Is It Right to Own Pets?

By Evan Carlson


When the world weighs us down, at least we have our pets to come home to — a cat to cuddle, a dog to play fetch with, or a parrot to teach curse words. Undoubtedly, these animals bring us comfort in times when comfort is hard to find. But we often fail to do the same for them, and even the best pet owners fall short.

On a basic level, most people approach pet ownership with a leftist spirit, providing their pets with food, water, shelter, and healthcare unconditionally. These pets do not have to prove themselves worthy of a livelihood in order to receive it, and in this regard, their lives don’t seem half bad.

However, there are more insidious aspects of pet ownership. Consider geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s argument that “keeping a creature as a pet is an act of domination… but because it takes place within the realm of play and pleasure, and because it is cloaked in affection, this form of pathology has flown under the radar of our attention.”

The pet industry – which made $72.13 billion in 2017, according to the American Pet Products Association – markets animals as a source of comfort and entertainment. Pets are reduced to their use-value for humans with little concern given to their own needs. And these needs are more complex than most of us imagine.

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce points to animals’ frequently neglected intellectual, emotional, and social needs. Just like humans, animals desire learning, love, and companionship. Even goldfish, commonly thought to be unintelligent, get bored and require more mental stimulation than a tiny bowl can provide. To assume that even the most alien-looking animal does not share these needs with us is to assume incorrectly. It is these needs that we often fail to meet for our pets.

We make 99 percent of meaningful decisions for them – when they get to eat, when they can exercise, what they are allowed to explore, and whom they may interact with. Because of our language barrier, we don’t always know when they want something other than what we provide.

Still, even if we could understand them, there’s no guarantee we would fulfill their wishes. Would we be willing to give them longer walks? Another animal friend to bond with? A new toy to make play more interesting? Or would these requests be out of the question? Too time-consuming, expensive, or just plain inconvenient? Perhaps we would decide that being able to communicate with pets was more a cause for guilt than joy.

While I don’t intend to suggest that ethical pet ownership is impossible (there’s that nasty word, “ownership,” again), it is a question that all pet owners should consider. As leftists, we strive to do right by our fellow humans. But in that process, we must not forget about our animal friends whose lives can be intellectually, emotionally, and socially fulfilling, if only we advocate for them.

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