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