Reader Request Week 2018 #2: Our Pets and How We Treat Them

Bill asks:

Given the attachment we humans tend to have with our pets, how do we rationalize the treating them as commodities, food, or things (rather than beings)?

I mean, Bill, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but have you seen the way humans treat other humans? On balance I’m not entirely convinced that humans in fact treat our pets any differently than we treat humans, who we have both historically and, yes, currently, often treat as commodities, food and things.

I’m going to argue to you that what really matters to humans in terms of how we treat others is not species, per se, but otherness — that is, whether we see someone (human or otherwise) as part of our in-group or tribe or family or however you want to call it. Or more simply, if you’re in, you’re in, and you’re one of us — but if you’re not in, then it doesn’t matter what you are, because you’re not one of us, and therefore you can be a thing, or a commodity, or a thing.

Mind you, it doesn’t have to go that far. On a more prosaic level, you can simply attach more meaning and emotion to one’s pets than you do to humans. To use a personal example, I can say I’ve been more torn up about the death of a pet than the deaths of humans I knew tangentially, even if I liked them as people — because my pet was family, a daily presence in my life, whilst the humans were on the periphery of my daily experience. Arguably those humans were more valuable to the world than my cat or dog, but it doesn’t change the fact that my pet’s death hit me harder emotionally.

(Or for an even less emotionally-charged example, think about movies and animals — you can kill people left and right and no one blinks, but if you kill a dog in a movie then there’s no coming back for you in terms of audience sympathy. Hell, the movie John Wick had the main character slaughtering people left and right because the bad guy stomped a puppy, and while the film gave some backstory to justify that, honestly if they hadn’t people wouldn’t have cared. You stomped an adorable beagle puppy? Prepare to fuckin’ die, dude, we would all say, and then munch happily on our popcorn as Keanu double-taps an entire legion of Russian mafia.)

I should note that not everyone treats their pets the same way. Some people aren’t especially attached to pets if, for example, they don’t consider pets in their household as theirs, but merely as something their kids wanted, and why not. Likewise, people can be fond of their pets but have a certain line past which they are willing to let pets go — say, if the pet’s medical upkeep gets too expensive or if they have to move and the only place they can go is someplace that doesn’t accept pets, etc. And generally speaking people do have a dividing line within the family with regard to pets. If the house is on fire and you can save either your kid or your cat, but not both, then it’s curtains for Whiskers, and no one is going to blame you for it.

On the other hand, if it came to, say, Whiskers or the guy who was trying to rob your house who inadvertently set fire to your house in the first place? Maaaaybe you’d go for Whiskers and then lie about trying to save the robber. Maybe you wouldn’t lie about it! “Damn right I saved my cat!” you’d say, defiantly. And no one would blame you. That dude was trying to rob your house. He deserved to fry, the thieving bastard. There are any number of scenarios where one might decided to value a pet over a human, many if not most of them at least somewhat morally defensible.

And it doesn’t have to be pets — If you had to choose between an elephant or its poacher, which would you choose? If a tiger was one of the last remaining members of its species, would you shoot it to save a human it had decided to hunt? There are more than seven billion humans, after all. Alternately, if a human decided against all sense and reason to go swimming in a bayou filled with alligators, would you hold it against the alligators who then killed and almost certainly consumed him (this actually happened; the man’s last recorded words were “fuck the alligators”)?

The point here is that there are times and places where we might value a non-human life over a human one (or at least, not blame the non-human life for negative action against humans), and that’s not even getting to the philosophical place where we consider the issues of otherness — of the human being an outlander with respect to our tribe — and where that places that human with respect to animals within our tribe.

So, in sum, Bill, I think in point of fact we treat our pets like we treat humans — some of them, anyway. And in certain, not-especially-rare cases, we treat them even better. That being the case, I’m not sure your original question is on point. Because, frankly, just because humans are “beings” doesn’t mean we don’t do terrible things to them. Things, as the proverbial saying goes, we wouldn’t even do to a dog.

(There is still time to ask a question for Reader Request Week! Go here for all the details, and to ask your question.)

28 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2018 #2: Our Pets and How We Treat Them”

  1. It goes back (IMHO) to the old rule of sociopathy. There are two kinds of creatures (human or otherwise) us, and them. Them exist as a convenience to us unless and until they make it more convenient for us to make them not exist than to keep them around. The individuals lines in that field mark the lines for tolerance. Some, like mine, go to the point of them being convenient so long as they are not actively killing us. Others, maybe much further out. Possibly to an extreme of not giving “us” the favors “we” feel are owed (per the Incel note). But then again, my wife says I need a nap.

  2. I have felt for some time that one of the markers for a person who is likely to treat other people badly is the inability to understand someone’s grief over the loss of a beloved pet. (“What are you so upset about? It was just an animal!”)

  3. I have concluded you exceed all parameters for maximum human intelligence (however measured) and thus must really be a superior alien living and writing among us. Your point is well taken. We humans are all over the map on how we treat other humans and other non-humans including our pets. Your point on “emotional proximity” needs to be studied by some research group. We do seem to consistently value at a higher level other humans and non-humans (pets included) who are in proximity to us on a daily or frequently recurring basis.

  4. Sounds like to me that he meant “given how much we like our dogs and cats, how can we justify eating chicken and cows?” This reader question is the exact phrase, nearly word for word, that my colleague Cara uses. And because I’m tired of hearing it, I say “Because chickens tastes better than cats”. Of course, in reality, I have no idea how tasty or not cats are.

  5. I believe John’s hit the nail on the head. I have a friend who is a small scale farmer. A pig, a couple of goats, some fowl. She takes good care of her animals… and then one inevitable day she goes out and kills and butchers whom ever is next on the menu. I am entirely too citified to do that. If I had chickens I could eat their eggs, drink the milk of my cow etc., but anything I name and get to know? No. I can’t even pick the lobster that I’m having for a special dinner. I have no problems eating a strange chicken though. It’s all about compartmentalization. Dogs & cats = family. I’d save a random child over a random dog. But my dog vs a strangers child? Uh that’s tough. I guess I have to go with the old I’d save both, even at the cost of my life.

  6. @ladybrianna They used to call cats “roof rabbits” during WW2 in the UK and Europe. It is probably best not to think too hard about that.

    Having said that; I know people who do live on smallholdings right now, and they love their livestock, treat them tenderly, see to their wounds and ills, give them attention to make their lives pleasant and fulfilled, and then chowed down on them after a trip to the abattoir. It gives them a whole new appreciation on where their food comes from and how to raise it ethically, but it doesn’t stop them thinking of their livestock as food. Disclaimer: None of them have ever eaten a cat… as far as I know.

  7. Good thoughts, as always.

    And not entirely inappropriately, if you haven’t claimed it yet, Curtains For Whiskers is the name of my next band…

  8. Good answer, good answer, as they used to say on Family Feud. Cat Valente’s people/meat distinction in Space Opera points in a similar direction. (Most of the way through that book, loving it.)

  9. I often watch TV shows where people have farm animals as pets. Rabbits, chickens, pigs, cows. Do those people stop eating their particular pet animal? Or do they just disconnect that this chicken with its loving personality is somehow different from the chicken found in the supermarket?

  10. This is exactly why How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog was a flawed film. Poor Kenneth Branagh. If he had just given it a different title… You know the most insane thing is.. SPOILER there’s a dead dog involved and during/after the credits they show the trainer getting the perfectly healthy stunt dog up AND giving a treat AND praising it for staying so still. God forbid the last image we see be that of a fictionally-dead dog.

  11. Meanwhile, the dog in Wonder Boys (Can you tell how old I am?) is blind and pathetic and is killed on-screen by a little pistol in a scuffle ten minutes’ in, spends the rest of the movie time in the trunk of a car, and is finally stuck into a bed, Godfather style. So I guess you don’t bond with the dog, in that one so it is okay. Actually after the Bob Dylan song ends, I don’t watch the rest of the credits so maybe they show that dog too. (Ok, well, they don’t. But I bet there’s a boilerplate apology for being obligated, absolutely essential to the art of a film, to use an animal in such a debased way. Those poor stunt animals – ha! Thank goodness we have PETA working on it. Talk about people who value animals over fellow human beings.

  12. @Lym: Today’s guest of Fresh Air (NPR/Terry Gross) was a restaurateur who grew up in Italy/Yugoslavia/Croatia (the same town has been all three in her lifetime), and as a child, they raised many animals for food. It didn’t stop them from naming them, or cuddling and playing with them, but when it was time to slaughter the animal, it happened, they helped in the process, and life went on. Perhaps it was because they lived on the farm, at least part of the time, it was a cultural norm, and the alternative was … not having food to eat. As a kid, she didn’t like watching the actual killing, but once it was over, there were tasks to be done, all the kids helped, and they learned not to be squeamish. I think it’s the city folk, who have been taught to anthropomorphize just about every living creature (but not those nicely butchered slabs of meat, or birds with their features removed) who have the problems. BTW, it wasn’t clear to me how intelligent those Porgs in the last Star Wars movies were supposed to be, but if they were basically equivalent to a chicken, Chewie should have eaten the one he was cooking.

    @Lee: I think that’s an unreliable assessment. There are all sorts of reasons why people underestimate the severity of other people’s grief, for example, someone who has never had pets, or people who think that pets are overrated. I’ve never had a pet dog or cat, nor do I want one, so I will probably never really understand the amount of joy my father-in-law’s dog gives him, nor will I fully get his loss if my f-i-l outlives him. I can understand the loss of a human family member or friend easily enough, but for me, a pet dog or cat is just not the same.

  13. The novel I’m currently working on is about an alien who comes to Earth as a refugee from a dying universe and is sponsored by a Canadian family. At first, the children treat the alien as a pet. Hopefully, that will change. (Hey! – I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet!)

  14. Heh, that puts me in mind of Heinlein’s Star Beast. Four generations of humans raise an ET as a pet. Little do they realize that she thinks of them as her pets …

  15. My daughter names all our chickens and loves them dearly. To me they are Foxfood 11 through 21. I flat out refuse to invest emotionally in such fragile and temporary companions. Which is not to say I treat them badly.

    This also true, though to a lesser degree, for our house cat. Barring unforeseen misfortune I will outlive her, and I’ve seen enough death in my life to know how poorly I deal with it when I’m emotionally attached. Were Ms. Fishy and The Small Fry to die unexpectedly I’m not sure I’d survive it. So where I can I maintain a deliberate reserve.

    For that reason, and because my stuff isn’t worth the taking someone’s life, even by inaction, I’d have a harder time than some with rescuing our cat over a burglar. I’d try and get both, but when it comes down to it self defence from credible threat of grave injury or death is the only time being responsible for a human’s death is morally justifiable.

  16. I’m curious about people’s thoughts regarding outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats in suburban environments. I see folks all over Nextdoor and neighborhood Facebook groups posting about outdoor cats that don’t come home. They invariably say “Whiskers has faithfully come home every morning for 5 years, and we haven’t seen her in 3 days. Please be on the lookout!” Each time I’m left wondering why they thought it was a good idea to let their cat roam the neighborhood willy nilly.

    The most cursory Google search would tell potential cat owners to keep their pets indoors. For example, outdoor cats are exposed to all sorts of hazards and therefore rarely live past the age of five. Stray dogs, other cats, and coyotes (which were spotted in my Houston suburb not far from downtown) are just a few of the dangers outdoor cats can face.

    A neighbor of mine was devastated when her cat didn’t come home, to the point of posting on Facebook months after ZsaZsa disappeared and openly weeping on the short walk to her mailbox for several weeks. Am I wrong to think she should’ve known better?

    (I know the Scalzi cats are working animals and that his living situation is unique, so our host is exempt from the concerns listed above.)

  17. Have there been dogs in space in any of the Scalzi books? I was going to make this a “ask Scalzi” question if I ever ran into him in person, but seeing as how we bring dogs along in the car, on boats sailing around the world and on planes, why not with us on mangy old space freighter?

  18. @ Bruce: That’s why I said “one of the markers”. As you point out, there may be reasons for a decent person not to “get” that. But if the trait occurs in combination with other markers, then there’s reason to think it might be significant.

    @ Cody: We differentiate strongly between our indoor pet cats and the outdoor ferals that we feed in the back yard because they keep the mice out of the workshop. When one of our indoor cats (who was a feral rescue) got outside and we couldn’t get her back in and eventually found her body in the back yard, we grieved. When we lose one of the backyard ferals, we still feel sad, but it’s not even remotely the same; we recognize this as something that’s just going to happen from time to time. And that’s even though we name the backyard cats, and encourage them to trust us, and a few have “graduated” to the indoor pride.

  19. @Cody I think the idea of indoor cats is strange to most people in the UK. One of the things that is defined as cruel in law in the UK is not allowing your pet to exhibit it’s natural behaviours. For cats that includes hunting outside and it really isn’t possible for an indoors cat to hunt, so for me keeping an indoor cat is cruel. I guess it comes down to the kind of place you live, in suburban UK most cats have a long life, late teens is common and early twenties not that unusual so I’d be interested to know where your estimate of outdoor cats rarely living beyond five years comes from? I have lived in surburban America (Ann Arbor and Princeton) and I find it hard to believe it is that much more dangerous than surburban UK.

    I aso wonder if the lost cats are actually dead. Having known cats that just decided to take up residence in a house they preferred to that of their original owners I wouldn’t assume a missing cat was dead.

  20. This made me think of something that we say at the rescue where I volunteer: The more time I spend with people, the more I prefer cats.

    For the most part, animals lack the subterfuge that humans are so good at. Your dog doesn’t pretend to like you; your cat doesn’t flatter your ego to get something from you. Your dog and/or cat accept you into the pack and treat you as theirs to care for. (I’m convinced that my cat thinks I’m the most hopeless kitten ever.)

    In terms of rescuing the human or the cat, rescue the human. The cat’s survival instinct is going to find a way to get out of the burning house, while you get trapped looking for the cat. (Except for my cat Zoey, who is scared of outdoors and will be hiding under my bed in the event of emergency.)

  21. @jazzlet: In the US, outdoor cats have to depend with all kinds of predators. Some are wild animals, like coyotes, wolves, and birds of prey (who will pick up a cat like they would a rabbit). Some are humans, who think it’s fun to capture and torture animals. Then there are the bird-lovers, who are so concerned about roaming cats hunting songbirds that they will shoot or poison any outdoor cats that they see. Then add in that outdoor cats in the US tend not to be spayed/neutered, so they keep making more kittens.

    For many of us, even if we wanted our cats to have the chance to be indoor/outdoor cats (with the freedom to roam the neighborhood and hunt), it just isn’t safe to allow them to do so.

  22. Dear Jazzlet,

    While I’m sure it varies from region to region, here in the US, you won’t find an animal expert or vet who won’t to tell you that outdoor cats typically have half the lifespan or less than indoor cats. I’m going to trust them to know a lot more than our anecdotal knowledge.

    No doubt depends on where you live in the urban/suburban US. Cody might well be right for Texas. Sounds a on the short side for here in far north Silicon Valley. But that’s quibbling over the details.

    And it’s always a distribution curve — given how many cats there are, outdoor cats in the late teens might indeed be common everywhere. That wouldn’t contradict it being a rare occurrence, statistically.

    Yes, it boils down to arbitrary cultural differences. 50 years ago, indoor-catting wasn’t a “thing” in the US. Nor, for that matter was routinely getting your pets sterilized before they produced more pets. Both of those were things that were viewed as making their lives less “natural.”

    But sometimes, natural is overrated. I don’t have any desire to live a “natural” lifespan, because in that case I am well past my expiration date. [deceased grin].


    Dear ladybrianna,

    It sounds like your relationship with your colleague may have moved well into the “Oh, STFU, Cara” mental-voice phase. But if not…

    I’m on the borderline of being an ethical vegetarian. Can’t quite make the transition, but I eat a lot less meat (and fewer varieties) than most people. Anyway, I sometimes end up in these conversations. I won’t say the following are guaranteed wins — there are better philosophers than I, to be sure — but most of the time it amicably ends the discussion.

    “How can you justify eating chickens and cows when you won’t eat dogs and cats?”

    “Because I have an emotional attachment to dogs and cats that I don’t have to chickens and cows.”

    ” There’s no logical grounds for that. You don’t have to feel that way.”

    “You’re right, and if I had been raised in a culture where eating cats or dogs was acceptable, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel that way. But I wasn’t. And so I feel differently.”

    “But why should your different feelings give you the ethical right to treat the species differently?”

    “Because it’s not ethical. I’m not opposed to eating cats and dogs because I think it’s unethical, I’m opposed because I think it’s ucky!”

    And… since she sounds like a Testifier… You may also be getting hit with a variation on this:

    “If you’re not willing to kill it, you shouldn’t be willing to eat it. It’s morally indefensible.”

    “I don’t wish to be a sanitation engineer and muck around in human crap, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to indoor plumbing. It’s one of the perks of living in a modern cooperative society. We collectively get to benefit from tasks that some of us find too onerous or unpleasant. It’s not morality, it’s civilization. ”

    “But you should be willing to, if you had to!”

    “But I don’t have to. That is the point. If the world changes in some way, for the worse, that requires me to confront this, we can revisit this conversation.”

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  23. GREAT point. Didn’t even think of it that way. I’m sure there’d still be slavery if there weren’t laws. Well there kinda are slaves still, they just get paid a tiny bit.

  24. @ jazzlet: The idea that all cats MUST be able to hunt live things outside and anything else is cruelty is, frankly, bullshit. Cats are individuals, and respond individually to any given environment. I’ve had many cats who were perfectly fine with being indoor creatures; they play with toys, or the Moving Red Dot, or the other cats, and they hunt down and kill roaches and moths that get inside, and that satisfies their hunting instinct quite nicely. We’ve had one cat, a rescue, who did insist forcefully on being an indoor/outdoor cat and eventually failed to return from an outing; we strongly suspect (since he was a very nice cat otherwise) that he found another gig he liked better. And we have one feral rescue who, after being taken to the vet for what was intended to be a spay-and-release, showed ZERO interest in ever going outside again and has been a happy indoor-only cat for 8 years now.

    In our area, which is near downtown Houston, the potential risks to an outdoor cat include: cars, poison baits, parasite-borne disease, raptors (for kittens more than adult cats), coyotes, and assholes with guns. And it’s hard not to believe the cat is dead when you see the body in the gutter.

  25. In my experience the main reason cat owners in the UK let their moggie roam is because they don’t like emptying litter trays and want their cat to go crap on someone’s else’s garden. They are usually quite open about bragging about that.

  26. Hey Cody asked, I answered with regard to the situation in the UK. I did say I thought it depended on what where you lived was like.The parts of the USA I lived in didn’t have coyotes and not many birds of prey but I was only there for a few months in each case so may well have missed other hazards. I do think you have to make a far greater commitment to the care of an indoor cat to do it well than most owners actually make.
    Crypticmirror, that may be your experience, mine has been owners complaining that their cats persist in using the litter tray even thought they have constant access to outside, but then who can really blame a cat for preferring to go in the dry? Historically cats in the UK have been outdoor cats because it is relatively safe for them to be so

    I don’t own cats, I own two rescue dogs and my attitude isn’t any different to dog owners or any other kind of pet owner, far too many people take on animals without understanding the animals needs. The animal is expected to adjust al of it’s ehaviours to suit the humans even when it is completely against their instincts. I admit that have adopted a German Shepherd that had been taught not to growl, so whose only way of warning you he hated what you were doing was to air snap, and another who’d been kept in a shed for the first five months of her life has probably given me a rather dark view of dog owners.