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Should We Really Be Keeping Cats And Dogs — And Geckos — As Pets?

Mattia D'Antonio

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce includes pets — or "animal companions" — among her family members: a cat, two dogs and fish.

So, it's startling to read this passage near the beginning of her new book released this week, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets:

Disturbing cases of neglected pets are known to all of us, but how could it be, I wondered, that pets deserve Pierce's deep, widespread concern?

Now that I've read Run, Spot, Run, I know the answer to that question.

Let's start with a statistic we've probably all heard: 9 of 10 pet owners consider their animals to be part of the family.

This number, it turns out, is drawn from a Harris Interactive Poll of 2,634 people, only 1,585 of whom had pets. Those 1,585 folks were asked simple — "leading," Pierce says — questions about their animals. From that incredibly thin foundation, a cultural narrative was born, one used to support the $50 billion-a year industry that sells us pet food, toys, veterinary services, cages, tanks and much more for our animals.

Sure, some pets truly are woven into the lives of families, but Pierce is saying that when we hear the pets-as-family line over and over, we should recognize it for what it is: a hard corporate sell. As she puts it: "A gossamer pets-are-family thread has been woven over the ugliness."

What ugliness? According to Pierce: At least 30 percent of "family" dogs and cats never once visit a veterinarian; lonely animals are confined to tanks, cages or backyards; high rates of animal cancer occur owing to the poor quality of pet food; people have sex with animals, including at animal brothels, at shocking rates; the "euthanasia" deaths carried out at animal shelters often aren't good deaths at all.

Last month, I conducted a Q&A with Pierce by email about her book. Here's our conversation:

Pierce told me that when she starts worrying about all this too much, she takes her dogs to the local dog park, and relaxes with the well-cared-for dogs there who are part of a human family and also encouraged to be dogs.

Pierce doesn't at all demonize pet-keeping. She just asks us to remember how vulnerable our animal companions can be and that we should act to protect them. Her excellent book is for animals as much as about them.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.
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