Tag Archives: Socialization

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.

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Are Animal Crackers Vegan?

vintage-barnums

Note: Nabisco removed the cage imagery in 2018. See an updated essay on the continued problems with this design here.

Dating back to 1902, Barnum’s animal crackers have been an American classic for generations. The original boxes came with a string and cardboard wheels so that the bears, elephants, lions, and tigers painted behind bars could be carried about by children encouraged to take on the role of ringleader. The animals were often shown vicious, wild, exciting, and in need of control. The cages separating the consumer from the wild beasts within were necessary and clearly defined.

vegan-animal-crackersIn Our Children and Other Animals (2014), Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart argue that children’s toys, media, and other products are carefully constructed to capitalize on children’s interest in other animals, while also teaching them speciesism and dominance. To accomplish this, the violence inherent to speciesism is presented as unexceptional or erased altogether to the effect of normalizing human supremacy.

In support of this socialization process, the “wildness” of other animals may be emphasized to teach children that violent relationships with other animals is “natural,” as is human dominance. However, oppression is increasingly framed as consensual, rather than forced. This approach surfaces in Barnum’s packaging today.

Gone are the angry, caged animals requiring harsh control. Today’s box features sentimental images of animal families. This is a soft control. The bars become faint and fall into the background. Children can now imagine that the animals are there of their own will, their oppression desired and mutually beneficial. This ideology of consensual, happy, and willing participation is perhaps the most powerful in support of speciesism. It is not only circus animals who are reframed in this way, but other “zoo” animals. Over 50 species have been imprisoned in Barnum’s cardboard railroad cars since 1902.

barnums-animal-crackersSome of the newer special editions show no bar enclosure at all. The animals are still controlled, boxed or within a snow globe, but the child is encouraged to understand this control as benevolent.

lilly-crackers limited-edition-crackers

Are animal crackers vegan? While Nabisco’s recipe is free of animal ingredients, Cole & Stewart’s sociological analysis would suggest that consuming animal crackers is ritualistically anti-vegan, as it socializes speciesist sentiments and human supremacy in children. The work of vegan feminist Carol Adams supports this position, theorizing that Nonhuman Animals are routinely represented as willing, happy participants in order to repackage their consumption as something pleasurable, fun, and natural.

In the 1990s, Nabisco ran limited edition packaging that featured endangered species to raise awareness and funds, but even this intent to help was human-centered. Said the Nabisco product manager in a story with The New York Times:

What do people like about animal crackers? Biting off the heads! Our hope was that children will line them up, match them up with the names on the box, learn about them and then decapitate them.

barnum-crackers

 

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

 

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


This essay was originally published on the Animals & Society Institute’s Human-Animal Studies Images blog on December 3, 2016.

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A Month of Vegan Research: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan

Young boy holds hand on his mouth to stop eating

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



Barbara McDonald.  2000.  “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It.’  An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.”  Society & Animals 8 (1):  1-23.

In spite of a growing body of vegetarian literature, there remains a lack of information about how people learn to become vegan. Using qualitative methodology, this research identified a psycho- logical process of how people learn about and adopt veganism. Elements of the process include who I was, catalytic experiences, possible repression of information, an orientation to learn, the decision, learning about veganism, and acquiring a vegan world view. Noteworthy observations include individual and temporal variation in the use of logic and emotion, the centrality of reading, the repression and recollection of undesirable information, and the importance of two types of learning tasks to successful vegans.

moral-shocks-veganismWhy people go vegan (or don’t) is a hugely complex issue.  It can depend on one’s available networks, one’s history with institutional discrimination and colonization, or gender roles.  It might be thwarted by activist misconceptions, negative media, and the power of the state and industry elites. We may never be able to pinpoint an exact cause, but McDonald attempts to narrow things down by applying the scientific method with participant interviews.

What she finds is no surprise; everyone is different.  It seems that going vegan and rejecting speciesism requires a sort of resocialization, which is understandable given how thoroughly ingrained Nonhuman Animal exploitation is to every aspect of society.  Her findings support the theory that moral shocks are a major element in the decision to go vegan.  However, some people take time to think about the issues and learn more before eventually going vegan at a later time.

 
This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 21, 2013.


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

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

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