600,000,000 unique, special individuals, with minds and thoughts, hopes and hearts, needs, desires and preferences are abandoned by humanity every single year. Shelters are filled to bursting point and countless millions of sad, frightened and desperate nonhumans are slaughtered annually for the ‘crime’ of becoming homeless. And why are they homeless? It all boils down to our failure as a species to live up to the obligations we have created by bringing them into the world. It stems from the same speciesism which leads us to consider that all other species are inferior to humans and exist solely for our use.
Yet the keeping of ‘pets’ or the sharing of our homes and lives with individuals of other species is a thorny topic on even the most stalwart of vegan sites and pages, with many leaping defensively to justify this particular variety of animal use. Perhaps this is because almost all of us share a special affinity with individuals of other species. It’s certainly true that many vegans – if not most – share their lives with nonhumans, and for most of us – and I include myself in that group – the very notion of their not being with us is beyond heartbreaking. I hope this will not deter you from reading on.
When I first became vegan four years ago, I was completely oblivious to how far-ranging the consequences would be, or, to quote Morpheus in The Matrix, ‘how deep the rabbit hole goes’. Four years in, I don’t imagine for a second that I know how deep it goes, but I’m determined to learn and to confront whatever inconsistencies I discover in my own attitudes. My thoughts may strike a chord with some readers, and perhaps for others may provide food for thought. Others may dismiss them. Such is life.
Our words say more about us than we realise
Let’s start with some terminology as that’s probably the least contentious aspect of this topic. As I’ve mentioned, I was born and raised as a speciesist. My parents made little pretence about caring for those of any other species until after I had left their house in the early 1970’s, whereupon my mother acquired two miniature poodles.
These hapless individuals were termed ‘family pets’ or ‘domestic pets’ and although she was not unkind to them in my presence, they were definitely regarded by my parents, who seemed rather typical of their generation, as inferior creatures. They were expected to be subservient and obedient and no regard was given to their own wishes or preferences. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that my parents had no concept of their even having wishes or preferences. They were the equivalent of living furniture, entertaining accessories, interactive ornaments. ‘Pets’ was the word that was used to encompass these categories, and the dictionary definition – ‘a domestic or tamed animal or bird kept for companionship or pleasure’ – supports this view. I’m truly not sure how much ‘pleasure’ or ‘companionship’ there was in the having of these ‘pets’: it seemed to me that they were regarded as a chore and a burden more than a pleasure, but that’s another story.
Hamsters, mice, gerbils, rabbits, cats, dogs, budgies, parrots, canaries, tortoises, fish; as far as the species that were commonly kept as ‘pets’, that was about it when I was young. More affluent parents bought ponies or horses for their offspring, frequently passing them on as they were outgrown or as their offspring became bored, just like I did myself with my sons’ bicycles in fact – except with real, live, sentient and completely helpless individuals.
Nowadays of course, I hear of ‘exotics’ like reptiles and spiders, chinchillas, and almost any species you can imagine. All are scooped up by the acquisitiveness of my own species, behaving like children in a toy shop, ‘wanting’ pretty things, cute things, unusual things. Only they’re not things, and that’s the problem. They’re beings; sentient individuals; mothers, fathers, children. And they are completely at the mercy of our capricious species.
The concept of ‘ownership’
If I were to ask another human, ‘Do you have an owner?’ they would look at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. No one ‘owns’ another person and we are all in no doubt that the concept of ‘owning’ other humans is a euphemism for enslavement. Whilst most of us are aware that slavery still exists in certain quarters, it is certainly illegal and is justly regarded as a contemptible practice.
Not so when it comes to members of other species. Many still talk in terms of ‘owning’ ‘pets’, and do not challenge the concept of ‘owning’ other sentient individuals and their lives. True, this reflects their legal status as property, but by far the majority of humans – and particularly those that share their homes with companion animals – recognise that animals are self-aware beings who experience thoughts and a similar emotional range to ourselves. Many are also aware that this archaic legal status as property is increasingly being challenged by scientists, philosophers and legal experts.
The things that other people do
We must remember that for our companions, these are the only lives they have; utterly unique, precious lives, lives they experience through their senses and emotions, through their interactions with others and through their environment. Their lives matter to them. Their lives have a meaning and a purpose, as does the life of each of us. They are not toys, playthings or accessories except within the complex and self-serving fantasies of justification that we have created in order to excuse the senseless atrocities we inflict on other species.
Most will agree that the statistics relating to abandoned companions are shocking, but many staunchly defend the institution of ‘pet ownership’, and their own status as ‘pet owners’ using common arguments/ justifications/ excuses along the lines of, ‘not every pet is treated badly’, ‘my pets love me as much as I love them’.
A frequent assertion is, ‘I love my cat/dog/horse like family’. This takes no cognisance of the fact we buy and sell ‘pets’, even offer them to others for free – that’s not how anyone that I know treats their family members.
As feelings escalate, challenges are raised such as ‘What about guide dogs?’. ‘What about horses?’ and so on, frequently making claims of mutually beneficial relationships. As in almost every aspect of our attitude towards other species, we desperately seek a way to justify our own behaviour whilst agreeing in principle that what ‘others’ do is frequently wrong.
My crime confessed
So, for those who may be keen to point out my hypocrisy, what about me? Yes, I live with cats. Three were with me before I became vegan, the fourth, eldest and latest member of the family was rescued from homelessness just over a year ago. I adore them. They share my home and my life and they have as much freedom as I can possibly give them. Yet now that I am vegan, I often sit and watch them as they play or sit or sleep beside me and I am filled and overwhelmed with so much remorse for what my species has taken from these special creatures and indeed from all other ‘domesticated’ nonhumans.
The price they pay
Now that my blinkers have been shed, I realise that they have no autonomy whatsoever. They have no ‘natural’ environment, no evolutionary niche. We have robbed them – not only of the right to choose to live free and independent lives – a circumstance that humans prize immensely for themselves – but of the environment in which to do so. We have rendered them utterly dependent on us for food and shelter and in return we dictate whether their needs will be met or not, whether we will cast them off and abandon them, whether we will seek veterinary help for their health issues and in doing so, whether we will decide to have them killed to save us expense.
We dictate where, when and if they will reproduce, how long – if at all – they will be permitted to remain with their families. We decide whether they will live lives of torment as a result of being treated as novelty playthings by children and adults alike and we mete out terrible judgement on those nonhumans who, in desperation, seek to defend themselves from that torment with tooth or claw. I shall not detail my attitude to the practice of de-clawing but I’m sure it’s not hard to guess. Despite teeth or claws being the only pitiful defence animals have, it does not matter how provoked, how tormented, how abused and desperate they were, if a nonhuman retaliates, they’re sunk. And there we have yet another illustration of the blatant inequality of the relationship that so many like to claim is symbiotic. It’s not. Ever. Humans call all the shots.
What have we done?
Please don’t get me wrong, I love my companions with all my heart. I’d go as far as to say that they’re my family and I would be lost without them. But should they even exist? No, they shouldn’t.
Since becoming vegan I have come to realise that much as I adore them, they are refugees for whom I provide sanctuary but I’m no longer fooling myself. What I’m offering them is a pitiful, watered-down version of a real life lived as free and autonomous individuals. I would gladly give them that if it was in my power, but as I have said, there exists no natural environment where they could claim that birthright. In essence they are much-loved prisoners, aliens in their own world.
But … There’s always a ‘but’, and it always precedes some justification for whatever ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’ circumstances that our ingrained speciesism refuses to relinquish. As I’ve mentioned, we never have any difficulty in agreeing that the behaviour of ‘other’ people is unacceptable, but what we do ourselves is always different. It’s such a common defence that I’ve come to the conclusion that it must just be the way our brains are wired. We definitely can change this view, but before we do, we must acknowledge its existence. Indeed we must change this view, because it is one of the places where our speciesism lurks and flourishes and only by our rejection of speciesism will our nonhuman kin of every species be restored to their birthright as sentient inhabitants of this planet.
So in this case, a common ‘but’ goes….. ‘but what about ‘service’ animals?’ The existence of service animals and their alleged necessity is one of the biggest ‘buts’ that always follows any conversation about whether it is ethical to have companion animals. We have all heard of individuals, usually dogs, used as guides, or used as assistants to humans with various medical conditions, used to detect drugs, firearms, money or explosives; I’ve read of dolphins and sea lions used to detect mines, pigeons used to carry messages even in this day and age, horses used for various purposes in the military. We hear of individuals of various species used as ‘therapy animals’ for humans. Nonhuman body parts are even used as spare parts for certain human medical procedures. I could go on but I’m sure you catch the drift.
Many will assert forcefully that some sort of symbiotic relationship is created within these situations, however one simply has to look again at the paragraph above to find the unvarnished truth which, as it does so often when we talk of nonhumans, is hiding in plain sight. The truth lies in the incidence of the word ‘used’.
Make no mistake, these individuals are being used and using is not a circumstance with mutual benefits. It’s a one-way power thing. And ‘using’ any sentient individual necessarily involves imposing and enforcing servitude without consent. If that is what we are doing, then we should at least be honest with ourselves, rather than inventing justifications. The fact that we do actually do this – and I know we do because I used to do it too – is a beacon that we refuse to acknowledge, the beacon of conscience requiring justification or excuses for what we know, deep down, is slavery at best, or in the case of nonhuman body parts … Words, for once, fail me on that one.
So what’s the answer then?
I don’t have the answers. I have thoughts that make sense to me, but I can’t see the whole picture, much as I’d like to. But not having answers and not being able to see the end of a situation should not deter us from making a start to right a wrong. This isn’t about me or you or anyone else in particular, or about how much I love my feline family or about how much you love your companions.
It’s about a big picture. It’s about respecting the rights of sentient beings to own their own selves. It’s about those 600,000,000 – a number that I suspect is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s about the uncounted millions of unwanted, lost, lonely and hungry individuals, homeless, the bodies of unspayed females depleted by repeated pregnancies, desperately trying to survive in an alien, unwelcoming environment while our species regards them as ‘pests’ or ‘vermin’ because we have washed our hands of them.
The first thought is that we should definitely not be continuing to breed nonhumans to indulge our desire for ‘pets’. There are millions, if not billions, of unloved individuals who are desperate for homes. They are in a real mess because of our species. Providing homes and sanctuary for them is the least we can do.
The second thought is that every nonhuman with whom we share our lives should always be de-sexed to prevent breeding under any circumstances. As an aside on this point, it is my observation that humans, who unlike most animals indulge in recreational sex, can have a rather anthropomorphic attitude to de-sexing companions. I can even clearly recall my own father morosely telling me that he would never forgive my mother for what she had done to ‘her’ male poodle by having him de-sexed. Left to his own devices, my father would never have sanctioned the de-sexing despite it being the only way to ensure that no unwanted, unloved, homeless, stray and desperate dogs could ever be brought into a hostile world as a result of Snowy’s unsupervised activities.
A further thought is that in this wondrous age of technology and possibilities, surely alternatives to service animals can be found and developed? Thankfully one no longer hears of canaries and ponies being taken into mines, and I utterly refuse to believe that a species that can send spaceships to the outer reaches of the galaxy and beyond cannot come up with alternatives to the 24/7 enslavement of sentient nonhumans.
It’s also worth pondering that if they are indeed so vital to human society, our need for their cooperation and partnership – and the respect that demands – is as eloquent a justification for veganism as we may find.
So how does that work?
I arrived at these thoughts only once I truly confronted and shed as much of my speciesism as I could find. After each of us becomes vegan, I think we set out on a journey of self discovery. With our new vegan eyes, we all look at the world that had previously seemed so familiar, and we find that the landscape has unexpectedly changed completely.
And here again we have to mention that the world won’t go vegan overnight. That does not mean that as advocates we should ever promote less than veganism because no position short of veganism is morally justifiable. However, as the world moves towards veganism there will be time for creative alternatives to be found to the myriad uses to which we subject members of other species.
No one is suggesting for a moment that anyone should ‘get rid of’ our existing companions as in some knee-jerk tirades I have seen. Even if we were all to de-sex all our companions, nonhuman refugees of all those species still capable of breeding without human intervention will continue to be born into the world for the foreseeable future, and they will require care and homes. And yes, some breeds, some species, will undoubtedly become extinct. Such is reality, but it does not change the fact that to continue to breed sentient individuals to accessorise our lives and indulge our recreational activities is fundamentally wrong.
We have a long way to go to reach our vegan world, but the first steps must necessarily be to recognise the pervasive depths to which our species has sunk. Only then can we move forward. Be vegan.