Summary. The sincerity of people who love nonhuman animals should not be questioned. But treating other species as if we are entitled to love members of those species produces suffering throughout civilization. Recommendations for good pet care do not have force of law. Many pet owners ignore them or lack adequate funds to carry them out. Even relatively comfortable and happy pets cannot truly lead fulfilling lives according to their species’ original biological nature. Loving care conferred on some pets does not prevent many pet owners from subordinating pets’ needs to their own, ignoring pets’ basic needs, severely neglecting them, or in some cases deliberately causing pain and suffering. Short of keeping their pets indoors and never placing them in another’s care, pet owners cannot prevent others from subjecting their pets to cruelty or killing them.
It is undeniable that most nonhuman animals truly loved by human beings experience moments of genuine pleasure and happiness. But that is just one part of a much larger picture. In thirty years as a full-time animal advocate, I’ve kept my focus on other animals and their experience. I’ve participated in countless investigations – some on a large, industrial scale, others involving individual dogs or horses with protruding bones due to severe neglect, cats set on fire, a recently hatched chick thrown against a classroom wall by a five-year-old girl (despite the presence of a teacher), and countless others.
Few prosecutable instances of cruelty would occur if pet industries did not provide a steady stream of animals to suit every human desire and taste, making them subject to every destructive human impulse. Most pets are defenseless, dependent, and docile due to eugenics, selective breeding. These traits cause the animals to lack dignity like that of the animals’ original free-living ancestors – wolves, say, or African wildcats. As with many victimized human beings, a lack of dignity elicits bullying. It makes pets a target of choice among spouse- or child-abusers, bored teenagers, people who’ve fallen on hard times, psychopaths, and others.
It avails little that the vast majority of human beings voice horror over cruelty to animals. Potential nonhuman victims keep coming through the pet pipeline. The best people little affect the acts or omissions of those a notch or two less empathetic, altruistic or well-intentioned. I’ve personally known people to love a nonhuman animal yet confine them to a cage over many years, assuring themselves and others that the animals previously experienced much more pain in the situation from which they were rescued.
Pets are also easily subjected to injury or death by accidents generated by human beings and civilization, which their free-living ancestors would not have experienced. People drive vehicles over them, leave dangerous objects lying about that their pets can ingest, fail to evacuate pets from burning buildings, and more.
A fulfilling life involves living the way one’s species evolved to live. Human beings long since abandoned their original, natural lifeway and home on the African savanna, all that their brains coevolved with and that they have a latent innate expectation of experiencing. Among other things, original human beings lived in a world teeming with other animals of great variety. Life in civilization can feel drab and lacking amid buildings, paving, and brown space rather than green space with abundant life. Even without realizing it, in owning or even surrounding themselves with pets (sometimes to the extent of hoarding animals), many people are seeking to replace what seems to be missing from their lives. We do this to enhance our own lives, not to ensure that nonhuman animals themselves will experience fulfilling lives.
Being moral apes, with a need to see ourselves as good (except for psychopaths), we can easily convince ourselves that our pets are happy and that they are members of our families despite not even being members of our species. They rub up against us, they show great excitement when we return to them, they purr, they eat with gusto, they’re vaccinated or otherwise protected against painful afflictions.
However, nonhuman animals did not evolve to live with human beings, in civilization, amid buildings, sidewalks, automobiles, and so forth. They don’t know that their ancestors lived free – in fresh air, not among stinky carpets, furniture, clothing, plastic, and manufactured chemicals (their olfactory is far more powerful than ours); in their own families; mating according to their original species’ natural ways; playing with peers who know their species’ social signals; eating animals they kill by their own skill, fresh, not pulverized kibble out of a bag or processed mush out of a can.
Human beings often call pets “boy” or “girl” throughout their lives because pets age but do not mature, remaining defenseless, obedient, and dependent — childlike. In free-living animals, maturation is part of a fulfilling life. So is making one’s way in the living world according to one’s genetic makeup and learning. Pets are not permitted to experience any of that. A great many of them are not safe outdoors or are dangerous to free-living animals if allowed outdoors – an extension of our species’ otherwise massive assaults on the living world even without pets. A long life that depends on care by our species is not fulfillment; it’s just a long life. Just as many human beings can live very long lives without experiencing fulfillment if their innate ecological, familial, and social needs are not met.
Little mentioned in public discourse celebrating relationships between human beings and their pets, in news and other institutions that promote the public-relations version – that human beings experience many injuries from pets. Not only from bites but as from accidents as mundane as tripping over them. More harmful are zoonotic diseases, infections that spill over from other animals to human beings. This does not only happen in situations like China’s “wet markets” where living and dead animals are for sale. Humans have acquired many diseases from enslaved (“domesticated”) rabbits, dogs, horses, mice, rats, and others kept as pets.
What should people do, then?
In his compelling book Slaves of Our Affection: The Myth of the Happy Pet, veterinarian Charles Danten, who closed his practice after recognizing that he was working for animal owners and not for the total wellbeing of their pets, answers that question, essentially, nothing.
As moral apes, we can feel obligated to give an animal “in need” a good home. And adopting pets is heavily promoted as a good thing to do. At the same time, the existence of pet industries indicates to me a moral failing of our species, arising from domestication carried out in prehistoric times when expediency – not our innate morality that respects other beings as they occur in nature – had unfortunately become the basis for the way we treat other animals.
As long as the state permits human beings to own other animals, the state must take responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of those other animals. Far from meeting that responsibility, the state maintains animal-abuse policy, keeping it lawful for human beings to do anything whatsoever to other animals no matter how much suffering or premature death it causes, as long as it is not done for the purpose of causing pain and suffering, that is, as long as it is not cruelty, the minuscule portion of animal abuse prohibited by law.
It would be unethical to seize existing pets and destroy them merely because the existence of pet industries does not comport with our species’ innate morality. And we needn’t deride anyone for owning a pet – though offering respectful advice for improving a pet’s quality of life might help them endure their unchosen life among human beings. That does not mean we must confer high status on pet ownership, act as if calling pets “companion animals” means they are not the property of their owners or that they choose us as their companions, or otherwise invest time, energy, and funds in promoting or whitewashing pet ownership.
It might also help to aid human beings in meeting their ecological, familial, and social needs to minimize the impulse to acquire nonhuman animals as property. Living and spending time amid soil and vegetation where free-living animals can thrive and humans can observe them; avoiding isolation and maintaining strong relationships with other human beings; and ensuring that people realize pet ownership is an attempt to improve human fulfillment, not that of other animals – all of these might be useful.
Responsible Policies for Animals’ free brochure Animal-Knowing is designed to help protect nonhuman animals by restoring our species’ natural affinity for them. It explains that we can benefit immensely by regularly contemplating free-living animals without interfering in their lives, and it provides tips for how to do this. Some people who have read the brochure and begun to practice animal-knowing have raved about the experience. (RPA can mail copies of Animal-Knowing free on request.)
Responsible Policies for Animals works to eliminate animal-abuse policy, culture, and practice so that nonhuman animals eventually will no longer experience tyranny by human beings and the only nonhuman animals will be free-living animals. Breeding other animals is a fundamental component of our species’ tyranny over other animals, who all deserve better. RPA’s Campaign K-12 white paper “Schooling for Life: How K-12 Schools Can Help End Our Species’ Millennia-Long Animal-Abuse Policy, Annihilation of Nature, and Resulting Human Misery” shows teachers and administrators, in detail, what children need to learn in order to respect rather than own other animals. (RPA can mail copies of Schooling for Life free on request.)
Whatever your views or practices regarding nonhuman animals and ownership of them, civilization has a long way to go to stop indoctrinating people into animal-abuse policy, culture, and practice. We all endure moral injury from being told that it is good to live in ways that are harmful and injurious to others. The best we can do is to keep our attention on the suffering of other animals and the human misery that is generated by animal abuse, and explain these things to others, debunking the humane-washing language that keeps people confused and locked in to abusive practices and lifeways.
I am always glad to discuss these matters and to provide sources for further reading. Responsible Policies for Animals is glad to provide members with a complimentary copy of Slaves of Our Affection (see above) on request.