Ninety percent of Britons think of their pet as part of the family, 16% even included them in the last census. But recent research into animals emotional lives has cast doubt on the ethics of petkeeping.
It was a Tupperware tub of live baby rats that made Dr. Jessica Pierce start to question the idea of pet ownership. She was at her local branch of PetSmart, a pet store chain in the US, buying crickets for her daughters’ gecko. The baby rats, squeaking in their plastic container, were brought in by a man she believed was offering to sell them to the store as pets or as food for the resident snakes. She didn’t ask. But Pierce, a bioethicist, was troubled.
Rats have a sense of empathy and there has been a lot of research on what happens when you take babies away from a mother rat not surprisingly, they experience profound distress, she says. It was a slap in the face how can we do this to animals?
Pierce went on to write Run, Spot, Run, which outlines the case against pet ownership, in 2015. From the animals that become dog and cat food and the puppy farms churning out increasingly unhealthy purebred canines to the goldfish sold by the bag and the crickets by the box, pet ownership is problematic because it denies animals the right of self-determination. Ultimately, we bring them into our lives because we want them, then we dictate what they eat, where they live, how they behave, how they look, even whether they get to keep their sex organs.
Treating animals as commodities isn’t new or shocking; humans have been meat-eaters and animal-skin-wearers for millennia. However, this is at odds with how we say we feel about our pets. The British pet industry is worth about 10.6bn; Americans spent more than $66bn (50bn) on their pets in 2016. A survey earlier this year found that many British pet owners love their pet more than they love their partner (12%), their children (9%) or their best friend (24%). According to another study, 90% of pet-owning Britons think of their pet as a member of their family, with 16% listing their animals in the 2011 census.