Rethinking Our Love of Pets in an Age of Wildlife Extinction

An interview with Peter Christie about his new book "Unnatural Companions."

Posted Jun 07, 2020

"In Unnatural Companions, journalist Peter Christie issues a call to action for pet owners. If we hope to reverse the alarming trend of wildlife decline, pet owners must acknowledge the pets-versus-conservation dilemma ... Christie's book is a cautionary tale to responsible pet owners about why we must change the ways we love and care for our pets. It concludes with the positive message that the small changes we make at home can foster better practices within the pet industry that will ultimately benefit our pets’ wild brethren."

In March 2019, I spoke with award-winning Canadian science journalist Peter Christie about a book on which he was working because of my commitment to the ever-growing field of compassionate conservation and strongly arguing against the mass killing or cats.1 Unnatural Companions: Rethinking Our Love of Pets in an Age of Wildlife Extinction has now been published and I'm pleased that Peter could take the time to answer a few questions about this most timely "call for action." Our interview went as follows.

Why did you write Unnatural Companions?

I began thinking about this a couple of years ago while writing a story for a Canadian newsmagazine about Canada’s decision to ban imports of salamanders into the country. Salamanders are apparently very popular pets here. The reason for the ban was an outbreak of a new disease—a fungus—in Europe that was killing wild salamanders across Belgium after arriving from Asia via escaped or released pet salamanders. Canada and the United States both restricted the salamander trade to keep the problem from arriving here. The issue of pet cats affecting birds and other wildlife had been a hot topic for a few years, so the salamanders got me wondering about other ways pets and the pet trade affect wild creatures. The impacts, as it turns out, are huge. I’m a pet owner. I had no idea. I imagine many other pet owners have little idea, too. The irony, of course, is that pet owners are animal lovers. The urge that inclines us to keep pets is the same one that helps us appreciate the importance of having wild animals around, too.   

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

First, I’m a pet owner. These days, my family has a much-loved dog, but I’ve kept everything from fish to canaries to lizards for various periods over the years. Pets and our relationships with them are fascinating to me. I also studied biology in university and spent my summers helping scientists do ecological field research for years before becoming a journalist. I’ve been writing primarily about climate change and conservation-related issues for about two decades. I still write some journalism, but much of my work is directly for conservation or climate groups, governments, and academics who want to reach non-science audiences. I love the wilderness. I’ve been particularly concerned about the accelerating rate of species extinctions for a long time, and I firmly believe that it’s one of those global environmental problems that we actually have the power to solve to a large extent.

Who is your intended audience?

This book is for everybody who cares that we continue to share this planet with other species. My real hope, though, is that pet owners especially will pay attention. They comprise more than two-thirds of American households and they have tremendous economic and political clout. They also really love animals. They belong to the same tribe as conservationists. In the book, I encourage pet owners to come together to do what they can as individuals but also to demand better from the pet industry.

What are some of the topics you weave into the text and what are some of your major messages?

The central theme of this book is biologist Edward O Wilson’s idea that our human attraction to other living things may be hardwired in our genes. Yet, while Wilson hoped our “biophilia” would inspire us to end the accelerating extinction of wildlife, our connection to creatures is increasingly expressed not through our relationship with nature but through our companionship with pets. Now, soaring numbers of these cats, dogs, birds, fish, turtles, lizards, and other beasts are contributing to the conservation crisis.

As I mentioned, cats (and dogs) can be wildlife predators and diseases deadly to wild creatures can be spread by globe-trotting salamanders, birds, and other pets. But there are other impacts: jungles are robbed of animals to satisfy the pet trade; released pets in non-native habitats (such as pythons in the Everglades) disrupt local ecosystems; the pet food business, with its insatiable demand, drains our oceans of vital forage fish. Meanwhile, Americans shell out 50 times more money for cat toys, dog clothes, and other pet products than federal and state governments together spend to save endangered and threatened wildlife. The result, not surprisingly, is that over the last 50 years U.S. cat-and-dog numbers have doubled while global wildlife populations have been cut in half.

But the book’s aim in pointing out this strange irony isn’t to make pet owners feel bad, it’s to empower them as the new conservationists. Pets are also important to conservation in many ways. Conservation dogs, for example, help biologists track and monitor beleaguered species. Pet owners can be part of the solution. The book is intended to help point the way.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

The book is the first time that all of the different impacts of pet keeping on wildlife has been pulled together in one place. While the findings are startling, the book is hopeful that a little awareness can go a long way. Pet owners enjoy making a difference to the animals they live with. The book makes the case that they can really make a difference to wild creatures as well. Anyone who cares about the fact that species are going extinct perhaps a thousand times faster than they should and that these extinctions jeopardize a lot of the natural systems we need to live will want to pay attention.

What are some of your current projects?

My main focus recently has been exploring the problem of underfunding for conservation where it’s needed most. This is work I’m doing with a Canadian conservation organization. Biodiversity is concentrated in the tropics, but so are many of the problems it faces, such as expanding agriculture and poaching. Unfortunately, many countries in the tropics don’t have the money to adequately tackle the problems there. Richer countries elsewhere, meanwhile, tend to focus their conservation dollars on issues within their own borders. Canada is no different. Saving local wildlife is important, but the bigger conservation picture has to include help for tropical countries. The extinction crisis is a global problem and losing too many species will have global consequences.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

The subject of my book may seem a little strange in the current times of COVID-19, but the science linking virus outbreaks to our mistreatment of nature is now clear: threats to wildlife (the source, along with other animals, of three-quarters of new human diseases) are raising the risk of future pandemics by squeezing more animals into smaller wild areas with more people hunting, trapping and selling them into crowded markets. We need a new, comprehensive view of conservation to make the world safer—for animals and for us. Pet owners, like me, can help. The book was written before COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic only highlights the central importance of conservation.

References

Note:

1) Numerous references to compassionate conservation can be found in Compassionate Conservation, Sentience, and Personhood and some essays about my and others' view on urban cats can be found in Cats and Humans: There's No Need For War (President and founder of Alley Cat Allies offers humane alternatives to killing); "Cat Wars" Calls For Killing Free-Ranging Cats" ("...remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary."); The Wars on Wolves, Cats, and Other Animals: It’s Time to Forever Close Down the Killing Fields; and “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”: WAR IS DECLARED ON U.S. CATS (Vox Felina).