As a practical matter, there is simply no way to have an institution of “pet” ownership that is consistent with a sound theory of animal rights. “Pets” are property and, as such, their valuation will ultimately be a matter of what their “owners” decide.
But you might ask: “What if it were possible? If, as a hypothetical matter, we changed the legal status of dogs and cats so that they were no longer property and they had a legal status closer to that of human children, would our continued production of dogs and cats (or other nonhumans) and our keeping of ‘pets’ be morally justified?”
My answer to this purely hypothetical question is “no.” We cannot justify the perpetuation of domestication for the purpose of keeping “pets.”
Domesticated animals are dependent on us for everything that is important in their lives: when and whether they eat or drink, when and where they sleep or relieve themselves, whether they get any affection or exercise, etc. Although one could say the same thing about human children, the overwhelming number of human children mature to become autonomous, independent beings.
Domestic animals are neither a real nor full part of our world or of the nonhuman world. They exist forever in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything and at risk of harm from an environment that they do not really understand. We have bred them to be compliant and servile, or to have characteristics that are actually harmful to them but are pleasing to us. We may make them happy in one sense, but the relationship can never be “natural” or “normal.” They do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them.
We cannot justify such an institution, even if it looked very different from the situation that now exists. My partner and I live with five rescued dogs, including dogs who had health problems when we adopted them. We love them very much and try very hard to provide them the best of care and treatment. (And before anyone asks, all seven of us are vegans!) You would probably not find two people on the planet who enjoy living with dogs more than we do.
And we both encourage anyone who can to adopt or foster as many animals (of whatever species) they can responsibly have.
But if there were two dogs left in the universe and it were up to us as to whether they were allowed to breed so that we could continue to live with dogs, and even if we could guarantee that all dogs would have homes as loving as the one that we provide, we would not hesitate for a second to bring the whole institution of “pet” ownership to an end.
We regard the dogs who live with us as refugees of sorts, and although we enjoy caring for them, it is clear that humans have no business continuing to bring these creatures into a world in which they simply do not fit.
I understand that many people will be bewildered by my argument about the inherent problems with domestication. But that is because we live in a world in which we kill and eat 56 billion animals a year (not counting fish) and where our best justification for that practice is that we enjoy the taste of animal flesh and animal products. Most of you who are reading this right now are probably not vegans. As long as you think it is acceptable to kill and eat animals, the more abstract argument about domesticating animals to use as “pets” is not likely to resonate. I understand that.
So take a few minutes to read some of the many other essays on this site that discuss veganism, such as The Problem With Single-Issue Campaigns and Why Veganism Must Be the Baseline.
And then reconsider the issue of “pets.” I also discuss the issue of “pets” in two podcasts: Commentary #2: “Pets” and Commentary #4: Follow-Up to “Pets” Commentary: Non-Vegan Cats.
If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.
If you are able to adopt or foster any nonhuman animals, please do. Domestication is morally wrong but they are here now and they need our care. Their lives are as important to them as our lives are to us.
Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University