Responsibilities to Animals
adopting pets animal rights cats domestic animals humane society hunters hunting pets
Today I met Lilo, the most gentle and sweet longhair mix, about 8 years old. He resides in a roomy portable cage in the lobby, awaiting adoption, but he is so detached, I'm not sure he stands much chance. I took him into the interview room to try to coax him out for a bit. He did let me pull him out of the cage a few times, and enjoyed being petted, but mostly he would slowly crawl back to his cage and just sit there, looking morose; he didn't really seem to care if he got to play with me or not.
I imagine his story goes something like this: adopted or bought as a kitten, he grew up with people his whole life, and was generally well-cared for. Maybe his owners were actually very affectionate and sincerely loved him. Maybe they just kept him as an accessory as so many families in this area do. In any case, after 8 years (a long time for a cat) or being an adored pet, he was suddenly and inexplicably left in a cage at the humane society, watching forlornly as the people he had come to call his family just walked away. His whole world would have come down around him. All the people and other living things important to him had just left. It doesn't take exclusively human emotion to see the tragedy in that.
I'm not criticizing the owners. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they had very legitimate reasons. But one must ask, would you ever treat a human family member like that? I understand that not all people consider pets part of the family, but there are precious few mammal species that don't develop familial bonds with others they live with. Without a doubt, most pets consider their owners family.
One of the other kittens at the shelter had listed as its reason for intake, "Unrealistic Expectations." I wonder what exactly the owners expected from their new pet that led them to become disillusioned and return the animal to the shelter. How nice would it be if it were socially acceptable to put our children up for adoption because they didn't come out as expected.
Tragedy befalls many animals, as it also befalls humans, but there is something especially tragic about the suffering of a pet, not because they are cute and don't deserve to suffer, but because so often that suffering is the result of neglect or misdirected love on the part of a human owner. Domestic pet owners often seem to oblivious to the real needs of an animal it leads to the animal suffering.
On the other hand, humans in professions we associate with animal oppression seem to have a much greater and more realistic respect and understanding of animals. Hunters, farmers, wranglers, shepherds, and animal researchers often demonstrate that they understand the true obligations of caring for (or in some cases, killing) an animal. They very easily demonstrate a much greater grasp of an animal's perspective of life, and often go to absurd lengths to minimize the suffering of those animals in their charge. Hunters are instructed to be absolutely certain about the lethality of a shot or to not take it at all, and legally must exhaust every option to locate wounded animals and confirm a kill. Farmers will stay up with their animals in ice storms to make sure they survive the night. The things wranglers and equestrians will do for their horses has become the stuff of legend.
These people are also those that understand the necessity of killing when appropriate. They will not avoid the reality of a situation that demands an animal be killed. In doing so, they usually spare the animal (or the larger population of animals) further suffering.
So why do we demonize the hunter, who spends days studying his prey in order to minimize its suffering when he kills it, and say nothing about the ignorant pet owner who neglects to spay or instill discipline in her dog, leading her to eventually abandon it and its accidental litter due to inconvenience? What about the small farmer, so concerned with ensuring the comfort of the short life of her slaughter cows that she dedicates her life and risks her financial stability to stand up for a sustainable model of farming?
The Responsibility of Controlling a Life
Maybe it is wrong to oppress animals or kill them for food. But the complex relationship humans have always had with animals has long since moved them from simply prey to helpers, workers, companions, and farmed food. We seem to abhor the responsibilities and necessities of navigating those complex intersections, instead preferring to interact with animals as mere accessories. Instead of killing, we'd rather abandon. After all, the reality that we aren't worthy of a pet is akin to the idea that a wealthy landowner wasn't worthy of a slave. As long as you can afford them, your responsibilities are fulfilled.
We cannot ignore the responsibilities we've taken on in domesticating animals. To do so only increases their suffering. The eco-terrorists who broke a pod of dolphins out of a research facility probably meant well, but they didn't realize they were sealing the doom of those dolphins, who had been raised in captivity and knew nothing about surviving in the wild. Should we applaud the rescuers and condemn the researchers? In the end, the rescuers caused a slow and traumatic death for the dolphins, who were otherwise pretty well off.
I don't think it makes sense for all domesticated breeds to be set free. But I do think we should move from a slave/property-owner relationship to a relationship built on understanding and responsibility for humane treatment. Animals need us, and we still need them, so we ought to take the time to understand them enough to show them the respect all living things deserve.
Lilo and the kittens at the shelter did not do anything wrong to be abandoned. They didn't even ask much of their owners, besides the basics of food, shelter, and affection. And without really thinking about it, they became attached to their owners, never entertaining the idea that they would be abandoned and their love rebuked.