Tag Archives: Companion Animals

Is It Ethical to Keep Pets?

According to the UK veterinary charity The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), half of Britons own a pet. In the US, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports the same. Many of these owners view the millions of birds, cats, dogs, rabbits and other Nonhuman Animals sharing their homes as family members. Although we love them, care for them, celebrate their birthdays and mourn them when they pass, is it ethical to keep pets in the first place? Some activists and ethicists, myself included, would argue that it is not.

Pet-keeping as a Social Injustice

The institution of pet-keeping is fundamentally unjust as it involves the manipulation of Nonhuman Animals’ bodies, behaviours, and emotional lives. For centuries, companion animal bodies (particularly that of dogs, horses and rabbits) have been shaped to suit human fashions and fancies, often causing these animals considerable physical harm. Particular breeds, for instance, are highly susceptible to painful and frequently fatal genetic defects, while highly prized physical features (such as small stature or pushed-in noses) can cause discomfort and difficulty in breathing, birthing, and other normal functions.

Even those Nonhuman Animals who are not purpose-bred often face bodily manipulations which impede on their comfort and safety, such as confining clothing, painful leashes which pull at the throat, docked tails and ears, and declawing (which entails the severing of the first digit of each toe in cats). Nonhuman Animals confined as pets are also constrained in their daily movements, sometimes crated or caged, oftentimes restricted indoors, and always at the whims of human desires.

Pets also symbolically reinforce the notion that vulnerable groups can be owned and fully controlled for the pleasure and convenience of more privileged powerful groups. This has implications for vulnerable human groups as well. For instance, sexism is partially maintained by treating women linguistically as pets (‘kitten’, ‘bunny’) and physically by confining them to the home to please and serve the family patriarch. Social workers also recognize the powerful link between pet abuse and the abuse of children and women in domestic settings. The notion that it is acceptable to manipulate the bodies and minds of a vulnerable group to suit the interests of more privileged groups, in other words, is consistent with the cultural logic of oppression.

Companion Animals Cannot Consent

Through the forced dependency of domestication and pet-keeping, the lives of companion animals are almost completely controlled by humans. They can be terminated at any time for the most trivial of reasons including behavioural ‘problems’, simply belonging to a stereotyped breed or the owner’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for veterinary treatment.
In the mid-20th century, sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of a total institution as one in which inhabitants are cut off from wider society under a single authority in an enclosed social space in which natural barriers between social spheres artificially eliminated and an intense socialization process takes place to ensure that inmates conform.

Sociologists typically study prisons, asylums, and other physical spaces as examples, but I argue that pet-keeping constitutes a sort of dispersed total institution whereby Nonhuman Animals are unnaturally forced under human authority, restrained, and resocialized. True consent is not possible under such conditions; Nonhuman Animals are groomed to participate and those who are likely to be punished (sometimes fatally).

This is not in any way to suggest that dogs, cats, and other species cannot express love and happiness as ‘pets’, but it is important to recognize that their complacency within the institution of pet-keeping is entirely manufactured (sometimes quite cruelly) by humans through behaviour ‘corrections’ and through the manipulative process of domestication itself.

A World without Pets?

Some companion animal advocates, such as Nathan Winograd, the director of the US based No Kill Advocacy Center, argue that to stop keeping pets altogether would be a violation of Nonhuman Animals’ right to exist. Winograd believes the widespread killing of healthy companion animals can be curbed through a restructuring of the sheltering industry. He rejects the need to end pet-keeping given the abundance of humanity’s capacity for compassion and adoption.

To his credit, Winograd’s pro-pet position reflects the No Kill movement’s strong disapproval of Nonhuman Animal rights organizations such as PETA which frequently support ‘euthanasia’ policies to curb pet populations. If a no kill society is reached, however, many of the ethical violations previously discussed (bodily manipulation, non-consensual confinement, enforced dependency, and vulnerability to human abuse) would remain even if, as Winograd supposes, increasing legal protections could be obtained to improve their standard of living.

In short, companion animals, by their very position in the social order, are not and cannot be equals. The institution of pet-keeping maintains a social hierarchy which privileges humans and positions all others as objects of lower importance whose right to existence depends wholly on their potential to benefit humans. That said, the population of dogs, cats, rabbits, and other domesticated ‘pet’ animals currently rivals that of humans such that they are likely to remain a consistent feature of human social life.

Although I suggest that it may not be ethical to pursue the future breeding of Nonhuman Animals for human comfort, humans do have a duty to serve, protect, and care for them. Recognizing the inherent inequality in human/nonhuman relations will be vital in making the best of an imperfect situation.
This essay originally appeared in The Conversation on April 25, 2019.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

Comments Off on Is It Ethical to Keep Pets?

Filed under Essays

A Month of Vegan Research: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation

pet-overpopulation

The following literature review is part of a series for World Vegan Month. Other essays can be accessed by visiting the essays catalog.


 

Nathan Winograd.  2007.  Redemption:  The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.  Almaden Books.

winograd

I first learned of Nathan Winograd’s work from a Vegan Freaks Radio interview many years ago.  Like most, I had been indoctrinated with the “common sense” of “euthanasia.”  Too many dogs and cats, not enough homes, what else can be done?

Well, a lot, actually.  Redemption demonstrates that “overpopulation” is a misnomer.  The problem is not a lack of homes, the problem is shelter management.  Bureaucracy and out-dated procedures have created a pathway dependency. There is an ethos of, “This is how it has always been done; this is how it will continue to be done.” Change is perceived as “risky” or otherwise unattractive.

Winograd outlines a practical solution to “overpopulation,” including working to make shelters more inviting to the public (instead of sad houses of death that we all avoid because we don’t want to feel sad and guilty), lengthening hours of operation, emphasizing adoption, and coming up with creative solutions to overcrowding.

My own personal experiences with shelters exemplify this irrationality. One of my cats once went missing in Fort Collins, Colorado (one of the biggest cities in the state).  The shelter would not allow citizens to phone in to check to see if their companion was there and its online records were not kept up to date.  I had to get up very early before work and drive 30 minutes into the prairie to the outskirts of town, only to find out that the shelter didn’t open until 11 A.M. I had to drive 30 minutes back home, then repeat the procedure after work.

Having previously volunteered at the shelter, I also knew that unclaimed animals were put on the kill list after five days.

Redemption asks readers to consider how these structural issues could be altered for efficiency. Lives would be saved if this shelter was located where people could easily access it, accepted phone calls about missing animals, had an updated online listing, was open during regular hours, and housed animals long enough to give them a legitimate chance for rescue or adoption.

Redemption is an “Ah ha!” book the challenges speciesist ideologies that we’ve taken for granted as true and necessary.  For that matter, PETA can’t stand him, often labeling him a radical–so you know he must be on to something!  You can also sign up for his newsletter and follow him on Twitter and Facebook for more information.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about the Nonhuman Animal rights industrial complex and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 25, 2013.

Comments Off on A Month of Vegan Research: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation

Filed under Essays

Rebuilding and Reusing Rescue Dogs

Rebuilding Dogs

Anti-speciesism theorist Norm Phelps once noted that cat and dog “overpopulation” is a product of capitalism. That is, human society breeds these animals as designer products for purchase. The capitalist system relies on constant production and consumption. Regular disposal to accommodate these requirements is the unfortunate consequence of a capitalist system working as it should be. “Shelters,” then, become the landfill at the end of this production line, artificially sustaining this ultimately unsustainable consumer system.

I have noticed that many well-meaning rescue programs designed to intervene in this system to save lives also run on some rather problematic pro-capitalist ideologies (the Australian show “Give a Dog a Home” is especially relevant here).

First, these are reform-focused social services, and thus do little to challenge the system as it is. The companion animal production line churns on, while rescuers at the end of the line scramble to save the discards.

Second, survivors are extremely vulnerable, as they are frequently valued primarily in their utility to humans. Take many rescue shows, for instance, which boast their ability to “rebuild” “discarded” animals who were “tossed on the scrap heap” and make them useful, working animals. They may be assigned as “truffle dogs,” personal assistants, or entertainers trained to perform demeaning tricks on command. All of this “work” is unpaid and forced without consent, of course.

These survivors are framed as grateful to be both alive and “useful,” and no one questions the system that created their violent circumstances in the first place. Nor can anyone seem to imagine a future where other animals have a right to life independent of human wants. In this way, rescue animals remain products in a pro-capitalist system. To me, these programs are disturbingly similar to “trash-to-treasure” home makeover shows.

Why not allow cats and dogs to exist (in the words of animal law scholar Lee hall) on their own terms? Only in a capitalist society is one’s right to exist wholly dependent upon one’s productivity in the economy. This is a fundamentally problematic and unjust approach. Switching out designer dogs for “shabby chic” mutts and reject pure-breds who have been successfully “retrained” supports a post-speciesist ideology. Our goal should not be to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” Nonhuman Animals, but rather to liberate them from systems of human oppression.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the problems of vegan capitalism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

Comments Off on Rebuilding and Reusing Rescue Dogs

Filed under Essays