This is a mildly amusing item. Or maybe it’s not all that amusing really, it just happens to amuse me, because a friend and I were chatting this morning about the relative merits of dogs and cats as pets and the relative merits of animals and humans for misanthropes like us.
The article considers it a scandal that people misdirect their affection onto animals instead of relatives and friends. Well but – be fair. Animals don’t argue. They don’t contradict. They don’t willfully misconstrue what we are saying and then shout at us for saying what we’re not saying. They don’t borrow our clothes. They don’t eat the last piece of cake we carefully stashed in the fridge (because they can’t open the door). They don’t smoke. They don’t say our hair looks funny like that. They don’t nag. (Well, they do, when they’re hungry or want to play or go for a walk. But it’s a different kind of nagging.) They don’t remember something stupid we said fifteen years ago and bring it up at odd moments. They don’t dirty every dish in the house and then go out for the day. They don’t want to watch football when we want to watch a movie or vice versa.
Well that was fun. I will have my little joke. Actually the article does have a point.
In this age of alienation and mobility, too many of the old and the lonely, and even the young and the lonely, find themselves having to rely on cats and dogs for love and companionship, rather than on the web of relatives and friends their ancestors had. When that happens, it becomes temptingly easy for the dependent to blur and even erase the distinctions between themselves and their pets. They begin to see pets not just as animals who share their homes but rather as friends who share their humanity. And that’s not just sad; it’s dangerous.
There is something in that. There are a lot of people out there who think their pets have Rights (we’ve discussed the slipperiness of the word ‘rights’ before). For instance their cats have the Right to roam free. Very well, but then what about the Right of birds and other wildlife not to be killed? Is it so self-evident that domestic cats that we breed for our pleasure and amusement have Rights that trump those of other animals that we don’t breed? If so, why? What of introduced species that displace native species? Whose Rights trump whose there? The answer is not self-evident, it seems to me. And this is not a hypothetical. If you’ve read our About page you know that I used to be a zookeeper. Among the animals I worked with at the zoo were five mountain goats that had been caught in the Olympic Mountains as part of a research programme to see what capture and removal did to them physically (the answer was, nothing good). It was necessary to find out because they were an introduced species who were doing a lot of damage to native plants, which then had harmful knock-on effects on other wildlife. This was a very controversial issue – there were people who wanted them removed and people who wanted them protected; there were pros and cons on either side; whose Rights should be paramount was very far from obvious. As so often, the question is a complicated one, and Rights are a tempting shortcut but maybe not all that helpful.