Holly’s body lies in the cemetery at Eden. Her story is all that remains of her life. Be mindful of it in your interactions with the non-human companions we bring into our world.
Companion Animals: An Apology to Holly
The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.
Alice Walker Foreword to The Dreaded Comparison: Animal Slavery and Human Slavery (1996) by Marjorie Spiegel
Most of the focus of the animal rights movement is required on use of other animals for food as the greatest exploitation of them is predicated by our view of them as food and not as individual, sentient beings whose lives matter to them. By comparison, the ethical issue of companion animals tends to fall near the bottom of the pile. It is difficult to ringfence exploitation because all the ways in which we use non human animals are exploitative, however benign we believe them to be. Furthermore, all forms of exploitation are interconnected by our unnecessary use of them and are, therefore, not compatible with veganism. It is useful, at the outset therefore, to remind ourselves of the definition of veganism coined by Donald Watson:
“A way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.”
All exploitation begins with the objectification of others and the view that they exist for our benefit and are less than us. The exploitation of others is an interconnected web which is why any response other than veganism does not make any rational sense. The interconnectedness of exploitation is evident, for example, in the dependence of the leather industry on the meat and dairy industries. Therefore, vegetarianism which avoids animal flesh but condones dairy, wool and leather is not a rational ethical response to animal rights.
It is impossible to use other animals without violating their rights, usually in ways that cause them harm. Regardless of how benign the context of use appears, when we view them as our inferiors and their purpose in life to serve our needs and desires, we are in a position of power and gain and they are the losers.
The status between working animal and companion animals is frequently blurred when they are also used as service animals in therapeutic, educational and psychiatric contexts. Similarly, there is a blurring of the boundaries of exploitation with the burgeoning popularity of keeping farmed animals as companions.
Humans keep companion animals for many reasons. Many of us have deep emotional bonds with the non-humans who share our homes and the other animals who have been bred into domestication require our care. Many human:companion animal relationships are characterised by respect, responsible care and mutual affection; indeed, many companion animals have been rescued from shelters, situations of abuse, neglect, or homelessness. Regardless of how well we treat them, our relationship to our non-human companions is tainted by the harm that our use of them inflicts by interfering at a species level and by regarding their purpose in life as one that meets our needs. In other words, caring for them and even loving them is not a justification for using them. Animal rescue is quite different from contributing to animal exploitation.
All companion animals originate from wild, free species. They are the result of domestication and inculcation into slavery for human ends. The motivation to domesticate other species is always for the benefit of the human species. Traditional companion animals such as cats, for example, were domesticated to be working animals who, because of their carnivorous nature, were adept at controlling the population of rats and mice that exploded with the advent of agrarian agriculture. Dogs were similarly domesticated for their ability to guard humans and undertake other forms of labour. Both species live very successfully and independently of humans in the wild. Our domestication of them has created a relationship in which they can never attain equality. We have made them dependent on us, for their most basic needs, and this dependency is key to their vulnerability to neglect and abuse. The facts of companion animal domestication do not detract from the integrity of our mutual affection but the bigger picture is one in which we have taken their freedom and purpose in life and moulded them for our use. As a result, significant numbers are left homeless, harmed by being used in breeding, and just like human children, abused behind closed doors. In addition, our demand for non human companions feeds an exploitative pharmaceutical industry, and depends on the slaughter of farmed animals to feed those who do not or cannot exist on a plant diet. The impact of the carnivorous natures of some companion animals on wild lives is also very significant.