For several years now I’ve adopted and cared for small rodents (mostly hamsters) from a local humane society shelter. I have photographs of them that I use as desktop backgrounds on my work computer. This often results in questions and friendly remarks from coworkers or other people who walk by and notice the images. One day when I was living with Jennifer, a mouse, and had her photo on my computer screen, I found myself involved in a conversation about her. Given my feelings about animals, one of the initial questions from the gentleman I was talking with struck me as disturbing, even though I assumed he was well intentioned and merely reflecting prevailing cultural attitudes.
“Is she a good pet?” he asked.
In response I did something I probably wouldn’t have done a few years earlier, but would have thought about later and wished I had. I immediately used his question as an opportunity to get him thinking differently about animals by explaining that I looked at the situation with Jennifer as a question of what I could do for her, as opposed to what she could do for me by being, as he put it, “a good pet.” I explained that she was the vulnerable one in the equation. She was bred into captivity and domestication by humans, legally regarded as property (something rather that someone), and dependent on us for her care with no guarantee that she would end up with a guardian who would provide that. What I was conveying was not a complicated concept, and his expression suggested that he understood my point of view even though he likely wasn’t used to thinking about it that way. I went on to talk about how I adopted Jennifer from a shelter, and that I didn’t obtain animals from pet stores because in such places animals are sold as commodities, and doing so also contributes to demand.
I’ve thought about why the animals I’ve adopted might have ended up at the shelter. Some of the hamsters have bitten my fingers with their tiny but sharp incisor teeth. Until they got accustomed to human handling, they tended to squirm strongly and run away. They sometimes chewed small holes in my T-shirts, and that was upsetting if it was a new shirt. None of those things were the animal’s fault of course. They just needed me to accept who they were and focus on their needs. No doubt they were turned in at the shelter because for one or more reasons they didn’t meet someone’s expectations of a “good pet.”
When we look at almost all of the ways we use animals, the question, “What can the animal do for us?” applies. That is the core of exploitation or use. That is the core of domestication. And that is how most of us have been raised to think about animals.
Animals used for food entertain our palate. Animals that we wear keep us warm or satisfy our fashion preferences. Animals we call “pets” are expected to be good, compliant companions. Animals incarcerated in zoos and featured in movies and television are there to entertain us. Animals used in biomedical experiments give us data, most of which is of questionable value, but that we understandably are not willing to obtain from humans.
Generally, we agree that using humans in most of these situations would be morally wrong. (Humans however can consent to acting roles in movies, television shows, and plays, and being subjects in certain kinds of biomedical experiments; animals cannot.) Yet we did exploit humans in some of these ways in the past, and sadly even today human commodification in many forms continues. Human slavery still exists in parts of the world, people are still maimed and murdered for their body parts or because they are deemed to be members of an inferior and despised category, sexual assault remains a major problem, and vulnerable groups are still regarded as expendable or at least ignored with regard to their most basic interests.
These are all forms of discrimination. Discrimination is a process of devaluing the basic interests of other sentient beings based on some irrelevant characteristic, or to put it a little differently, denying one or more groups their rightful place in the moral community. Most of us are familiar with racism or sexism, but when we apply a separate, arbitrary standard to nonhuman animals vs. humans, we are practicing speciesism. And since the animals we exploit share with us the desires to be free from harm and to continue to live, speciesism is wrong for precisely the same reasons that other, more recognized forms of discrimination are wrong.
So instead of asking what animals can do for us, let’s think about what we can do for them. The first and most effective thing we can do as individuals is to go vegan. Think of veganism as the minimum—a moral baseline. Veganism directly reduces demand for animal use. It’s something we can do right now, and it’s consistent with how most of us already think—that it’s wrong to impose unnecessary suffering and death on an animal.
Secondary benefits of veganism are improved health and reduced environmental impact. A vegan diet of whole grains, legumes, a variety of vegetables and fruits, mushrooms, nuts, and seeds, can go a long way in reducing the incidence and severity of the modern degenerative diseases that have become so widespread and have driven up our healthcare costs to the breaking point. From an environmental perspective a vegan requires far less water and land to grow his or her food than a non-vegan, and animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector.
After going vegan, all of us can do our part to educate others and get them to go vegan as well. Exactly how we do that depends on our individual personalities and talents, but everyone can learn basic abolitionist animal rights theory and how to respond to common questions. Each of us can find a way to influence others. And with the power of compounding, if every vegan in the United States converted just one other person each year, we could have a vegan nation in around five years. Do that globally and we can have a vegan world.
Finally, consider adopting or fostering an animal if you have the means to do so. Obviously not everyone has the space or budget for a large dog, but smaller animals down to small rodents or turtles sit in shelters awaiting good homes. Animal domestication is an abhorrent institution that should not be perpetuated. Breeding more animals, whether to fill our dinner plates, stock our zoos and aquariums, for dependent and captive companions, or for any other purpose is all about us, and our selfish desires. It is most certainly not about their needs and interests. However, the animals already here need our care, and given that we domesticated them in the first place, we have a moral obligation to provide it.
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The six principles of the Abolitionist Approach to animal rights may be read here.
Learn how to be vegan here and here.