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Feeding Animals Isn’t Always as Harmless as It Seems

A new, timely book looks at some messy questions about whether we should do it.

Key points

  • Josh Milburn argues that all sentient, thinking, feeling animals, including vertebrates and many invertebrates, have negative rights.
  • Good intentions can have unanticipated effects on the ground, in the air, and in water and raise ethical and environmental concerns.
  • As more people spend more time outside, asking what's at stake when we feed animals deserves closer scrutiny.

People all around the world feed animals, ranging from household companions for whom we control when, where, how, and what they eat to their free-ranging relatives, to garden birds and squirrels and wild animals of many different species.

We often do this with little to no thought about some of the behavioral, ethical, environmental, and political concerns that arise when we benignly (so we think) interfere with animals' diets, but there are many that lurk in the background. As a field ethologist, I know that feeding urban animals and wildlife can influence their social behavior and social organization in unanticipated ways.

These are among the many reasons why I was fascinated by a new book by Josh Milburn called Just Fodder: The Ethics of Feeding Animals.1 I'm pleased he could answer a few questions about some of the paradoxes and other serious issues that arise when we often thoughtlessly, but not maliciously, feed animals.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Just Fodder?

Josh Milburn: In my research, I explore the place of animals in moral, legal, and political thought. One of the areas I’m interested in is food. I realized that although lots of philosophers have written about human diets, few have thought about animal’s diets.

But feeding animals raises many practical ethical problems. Should we feed meat to our dogs and cats? Is it OK to feed some of our garden visitors while discouraging others? When are we obliged to feed wild animals? These practical questions initially motivated Just Fodder.

McGill-Queen's University Press, with permission.
Source: McGill-Queen's University Press, with permission.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

JM: This is a book for everyone interested in animal ethics, the philosophy of food, and animal studies. This includes academics, students, animal activists, and animal lovers.

MB: What are some of your major messages?

JM: In the book, I argue that all sentient animals–thinking, feeling animals, including vertebrates and many invertebrates–have negative rights, which protect them from mistreatment. Consequently, in normal circumstances, we can’t kill these animals or make them suffer.

There’s thus something wrong in killing some animals to feed others. And this creates an ethical problem not encountered in explorations of human meat-eating. Some animals eat meat because of biology, while humans eat meat because of ideology. Philosophers are well-placed to challenge ideology, but not biology. I call this the problem of carnivory.

The problem of carnivory isn’t an abstract issue. It’s about, for instance, whether we can live with dogs and cats in a respectful way. It’s not just about companion animals, though. It impacts many animals. Can we solve the problem? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all resolution, but there are lots of steps that individuals and communities could take to make feeding practices more animal-friendly.

There are two possibilities I’m particularly excited about. Could the animals we feed flourish on plant-based diets? Lots of people successfully feed their dogs and cats plant-based food, for example–and there’s a growing body of veterinary research around this. And, could we develop food for animals using cultivated meat? This is meat grown outside of animals’ bodies, and thus, potentially, without harm. Companies are racing to produce pet food using cultivated meat, but sadly, it’s not yet available to buy.

Şahin Sezer Dinçer, Pixels, free download.
Source: Şahin Sezer Dinçer, Pixels, free download.

I’ve mentioned negative duties. But what about positive obligations–duties to assist animals? To work these out, we need to think more carefully about the relationships we have with animals.

This may sound strange, but it’s perfectly familiar. Even if my companion dog and a wild dog experience the same levels of suffering when they are starving, I have a far greater obligation to assist my companion–or so we might think. Why? She lives where she does, behaves as she does, and maybe even exists because of me. I’m probably responsible for her suffering. We have, hopefully, feelings of affection for each other. And so on. These things are unlikely to be the case when it comes to the wild dog, and they make a big moral difference.

If we want to understand the positive obligations we owe to animals–such as whether we should feed them–we must pay attention to the circumstances. Just Fodder explores several relationships in detail. It looks to companion animals, garden wildlife, animals who live on cropland, animals in wildlife rehabilitation centres, and free-living wild animals.

These animals each raise their own puzzles–and the book proposes solutions. While we always have duties not to harm animals, we might not always have duties to help them. If we get involved with these animals’ lives, though, we can acquire duties to help them and even, sometimes, duties to stop them from harming others. While I don’t think, for example, that we normally have duties to stop lions from killing gazelles, I do think we usually have duties to stop our companion cats from killing mice.

MB: Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

JM: It’s important for everyone who feeds animals to reflect on where animals’ food comes from and what values motivate the feeding. In the messy real world, there aren’t always neat solutions when problems appear. But lots of us could be doing much better when it comes to our feeding practices and doing what we can to help create more peaceful human/animal relationships.

References

In conversation with Josh Milburn, a moral and political philosopher with research interests in animal ethics, the philosophy of food, liberal and libertarian political theory, and applied ethics. He is currently a Lecturer in Political Philosophy and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based in International Relations, Politics and History at Loughborough University.

1) The book's description reads: Animal lovers who feed meat to other animals are faced with a paradox: perhaps fewer animals would be harmed if they stopped feeding the ones they love. Animal diets do not raise problems merely for individuals. To address environmental crises, health threats, and harm to animals, we must change our food systems and practices. And in these systems, animals, too, are eaters. Moving beyond what humans should eat and whether to count animals as food, Just Fodder answers ethical and political questions arising from thinking about animals as eaters. Josh Milburn begins with practical dilemmas about feeding the animals closest to us, our pets or animal companions. The questions grow more complicated as he considers relationships with more distance–questions about whether and how to feed garden birds, farmland animals who would eat our crops, and wild animals. Milburn evaluates the nature and circumstances of our relationships with animals to generate a novel theory of animal rights. Looking past arguments about what we can and cannot do to other beings, Just Fodder asks what we can, should, and must do for them, laying out a fuller range of our ethical obligations to other animals.

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Comstock, Corey. Feeding wildlife can cause more harm than good. The Daytona-Beach News-Journal, February 17, 2021.

Hataway, James. Feeding wildlife can disrupt animal social structures. UGA Today, March 10, 2020. [A summary of "Interactions with humans are jointly influenced by life history stage and social network factors and reduce group cohesion in moor macaques (Macaca maura)" published in Scientific Reports.]

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