All Dogs Go to Heaven

Animals at the end of life

Is Pet Ownership a Basic Human Right?

Thinking about human rights and the human-animal bond

Does every person, everywhere, have a basic right to enjoy and benefit from the presence of animals in their lives? And if so, what exactly does this right entail? These are tremendously important—and loaded—questions, and I will be curious to hear the reactions of my readers.

Consider one possible set of answers:

The International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations, an umbrella organization of groups doing work in the field of human-animal interactions, has published a series of “declarations” which they urge all national governments to consider and activate.

In their 2007 Tokyo Declaration, they affirm this general principle: "It is a universal, natural and basic human right to benefit from the presence of animals."

As the basis of this principle, they cite the substantial biological and psychological evidence that humans have an innate affinity for nature, including other living beings and natural environments. So far, I am completely on board. In my mind, this principle affirms that we have a right to live in a world in which nonhuman animals can survive and thrive alongside our own species, both in wild places and within our human-built environments—a world in which “nature” still exists.

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The IAHAIO, however, has much more particular rights in mind. Acknowledging a right to benefit from the presence of animals requires government action to ensure human access to animals in a number of different spheres. For example, IAHAIO argues that regulations should be changed so that animals are not only allowed, but encouraged, in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and school classrooms. Housing regulations should change so that everyone who wants to live with a pet can do so (no more “no pets allowed” apartment buildings). According the IAHAIO, the right to “benefit from the presence of animals” even translates into a universal right to pet ownership. In their 1995 Geneva Declaration, they urge governments to "acknowledge the universal non-discriminatory right to pet ownership in all places and reasonable circumstances, if the pet if properly cared for and does not contravene the rights of non-pet owners."

I have mixed reactions to this. On the one hand, I agree that people benefit tremendously from living with and interacting with companion animals and part of me agrees that everyone should have a right to live with an animal. On the other hand, I'm not sure that a general right to benefit from the presence of animals entails particular rights such as pet ownership. Part of me believes that our interactions with animals should be confined to those that are mutually beneficial, and it would be pretty difficult to argue that the cultural practices of pet ownership universally benefit animals themselves.

And so, readers: What, exactly, does a general right to benefit from the presence of animals really entail? And is pet ownership a basic right? 

Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming book The Last Walk: Reflecting On Our Pets at Life's End. more...

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