Dear Cheryl Abbate,
I was walking through my local university recently and noticed something peculiar. Their student union had organized a petting zoo for students who were about to sit their college exams. It was a nice gesture in some ways. An opportunity for young people to relieve some stress. But I couldn't help but feel sympathy for the poor animals as scores of college students corralled around them for cuddles and selfies. Perhaps I am imposing my own wants onto these tiny critters. As an introvert, I would hate to have hundreds of strangers pat my head and lift me into the air over and over and over again. Some of the animals did not seem to be having a good time. I began to wonder then if there was some principle of ‘conservation of emotion’ at work. Were these students simply transferring their bad feelings to the dogs, rabbits, cats, and piglets?
More strange to me, I think, are our relationships with house pets. Sure, for most of us, it is the most natural thing in the world. Few could imagine their lives without ‘man’s best friend’. Don’t get me wrong, of course. I am fond of dogs too. My family’s pomeranian Dobby, whom we rescued many years ago, holds a special place in my inner sanctum. But I realize now that I’m probably a product of social conditioning too. Is there not something inherently unnatural about the entire lifecycle of pet-keeping and the pet-keeping industry?
Perhaps it’s not that strange. Animals all over the world routinely engage in mutualism. Goby fishes, for example, will warn pistol shrimps when predators are near. The shrimps return the favor by digging the burrows they share together. Some species of ants, likewise, will cultivate aphids for their sugary honeydew. They repay the aphids in kind through arms, protecting them from parasites and predators. Apparently, even Koko the gorilla, over at The Gorilla’s Foundation preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains, once had a pet cat named All-Ball that it nursed and cared for. And when All-Ball passed away, Koko was noticeably distraught. So maybe our own relations with dogs, cats, hamsters, and rabbits are not all that peculiar. We care for them in exchange for emotional companionship. Either way, the house pets, for the most part, have it much better than the chickens, cows, and pigs do on industrial farms.
I’m not an ethicist or an animal right’s expert, but some of our behaviors, from selective breeding to pet fashion shows, strike me as a little extreme. I feel uneasy seeing dogs on television wear fur coats and top hats while others jump through obstacle courses for cash prizes and the owner’s acclaim. (Perhaps that’s not surprising either. Human zoos were even commonplace in the late 1800s.) I don’t yet have a framework to think about these issues deeply. Where do we draw the line between right and wrong? Clearly, we have a lot to do to protect our wildlife and to transition towards ethical and sustainable farming. But how should similar rules apply to our social lives with animals? Can we even say, for example, that pet ownership in the twenty-first century is a moral and ethical thing for families to do?
Cheryl, as an expert in animal ethics, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How should everyday folk think about these issues? Does a morally-just world allow for pet ownership? Or are we just rationalizing and moralizing our desires?