by the time it’s installed in your living room, you finally understand why it was offered for free, and out to your curb it goes. A rehoming fee of, say, $50, would have saved you and your garbageman a world of trouble.

But for better or worse, we’re already three-quarters down the slope to where everything’s free — classifieds were just the beginning — and the land of the free is necessarily the home of the brave. It takes courage to be a denizen of Craigslist, like 60 million Americans are, making it a national exercise in trust, sort of like that team-building exercise where you fall backwards in the arms of a colleague, and hope he’s got strong arms and a good heart. All liberty is an exercise in precisely that kind of trust.

Therefore, Craigslist is populated by both ugly sofas and lovely ones; by animal lovers, and puppy abusers; by good-hearted people looking for love and cretins with families looking for affairs. It’s as perfect a website as we are a nation, which is to say, it’s not.

Yet like America itself, it can’t be judged only by what goes wrong. Users speak of the “Craigslist community,” and it’s generally a folksy, warm enterprise, a national garage sale that just happens to take place online. I’ve sold a saddle, a heater, and a utility trailer to perfectly nice people through Craigslist, even hired a baby sitter who turned into a friend. Falling backwards into the arms of strangers, no one’s dropped me yet.

This is why, despite horrific aberrations — such as the doomed puppy or the women robbed or murdered by Philip Markoff, the Craigslist killer — the site resists the periodic calls for drastic change. The Craigs of society are — not always, but most often — the kind of people you can trust with your furnishings, your children, your pets.

As I write, there’s a white dove, a python, and a family cat offered there, and we can worry about their fate until we’re all sick with dread. Or trust that there are more decent people among us than crazed psycho killers, and use sites like this to help us connect — and maybe even flush out animal abusers.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.

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