The Call of the Not-So Wild
Owning a dog or a cat seems to be the last step for most middle-class Westerners before their nuclear families are complete. It is perhaps one of the most normal things a person can do in this day and age, practically the capstone to being an Average Joe. After all, owning a pet is, for the most part, harmless. You just need to remember to take your dog out for walks and feed it each day, or change your cat’s litter box on time, maybe take them to the vet once in a while to make sure they are not sick. Overall, they can be a nice addition to the modern household. But with this current climate of animal rights activists, vegans, GreenPeace, and the like, our relationship to animals is constantly being called into question and criticized. Amidst all the chaos and finger-pointing, no one seems to be stopping to consider the role of pet owners in the plight of the animals. It is my position that if we are going to seriously declare that we care about the well-being of all animals, then we must also seriously reassess our positions on keeping pets and what that entails on a deeper level.
We must come to terms with the reality that it is no longer sensible for us to keep pets in a city environment. Firstly, it is a futile attempt to hold on to a part of our humanity that does not, and cannot, exist anymore in the modern period. Secondly it is simply not fair to the animal to be kept in the relatively small living spaces available in urban and suburban environments. Lastly, and perhaps most concerning, as many people are now pointing out, pets are increasingly being used as a means to satisfy the parenting instinct.
It is reasonable to assume that when we continue to bring pets into our homes, we are trying to connect with the part of ourselves that had evolved over many thousands of years to recognize and appreciate animals for their role in helping us secure food and survive. It is, however, futile to hold on to a part of our humanity that has less and less room to exist in our modern world. From our hunter-gatherer origins to our agricultural settlements, the lives of humans and other animals have always been interconnected, whether antagonistically or symbiotically. But it is only when we look back to the development of agriculture and the period of time where the majority of humans lived on farms (approx. 9,000 BCE to 1850 CE) that we begin to better understand why, and how, certain animals developed into pets and others did not. Take for example the classic tale used to explain the domestication of wolves into dogs. Those wolves who were less shy and less aggressive could snack on the remains of a human hunt, and were eventually kept around and were able to evolve alongside agriculture (Handwerk, 2018). The dogs that remained were later bred for their abilities to herd, protect and even assist in hunting. The popular theory for the domestication of cats takes place uniquely in the farm setting, where food reserves were always vulnerable to rats and mice (Smith, 2017). The constant supply of rats and mice provided reliable sources of prey and attracted the cats who hunt them in the wild, and the humans kept them around because they controlled the pest problem.
For better or for worse, though, most of our inner hunter-gatherers have been stored away for more than 10,000 years since the domestication of livestock began providing steady supplies of meat. Moreover, the industrial farming that takes place today has very little in common with the farming practices of even 50 years ago, much less the agriculture that developed at the time we first began domesticating plants and animals. So even those who still live in close proximity with animals today do not have the same relationship with their animals as they once did. As advanced industrial technology continues proliferate, agriculture is less dependent on the manual labour of many different individuals and relies more so on a few heavy machines that can be operated by fewer people to ensure food production. Given this current state of farming affairs, more and more people around the world continue to leave farm life for opportunities in cities, the global rural population having dropped from 66.3 percent in 1960 to 44.2 percent in 2019 (World Bank, 2019). As a result of all of this, more people continue to become disconnected from this ancient way of living, and consequently become disconnected from the relationship with animals that it entails.
This on-going disconnection between humans and other animals brings to mind the Marxian concept of Labour Alienation, whereby due to the specialization of labour required of people in the capitalist mode of production, craftsmen and workers are separated from the means of production, and are no longer solely responsible for the end product — thus alienated from their labour, and its fruits. This seems to spill into the world of pet owners where, since people are no longer able to exercise the same productive symbiotic relationships that they once had with animals in the farm setting (using dogs to herd sheep, for example), they have become alienated from the animals and the relationship has been corrupted. I am convinced that pet owners in current times do not actually care about their animals the way they claim they do. Sure, you will hear people refer to their pets as their “babies” or see them “spoil” their pets with little pet-shoes and toys, however, the way dogs are now paraded in hand bags, for example, gives us the impression that the animals have become no more than accessories for the pet owners to show off to their peers. If the pet owners truly “loved” their animals the way they claim they do, they would not keep them confined to such small spaces all day, only to let them out once or twice a day only so they can relieve themselves. It is simply not fair to the animal.
Vegans and other animal rights activists spend so much of their time and energy combatting factory farming and zoos, but for some reason overlook keeping pets at home as equally unfair to the animals. If you are going to take a stand against something, you cannot pick and choose the aspects that suit your personal agenda. People may be spoiling their pets, providing them lives that, on the surface, seem much more desirable than what they would have lived in the wilderness, or as strays — but they do not seem to realize the injustice they are doing their animals by keeping them away from their natural habitats. Just consider the two most popular house pets, cats and dogs. It is true that domestic cats and dogs have been bred over many years for traits that make them good house pets, such as obedience and (relative) calmness. But anyone who has ever seen a cat spot a mouse or an insect, or seen a dog chasing after a squirrel or pigeon, will know that that those instincts to chase and hunt cannot be bred away. They are an intrinsic part of the animal’s being. Consider the fact that in the wild, the dog’s closest relatives, wolves, are known to cover vast territories of 2500 square kilometers (National Wildlife Federation, 2020). So, it does not matter if you are keeping your dog in a 600 square foot apartment or a 3000 square foot house, because there will never be enough space in that type of residential space for the dog to roam and hunt to an extent that truly satisfies its natural urges. Even outdoors, on the sidewalks or in parks, dogs are always required by law to be on leashes — again, constantly being restricted. Behavior such as ripping up shoes and spraying urine should come as no surprise, then, considering the instinctual requirements of the dog and the reality it is faced with; we as humans would surely react in a similar capacity if we were faced with equivalent constraints.
Finally, we should no longer be keeping pets in the city environment is because it seems they are being used more and more as a diversion to fill the role of children and satisfy the parenting instinct. Though there is no exact data — scientific or otherwise — to support this statement, I am sure I am not the only person who has noticed an increasing amount people talking to their pets as though they were human babies, calling themselves “cat-moms” or “dog-dads”, not to mention the amount of dogs we now see in strollers and backpacks. Despite the lack of existing scientific or academic inquiry into this matter, this slightly disturbing trend does seem to coincide with one very important change that has taken place in recent times: the integration of women into the workforce. The share of women in the labour force in the US grew from 30 percent in the year 1950 to 46.8 percent in 2015 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002 & 2017). Furthermore, this coincides with another interesting statistic, where the average age for women to have their first child has increased from 24.6 in 1970 to 28 in 2016, with more women in their early 30s having kids than younger mothers for the first time in history (Martin et al., 2017). While this is undeniably a very important step in the progress of humanity, it also means that there are now more women prioritizing their careers over motherhood. It all makes sense when one stops to consider the sacrifices required to succeed in professional life in this day and age. It is now normal for people to work many more hours in addition to their 40-hour work weeks if they are to get ahead, especially in the beginning of their careers, and this does not generally leave much time for having and raising kids. I am in no way stating that this is a bad thing, or that women should not be prioritizing their careers, but this does help explain why women are now settling down and having children later in life. As it turns out, prioritizing work over having kids does not necessarily offset the natural urges experienced in that time in life, when the so-called biological clock starts ticking — and that is where the pets come in.
The idea becomes even easier to believe when we consider the Freudian implications of such a trend. House pets come to take over the role of children in the lives of modern adults, and in many ways, they are favorable to human children. They do not cost nearly as much to keep and raise as human children, and there is all of the parental stimulation of educating the pet to behave as we want without all the stress (one can’t exactly neuter their human child to make sure they are not too hyperactive), and without any of the fears of it growing up and taking its own path. There is no more risk of any empty-nest syndrome, as the pet will be dependent on the owner for its entire life.
Pet ownership is not going to stop, or even slow down, once this has been published, but I am hoping that those who do decide to bring pets into their homes, do so having made more informed decisions about their pets and the consequences of removing an animal from its natural habitat and burdening it with the restrictions of city life. In this day and age the only place people should be, in good conscience, keeping pets is on farms. Since that is not a feasible option, though, we should perhaps then be giving more thought to restructuring our city lives in other ways that do not involve using animals as band-aids for bigger problems.