Are You Ready to Give Another Animal the Best Life Possible?

A new book asks you to think deeply about the responsibilities of "pet-keeping"

Posted May 09, 2016

So, do you really want to share your home with a companion animal?

Dr. Jessica Pierce's new book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets is a must read for all. It will move you here and there as you ponder what it means to take responsibility for the life of another being. As Dr. Pierce puts it, "Spot [a dog] is just a stand-in for all animals riding the pet-keeping wave." Indeed, the pet-keeping wave is a colossal and ever-growing tidal wave, and the amount of money spent on dogs and other companion animals to support the "animal-industrial complex" is staggering. Let me say right off that I am an unabashed fan of this deeply thoughtful and insightful work about which I wrote: 

"So, you want to share your home with a companion animal? Millions of people make pets out of a wide variety of animals, from dogs and cats to hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates, and this decision is one that demands careful attention, for we truly are the individuals' oxygen. Unfortunately, the lives of innumerable pets are intentionally and unintentionally highly compromised—indeed many are simply horrific—because people haven't done their homework about what it means to live with another being or because they are ignorant of just whom the animal is. There are many ethical questions that need careful attention and these quandaries, some obvious and others less so, don't fit into a nice and clean 'right' and 'wrong' mold. Run, Spot, Run will force potential and experienced pet-keepers to think about what they're getting into, and likely mean that many readers will be moved out of their comfort zone. For equitable human-pet relationships to occur, and for animals to be able to express their full behavior repertoire, things are going to have to change. Jessica Pierce confronts many difficult and challenging issues head-on, and I hope her latest book becomes essential reading for those people who make the choice to bring a nonhuman into their lives. Currently, it's all too easy to become a pet-keeper, and this results in many unhappy humans and nonhumans."

With permission
Source: With permission

The book's description says it all, and below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Pierce. 

A life shared with pets brings many emotions. We feel love for our companions, certainly, and happiness at the thought that we’re providing them with a safe, healthy life. But there’s another emotion, less often acknowledged, that can be nearly as powerful: guilt. When we see our cats gazing wistfully out the window, or watch a goldfish swim lazy circles in a bowl, we can’t help but wonder: are we doing the right thing, keeping these independent beings locked up, subject to our control? Is keeping pets actually good for the pets themselves?
 
That’s the question that animates Jessica Pierce’s powerful Run, Spot, Run. A lover of pets herself (including, over the years, dogs, cats, fish, rats, hermit crabs, and more), Pierce understands the joys that pets bring us. But she also refuses to deny the ambiguous ethics at the heart of the relationship, and through a mix of personal stories, philosophical reflections, and scientifically informed analyses of animal behavior and natural history, she puts pet-keeping to the test. Is it ethical to keep pets at all? Are some species more suited to the relationship than others? Are there species one should never attempt to own? And are there ways that we can improve our pets’ lives, so that we can be confident that we are giving them as much as they give us?
 
Deeply empathetic, yet rigorous and unflinching in her thinking, Pierce has written a book that is sure to help any pet owner, unsettling assumptions but also giving them the knowledge to build deeper, better relationships with the animals with whom they’ve chosen to share their lives.

I was most fortunate to be able to ask Dr. Pierce some questions about her new book. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you write Run, Spot, Run?

Pet keeping is extraordinarily popular, and continues to grow. But I worry about the animals who serve as our pets. The book is really motivated by my love of animals and my interest in trying to improve the conditions under which “pets” live. I wanted to encourage people to look at our pet keeping practices from the perspective of the animals themselves.

How does it follow on the heels of your book called The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives?

The Last Walk brought me into the world of animal hospice and palliative care, and I am continually amazed by the love and commitment that people have for their companion animals, and the profound connection they share. People go to the ends of the earth for their companions, and grieve for their pets as they do for other family members. Yet at the same time, there are huge numbers of pet animals whose lives don’t seem to matter, who get very little care, and whose deaths go unremarked.

How have your own experiences with companion animals AKA pets influenced your views on pet keeping?

Through the various animals I’ve lived with, I’ve learned a lot about what they need to be happy, and I’ve learned (unfortunately) that even as a well-intentioned caretaker, there were animals whose needs I simply didn’t and probably couldn’t adequately meet.

I have lived with pets nearly all of my life. I grew up in a household of animals, and had a whole menagerie of creatures when my daughter was young, including dogs, cats, rats, guinea pigs, a gecko, a tarantula, goldfish. Over time, my perspective began to change, and I began to worry more and more about the fate of the animals we kept.

My feelings are really mixed. On the one hand, I really loved watching my daughter grow up with animals. Keeping pets instilled a sense of empathy and lots of concrete knowledge about biology and about various kinds of animals. The interest she took in her pets definitely generalized to animals more broadly, and to nature. So, I think allowing her those experiences was really valuable. At the same time, I felt sorry for many of the animals… not that we were deliberately being uncaring or neglectful, but just that no matter what we did, their lives were pretty barren and often pretty short. The more I read about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals, the worse it seems to keep them captive in a home environment, where it is pretty difficult to provide what they need to have a good life.

You're getting into a 'touchy' area so you must be very passionate about pet-keeping—what do you hope to accomplish in your newest book?

The main thing I’d like to accomplish is to raise awareness about what companion animals most need, in order to have good quality of life. It is easy to underestimate the seriousness of the decision to bring an animal into our homes, and I’d like to give people resources to think through various facets of pet-keeping. I also, perhaps even more importantly, want to raise awareness about the broader implications of the pet industry, for animals. For example, now that I know the “backstory” on the reptiles and amphibians sold in many pet stores (the dismal conditions in which animals are “manufactured”—bred, transported, and housed—before they arrive on the shelves, and the extremely high mortality rates), I would never buy a gecko from a big box pet store. The cost to the animals is just too high, something I never knew before I started researching Spot.

Do you think in the 'best of all possible worlds,' whatever that is, that pet-keeping will end?

No, I don’t think it will end, nor do I think it should. But I do hope pet-keeping practices will evolve. We need to find ways of sharing our lives with animals that allow animals freedom to be themselves, and not merely to be objects of fleeting interest or curiosity that we buy and then quickly recycle or throw away. Animals are not toys—they are living, breathing, feeling creatures. Some species of animals can have much greater freedom and independence in human company than others. So, for example, I would like to see far fewer exotic animals being sold as pets, and would like to see an end to the capture and sale of wild animals as pets. Do people really need to own a sloth or a slow loris? I don’t think so. I also would like to see more people adopting animals from shelters, and would like to see pet stores become places to buy stuff to provide good care for our animals, but not to buy animals themselves.

What else would you like readers to come away with—what's your take-home message?

The decision to bring an animal into our home is hugely important. For people who already have pets, I hope they get some ideas about how to provide even better care and how to think through some of the inevitable moral dilemmas of pet ownership. And for people who are thinking about acquiring a pet, I’d have them ask two questions: can you provide the animal with a good life (being honest about what a given animal needs, behaviorally and environmentally, to be happy)? And, to put it in crass terms, is the pet “ethically sourced?”

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

If I could summarize the main theme of the book in one sentence: What does pet keeping mean to the animals themselves. What is it like, from their perspective? Is it okay, or are they suffering?

When we take responsibility for the life of another being we are their oxygen and we become their lifeline 

My humble advice is to read this excellent book and to share it widely. Whether or not you agree with Dr. Pierce, Run, Spot, Run opens the door for much-needed discussions of the incredible responsibilities we assume when we take another animal into our home, and, let us hope, into our heart. There are many questions, some obvious and some not so obvious, that must be taken very seriously, for our companion's well-being and their very lives depend on us doing the very best we can, and perhaps then some, when the situation arises. 

Note: For another interview with Dr. Pierce please see "Should We Really Be Keeping Cats And Dogs — And Geckos — As Pets?" You'll also find Dr. Pierce's essay called "Is Your Pet Lonely and Bored?" and many of the comments to be of great interest. '

For recent essays on dogs please see: "What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter," "Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care," "On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know," and "Should Female Dogs be Used As Puppy Mill Breeding Machines?"

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)