Is it ethical to keep pets?

Is it ethical to keep pets? That is the question a sociologist at the University of Kent in England is asking. Her answer is “No.” Though Professor Wrenn admits that “we love them, care for them, celebrate their birthdays and mourn them when they pass,” she argues that, “The institution of pet-keeping is fundamentally unjust as it involves the manipulation of animals’ bodies, behaviours and emotional lives.” She notes that one of the problems is that it results in mass killing in local pounds when animals become inconvenient or are given up for other reasons. Moreover, she says, animals cannot “consent” to the arrangement.

Thankfully, unlike PETA, she is adamantly opposed to killing which is cruel. And, unlike others such as Gary Francione, she is not advocating for animals to return to a state of nature which is likewise cruel. She writes that,

humans do have a duty to serve, protect and care for them. Recognising the inherent inequality in human and nonhuman relations will be vital in making the best of an imperfect situation.

By contrast, my answer to the question as to whether it is ethical to live with animals is a resounding “Yes,” at least when it comes to dogs and cats. I believe that is the true animal rights position, one that, given the parameters imposed by reality, is the position with the greatest potential to minimize harm while maximizing welfare. In fact, from an animal welfare perspective, I believe any potential cost-benefit calculus is not even close. Dogs and cats want to live with us, chose to live with us, and should live with us given all the benefits human bestow upon them, our proven potential for ongoing improvement, and our remarkable capacity for love. Moreover, we do not have any choice in the matter.

Dr. Wrenn — with whom I have had the pleasure of communicating with over the last few years on a variety of issues from corruption in the animal movement to veganism — notes in the article that, “Some companion animal advocates, such as Nathan Winograd, the director of the US based No Kill Advocacy Center, argue that to stop keeping pets altogether would be a violation of nonhuman animals’ right to exist. Winograd believes the widespread killing of healthy companion animals can be curbed through a restructuring of the sheltering industry. He rejects the need to end pet-keeping given the abundance of humanity’s capacity for compassion and adoption.” She also shares my argument that to address any challenges, “an increase in legal protections could be obtained to improve domestic animal’s standards of living.”

I’m grateful that she does not believe in killing animals (like PETA does) or advocate for returning dogs and cats to a state of nature (like others do). But, as Jennifer and I discuss in Welcome Home, our book on this very topic, not only do the arguments and facts used to justify the idea the idea that sharing our homes with animals is “fundamentally unjust” fail to withstand scrutiny, but the promotion of this idea itself undermines, rather than furthers, the rights of animals.

I am also grateful Dr. Wrenn included some of our objections in her piece. But our reasoning as to why is actually broader and more rigorous, as documented in detail in Welcome Home. Here is a summary of some of the main points.

First and foremost, dogs and cats did consent. Through self-domestication, they sought out humans in order to maximize their chances of survival. Dogs and cats “have successfully adapted to us and our ways, seizing the opportunity that our planetary dominance presents, greatly increasing their numbers, and extending their range beyond what was possible in the absence of people.”

Second, dogs and cats in the West already enjoy a high standard of living. While abuse of animals does occur, it is not the norm and is considered aberrant behavior to be prevented and punished. And while we believe “an increase in legal protections could be obtained to improve domestic animal’s standards of living,” the good news is that an increasing number of communities are doing so, including banning cosmetic surgery, banning continuous tethering/chaining, and in some countries, mandating socialization for gregarious species. We already have a roadmap whereby we can end the harms that have historically — but by no means must — accompany our relationship with dogs and cats. Admittedly, there is even more that we can and should do — Jennifer and I lay out our vision for the future of the relationship in the final chapter of Part I of Welcome Home — but we have little doubt that we will.

Third, ending “the widespread killing of healthy [and treatable] companion animals… through a restructuring of the sheltering industry,” (i.e., shelter reform) is occurring throughout the U.S. and a proven method of ending the killing. It’s not just that we “can” end the killing; many communities already have. And when a practical and pragmatic solution exists to solve a problem — in this case, shelter killing — but has not yet been implemented widely enough to end the problem entirely, efforts to fix that problem should be focused on making sure that it is. We do that through shelter reform efforts and legislation, both of which have a proven track records of success. Suggesting that living with dogs and cats is the problem — rather than poorly run shelters that have yet to be properly regulated — throws the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Fourth, the concept of “inequality” and “dependence” to explain the power dynamics in the relationship between people and the dogs/cats they live with often obscure more than they illuminate. Unlike so many other relationships between humans and animals, the one we have with the dogs and cats with whom we share our homes are built primarily on mutual love and affection, rather than exploitation. In fact, in so many ways, the relationships are very one sided, with humans doing all of the work and the animals not expected to do anything to repay us, other than grace us with the pleasure of their company. Moreover, making decisions for dogs and cats, like making decisions for human children, may impact autonomy, but if done based for their own long-term interest, is advantageous for them and consistent with their rights.

In a shared community of social animals — regardless of whether we are talking about relationships with others of the same or different species — varying degrees of dependency are ultimately inevitable and inescapable. To the extent that such relationships are based on mutual love and for mutual benefit, there need be nothing inherently unethical about them. In fact, in some instances, they can even be beneficial. For instance, when we make the decision to leash dogs when we walk them near busy streets, our gifts of foresight and intellect are protecting animals from dangers they may be incapable of perceiving and shielding themselves from. Such limits on autonomy are done not to exploit animals and diminish their welfare, but to protect them and enhance their well-being.

Fifth, we don’t have a choice as to whether we want relationships with dogs and cats. The only choice is the kind of relationship we have. Dogs and cats chose to live near us and then with us, as do countless other animal species. Even assuming we could end “domestication” (and that we would want to), we could never end human-animal relationships. Those relationships would inevitably develop as animals continued to seek us out. How we respond to those overtures and opportunities is up to us. We can choose, based on a misguided reading of “animal rights” that says that to share our homes with animals is inevitably “unjust,” to subvert our best and most compassionate instincts and ignore the hungry dog or injured stray cat who arrives at our doorstep. Or we can obey our most noble impulse — compassion — and feed the dog and provide veterinary care to the cat. These are the constraints, and choices, which reality present to us. And we believe that kind hearted individuals will always — and should always — open their doors and hearts to animals in need.

Finally, people throughout the United States and across the globe include dogs and cats in their larger families. Sometimes they even choose animals over human partners and having children. Arguing that there is something fundamentally wrong with doing so threatens to cut off humans and animals alike from very deep, very meaningful, and very loving relationships of great mutual benefit.

Dr. Wrenn’s article is here.

Welcome Home is here. (The ebook version is available for free download today only on Amazon.)


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