It wasn’t always so but somewhere in my mid-thirties I became a felophile, if such a word exists. If that sounds depraved, it actually isn’t. I mean, I am one of those who adores cats. I don’t think I have ever come across a cat I haven’t liked, even the most psychopathically vicious, and there certainly are some. Fortunately my late wife was similarly afflicted. We have always had cats in our household.
I grew up with horses and loved them. I have had a dog, whom I loved. But to me cats are special. Their beauty and self possession, the love and affection when they bestow it trumps all other creatures for me. There is a theory cats have some quality with which they can infect their human hosts so they become besotted slaves. If so I am clearly infected.
Feeling as I do I am greatly conflicted by the massive culling of feral cats in Australia, where they are kiling millions of these beautiful creatures because thay are fearsomely eqipped evolutionary killing machines and are driving many species, particularly the native ones, to extinction. This is a very bad habit, which even my own cats suffer from, and I do wish they wouldn’t do it. Sad as it makes me I can’t say the Australian government is wrong to cull, but I hate to think of it.
But why do we have to kill these animals when it is our fault they are there in the first place. No, the fault lies with us and our appetites. It is we humans who have spread across the planet like a virus. We need to control ourselves a lot better and the sad thing is the means of ordering our world for the benefit of all sentient beings already lies within our hands.
First off there needs to be a lot fewer of us. I’m not suggesting we cull ourselves, though Nature may well do that for us if we carry on the way we are. No, contraception will do just fine, and I’m not suggesting governments interfere by telling us how many children we’re allowed to have. Economics will do that if we share the wealth of the planet more fairly. The Pope should now get up off his throne and apologise deeply for their 1,000 year error. Abortion is irrelevant to this issue.
Next the filthy rich need to pay their taxes and stop plundering the commons. They can still be rich but until they change their ways and perspective they deserve no respect or honours.
In fact I’d like to see an international law that required any individual whose wealth and assets exceed US$10 billion denied access or any ownership of the beautiful and unspoiled parts of the world that remain. Deny the bastards admiration and confine them to the heavily populated parts of the world along with the rest of us would do it nicely I think. After all we not talking of a lot of people here.
To go back to where I began, which is with cats, is not pet ownership ethically problematic since it denies animals the right of self-determination? Are we not ultimately bringing them into our homes because we want them in our lives and feel that gives us the right to dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs?
If I love animals so much how can that be right? Short answer is it is not right. But am I going to forego the company of cats? No, I am not. Which rather puts me, and anyone like me, in the position of the plantation owner, who claims to love his slaves and treats them well.
For make no mistake, and science confirms, our fellow mammals enjoy pretty much the full emotional range that we do. Get used to the idea and think about it.
Treating animals as commodities isn’t new or even shocking; humans have been meat-eaters and animal-skin-wearers for millennia. However, this is at odds with how we say we feel about our pets. The British pet industry is worth about £10.6bn; Americans spent more than $66bn (£50bn) on their pets in 2016. A survey earlier this year found that many British pet owners love their pet more than they love their partner (12%), their children (9%) or their best friend (24%). According to another study, 90% of pet-owning Britons think of their pet as a member of their family, with 16% listing their animals in the 2011 census (nice touch that last one).
The dilemma and logical consequence of this is that the more we concede emotional parity with the animals with whom we share our homes, the less right we have to control every single aspect of their lives.
Does this mean that, in 50 years or 100 years, we won’t have pets? Institutions that exploit animals, such as the circus, are shutting down and there are calls to end, or at least rethink, zoos. Meanwhile, the number of vegans worldwide is on the rise, in Britain skyrocketing 350% between 2006 and 2016. Eating uncloned meat may become minority exercise.
Widespread petkeeping is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 19th century, most owned animals were working animals and regarded unsentimentally. In 1698, for example, a Dorset farmer recorded in his diary: “My old dog Quon was killed and baked for his grease, which yielded 11lb.” In the 19th and 20th centuries pets became more desirable but animal life was not attributed any intrinsic value. In the 1960s putting a dog to sleep before going on holiday, reasoning that it was cheaper to get a new dog upon return was not uncommon.
More recently, however, several countries have moved to change the legal status of animals. In 2015, the government of New Zealand recognised animals as sentient beings, in effect declaring them no longer property (how this squares with New Zealand’s recent “war on possums” is unclear), as did the Canadian province of Quebec. While pets remain property in the UK, the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 stipulates that pet owners must provide a basic level of care for their animals. Pets are also property in the US, but 32 states, now include provisions for pets under domestic violence protection orders.
Before congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come, consider that 1.5m shelter animals – including 670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats – are euthanised each year in the US. In the UK he figure is far less but cases of animal cruelty increased 5% in 2016 to 400 calls a day.
Crucially, our animals can’t tell us whether they are happy being pets. There is an illusion now that pets have more voice than in the past … but it’s not true, we are the ones putting words in their mouths. Just key in cute animals on Facebook. Humanising them in this way actually makes them invisible.
Of course petkeeping might fall out of fashion; it’s possible robots will take their place, or maybe pet “owning” will be for small numbers of people. Cultural trends come and go. The more we think of pets as people, the less ethical it is to keep them.
Things seem to be going the right way for our animal cousins, but slowly. All of us will do a lot better if we can get our act together. It is up to us and we must not allow the plutocrat or the hidebound to stand in our way.
We stand or fall with Fido & Felix –Solidarity!
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