Do you have a lovable, joyful bundle of furfamily whom you come home to every night? Is he or she unconditionally loyal and always happy to see you? We like to think we love our pets unconditionally in return. We call them our ‘best friends’ and our ‘children’. As kind as this may seem, it is at best wishful thinking. In fact the truth is far more sinister: pets are our slaves and by ‘owning’ them we are doing animals a grave disservice. The solution is to stop domestication from continuing into the future, while rescuing all domesticated animals who are alive now.
All Domestication is Slavery
It is no accident that we surround ourselves with animals whose personalities suit our needs. We are inheriting an age old tradition of selectively breeding, training and breaking them in. ‘Pets’ are our creation and everything about them is tailor made to benefit us. If you are honest with yourself you will notice on closer inspection that our motives are entirely selfish. Companion animals have been brought into this world to be 100% devoted to us. They have been created by us, for our companionship, our protection and our sport.
We have engineered house pets with docile, malleable temperaments. Guard dogs are required to walk a fine line between aggression and obedience. Horses are treasured when they are well proportioned with good movement and absolutely attentive to our commands. We have taken the essential elements of their loyal, respectful natures and manipulated them to suit our own narcissistic needs.
Commodifying Their Virtues
Then we take it a step further by commodifying everything that is good about them and marketing them as the panacea for our human condition:
- Are you suffering from a broken heart and loneliness or suicidal ideation? Therapists tell you to get a pet. You will receive all the unconditional love you need from your captive audience.
- Are you recovering from addiction and want to start a relationship? Counsellors advise you not to rush in. In your first year of sobriety they tell you to get a plant. If that is alive a year later get a pet. If that is alive a year later you are ready to think about graduating to a ‘real’ relationship. Something is wrong with this picture. Shouldn’t your relationship with and commitment to your pet be real? They are also living beings. In fact they are animals, just like us.
- Do you want to achieve status and earn money? The remarkable dexterity, speed and beauty of animals will help you win showjumping and cross-country, or horse and dog racing events. Are you aware of how many of these events result in the death of the animals involved? Perhaps not, as they are always carefully screened from the public’s view to hide the vet as he fires a captive bolt into a fallen horse’s still perfectly healthy brain.
- Do you want to protect the community from facing the consequences of our own corrupt lifestyle? Dogs’ excellent sense of smell and desperate desire to please make them very good police dogs. They can essentially help save us from ourselves by rooting out explosives and drugs.
- Do you want to teach your child true ‘human’ values of love, loyalty, trust, enthusiasm, respect, integrity, patience, gratitude, joy and generosity? It isn’t possible to find all of those qualities in a human being, so you are urged to get a family pet. No matter that you might have to euthanase him later if he nips your baby in an attempt to protect his sensitive ears from being pulled, or that you might be ‘forced’ to leave him at a shelter when you move house. It would be ludicrous to suggest you leave your child behind. Why then are our pets seen as disposable resources, especially when we so often call them our ‘children’?
- Have you run out of ideas for Christmas or Easter gifts? Simple! Get them a cute puppy or bunny. It is no surprise that most people don’t concern themselves with the fact that these animal gifts inevitably grow up and lose their ‘cute-factor’. Or that the child’s parents invariably get tired of cleaning up after them when they realise how exceptionally high maintenance they are. Shelters are inundated with unwanted animals a couple months after the holidays every year. These once spoilt baby animals will languish in cages for a while before they are surreptitiously euthanased. The whole transaction will be neat and tidy without even registering on anyone’s conscience.
We need to take responsibility for our own healing and get our need for unconditional love met by our own species. We have no right to enslave animals to cure our social ills.
Depriving Them of Their Dignity
As if it isn’t enough that we enslave animals, we also deprive them of their inherent dignity. We give them cutesy names that deny their wisdom and moral personhood. The first time I heard of a rabbit who had a human first name, Margaret, I was shocked and thought that was pretty cold. However after thinking about it, I realised her character was being honoured. She wasn’t just a cute bunny named Cottontail, her owner was acknowledging that she had a personality with needs, desires and preferences.
We dress them up like dolls for our pleasure despite the discomfort it causes them. When they spin in circles, blink their eyes, or wag their tails, they are trying (and failing) to communicate with us. However we laugh at their antics and translate them in human terms, instead of trying to learn their language. We ignore their species specific needs and instead impose our own human characteristics upon them. Instead of treating them like animals who want to forage, run for hours, dig burrows, play in the mud, build homes, fly and explore; we give them treats that cause obesity and diabeties; and smother them with cuddly toys that merely frustrate them while doing nothing to fill the void of yearning they have within them to be free. A yearning we have ensured they can never fulfill.
Sentencing Animals to Eternal Dependence
We have bred companion animals to have characteristics that appeal to us and in the process we have rendered them utterly vulnerable. No wonder they worship the ground we walk on. We have uprooted them from their natural habitat and deprived them of everything that is truly valuable to them. Our pets will never again survive in the wild and they know this. They now find themselves in a shadow world where they will never be full members of our community and will never be able to return home. They will never grow up and become self-reliant. They are absolutely and utterly dependent on us for everything in their lives from the basic necessities of survival like food, shelter and water; to whether they get exercise, social interaction or ever experience any joy in their lives at all. In many cases they cannot even perform basic bodily functions of urinating or defecating unless it is on a schedule dictated by us and under our guided supervision! They will be reliant on our ‘kindness’ for all eternity.
In return we demand unconditional love and absolute obedience. And most of the time they give it to us because they have no other choice. When they don’t exhibit absolute subservience we abandon them at a shelter. Sometimes their crime could be as slight as not matching the colour scheme of their owner’s new décor. Anytime they display characteristics that do not suit us by putting a paw or hoof wrong, we could have them killed by the authorities. All it takes is for a dog to bite one human or a horse to break his leg and they will be terminated.
As ‘owners’ even the kindest of us fall tragically short the majority of the time. The animals know that getting even their most basic needs met is not guaranteed. Whether you call yourself their parent or guardian the fact remains that legally they are your property and not even classified as living beings. We are quite free to value them how we see fit. If you have ever undertaken a campaign to rescue a neglected dog from an abusive home in your neighbourhood, you will know how absolutely the law ties our hands in these matters. We could (and many people do, even otherwise decent people) tie them outside throughout the year in all weather conditions. We could forget to feed them and only ever give them dried pellets when we do. We could only give them water every second day. We could ignore them completely, never ever allowing them exercise or contact with another living being.
In South Africa as long as a dog is not visibly unhealthy, gets food and water once a day during the inspection process, has his yard cleaned once a week (also during the inspection process) and has some form of shelter; then his owner can ignore him keeping him isolated and virtually immobile to never in his whole life lay eyes on another human being or animal except the birds who fly overhead and his owner when he deigns to feed him. He could cry and howl every day of his life spreading misery and despair throughout the neighbourhood… and there is absolutely nothing legal you can do to rescue him.
Animals are our slaves and this is a tragic miscarriage of justice.
Pets Are Abused. We Are Responsible
Before you start pointing fingers at the hardworking animal protection services, animal welfare organisations and the government, please take a step back. We need to admit our own culpability in this matter. I can not emphasise this point strongly enough:
You and I are responsible for every instance where a domesticated animal is being abused, abandoned or euthanased by anyone, anywhere. Why? Because we allow the domestication of animals to continue.
No human being should ever be allowed to exert this power over another living being. The power over whether they live or die, get fed or starve, get water or suffer from dehydration, get exercise, or remain chained to a pole, get social interaction or live in an eternal state of solitary confinement, experience the joy of being alive or the terror of never knowing what will happen next. As the age-old saying goes: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
By just doing what is required of us, we pat ourselves on the back, because it makes us feel magnanimous. However, every time we feel proud of showing our own animals the kindness of satisfying their basic needs for survival, our actions sentence thousands of other animals to lives of terror, misery, disease and starvation.
In a study on college undergraduates in America it was found that approximately half of the students had either perpetrated or witnessed animal cruelty, and nearly 20% had personally either killed, hurt, tortured, or engaged in a sexual manner with a pet, wild or stray animal. In a study in Italy, 60% of children between the ages of 9 and 17 had witnessed animal cruelty and 2 out of 5 children aged 9 to 12 years had bothered, hurt, tormented, been cruel to, or hit an animal.
Animals have their own purposes for being on this earth. When we make allowances for ourselves to cross the line, then it opens the door to animal abuse by others. If you take animal rights seriously then the very least you can do is not to own them and not allow anyone else to own them. When we allow people to own other living beings then we become responsible for every instance of animal abuse that results from that action.
We need to take one giant step backwards and out of the lives of animals. We may be the creators of domesticated animals, but we are not their God.
Our Duty to Domesticated Animals
If you care about animals you will respect their right to be autonomous beings able to live lives of their own. Our duty now is threefold:
We need to put an end to the practice of domesticating animals. In order for this to happen, all domesticated animals need to be sterilised and breeding must be prohibited. The most effective way to get right to the root of the problem of unwanted, abandoned, diseased, starving and homeless animals is to help fund the local spay and neuter projects in your area. This is how we can nip the problem in the bud before it even happens. You will be helping to completely eradicate the suffering of millions of animals.
2. Stop Buying Animals
Think about it from this perspective for a moment: in what distorted worldview can it ever be acceptable for us to exploit the reproductive processes of another living being and then sell their babies? Every time you buy or sell an animal you are supporting the status quo that animals are commodities and resources to satisfy our whims and fancies. It doesn’t matter if your purchase is funding the very worst practices of puppy mills and backyard rabbit breeding schemes, or if you favour the superficial and materialistic world of pure-breds.
Using the excuse that they want to breed does not let us off the hook. Your children would probably also want to procreate if you let them. Would you? If so, would you then enslave them to repetitive breeding and artificial insemination to generate a profit? How then can we call pets our children, or call ourselves their guardians and still have a clear conscience?
The mothers and fathers who make up the breeding stock are all utilised as production lines and their products are always their babies.
3. Adopt and Foster
There are millions of unwanted animal refugees and victims of abuse. Hundreds of thousands of them are euthanased every week. In USA it is estimated that 3‑4 million domestic animals were killed in 2009. In South Africa it was estimated that 500,000 domestic animals were euthanased in 2001. Why does the NSPCA consistently refuse to release South African statistics? It is a shameful consequence of society’s attitude that animals are disposable assets rather than living beings. People need to know the terrible consequences of their actions. Publishing these statistics will motivate people to donate towards sterilisation programs, adopt rather than buy and think twice before abandoning them at shelters. The shelter workers who perform the euthanasias suffer tremendous emotional trauma, experiencing burnout and depersonalisation. They should not have to bear this burden alone.
We need to rescue these animals and take them into our hearts and our homes. We have brought them into this world. We have made them vulnerable and dependent on us with absolutely no legal protection for their most basic rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity. We owe it to these animal refugees to take care of them to the very best of our ability for the rest of their lives. Please do what you can to foster and adopt as many homeless companion and farm animals as you have the means to give good homes to.
And what they say is true: we will gain all the benefits, they will give us unconditional love, undying loyalty and the warmest of companionship for doing what is merely our duty.
Loving Animals Unconditionally Means Setting Them Free
Animals do so much for us and the thought of a society without them is devastating. By now you might have a nagging doubt that this isn’t about us at all, it is about them. It isn’t about what benefits we derive from the relationship. It is about what they deserve. However, the good news for us, is that we will always be surrounded by animals in our lifetime. We have inherited this dilemma from our ancestors and we will be able to enjoy this guilty pleasure for the rest of our lives, because there are millions of animals still waiting to be rescued. These treasured refugees can never be set free. However the buck stops here. Let us not bequeath this problematic legacy to the next generation.
Do you still insist that you love animals unconditionally? How about joining or starting an organisation that develops ways for animals to exist in their natural environment, without wanting something from them in return? Create a new way of interacting and cohabiting on this planet with animals. That is what unconditional love is all about isn’t it: not expecting compensation for our random acts of kindness?
In a future, vegan world we might get lucky enough to meet an animal in the wild whom we could interact with, without interfering in their lives. Until we reach that point, animals deserve their freedom and they shouldn’t have to pay with a life of servitude to get it.