Wednesday, May 20, 2009

PETA, Pets, and Extinction

I’ve always been surprised by the number of people who criticize PETA for operating animal shelters which euthanize animals. There are certainly many grounds on which to criticize PETA, but I’ve never thought the fact that they kill unwanted pets which no one is capable of providing for is a particularly good one. Ultimately, euthanizing animals which cannot reasonably be treated to a meaningful and pleasurable life is clearly consistent with the utilitarian philosophy from which many animal rights activists draw inspiration (note, for example, Peter Singer’s strident support for human euthanasia and infanticide, alongside his concern for animals). Frankly, the “hypocrisy” of PETA euthanizing animals is far less than the hypocrisy of the many “animal-lovers” who eat meat but love their pets enough to cry foul when PETA chooses the least-bad option to address the systematic problem of pet overpopulation.

A recent poster on this blog, however, offered a more intriguing allegation: that PETA’s euthanasia policy is part of a broader attempt to make pets extinct.

There are a few reasons why the elimination of pets might be bad news for humans. First off, there are the obvious uses of companion animals for assisting blind and deaf individuals. Most of us have heard about the medical and psychological studies that have shown that having pets makes human beings healthier. These are, of course, scientific attempts to codify common sense: most of us know that in a world where humans are often atomized and isolated from one another, pets provided much needed friendship, affection, and unconditional love.

My family “owns” two dogs, and I can certainly see simply from my own experience that all of the above are true. Nonetheless, I still find compelling the arguments of those who have suggested that domesticated animals are actually bad for humans in a broad sense. Jim Mason – who co-authored “The Way We Eat” with Singer in 2006 – wrote an earlier book, “An Unnatural Order,” that suggests that the subjugation of animals was, in a sense, a rehearsal for our later domination of the earth and one another. According to Mason, by dominating and domesticating animals, we create in ourselves a mindset that allows us to dominate more than just animals. It’s a complicated argument, but it’s worth considering, and it is consistent with less far-flung connections that have been demonstrated between abuses of animals and abuses of humans.

The point of being an animal rights activist, though, is that our sphere of ethical consideration is wider than just humans. And so, however we decided to weight the above evidence as to whether dogs and cats are “good” for humans, we ought also to ask whether it’s good for dogs and cats. In this respect, I have to agree with Gary Francione that if there were two dogs left on the planet, I would not let them breed.

I’m sure many of us who have derived a great deal of pleasure from the company of animals – myself included – shudder at the above statement. But when we really look at the root of the issue, I think the problem with the very idea of domesticated animals becomes clear. Fundamentally, PETA has to euthanize thousands of animals because we have bred entire species of beings that are completely helpless. Dogs and cats may seem happy, but – without being inside their heads – I imagine that their lives lack the fulfillment that would come from a free life in the wild. They are utterly dependent on others, and I submit that this means their lives can never be that much more valuable than that of a particularly well-treated human slave.

I sincerely doubt that PETA actually wants to rid the world of pets. PETA’s thinking tends to be short term and focused on the immediate alleviation of animal suffering (hence their support for things like Proposition 2 in California). I doubt something as far fetched as the elimination of pet ownership will ever make it onto their radar screen. But I do think that reconsidering our relationship with pets is important, if nothing but for the role such animals play in our broader mindset.


  1. I think it is also important to consider the valuable role that pets play in developing empathy and understanding for individuals of other species. In my experience, people who grew up with an animal friend in the house are much more likely to be sympathetic to the animal rights cause. Without pets, we would have little opportunity to substantively interact with nonhuman animals and I worry that our sympathy for them would be rendered dangerously academic.

    An overpopulation of cats and dogs is clearly a serious problem. But insofar as we can provide caring homes, companion animal relationships can benefit animals in need as a whole, in addition to the people and pets directly involved.

  2. I agree with Adam's comment. I have always thought that I became a vegetarian because I grew up with dogs.

  3. I keep looking for evidence of PETA wanting the extinction of domesticated animals, but can't find any. But most people believe it as a given. I'd like to know for sure.