Here’s a furry (prickly?) topic to muse upon.
I’ll start with the caveat that although I have no personal desire to possess an animal; I do like them; dogs, cats, etc; they’re all nice and fluffy. What’s not to like? I do see the appeal of dogs in particular—a pet that loves you unconditionally (the same can not be said of cats no matter how hard cat owners try to convince you otherwise).
I take no issue with the animals themselves; the subject of the proceeding argument is for consideration by the owners of the pets and of the industry that produces them. Industry is in bold to highlight the point that it is, of course, an industry, and I’m betting that most of my readers have not stopped to consider this fact.
Also, it’s essential to stick to the topic at hand. This isn’t an argument for veganism or a change in diet—although there is most definitely an overlap with vegan ethics. I don’t want to get sidetracked by this, or the argument could become too convoluted. Furthermore, as you might gather when reading, I’m more than aware that some components of my argument may well be applied to the morality of having (human) children too, and I briefly touch on this. However, that is a separate topic, so it won’t be discussed in any depth here. I also do not claim that this short article contains all (or really any of) the answers; I’m writing it solely to prompt some thinking on the matter.
I also want to clarify that I am in no way trying to be the arbiter of all human moral dilemmas. I am merely deeply thinking about topics and writing down an array of my thoughts to, in turn, provoke others to think.
Deep breath. Here we go.
At its core, pet ownership is quite bizarre—one animal (human) seeking the companionship of another species with a pronounced power differential in the relationship. The human clearly has the Godlike power to determine much of the fate of the animal it has control over (in quite a scarily controlling way, in my opinion), yet the animal also demands of its owner much; time, resources, affection—quite a strange co-dependency indeed, one which only one party voluntarily signs up to.
Of course, people who own pets consider themselves to be doing a good thing for the animal, and I’m sure in many cases they are (particularly those who rescue an animal). But there isn’t much doubt in my mind that the animal deriving the most benefit from the relationship is indeed the human.
I suppose pet ownership stems from the domestication of animals—particularly livestock, many millennia ago. Some research suggests that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by humans, potentially including their use as pets. But it certainly wasn’t all friendship, and there’s more evidence to suggest they were used for fur and food than camaraderie.
Everyone’s aware that the Ancient Egyptians revered cats; cat murals, hieroglyphics, and statues galore—the original crazy cat people. I wonder if the whole society had endemic levels of toxoplasmosis; the parasite then compels its host to treat the cat with divinity.
Nevertheless, Ancient Egyptians weren’t likely to be specifically breeding the cats to keep as pets, nor were they likely to be buying specific cat pet food or to be investing in pet insurance. The people most likely to have kept the cat as a pet were, of course, those in the higher echelons of society, like priests and pharaohs. So, generally, the cat was revered but not restrained—it came and went as it so pleased and fended for itself on all the vermin that the Egyptians wanted gone. Mutual symbiosis.
These days, anyone can own a pet. I reckon I’ll repeat this bit. These days, anyone can own a pet (potential problem?). Because of this, and our own incomprehensibly large human population nearing 8 billion (EIGHT BILLION!!!), the biomass of humans and their domesticated animals (pets and livestock) is greater than the biomass of all wild mammals (think elephants, tigers, whales, gorillas, dolphins, etc.,) combined1.
When I read that whilst reading Sapiens a few years ago, I was shocked. Shocked but not surprised. I’ve been alive for nearly thirty years and travelled to numerous countries, yet when I consider my experiences, I’ve barely seen any wild animals. I mean, I have seen many different species of animals, but in terms of numbers, really hardly any. Like most people, I’ve spent my life constantly bloody surrounded by other humans and, now living in the wealthy Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, their designer dogs—forever getting in my way on my coastal runs; Groodles, Cavoodles, Labradoodles, Cockapoodles, Myownerhastoomuchmoneyoodles.
Although I touched on the apparent power differential between humans and animals earlier, it is interesting to observe some humans walking their dogs. It sometimes isn’t particularly clear who is walking who—especially when the human is clearly overweight, and the dog fit as a fiddle (this image is all the more peculiar when said plump human plays fetch with the very fit dog, one wonders if a switch in roles would be more beneficial).
Quite clearly, pet ownership is a selfish endeavour; much in the same way we decide that our unborn children will be given life (and the inevitable suffering that life has in store2), we decide that millions of animals will be given life (bred) for our own devices and pleasure. I understand it is a whole lot easier to pretend that it’s great for the animals to be born; you’re giving them a great life, right? Look how happy Spot is when he chases the ball! But that disregards the millions of others who do not benefit in the slightest from our want to control and breed animals for our use.
We are far too nonchalant about giving life3 (I will save much of this for another post on why I think we have serious problems with medically assisted procreation, and likewise overpopulation, while millions of orphans do not have parents). It is a God complex. When people decide to have a baby, I’ve never, ever heard anyone contemplate the fact of whether or not that child might want to exist in the first place (and with the state of the world now, I’d like to think that would be the primary consideration). The same applies to those who want a pet.
We do not live in a benighted time. For most in the modern world, it is straightforward to choose not to procreate; likewise, it is very easy to decide not to be the cause of another animal’s existence by supporting animal breeding.
Why also do pet owners have the audacity to think that the animal would prefer to cohabitate with them rather than the animal’s kin? Dogs, in particular, are pack animals. They’re highly social. Canines cooperate and hunt and mate together, and they remain in their packs until the pack gets too large. I wonder what kind of psychological distress all dogs are living with after being taken from their family when they are pups. If you think that is silly and that a dog can’t be psychologically distressed, please explain why half of the dogs in the Eastern Suburbs are on anxiety medication. I shit you not. Bona fide anxiety medication, made in a lab for human consumption. Not only do large swathes of the human-animal who exist in the Western world require happy pills just to feel okay, so do their fucking pets. If that doesn’t make you question the way we live and the impact we have on all other beings around us, pretty much nothing will.
I suppose it is easy to believe our pets need and want us, as many of them—the well-taken care of ones—can seem pretty chuffed to be in our company. Stockholm syndrome, anyone? Naturally, we have bred certain pets, like dogs, over about 40,000 years to be adept at living alongside us. Dogs have even evolved to understand much of the way we communicate, and when they don’t, they do that cute sideways look to show us they don’t know what the hell we are talking about.
However, although pets, like dogs, have been bred to coexist with humans (traditionally in a working capacity in which they would have usually lived with other dogs too and often of the same pack), they have not necessarily evolved to spend most of their waking hours alone inside the owners home. A dog across the street from me regularly howls multiple times per day as it sits in a bay window, longingly awaiting the return of its adopted family. I feel sad every time I hear that dog cry. But hey, it’s great for the owners to return home to a dog that’s excited to see them, isn’t it? Good for them!
In essence, many of our pets, particularly before the pandemic and ensuing working from home arrangements, lived much of their lives in solitary confinement. There’s a reason that isolation rooms are the worst places inside of prisons—humans and other social animals do not do very well alone for extended periods.
Not only do we leave dogs at home alone, stolen from their families; we trap exotic birds in cages (still common practice in Southern Europe). Quite how it could ever be seen as reasonable in any way to keep a bird in a cage is beyond me. Maybe I’m an outlier here, but I think it’s atrocious to keep a bird in a cage just because you like to hear it tweet. Clipping a bird’s wings and keeping it in a cage. What kind of narcissistic psychopathy is that? It’s the ultimate affront to the very idea of freedom itself. It’s abhorrent. Birds belong wild and free, in the sky, not imprisoned in a tiny cage for someone’s sick pleasure.
There is then the matter of keeping these pets alive. It turns out, it is perhaps an unfortunate truism that most of our favourite pets, like dogs and cats, are obligate carnivores. Naturally, you do find some absolute weirdos trying to feed their dog a vegan diet (Dear God, save me from humanity, please) to no avail, and indeed to the detriment of their prisoners.
So, we find ourselves in a situation where millions upon millions of people own pets (and the rate of pet ownership is growing as people around the world become more affluent, like in China) and these pets need feeding. They need feeding meat. We have entire industries dedicated to the destruction of other animals, like pigs, cows, chickens, to feed the animals that we have decided are worth spending time with. Is that not a morally dubious decision on our part? Not only have we taken these pets and domesticated them so that they no longer need to fend for themselves (even though they do still have their innate drives to hunt, as 40,000 years of domestication is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms) we then feed them with chopped up bits of other animals that we deem less worthy. None of this needs to happen. Again, I am not making an argument for veganism for humans—like it or not, humans require animal products in their diet (in significantly smaller amounts than Western diets assume) to be healthy. That’s not an opinion; that’s a fact, even if Gamechangers on Netflix has convinced you otherwise.
The fact remains that even if humans require animal products in their diet, and therefore some animals must die for our health and survival, we do not need to propagate an entire industry of mass death to provide food for other animals we like having around for company.
I guess it’s true that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
All of this feeding and taking care of; grooming and deworming and vet trippin’ for the fluffy hostage comes at a steep price of course. The average lifetime cost of a dog in Australia is $25,0004. Generally, cats are a bit cheaper (they’re a bit less needy, aren’t they, and can fend for themselves a little more).
Now again, you might deem this totally worth it. But I’d hope by now, given a couple of thousand words of perspective shoved into your face, that you’d be able to consider how this cash might be better off spent elsewhere…
Needless to say, $25,000 bucks can do a whole lot of good for other people and causes. Look, I know that NO argument really stands up to the whole, “you could be saving kids in Africa with this money,” or the old favourite, “a kid in Africa could have eaten that” but I feel in this case, with this topic, given how unnecessary pet ownership is for all but those who require one for specific disabilities, it is a reasonable and stark comparison.
This article really could go on, with many more examples of the cruelty and issues with the industrialisation and ubiquity of pet ownership, including points such as: the issues with pedigree breeding of dogs or “designer” dogs, the cruelty of puppy farms (I’ve touched upon the madness of stealing pups from their mothers), the ancillary industries of pet goods (cat litter, food, toys etc, what a waste this all is), horses as pets (do horses want to be ridden? Don’t they require “breaking in”?), all the other myriad issues with keeping varied exotic animals that simply should not live in a domestic setting (snakes, monkeys, chinchillas, rabbits… the list is endless), the vast numbers of unwanted animals being kept in shelters, the vast number that are then euthanised because nobody wants them (literally born to be killed)…
Humans must relinquish their Godlike mentality over the animal kingdom… Just because you can do something does not mean you should.
I won’t continue, otherwise this essay could well be a book.
So, where to from here? We can not simply destroy all of the existing pets that we have bred, and I wouldn’t condone such a suggestion anyway. The only honest and reasonable answer I can see from the predicament we have is the “rewilding” of the planet, in which we prioritise the freedom of all animals above all else and simultaneously ceasing to breed new animals. People must stop buying “new” pets and promoting the industry that creates them. Clearly, a lot of animals out there require rescuing or adopting, that should be a priority—and when they die they should not be replaced except by another rescued or adopted older animal.
Clearly this isn’t going to happen anytime soon—but if you’re buying pups explicitly bred for the purpose of being an attractive pet, then you are part of the problem that we face5.
I hope this article has prompted some food for thought. I reiterate that I do not claim to have all the answers to this issue, but it is an issue and it requires thinking and talking about. The mainstream consensus (and capitalist one too) is basically “pets are fucking awesome and everyone should have one”. That’s a bit too simple for my liking and shows no clear grasp of the nuance this topic requires. I would also repeat that I have merely scratched (no pun intended) the surface of this topic—perhaps my musings will prompt you to consider the subject more in depth for yourself.
Until next time.
Source - Sapiens by Yuval Harari.
Other interesting pages on Earth’s biomass are here:
Don’t get all antsy about this statement. It is true. By accepting the clear reality that life entails a significant amount of suffering, for the vast, vast majority of humans, you are able to experience the wonder, happiness, and contentment that life also has to offer. Pretending that life doesn’t involve significant suffering is being dishonest to yourself.
Maybe we are a species of eternal optimists. Even throughout World Wars, people continued to procreate, knowing their offspring were being born into a world-destroying itself. Millions upon millions of mothers’ sons dying in despicable ways. Even in the 1960s, when people around the world lived with the daily threat of nuclear armageddon, people continued to procreate, happily birthing children into a world that they thought might end any day with a nuclear war between the Soviets and the Americans. I’m not sure how to reconcile this sort of thinking.
More beneficial uses for money than spending on owning a pet
Again, I’m more than aware there is a significant overlap here between the idea of adopting human children rather than creating more new ones. It is without doubt that there is a clear moral and philosophical prerogative that adoption of children and abstaining from having your own is indeed the higher good. However, this is an argument for another piece.