Should we stop keeping pets?
August 3, 2017 8:45 PM   Subscribe

It was a Tupperware tub of live baby rats that made Dr Jessica Pierce start to question the idea of pet ownership. She was at her local branch of PetSmart, a pet store chain in the US, buying crickets for her daughter’s gecko. The baby rats, squeaking in their plastic container, were brought in by a man she believed was offering to sell them to the store as pets or as food for the resident snakes. She didn’t ask. But Pierce, a bioethicist, was troubled.
Pierce went on to write Run, Spot, Run, which outlines the case against pet ownership, in 2015. From the animals that become dog and cat food and the puppy farms churning out increasingly unhealthy purebred canines, to the goldfish sold by the bag and the crickets by the box, pet ownership is problematic because it denies animals the right of self-determination. Ultimately, we bring them into our lives because we want them, then we dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs.

Treating animals as commodities isn’t new or shocking; humans have been meat-eaters and animal-skin-wearers for millennia. However, this is at odds with how we say we feel about our pets. The British pet industry is worth about £10.6bn; Americans spent more than $66bn (£50bn) on their pets in 2016. A survey earlier this year found that many British pet owners love their pet more than they love their partner (12%), their children (9%) or their best friend (24%). According to another study, 90% of pet-owning Britons think of their pet as a member of their family, with 16% listing their animals in the 2011 census.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (95 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have felt uncomfortable around the idea of pet ownership for a while and been unable to quite articulate why. The deprivation of self-determination does strongly resonate with me; it's just not clear to me that we can really provide a meaningful life for an intelligent pet like a dog or a cat. We create an artificial environment where we have to take care of all of the animal's needs, because they don't have a way to take care of themselves. And the animals we most commonly take as pets are animals that die before we do, so you don't have to worry about outliving your pet and leaving them homeless, heaven forbid.

Now, neighborhood pets have always struck me as an interesting concept; I can get behind dogs and cats that happen to live around humans.
posted by LSK at 9:04 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]


It's pretty clear to me that cats and dogs have been living with humans both by choice and by adoption long enough for the animals to have evolved an affinity with humans. It's not universal for either cats or dogs, but it does seem obvious that these animals are pretty happy living with us if we are good owners.

And you'd be surprised how much autonomy our cats display. Perhaps not in food choice, but in demanding to be fed, demanding to be let outside, demanding to be petted... And if I try to decide when these things should happen, they either put on a tolerant face or they refuse to participate.
posted by hippybear at 9:13 PM on August 3 [57 favorites]


Also, yes in food choice. They've entirely refused to eat some things I've bought for them. They're quite clear about their opinions about things in their life.
posted by hippybear at 9:18 PM on August 3 [9 favorites]


I'm with hippybear on this. I feel like this line could apply to either my cat or to me:

"Ultimately, we bring them into our lives because we want them, then we dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs."
posted by Balna Watya at 9:22 PM on August 3 [4 favorites]


>we bring them into our lives because we want them, then we dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs.

This describes humans, too, for the most part--at least until adulthood, when you're free to reject everything about your culture and upbringing and invent wild new modes of behavior, but that turns out to be more self-determination than most people want. Not one living thing on Earth volunteered for the condition; we all got stuck with it. And you can wring your hands about Who Among Us Is Truly Free if you're inclined to, but... get a dog and observe the dog for a while. Most dogs seem happier than most people, not least because they don't appear to worry about shit like that.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 9:22 PM on August 3 [34 favorites]


Ah, hippybear, "demanding to be let outside", is essentially a food choice.

For a small video project I was sent off to pick up some pigeons from a friend of a friend who worked at the local well respected zoo with quite an excellent reputation for natural habitat. They had traps to safely capture the little flying rats. Cool to walk 'backstage' in the bird exhibit that I'd seen often, birds are so beautiful. Passing a work bench with the zookeeper I asked about a bunch of baby birds warming under a lamp, what exhibit would they be going to? She said quite offhand "they're food".

Well we'll be causing a eco-disaster soon clearing out the moralistic dominant species and all the rest of the beasties that survive will be able to get along happily eating whatever smaller fuzzy is too slow that day.

Or perhaps tech will be successful germinating the Singularity that is as far above us as we are intellectually 'above' roaches. We should try hard to code an AI that relates to us more like we do to puppies than, well house flies.
posted by sammyo at 9:23 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]


And for cats, I think the situation is (at least for now) ethically simplified by the current population issues.

Basically --- every cat that goes to a shelter (at least where I live) is neutered/spayed and adopted if at all possible. No one is really breeding cats or creating cats specifically for pets. And still a huge number of cats are euthanized.

So the choice for cats is: become a pet or die. There is no way for the pet population of cats to survive on its own in North America, and the pet population comes from un-neutered cats (both people who take in kittens privately and never get them fixed, and strays --- a cat can have 3 or 4 litters per year, so a single un-spayed female can produce tens of cats a year).

As long as we have the situation of crowded shelters where people are adopting neutered/spayed pets, it seems fairly straightforwardly better for them to be adopted than euthanized.

If spay/neuter was so successful that cats only existed through purposeful breeding for pet ownership maybe we could have a discussion about the ethics of that, but that goal (which the shelter group I work with an others would LOVE to see) is far off.
posted by thefoxgod at 9:27 PM on August 3 [24 favorites]


Ah, hippybear, "demanding to be let outside", is essentially a food choice.


Ah, what I didn't mention is that we don't let our cats run free. Both of them are leash trained and wear harnesses full time because they go out on a leash and lead area in our backyard and no further. They have a pretty large area to roam with bushes to lie under and we've only ever known of one caught bird during the many years we've had these cats.

Also, my girl cat will demand to go for walks around the block, which she does very much like a dog, which is weird because cats aren't really built for walking that far all at once. But hey, she likes it, we help her get to do it.

The boy cat mostly wants to lie on the front stoop on his leash surveying his domain because all that he can see he is certain is his.
posted by hippybear at 9:28 PM on August 3 [19 favorites]


(OK, its not literally true that no one is breeding cats, but the highest figure I've seen for cats from breeders in the US is 5%, and in states like California where buying cats from breeders is more difficult / less common I'm pretty sure its well below that)
posted by thefoxgod at 9:29 PM on August 3


So, how do the bioethicists feel about genetic manipulation? Cool with that are we?

Pets are the one and only link that many people have with nature. Our whole culture despises other life forms as inferior. It is contemptible that people focus on pet ownership rather than on the myriad ways mankind inflicts deliberate harm on our fellow creatures on a daily basis.
posted by No Robots at 9:32 PM on August 3 [17 favorites]


I noticed an odd box in a small vacant area between a gas station and a boat yard. The boat guys told me it was a crazy lady "harvesting" feral-cat kittens for profit. Hey isn't this "celebrate small business week"?
posted by sammyo at 9:35 PM on August 3


We've bred dogs to be permanent puppies, never ready to take on the adult responsibilities of a full-grown wolf. That complicates the relationship. It's not an equal contract between Homo economicus and Canis economicus. It's a patron-client relationship, something that always makes emotions and decisions complicated.
posted by clawsoon at 9:39 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]


What exactly are the adult responsibilities of a full-grown wolf who has for many multiples of generations of adaptation chosen to (generally) and learned to thrive with the intelligent monkeys?

Also, the intelligent monkeys welcome the adapted full-grown wolves into their sphere.

We've bred dogs to be a lot of things, many of them for purposes lost to history and instead increasingly magnified through intensive breeding. And that's another conversation altogether, not for this thread.

But when you get down to the basic dog, contained even in a highly specialized breed... They traded being a wolf for being with people.

Caveat: I actually know someone who has a pet wolf. He's not a dog, not at all. But he's okay with me because his pack leader told him to be, so yay.
posted by hippybear at 9:45 PM on August 3 [6 favorites]


And the animals we most commonly take as pets are animals that die before we do, so you don't have to worry about outliving your pet and leaving them homeless, heaven forbid.

I'm with you in general, but I don't think that specific point is quite right. It's just that very few animals live as long as we do. Two of the rare exceptions - parrots and tortoises - are actually fairly traditional, common pets.
posted by Segundus at 9:46 PM on August 3 [3 favorites]


So the choice for cats is: become a pet or die.

I think the argument that's being made is that it is better for animals to die Free than live as pets. I personally think this is an oversimplification of the situation and there has to be an ethical allowance for the co-evolution of our species toward domestication.

But it's an interesting oversimplification. I believe my cat is happy, I believe my cat is being cared for in the best, safest way possible, in fact I know it. I believe when I prevent her from doing certain things, it's for her own safety. I believe that her best option in life, as an unintelligent being who isn't adapted to succeed (as I define it) in the real world, is to live for my pleasure in my home with the comforts I have decided she needs to be healthy and happy. Because urinating and shitting on furniture and scratching up the drapes damage the environment I've chosen for her, I have instituted discipline to alter her natural innate behavior.

These are all ideas that were also used to justify slavery, by people who would have been horrified to be accused of being a bad slave owner.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:49 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]


I do think my cats should eat more ethically than they do; I think I should eat more ethically than I do. I have so many spoons, and it is not presently on the list of things I can deal with, especially when one of them has special dietary needs. I can kind of see it being all or nothing. I'm okay with animals being less than people because I can believe they can have less value than me but still have value; I don't see it as black and white. It's not all the rights or none of the rights.

I feel like people who think pets need the "freedom" of reproductive choices they are incapable of actually making do not actually have much exposure to what that world looks like. I've kept rodents; I like them and I don't want to see them being food, but I'm ethically okay with being food because I have a realistic notion that they are not people. I've seen how feral cats live--and die--even when they are not being abused or living in places that should be inhospitable to cats. No. Just... no.

We can love and care for things that are not human without according them all the rights and privileges of personhood. Animals which lack the ability to make complex decisions are not being oppressed by losing self-determination. We don't even give that to children, and we're supposed to be concerned with the ethics of denying it to crickets? Adult people need more freedom and self-determination. My cats need dinner.
posted by Sequence at 9:50 PM on August 3 [40 favorites]


Although Pierce and Francione agree that pet ownership is wrong, both of them have pets: Pierce has two dogs and a cat; Francione has six rescue dogs, whom he considers “refugees”.
Okay then.

And to be a little less flip in dismissing most of this - I do think it's worth considering how we treat our animals, but I don't think the answer is an end to pet ownership simply because there aren't a lot of non-catastrophic alternatives, and as No Robots rightly points out, pets are one of the few ways people learn to have any connection to, (and empathy for), the natural world. Dropping that feels like a really bad idea.

I think it's maybe better to focus a discussion like this on 'what can we do to reduce harm done to animals in our care?' instead of 'how can we stop having animals in our lives?'

(Not to mention that the barn door's open on a lot of this. Dogs were domesticated... what, 15K+ years ago?)

Upon preview:
We can love and care for things that are not human without according them all the rights and privileges of personhood.

I could use the ability to throw more than one favorite at this sentiment.
posted by mordax at 9:53 PM on August 3 [12 favorites]


Our elderly, indoor only cat does appear to be quite satisfied with her lot in life. Lately, we've taken to just leaving doors and windows open because she can't be bothered to leave. She is truly a House cat and certainly the field cats that hiss back and forth with her through the window despise her for being a sell out.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:54 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]


Dogs were domesticated... what, 15K+ years ago?

More recently to be found to have been 40K years.
posted by hippybear at 10:03 PM on August 3 [9 favorites]


Dogs evolved to live on, and with, humans. I find it very hard to believe my sweet girl would be better off, and more fulfilled, without her toys and human companionship. I know she would be more stressed, because every time I take her somewhere knew she gets anxious. Dogs are no longer wild creatures (they are much more domesticated than cats), and really cannot be thought of the same way as wolves or even parrots or turtles.
posted by suelac at 10:10 PM on August 3 [21 favorites]


I believe that humans are ethically responsible for any domesticated creature. Cats are only sort of half-domesticated, but we created dogs, chickens, cows, sheep, etc. etc. Imagine the agony of an unshorn sheep, which humans designed to become burdened with wool in a way that wild sheep do not become. Or the turmoil of a rooster who needs to protect his brood of slow, fatty, poor flyers from wild animals. No. We broke it, we own it. I'm sure there are ways to reduce animal suffering, especially with respect to factory farm practices and the irresponsible breeding of deformed dog phenotypes, but I can't see how it's more ethical to just abandon our creations to a wilderness they are not suited for.
posted by xyzzy at 10:50 PM on August 3 [59 favorites]


I'm iffy about pet ownership, and I grow more and more conflicted the older I get. At this point I still have dogs and a cat and chickens, but I wont keep anything in a cage, or an aquarium. My pets have the ability (in a very limited way I admit) to control some aspects of their lives. At least they can come and go from inside to outside, eat and drink, be social or not, sleep or not, when they choose. More so, at least, than a caged animal. I am conflicted, yes, but I cant imagine not having dogs in my life.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:53 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]


1) Humans need _to love something_. Loving other humans can be problematic (adoption is problematic, and finding adults to bond with is difficult too).

2) Anyone who looks at my posting history can see that I think cats are very cool. I've fostered kittens and adored adult cats.

3) Since we've been catless over the past few years, my dude and I have grown closer, I think.

4) The experience of taking care of something small and delicate is probably transformative for children, and I find myself wishing all kids were prepared for it and then given the opportunity to experience it.

5) What is the environmental impact of all that cat food?

6) What will happen to all the cats if our food supply is suddenly less dependable?

7) What must parts of the international community think of the fact that we have giant stores containing mainly pet clothes, enrichment toys, many cans of meat, and designer lines of pet accessories?

8) I have this drive to nurture living things. I recognize that about myself. If I chose not to focus it on small animals, how else could I focus it? What human wants me to help them in a way that will feel emotionally close, since I don't have children? What activity wouldn't ultimately be cruel to me and the other human(s) both?

9) When I'm at my oldest, and most in need of the kind of companionship that an animal could provide, I'll be at my least fit as a possible pet owner. Aside from the expense, there's the fact that if I die, there's no guarantee the animal would have a good life after my passing. Furthermore, animals need attention, exercise, and fairly physical basic care, and the older I get the less I'll be up for additional cleaning challenges.

10) I just saw a photo of some kittens rescued from the BC wildfires and can't stop thinking about which ones I would choose to adopt.
posted by amtho at 11:30 PM on August 3 [8 favorites]


These are all ideas that were also used to justify slavery, by people who would have been horrified to be accused of being a bad slave owner.

Yes. The objection to slavery was always, approximately, that people are people and should not be treated in the way that humans treat animals of a different species. It was slave owners, under American chattel slavery, who pretended to believe that their slaves were actually a different species and that animal cruelty arguments had any bearing on what they were doing. (Roman slave owners were at least more open about being prepared to treat humans terribly just because they happened to have less power and for no biological reason.) It's not a useful parallel to invoke; it disregards the entire foundation of the abolitionist argument (humans are humans) in favour of some vaguer and more uncertain theory about how all creatures should be treated with dignity, where the natural differences between different creatures makes it hard to define what that means exactly.

We might find a way to treat animals more ethically than we do now, including abolishing pet ownership (who knows). But no one is arguing that full integration into the human society around them - with voting rights, rights to litigate, rights of property ownership, rights to compete for jobs and participate fully in social and economic life - is on the table. It was on the table for slaves, even under American chattel slavery, because everyone involved in the slavery conversation actually knew that people are people and what humans owe to each other is radically different from what we might owe to members of another species.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:35 PM on August 3 [30 favorites]


I think the argument that's being made is that it is better for animals to die Free than live as pets.

There is a former feral dog laying at my feet right now. Her number one prime objective in life is to never, ever, ever be alone in the woods again. This dog wouldn't run off alone if you paid her. I think she's cool with the co-habitation thing.

I do think we have a responsibility to animals to take very good care of them and I'm also not really in to caging pets but dogs and cats choose to be here I'm pretty sure.
posted by fshgrl at 12:00 AM on August 4 [28 favorites]


I understand this person's objections where chickens, cows, fish, or hamsters are concerned, but not with dogs or cats. I own an Akita and a Shar-pei Bassett mix who needs weekly baths and special food. She can't even successfully catch a lethargic cricket, much less fend for herself in the wild. My Akita maybe could do it, but he loves humans and is almost comically afraid of leaving the yard by himself. "Owning pets is unethical and bad" is a nice idea but for the most-domesticated ones like dogs and cats, the reality is more like handing a 5 year old a knife and a survival handbook and wishing them good luck. I.e., they might learn to survive, but loving & taking good care of them is obviously the more ethical choice.
posted by azuresunday at 12:09 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


Yeah, same thing - I have 6 rescues (2 cats, 4 dogs) - there isn't one who'd leave this house willingly. hell one's snoring behind me and another's curled up at my feet. They've all spent time on the street. One of them would have probably loved to hit the streets again, except he discovered the joy of my wife's bed. Put him down on the ground - he goes eats, takes care of business and then the second one of gets in the bed he whines for the bed.

Having said that - yes to ethical treatment of animals. yes to rescue, yes to increasing vegetarian eating, yes to kindness - nature is not exactly kind.
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:09 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


These are all ideas that were also used to justify slavery, by people who would have been horrified to be accused of being a bad slave owner.

Ugh, Ugh. Ugh. Ugh,

And your neighbourhood slaughterhouse is just like Auschwitz.

Animals aren't people. And people who compare treatment of animals, no matter how bad, with slavery or the holocaust are inevitably assholes.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:16 AM on August 4 [50 favorites]


After owning a purebred Bengal cat who in the end, turned to bring my feral out of preference (tldr I put her in care of a friend and she said fuck that) I cannot own another cat, nor will I own a dog unless I have a purpose for that dog to fill in my life - whether it's work or helping me hunt/forage mushrooms (a task dogs do better at than humans), I just can't because of the self deterministic arguments.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 12:31 AM on August 4


Probably gonna step on some toes. I'm not saying this is always true, but I've yet to meet someone with an opinion like this who's ever spent much time in or near the wild. This is typically an urban opinion that comes from a well-intentioned place (or a mischievous, "holier than thou" place), but doesn't seem very connected to reality. A bit like glamping in a carefully-maintained national park.

Usually absent from these philosophical debates are stories about the short, hard lives animals, particularly domesticated animals, live in the wild—probably because most of the people participating in the debates don't actually interact with the wild all that much. Nature is not some feel-good Disney movie. Living in it, fighting against it, is not necessarily freeing. Making choices for survival is not the same as making choices about what you want to do for fun tonight.

In the wild, painful, life-threatening diseases we vaccinate against can wreak havoc. Reproduction is harsh and often nightmarish. Fleas, ticks, maggots, worms, and mites feast on flesh and bellies. Starvation is not uncommon if populations get out of control—and, no, humans are not always to blame for the imbalance.

I don't know a lot about cat domestication, other than cats are far less domesticated than dogs, but I do know there's a reason some wolves came closer to us, long ago. It's the same reason many of us decided to build cozy huts or houses, or at least live in temperate climates, rather than brave unpredictable and harsh elements. There were some awful trade-offs to domestication in the same way there were some awful trade-offs to our coming down from the trees, developing irrigation and agriculture, and congregating in cities. But, well, here we are. With domesticated animals, at least, there's no going back unless we want to try to reverse thousands of years of unnatural selection. Good luck getting Chihuahuas ready for a life in the wild that they may not even want.

Speaking of:
After he had become a vegan, eschewed leather shoes and convinced his girlfriend to go vegan, he considered his pet cockatiel. “I remember; he looked up wistfully. He said he got the bird, took it outside, let it loose and it flew up,” Herzog recalls. “He said: ‘I knew she wouldn’t survive, that she probably starved. I guess I was doing it more for myself than for her.’”
Gross.

When I adopted my dog five years ago, she was a skinny, dirty, wormy little thing that had recently had puppies. (Sadly don't know where they ended up.) From what my husband and I can gather from her personality, she was abused by someone and was either discarded or broke free from whatever situation she was in. Animal control picked her up as a stray. Despite our best efforts, we've never been able to socialize her among other dogs. We figure she had to fight for scraps. She has a lot of issues and is hard to take care of, but we love her and do our best.

This is a common enough story. If she'd been left to her own devices, she'd either have stayed near humans and perhaps been run over by a car, or she would have drifted away from humans, where she would have lived in pain and eventually starved or been eaten by a larger animal. But, hey, at least she was "free," right?
posted by iamfantastikate at 2:53 AM on August 4 [49 favorites]


And your neighbourhood slaughterhouse is just like Auschwitz.

I met some people at a market last December who were actively promoting this idea. T-shorts, leaflets, etc. One actually complained in my hearing that people were rude to them.
posted by biffa at 3:32 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]


Making choices for survival is not the same as making choices about what you want to do for fun tonight.

I sometimes think about this with my cats, who are two old, friendly things that would die within a week if they were "freed." I wonder if the life I'm giving them is what they would want, if they could choose.

But they also don't experience the world in the same way a human does. They're cats. Freedom is important for human beings because we suffer if we don't have it--our consciousness of our situation torments us. This is one of the many reasons comparisons between pet ownership and slavery are gross.

Yes, animals that don't have enough stimulation do appear to suffer psychologically; this is why enrichment is so important in zoos. But is that a need for an abstract notion of freedom, or a need for more stimulation? We can't ask the animals. Not only can they not talk, they literally don't have the concepts. If pet animals are conscious of their own desires, they are far more immediate: I want to chew on this; I want to chase this; I want to eat; I want to lay in the sun; I want this other cat to go away. Not: I want to determine my own future.

Right now I live in an area where there are a lot of feral cats. Their lives are short and painful. Many of them are close to the point of starvation. Not too long ago I passed a half-grown kitten who was mostly a bag of bones, that meowed at me piteously; it was desperate enough for food that it would approach a strange human (which is dangerous here). It was gone by the time I returned with something, because cats don't really understand. Do I think I would have been doing it a disservice if I had taken it home and cared for it? No.

As a pet owner, I worry much less about whether my cats have some abstract right to self-determination and much more about whether their immediate needs/wants are being fulfilled.

(One of my cats did free herself once. She slipped out of an open door. I panicked. The next morning, she was sitting on the front stairs ready to come in. So. Not exactly running for the border.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:29 AM on August 4 [11 favorites]


It shouldn't be controversial that many domesticated animals cannot survive in the wild (although reading the main article, I don't know if all of the people would agree). However, that doesn't tell us much about the ethics of keeping pets, or domestication more broadly, without further development.

We can accept both premises, that keeping pets is unethical and that domesticated animals cannot survive except as pets (or that they can survive, but only in such a way that putting them in that state is, itself, unethical). The reasonable conclusion from that combination is that we were wrong to domesticate the animals (or allow the domestication to happen), and that the best way forward is to sterilize all existing pet animals, and lovingly care for them for the rest of their lives. Within 30 years, the mistake of domestication will be corrected.

I don't think that's the only ethical path forward with domesticated animals, but it's certainly a very defensible one. "But they can't survive in the wild" is not a viable line of attack, unless you also want to claim that pet animals have an inherent interest in children or a community of similar animals that exists after themselves.

Another argument some people in the thread seem to be making is that living in nature is bad itself, regardless of the animal. This is an interesting one, and I'm sympathetic to it. The first implication seems to me that it is ethically good to domesticate or otherwise remove from nature as many other species as we can. I don't think this is the case, either. Rather, I think we owe more consideration to domesticated animals than we do to non-domesticated animals, because of the nature of domestication. Which is good as far as it goes, but doesn't actually tell us whether domestication is itself ethically good, bad, or neutral.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:46 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


If pressed I'd say that domestication itself is neutral depending on the treatment afterwards, that pet ownership is neutral to good, domestication for livestock is neutral to bad, and letting your domesticated animals impact the natural environment while retaining the protections of domestication (e.g. letting your cats out) is bad.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:51 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


In here, the party for animals and nature got their first MP last time around, and pushed for a lot of animal rights, including veterinary expenses being tax-deductible and no longer being considered objects. They're not persons, nor objects, they're sentient animals. Of course, how long are we before this is enforceable is another battle, but this is a matter of time. And speaking of battles, before trying to make a case to end all pet ownership, maybe start by little things, such as ending puppy farms and educating people of proper care.

Also: Herzog is a fucking psychopath. Maybe next the Guardian should give a voice to the problem kid that throws rocks at birds and cats because he's bored. He's also doing that for himself, you know.
posted by lmfsilva at 5:09 AM on August 4


In the wild, painful, life-threatening diseases we vaccinate against can wreak havoc. Reproduction is harsh and often nightmarish. Fleas, ticks, maggots, worms, and mites feast on flesh and bellies. Starvation is not uncommon if populations get out of control—and, no, humans are not always to blame for the imbalance.

Yes, this. Feral cats live only a few years. Our youngish cat has already lived longer than she would have as a feral. When we adopted her, she was living in our backyard and was so skinny you would not believe. She's not an outdoor cat - it's too dangerous generally and our neighborhood in particular is not safe. (I'll get to know some free-roaming pet cats here and see them around...for a couple of years, no longer. And that's because they were killed by dogs, hit by cars, killed by people, ate something contaminated, etc.)

I mean, it's ethically equivocal, because she doesn't have the kind of reasoning ability that allows her to choose - she can't think "I would like to live three years outside rather than twenty inside", because she doesn't have access to that level of abstraction. So I'm taking the green outdoors away from her - and I'm acutely aware of that - and giving her regular food, play, petting, vaccinations and a large, safe house to roam around in. (A large safe porous house - at least two or three mice a year for Dr. Cat, and the occasional bird.)

So I do get the idea that it's not ethical to keep pets - it's perfectly true that we do take away things that they obviously enjoy and value, on the theory that what we're giving them outweighs that. But with cats, at least, the "you're keeping them from being more happy in freedom" argument doesn't really describe what's going on.
posted by Frowner at 5:16 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


I don't think anyone is seriously suggesting we release all the pets currently being tended to into the wild. The idea that keeping animals as pets is similar to arguments around breeding pugs with faces too short to breathe through or English bulldogs with hips so fucked up they can barely walk - it's not to cast aside the ones that are here, it's just to not breed any more. Let the generations of captive animals die peacefully of old age, and not have that cultural niche filled by another animal.

We get a bit fixated on cats and dogs as pets, but they're kind of the tip of the iceberg. Parakeets, known as budgerigars, live in sizable flocks in the wild, but are often kept as a solo pet, with much less social contact than they'd have had living in a big flock. Same with cockatoos and galahs, two more Australian birds that are often kept as singly as pets. Cockatoos get so bored as pets they often pluck their own feathers out. I've known more than one cockie without a tail, with good well-meaning owners who just can't keep a sole bird entertained enough.

Speaking of Australian animals, we have huge problems with smugglers taking wildlife from the wild for the pet trade. Sugar gliders were a big thing back in the nineties - every sugar glider video you see of some cute little fluffball is the offspring of a smuggled glider, and for every glider that made it out of Australia there are hundreds that died, hidden in bags or strapped to the bodies of smugglers who didn't. Australian birds and reptiles often have their eggs stolen and taken overseas by people after a buck who don't care about the environmental impact. See also: pet loris, primates. There are some animals that shouldn't be pets. There's no ethical grey area with that.

And to be honest even with regards to the ethics of cats and dogs it still makes sense to me, if only for the collateral damage. Cats and dogs are fed animals that are kept in far, far less salubrious environments than a kitty on a sunlit window sill or a dog with a big lush garden and a child that loves to throw them a ball. Pigs are just as smart as dogs, just as social and curious, and they get to live in, at best, cramped, boring industrial farms and slaughtered before they've had much of a life. We keep pet birds of various levels of intelligence in relative comfort, but chickens get to live short brutal lives to be turned into pet feed. And pet food is made from, generally speaking, the worst of all meats - the ex battery hens and the old brood sows, dry dairy cows. Animals that have suffered. All we're doing is condensing suffering on the food animal.
posted by Jilder at 5:55 AM on August 4 [10 favorites]


Cats and dogs are one thing, but importing creatures like chinchillas and birds to live in tiny cages alone, outside of their natural habitats strikes me as deeply unethical.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:11 AM on August 4 [12 favorites]


My inlaws have always had cats, and they never acquired any of them. All the cats acquired them by moving into their house. Same pattern every time... a cat starts hanging around their house, then decides to come in when the doors are opened, and after a while just stays. Those cats pretty well have the run of the place . . . they go in and out as they please. I don't know how you can say it is unethical for them to have cats living in their house when the cats chose to live there.
posted by fimbulvetr at 6:39 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


Parakeets, known as budgerigars, live in sizable flocks in the wild, but are often kept as a solo pet, with much less social contact than they'd have had living in a big flock.

I don't know about them specifically, but I think this is one area where the hobbyist communities demonstrate that there's more to the ethics of this than do-vs-don't. The pet store idea of adequate care for your animal may not be at all what people who actually know that animal have agreed is adequate care. Growing up, I remember seeing a lot of guinea pigs in aquariums, which is totally awful. But I had a friend a few years ago who was very into them, who was adamant that they should be kept at least in pairs and in cages more like this. Birds are very, very hard to care for appropriately and I like them but I won't even try because I have a day job. I separate here the idea that keeping the animal is wrong, and the idea that it is wrong to keep an animal without researching its needs and doing whatever you have to do to provide appropriate care.
posted by Sequence at 6:40 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


The pet store idea of adequate care for your animal may not be at all what people who actually know that animal have agreed is adequate care.

Yes, I feel like a lot of this critique’s actual problems are more with the inevitable effects of capitalism than with pet ownership. Pet stores aren’t going to train their employees to tell you that a fifteen dollar bird needs a $300 cage, even though the $30 cage is cruel. They aren’t going to tell you that a parakeet shouldn’t live alone, because that will make fewer people make an impulse buy of one single parakeet. They aren't going to tell you to throw away all the Teflon in your house before bringing the bird home for the same reason. Walmart doesn’t care about the egregious conditions that cause the fish in their stores to die so quickly, because remedying the problem would cost more money than it is worth to them.

The reason a lot of people still buy puppies from breeders or pet stores instead of adopting dogs from shelters is because retail establishments have a profit motive that prevents them from caring too vigorously about animal welfare. They aren’t going to do a home visit or ask for documentation or warn about behavioral issues (except the ones that might lead to customers buying top dollar training classes!) or make sure that animals won’t be left alone all day or explain that working dogs can get messed up without something to do or make sure big energetic dogs aren’t going to be trapped in studio apartments.

Most of the examples given in the article are either about capitalism being fundamentally exploitative, or humans being cruel in their thoughtlessness, and how both of those conditions are mutually dependent in many cases. But that is trickier to deal with than making blanket statements like "owning pets is exploitation".
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:09 AM on August 4 [17 favorites]


I feel like the case against pet ownership leads to a case against humans occupying much of the earth. My cats are indoor - I had to work to keep them in when they were young, but now it doesn't really occur to them to go outside when the door is open. I do this because the suburban environment in which they would otherwise roam is both unreasonably dangerous to them, in my opinion (they have instincts to deal with predators with an acceptable degree of success, but no animal is designed to deal with automobiles really well), and because they are unreasonably dangerous to the environment (I recall seeing Environment Canada statistics that domestic cats are responsible for 75% of human-related bird deaths in Canada). Yes, it may be more ethical for them to live as nature intended but much of the Earth's environment is no longer anything approximating what "nature intended". For better for worse, even our caribou populations are pets in a sense. Managed in a Regional Land Use and Range Plans, monitored and stewarded by humans, because we've degraded their habitat enough that they will not survive without our active stewardship.

I don't see any going back on that without a considerable (and also very unethical) deliberate shrinking of the human population. That said, there's no reason why we can't apply humane principles to our stewardship of companion, agricultural and even "wild" animals to ensure they lead the most comfortable lives, and when needed, the quickest, least painful deaths.
posted by Kurichina at 7:14 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


Mixed feelings on the rest of the essay (much of which have been covered here), but as a scientist with many colleagues who work with rodents, it is indeed damn strange to go to the fish and reptile store with my snake-owner friend and watch them, scoop up some baby rats into a paper bag. There's so much more control and bioethical considerations that go into animal housing and husbandry in a laboratory setting, and once you get used to that it can be very jarring to watching a dude open a drawer packed full of tupperware containers of live mice and rats destined for snake food.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:41 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


I think from an environmental ethics stand point you can completely justify pets=bad argument. In the exact same way that you can't really argue that vegetarianism and veganism are, through the lens of environmental ethics, far better choices to make than eating meat.

I say this as the proud keeper of two aquariums, a reluctantly kept cat (dropped on me long ago, she'll live forever I fear) and as a lover of all things beefy and porky in my diet. I lived on a farm when I was a kid, I've slaughtered chickens. It's gross.

Pets like meat consumption are wasteful luxuries. They do a clear amount of environmental harm and are not needed. I think this is objectively true. But I still indulge in those luxuries. I also own a TV, Drive a Car, live in a house with a big chunk of land instead of an apartment. I know the earth would be in a better place, if we sterilized all the pets, and let them die out, same with the livestock. If we ate a plant based diet and consumed way less energy.

I respect people who make those choices, but I don't feel the need to attack anyone who doesn't.

Cognitive dissonance I guess.
posted by French Fry at 7:42 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Rather selfish of me, I suppose, but recent data points to longer lives for those older humans who have dogs and take them for walks. Causation is not proven, but seems pretty obvious to me (unless you think that people who have healthy cardiovascular systems are more likely to adopt and walk a dog than those health is compromised to some degree--not impossible, I guess...).

I always said to my wife: Nope. Don't want a dog. (I had a dog growing up, but she could run around and play in the creek. Now I'm in a city.) But she retired, got a dog, and I'm walking an extra couple of miles a day, in addition to my gym habit. Good to get outside. (Ask me whether I have the same opinion once winter arrives!)
posted by kozad at 7:46 AM on August 4


I tend to think also that you can make a pretty good case against domestication of animals, period; how many domesticated animals live happy lives as opposed to miserable ones?

The solution to which would certainly not be "turn domestic animals loose in the woods" but simply stop breeding/consuming them/using them as pets and let existing ones die out.

I don't see this happening, though maybe someday we will not need so many animals for food and other materials, and so domestic livestock becomes a rarer thing.

But then what about pets? I worry it could go the other way, that genetic manipulation will lead to ever more-customized pets with exotic features who are treated as accessories.

If you were going to build a new society, could you make an ethical case for animal domestication that justified the suffering of all the ones who would be abused/suffer bad treatment and neglect? Probably not.
posted by emjaybee at 7:51 AM on August 4


it denies animals the right of self-determination. Ultimately, we bring them into our lives because we want them, then we dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs

Ultimately this is true of nearly all land animals everywhere, because at this point humans have pretty much full control of the entire landmass of Earth. Animals in what passes for the wild exist because, first, we chose to leave that area "wild," and because having that area and those animals being "wild" suits our purposes and needs. When an animal is being torn apart by a predator, it's because we chose for that setting to exist and to permit that interaction. When an animal starves, it's because we chose not to feed it. When animals are sick, it's because we chose not to treat them. If an animal annoys or endangers humans, it will be killed and/or its reproduction will be forcibly prevented.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:19 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]


pet ownership is problematic because it denies animals the right of self-determination

... or ...

how many domesticated animals live happy lives as opposed to miserable ones?


But then again, maybe a miserable life that is not self-determined is better than living no life at all.
All those pets (domestic animals) would have never been born if there weren't pet owners (people who ultimately eat them).
Isn't it at least equally morally reprehensible to deny pets their very lives as it is to keep them captive?
posted by sour cream at 8:24 AM on August 4


Probably gonna step on some toes. I'm not saying this is always true, but I've yet to meet someone with an opinion like this who's ever spent much time in or near the wild. This is typically an urban opinion that comes from a well-intentioned place (or a mischievous, "holier than thou" place), but doesn't seem very connected to reality. A bit like glamping in a carefully-maintained national park.

Well, you didn't so much step on mine as induce me to kick up my heels in knee-jerk delight. Because speaking as a biologist, as someone who works primarily in the context of understanding animals as they are in their natural context, as someone who does research with animals in the aid of figuring out what it means to be a singing mouse, and why a singing mouse might choose to do one thing or another...

fuck if I don't find myself tagging these animal rights* arguments with a certain level of frustrated contempt. I try not to do that when I disagree with people. I try very hard not to do that. But at the end of the day, every time I engage with people who hold views like this, the level of anthropomorphization and willful ignorance of the realistic alternatives for animals in their own context is... frustrating, let's say.

I have, in my house at this time, four cats. Two are mine; one belongs to my roommate; one is a foster kitten. Of my two, one was born in a feral colony in Toronto. The statistics on the survival of feral cats are shit. They do not live long, and the deaths they usually find are unpleasant: slow death from trauma from cars, being caught and torn apart by coyotes, death from exposure or starvation, if they can't find a good source of human offal to pad out their diets. They also tend to be pretty inbred, and in Peter this has manifested in chronic ear infections. Without human intervention, he would probably be totally deaf in one ear by now and would spend most of his life with increasingly nasty yeast and pus build-up in his ear, because the ear canal is shaped such that there is no way

My other cat is inbred worse, in part because she was born in a hoarder's house in rural Missouri. That should never have happened, and if we had better ethics as a society we would be able to intervene to provide support well before conditions got as bad as they eventually became in this woman's house--support, dammit, because animal hoarding tends to appear out of trauma and mental illness, not a conscious desire for cruelty, and it's funny but animal rights folks seem to ignore the health and happiness of actual humans pretty hard as they optimize for the maximum free choice for their "people in fur suits." (I would intervene in this woman's free choices to bring her happiness and support, yes. Same way I intervene in my animals'.)

That being said, in the wild, Ishka would be functionally incapable of survival: she's got weird wonky hips and joints, and her lazy eye and sometimes inconsistent focus mean she has very little depth perception. In her "natural state" with minimal human intervention, she had a nasty case of ringworm that would have been both contagious and painfully itchy. What do you do with a cat like that? She has no intention of going outside--Ishka wants to be snuggling someone at all times--and I'm not sure she could catch her own prey if her life depended on it.

My roommate's cat, well, someone clearly owned him at some point--he was a pediatric neuter--and dumped him somewhere in our neighborhood. He moved into our front yard, and chose when he got used to us to come and sit with me and come inside. The foster kitten? He's almost totally blind, because he was born with a genetic defect. If he was feral, he'd be dead by now instead of happily biting my hands.

These arguments to me come not from a place of wanting to make the lives of animals better so much as a deep-set belief that human intervention automatically makes animal lives worse. The idea seems to be that we are a species apart from animals, not an two-legged animal among animals. These people conceptualize us as inherently separate from the natural world, a cancer on the planet, instead of a species that has its own place in the ecosystem to inhabit. It's an expression of internalized species-rich shame and guilt, not a desire to improve the lives of the animals under our collective care and do right by wildlife who are not.

And it makes me so angry, because as I've said here before, I actually see animal care guidelines shifted in favor of what makes human emotions comfortable rather than in favor of the least harm to whatever species is being handled. Our emotions and our shame for being what we are get in the way of actively trying to understand our place in this system and do better by that place, just as the emotions and shame of white liberals can get in the way of actually talking to people affected by racism and helping to fix it. Shame doesn't help anything, but this is an entire ethical tradition driven and fueled entirely by human shame. Of course it's not going to go to great places.

*as opposed to animal welfare and ethical management, because they are different things no matter how much animal rights activists try to cloak one thing under the aegis of the other
posted by sciatrix at 8:29 AM on August 4 [35 favorites]


I know the earth would be in a better place, if we sterilized all the pets, and let them die out, same with the livestock. If we ate a plant based diet and consumed way less energy.

I would like to ask: for whom would it be a better place? And why? Set climate change aside for a moment:

in this new world we envision, with all humans taking up the bare minimum of space--minimum food, packed into apartments as densely as we can manage, eating the most efficient possible foods to maintain us, minimizing our global impact with our every choice, just to survive:

for whom is it better, and how do you weigh that balance? Is that imagined world sustainable, when you inject actual humans into it?
posted by sciatrix at 8:34 AM on August 4 [13 favorites]


I would like to ask: for whom would it be a better place? And why?

It would also be a place with much fewer animals.

I also note that, by the same logic, all human suffering can be terminated by sterilizing all humans and waiting for them to die out. This does not make the world a better place.
posted by sour cream at 8:44 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


I think the argument that's being made is that it is better for animals to die Free than live as pets.

Only someone who has no experience with wild animals could say this. I hunt, and life for animals is hard, brutish, and short.

And - my dogs are hunting dogs. I love hunting birds with them - taking part in a ritual that dates back 40,000 years or more. Something that predates even the most ancient of religions. My dogs aren't pets - they're partners. They've earned their place.

The solution to which would certainly not be "turn domestic animals loose in the woods" but simply stop breeding/consuming them/using them as pets and let existing ones die out.

So we should let domesticated animals become extinct ? If they can't live in the wild, and it's unethical to live with us - is dying out entirely really a superior solution ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:46 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


The argument seems to boil down to the idea that because some domesticated animals are treated cruelly, all domesticated animals would be better off if they didn't exist.
posted by dazed_one at 8:49 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Set climate change aside for a moment:

for whom is it better, and how do you weigh that balance?

Well if I do the former, the later doesn't really matter. The context of climate change or local climate impact and waste is the heart of the environmental argument.

But playing this delightful thought experiment, let say all the people for whom clean water and food are unavailable or uncertain.

Are pets the biggest impact on climate change or the biggest source of local environmental harm? no, of course not. But they still are one.

And I said in my original comment, I don't live this way, I wasn't espousing living this way. But from the facts of environmental impact, pets and meat like so many other things are a luxury. One with significant impacts. The fact that two most popular pets in the US are carnivores doubles down on this. Knowing this, I still feed my cat.
posted by French Fry at 9:02 AM on August 4


The argument seems to boil down to the idea that because some domesticated animals are treated cruelly, all domesticated animals would be better off if they didn't exist.

Not some: most. Livestock in factory farms, or even smaller operations; pets abused, neglected, abandoned, used for pet-breeding; minks raised for fur; etc. etc. A wild life is hard, but is it really worse than, for example, being torn away from your mother too early, fed corn feed that makes you ill, packed in together so that you are all standing in shit for months, and then slaughtered?

You don't have to scratch very deep to find stories of pets that are abused, neglected, tortured, either. And I would contend that many more of those exist than animals that are well-treated. And that doesn't even get into inbreeding or being bred for traits that cause pain or disability.

Domestication was done for our benefit, not that of the animals. Some domesticated animals are well-treated, but let's not pretend that we are doing them a favor. We captured and bred and re-bred them for our use, so the responsibility rests on our shoulders.

And yeah, I have a cat. Someone abandoned him in our neighborhood and we decided to keep him. He's neutered and definitely has a longer life with us, than otherwise. But how many of the cats he descended from lived good, happy, lives, vs. short, hard ones? What happened to his mother, the other kittens in the litter? No one lives in that house now, it's abandoned; what happens to the next kitten someone abandons there?
posted by emjaybee at 9:04 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I would wager that there about three-dozen living creatures, world-wide, that do not have some to many external constraints on their decisions about what to eat, where to live and how to behave.

Which is not an excuse to make unpleasant and cruel new constraints on animals as pets, mind, but this argument from an academic makes me wonder how much personal autonomy they think most of their fellow citizens have, much less animals in the wild.
posted by phearlez at 9:09 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


My dog Gizmo, replies:

When I was rescued I was severely underweight and so infested with fleas that I had them in my eyes. The flea treatment almost killed me. Now I live in a safe home with people who love me. I eat well and have toys. You walk me twice a day and I can pee anywhere along the way. You feed me yummy treats. Ethics be damned, I'm happy.
posted by Splunge at 9:22 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Domestication was done for our benefit, not that of the animals.

I don't think you can make that case. The benefits of domestication are manifold - freedom from predation, and more recently, disease. Access to food and water and shelter, and so on.

And sure, we do that so we can eat them, for our benefit. There is a quid for the pro quo. But look, every living thing that exists is food. You, me, your pets, your houseplants - everything. At some point - all things become food for something else. If we never fenced another animal in, they would all still be food.

I fully agree that both pets and livestock should be treated in the kindest, most humane way possible. I disagree that being one sort of food vs. another sort of food is inherently superior.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:24 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


We've bred dogs to be permanent puppies, never ready to take on the adult responsibilities of a full-grown wolf.

I've spent many years feeling the same way. I love dogs, all dogs and every dog but it bothered me that we took perfectly wonderful wolves and turned them into dogs.

I've recently been informed that this does not seem to be the case.

Not only did dogs evolve themselves from wolves but there is even evidence that those wolves helped us evolve into humans as they were evolving into dogs.

So my current head-cannon (or maybe simplified model of understanding) is that some wolves developed to be a LOT more social than other wolves. Those wolves seemed antisocial and maybe a little dangerous. They made contact with some proto-humans, saw some potential, and got to work on turning us into humans so that they could live with us. Does that make it sound like we owe the entirety of civilization and human accomplishment to dogs and therefore have an obligation to make every dog's life full of love and happiness? Well I guess it does, maybe we do.

The idea of owning pets in general is problematic and it's a worthwhile debate to have, there are a lot of valid points against it and I don't really have a fully-formed opinion on it yet. But I'd argue that dogs are not pets, a dog living along side humans is a dog's natural state.
posted by VTX at 9:24 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


Domestication was done for our benefit, not that of the animals.

I thought most available evidence suggested that dogs were at least pretty enthusiastic about getting domesticated, and that cats joined up of their own volition because humans are willing to share food?
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:24 AM on August 4 [14 favorites]


So how much of this argument is "understand, learn about, and listen to the particular animal you want to keep as a pet and respect their social, nutritional, exercise, and intellectual needs," which doesn't really seem to track with "pets are bad" (unless we take the harmful forms of pet-keeping as a given.) As I understand it, expectations and laws related to pet-keeping and pet abuse are getting stronger by the year, even if they're not where they should be, so if we can keep that momentum we may be generally on the right track. Am I misunderstanding?
posted by R a c h e l at 9:53 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


If anybody missed it, there was an interesting post recently about a mutation which makes dogs super-friendly. A similar mutation in humans leads to
Williams-Beuren Syndrome, or WBS. People with WBS are typically hyper-social, meaning they form bonds quickly and show great interest in other people, including strangers. Other symptoms include developmental and learning disabilities as well as cardiovascular problems.
Maybe we stumbled on wolves with a mutation that would've been deadly in the wolf world but suited us fine, and then we filled the world with that mutation. There's a sci-fi novel waiting to happen here, surely: An alien race adopts and breeds people with William-Beuren Syndrome as companions, then does its best to exterminate the rest of us, until there are only a few non-WBS tribes hanging on to the edge of existence in the most remote and difficult parts of the earth.
posted by clawsoon at 9:56 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


After he had become a vegan, eschewed leather shoes and convinced his girlfriend to go vegan, he considered his pet cockatiel. “I remember; he looked up wistfully. He said he got the bird, took it outside, let it loose and it flew up,” Herzog recalls. “He said: ‘I knew she wouldn’t survive, that she probably starved. I guess I was doing it more for myself than for her.’”
Gross.

Not gross. Pure fucking evil. That bird trusted him to be her flock. And in return he gave her the dignity of being able to choose to die, slowly, from exposure and starvation, in great pain, both physically and emotionally from being abandoned. She did have the freedom of choice, though, that he so graciously granted, to die swiftly by being torn apart and eaten by some other animal, in great physical and emotional pain. But at least she had the dignity of self-determination! Fuck you.

The honest thing would have been to snap her neck right then and there and toss her corpse in the trash. It amounts to the same thing but would have spared that poor frightened bird an agonizing death. And it shows the actual value he placed on this life he was "setting free."

I would very much like to punch that person in the face, repeatedly, and I have never struck anyone in my life.
posted by Devoidoid at 10:13 AM on August 4 [31 favorites]


Romanticism is dangerous. Although one usually encounters it in connection with romantic perceptions and treatment of women or children, it is apparently also an unfortunate way for pets to be considered.
posted by amtho at 10:38 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Devoidoid: She did have the freedom of choice, though, that he so graciously granted, to die swiftly by being torn apart and eaten by some other animal, in great physical and emotional pain. But at least she had the dignity of self-determination! Fuck you.

Libertarian pet care.
posted by clawsoon at 10:39 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]


But then again, maybe a miserable life that is not self-determined is better than living no life at all.
All those pets (domestic animals) would have never been born if there weren't pet owners (people who ultimately eat them).
Isn't it at least equally morally reprehensible to deny pets their very lives as it is to keep them captive?


If we really believe this, we have a moral imperative to breed as many animals as possible and have as many (human) children as possible, regardless of the conditions those children and animals are being brought into. I'm sorry, no. People and animals who don't exist have no moral interest in existing, because they have no interests at all.

I also note that, by the same logic, all human suffering can be terminated by sterilizing all humans and waiting for them to die out. This does not make the world a better place.

An important difference between humans and other animals is that humans are invested in our conceptions of the future in a way that other animals are not. Humans are invested in their children, in the notion of having children, we're invested in the existence of our communities. These investments have ethical weight.

Cats are not invested in existence of cats other than themselves after their own death because they don't have that kind of abstract conceptualization. There is ethical weight to the extinction of species like this, but it comes from environmental concerns, questions of biodiversity, and the concerns of other species (us) who are concerned with that species on other bases.

Cats don't care about whether they have grandchildren, but people do, and that matters.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:43 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


This an interesting topic and one worth discussing. But, among the things I believe to be true in the world, I'm pretty sure I'd rank my intuitive understanding of my cat's happiness near the top of the list. We have similar brains and physical bodies, and she's never hesitated to show her unhappiness when it occurs. If anthropomorphism is folly, surely failing to recognize common traits among species that evolved in the same environment is no less so.

If I lived as my cat, I'd murder my owners while they sleep, grab tools from the kitchen counter, and burrow through the door and escape to freedom. I'd rather be gunned down in the street than live the life that my cat lives. But, she seems entirely content with ear scratches and cat treats and an incredibly boring meal schedule. If we turned her lose, she'd die horribly in a few days. Would the world be a better place if she didn't exist? That's far from obvious to me. She's happy; she makes me happy. That's more than most self-aware beings can ask for.

Given the way we treat livestock, and, for that matter, people born in the wrong nations, worrying about pets seems like a third order ethical concern on the list of fucked up things people do to other beings.

I'm totally on board with not actively preventing birds from flying, though.
posted by eotvos at 11:50 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


The animal shelter in my town is constantly overflowing with animals. If literally-every pet owner in the USA decided to not get any new pets after their current pets died, we'd still have crap tons of pets in shelters, and what kind of life will those animals have if all pet owners in the USA decide to culturally eschew pet ownership? Animals shelters, whether they're no kill or not, provide a realistic solution for all these pets that are currently around. Unless we start massive dog and cat sanctuaries, if we take "Make that animal your pet" off the table, for a while there's going to be lots of extra animals that society will have to deal with.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:25 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Most dogs seem happier than most people, not least because they don't appear to worry about shit like that.

This reminds me of a book I just finished: We.

"It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of unknown beings who inhabit other planets-still living, as it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy."
posted by Stonkle at 12:39 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


I don't keep pets for the same reasons that I don't eat meat. At the same time, I always find it SUPER weird when people who do eat meat get all up-in-arms about mistreatment of cats and dogs.
posted by 256 at 12:47 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


I have share my space with a cat. Neutered, indoor-only, adopted from a shelter, is an entitled asshole who alternates between sleeping on top of me and defending the middle of the bed from the slumbering humans.

And it seems to me that three important words are missing from this discussion: duty of care. I adopted her knowing full well that I was in for maybe two decades of boundary plays, companionship, and/or blood feuds; I adopted her knowing that if I didn't she might well be euthanized: I adopted her knowing that this was happening at the intersection of my own selfish desire for a companion animal and her presumed-need for food, shelter, and survival.

While I can accept in the abstract that from a purely ethical standpoint pet ownership is morally dubious, in concrete terms what am I going to do—kill my cat or kick her out to starve or be run over by a car or kicked to death by assholes?

So it's up to me to ensure that I can live with the moral and practical consequences of that decision. I owe my cat a duty of care in return for the constraints I place on her existence: no, she didn't sign on for that, any more than I signed on to any goddamn social contract when I was born—but in practical terms that simply doesn't matter.
posted by cstross at 12:47 PM on August 4 [20 favorites]


Sciatrix, I flagged your comment as fantastic. I agree with you and IamFantastiKate that many (most?) people who idolize the Born Free life for pets are naive to what life in the wild is really like. Some people really seem to have a Disneyfied idea of nature. Even I - a non-scientist! - know better.

I will never forget a letter to the editor of my local paper (this was before Facebook) from a woman complaining about the "meanie" (!) Cooper's hawk that hung out near her birdfeeder, chowing down on adorable chickadees and finches. How dare it! Um...lady...that is what Cooper's hawks DO. Millions of cute little songbirds meet their ends at the talons of Cooper's hawks every day. The songbirds aren't victims of an evil hawk; it's just what nature does.

Our dogs, cats, rabbits, fancy mice, etc. are all domesticated and would have a hard time surviving without us. I think we do owe them a duty of care as Cstross says. I know I love my cats and would never want to live a life that was cat-free.

And speaking of cats - it seems that most feral colonies are made up of Lannisters more often than not. My youngest cat, Jack, is a rescue from a feral colony descended from one dumped domestic grandma cat. (My friends who gave me Jack have the grandma, now the tubby queen of the house, and one of Jack's brothers.) The colony was all these very similar-looking black and tuxedo cats; one tomcat fathered every one. Jack has a heart murmur, which isn't much in comparison to what some inbred cats have, but "moggies are healthier" doesn't necessarily apply.

I think that some species, especially large flock birds like parrots, or fragile cranky creatures like sugar gliders, shouldn't be kept as pets, because most people are not equipped to give these animals what they need. Parrots are highly intelligent flock creatures and it's really hard to keep them under optimal conditions.

As for the guy who released his cockatiel, admitting that it was more for him than her - flames, flames on the side of my face! What an asshole. I'd like to release HIM to the wilderness. He killed an innocent creature dependent upon him just for his own ego. FUCK HIM.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:26 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


I can't do the global analysis, not least because my world all my life has included pets. So debating this for me is like wondering if it is right that I eat food. Any food. Or that I'm alive. The Sixth Extinction among other books points out that our mere existence as a species is catastrophic to the world around us, and that it also way too late for any of us to fix that.

Our two cats are gorgeous smart exotic young 'uns who would not exist but for the market demand that inspired their breeder to breed and rear them and then sell them to me after some careful screening. Our dog is a rescue who nearly died of starvation and neglect (before and after pics here) but for the rescuer who later carefully screened us to adapt him. I know if the three of them had votes they'd all opt for the glorious pet life they lead. And that for us they are an essential part of the fiber of our existence.
posted by bearwife at 3:54 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I CANNOT WAIT until there is lab grown "meat" available for pet food.
posted by Violet Hour at 4:13 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


Animals aren't people. And people who compare treatment of animals, no matter how bad, with slavery or the holocaust are inevitably assholes.

I couldn't disagree more. I think people who make a comparison like that are tapping in to the idea that animals have a much richer emotional life than we previously thought. They are capable of terrible grief and fear and pain. Things/institutions like slaughter houses and factory farms contain enormous raw suffering just as things/institutions like slavery and death camps do. It doesn't make them assholes to be concerned about living beings who suffer. You may dissagree with their assessment, but having an opinion different from yours doesnt make them assholes either.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:50 PM on August 4


clawsoon: " There's a sci-fi novel waiting to happen here, surely: An alien race adopts and breeds people with William-Beuren Syndrome as companions, then does its best to exterminate the rest of us, until there are only a few non-WBS tribes hanging on to the edge of existence in the most remote and difficult parts of the earth."

There are a few layers of this in Larry Niven's Known Space extended universe including a couple different variations of breeding humans to be perfect pets or slave species if you get into the Man-Kzin War books.
posted by Mitheral at 8:48 PM on August 4


WalkerWestridge: I think people who make a comparison like that are tapping in to the idea that animals have a much richer emotional life than we previously thought. They are capable of terrible grief and fear and pain. Things/institutions like slaughter houses and factory farms contain enormous raw suffering just as things/institutions like slavery and death camps do.

Do you know what I hate doing more than anything on earth? It's talking about concentration camps. And yet Ive talked more about it in the last 18 months than the last 18 years, and here I go again.

You are comparing the suffering of an animal to my father who lost his home, his entire family, his town and his country before managing to survive a concentration camp, and the human, conscious, psycic pain that haunted him every moment of the next 50 years, a pain he passed on to his own family. Now times that by the 10s of millions of people subjected to similar conditions around the world.

I'm not going to call you any names, I just wanted to shine more light on this comment and similar sentiments.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:49 PM on August 4 [15 favorites]


In any case, we don't condemn slavery and concentration camps only because of the raw suffering/cruelty involved, assuming you define suffering like an old school utilitarian (x amount of physical pain multiplied by the number of beings on whom it is inflicted, no differentiation between kinds of suffering). We condemn them because they involve grotesque rights violations, against humans who had a right to absolute equality with the humans who did that to them. These were crimes against humanity precisely because they fly in the face of everything humans owe to each other, individually and collectively. The denial of humanity was at the heart of the crime in these situations. It's possible to make powerful points about animal welfare and even - if you like - animal rights without invoking these analogies. However you mean it, it sounds too much like borrowing the rhetoric of slave-owners and Nazis and dehumanising the victims of their atrocities.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:34 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]


The only reason to bring those things in relation are to show that our assholishness is cross-spectrum.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:39 PM on August 4


How much of the desire to have/own pets is fashion/fad? How much of it is promoted by corporate capitalism which is always seeking to convince consumers they can't live without new products.

I've had to go into PetsMart a few times with a very young friend and I gotta say the place creeps me out, especially the clothing and toys section.

Animals we now consider pets used to have function likes guarding livestock or keeping the rodent population down. Do they exist now mostly to satisfy the emotional and consumer needs of their owners? And how many people find it easier to think about animal rights than human rights? How many people focus on the suffering of the poor doggies instead of on the devastation of the planet?

Obviously setting pets free is not the answer. More responsible pet ownership could include having no pets at all, sharing pets with neighbors, neutering pets, feeding pets table scraps or home-made pet food instead of heavily advertised foods,
posted by mareli at 7:35 AM on August 5


No, I do not think that pet-keeping is some sort of plot on the part of Our Evil Capitalist Overlords (tm) nor do I think it should be regarded as some kind of frivolity. People have always kept pets. True, many of those pets did double duty as mousers or guards or hunters, but people cherished and loved them even if the pets lived outside and ate table scraps. Read James Herriot; one of the things I like best about his series is the love many of the hardscrabble Yorkshire country folk had for, not just dogs and cats, but their barn animals like cows and horses.

I really hate the idea that caring about pets, and feeding them good food and letting them sleep on our beds, etc., somehow takes away from The Plight Of Starving Children or whatever the neo-Puritan finger-waggers like to point out. This is an accusation that is all too frequently leveled at women, especially young women, as is the Blindly Following Capitalism accusation. "Woman as frivolous consumer" is an image with a long and nefarious past in our culture. "Women and their cats/annoying yappy little purse dogs" is another sexist meme.

That said - I hate when people buy a dog because it's a popular (I almost wrote "pupular!") breed owned by celebrities. Not because of the "sheeple" factor but because pets are not toys, and many popular breeds have high care needs that someone wanting a cute doggie might not realize.

As long as we have animals in shelters needing homes, we are going to have pets. Maybe we can talk about curtailing pet ownership in a hundred years when spay/neuter has rendered moggies and mutts extinct. Or never, because people will always want the love and companionship that pets provide and there is nothing wrong with that.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:36 AM on August 5 [11 favorites]


Some people, including me, do not consume animal products because of the impact the industry has on the environment. Similarly, keeping a pet increases your environmental footprint significantly. A person that would, for example, be vegan, avoid palm oil or refrain from driving a car for such reasons would do good to think before deciding to own an animal.

Personally, I also have my doubts when it comes to the ethics of keeping pets. In the end we are still talking about intelligent creatures being owned by other creatures (NB: of course this is absolutely not comparable with slavery). As thoroughly debated above, because these animals are domesticated, of course "setting an animal free" does put it into a situation that is more harmful than being the property of a human in most of the cases.

That is why I do not call for abolishing pet ownership, but I can certainly defend a full ban on breeding, very proactive sterilization programs and non-violent means of reducing domesticated animal populations in the long-term. Let's not forget that the world population of cats and dogs is artificially much higher than it was in prehistoric times, so I don't see a big issue with undoing this organically (i.e. without actively killing animals, for example by "euthanizing" them or releasing them into the wild).

For me, the ideal alternative to pet ownership is for those pets to just not come into existence. They are born to suffer, into being owned by someone who decided for them that they are owned or even worse, in a wilderness which is hostile and now foreign to them.
posted by Deece BJ Pancake at 8:54 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Just to be clear, does this apply to trained service animals? Emotional support animals? Where will they come from?
posted by Room 641-A at 9:40 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


I keep fish (eight danios, six cory cats, two Siamese Algae Eaters, and three snails). I became interested in axolotls, then increasingly horrified by the train wreck that can occur when Heartbreakingly Cute Animal on the Internet collides with a relatively exotic animal with exacting requirements. Axolotls need cycled tanks, like fish, and also need water so cold (64-66 F) that in a hot climate you may need special equipment to keep your tank cold. I have read so many accounts of axies dying because the owners couldn't wait to cycle a tank or afford a larger aquarium or an aquarium chiller. But they look just like Wooper, apparently (a Pokémon critter). They are also wholly dependent on humans, being nearly extinct in the wild. They have health problems resulting from inbreeding. I'm convinced that perceiving an animal as cute (in the full kawaii sense) renders people less able to care for it. So that I don't seem to be unloading solely onto axolotl owners, there are similar issues with King Charles spaniels and applehead teacup chihuahuas. (I don't myself yet own an axolotl. I live where it is hot in summer into October so I am waiting for winter to order one.)
posted by bad grammar at 4:41 PM on August 5


My bff often makes me feel shamed because her cats are free range. They come and go when they want. She believes they are happier that way and I know she feels badly for my cat that she's cooped up all day in my apartment.

From my perspective, her cats live with fleas, skunks, fights with other cats/animals, scratches and scars, and for so many, much worse. My parents had indoor/outdoor cats and they all died pretty young. Hit by cars, attacked, one died from a snowfall smothering her.

So no. I don't feel the least bit guilty for the safe, slightly boring life my cat has. (Admittedly, she's a pretty princess who cries non-stop when we go outside, has no stealth, is allergic to fleas, and I'm pretty sure wouldn't survive 2 days in the wild.)
posted by greermahoney at 12:37 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]


cstross is absolutely right that we have a duty of care to our pets, Rosie M. Banks is absolutely right that "people will always want the love and companionship that pets will provide and there is nothing wrong with that,” and Devoidoid is absolutely right that the guy who “freed” his pet bird needs to be punched in the face, repeatedly.

And I find the idea of a world where “moggies and mutts” are extinct a very sad one.
posted by elphaba at 9:40 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]


A wild life is hard, but is it really worse than, for example, being torn away from your mother too early, fed corn feed that makes you ill, packed in together so that you are all standing in shit for months, and then slaughtered?

Like the article, you're presenting the situation as a false choice between two extremes. I agree with you that the life of many domesticated animals is a shitty existence, but we can give them better lives, and sometimes we do. The solution should not be to get rid of all domesticated animals because sometimes we treat them like shit - it should be that we make sure we treat our domesticated animals as well as we can. Surely that is a more likely and more kind alternative than casting them into the wild.
posted by dazed_one at 1:07 PM on August 8 [5 favorites]


One of my dogs is currently on a high fiber, mostly vegetable-based diet that I assemble out of human food. She and I are eating the same oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, and sweet potatoes. The diet was prescribed by her vet to help counter-act the effects her impaired liver and she's doing great on it. This dog and our older one who passed away in March were fed home-made food since we adopted them six years ago - rice, veggies and ground beef. My husband and I are mostly vegetarians, and we don't have kids, so I suppose between us and the dogs, we have a pretty normal environmental impact for a small American family.

I really can see both sides in this debate, and I actually agree on a very abstract theoretical level, that pets & domesticated animals aren't really a great thing for humans to be doing.

But super realistically? Which I know you all realize, but still? There is no Emperor of Earth that is going to magically disappear all domesticated animals and humans' desire to have them. So it all comes down to making whatever ethical choices you feel you can live with.

What my husband and I do is adopt garbage dogs - these are dogs that have just literally been thrown away by humans. The choices for them are homes like ours, or euthanasia. Our newest is a chihuahua mix who is tiny, and terrified any time he's outside of the house. He cant, like, run free in the wilderness or whatever.

Basically, I totally agree that this dog shouldn't exist - people were incredibly irresponsible about spaying/neutering their pets, or bred them on purpose, there were puppies that didn't get vet care, then this one ended up dumped in an alley. But my choice was to make a home for him, or say, "tsk tsk pets are unethical I guess he should get euthanized."
posted by Squeak Attack at 1:58 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]


Oh, so I meant to say, I choose not to support pet industries that create new pets - dog breeding, or hamsters from the pet store, etc. Instead, I try to mitigate the after-effects of other people being irresponsible. Reuse, recycle? I don't know, it's been a long day.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:02 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


A wild life is hard, but is it really worse than, for example, being torn away from your mother too early, fed corn feed that makes you ill, packed in together so that you are all standing in shit for months, and then slaughtered?"

There are other ways BTW. Beef cows around here spend most of their time eating grass or hay on open ranges. Ranchers assist them giving birth but calves are raised by their mothers. The ranges are patrolled to reduce the natural occurring dangers. And while their are problematic areas in the way they are treated leading up to slaughter they generally experience less pain and suffering than most humans in hospice.
posted by Mitheral at 2:56 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


There seems to be two different conversations here. The comments about the inhumane way we treat cows and chickens and pigs meant for food production seem to me a different argument than "we shouldn't keep pets." I think it's completely ok to be against animals being used as food, and ok with animals as pets. Because chickens currently have a terrible life (which we should rectify) doesn't make me think cats and dogs should be thrown out with the bathwater.
posted by greermahoney at 2:35 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


This discussion is going to seem highly ironic when the human race is destroyed by a zoonotic pandemic originating from a captive parakeet. Or something.
posted by asok at 5:43 AM on August 9


Do you want 12 Monkeys? Because that's how you get 12 Monkeys.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:37 AM on August 9


I'm more worried that my uplifted dog willl ask where his testicles are and not like the answer.
posted by phearlez at 6:53 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


You should have had them bronzed so he could have them as a keepsake.
posted by biogeo at 9:48 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


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