I have been thinking about the ethics of keeping sentient animals as pets. As someone who has lived with dogs, cats, rats, mice, gerbils, rabbits, lizards, guinea pigs, and chickens, I have experienced first-hand the joy and companionship that such creatures can bring to our lives and the love that we can have for them. Yet, as a philosopher interested in animal ethics, I am aware of the many moral problems associated with our practice of keeping animals as pets. These problems have led me to reconsider human-animal companionship, and I have come to think that no matter how much we might love the animals we bring into our homes, we cannot justify doing so.
Humans like watching nonhuman animals. We watch them in parks, in zoos, on farms, in sanctuaries, in pet shops, in our gardens, on the streets, in our homes, on tv, and so on. Lately, we have developed increasingly innovative and ingenious ways of watching animals: ways of accessing their intimate lives without them knowing. Take, as an example, the BBC documentary “Spy in the Wild” in which “animatronic spy creatures infiltrate the animal world to explore their complex emotions”. (If you haven’t seen it, here’s a clip.) Or consider the proliferation of wildlife cams, zoo cams, and pet cams that are placed discretely in animals’ homes and give us unlimited access to their daily lives. Last year, a wildlife fan installed a camera within a birdbox to watch a family of blue tits and the footage was viewed 41 million times within a month of being uploaded. In 2017, 1.2 million people tuned in to watch April the giraffe give birth at Animal Adventure Park.
For many, having an animal companion during the pandemic has been a blessing. Someone to keep you company, someone to play with, someone who brings you joy and gives you a reason to get out of bed. Indeed, in the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) reported that 3.2 million households in the UK have acquired an animal companion since the start of the pandemic. This brings the total number of animal companions in the UK up to 34 million, including 12 million cats and 12 million dogs, and equates to 17 million households being responsible for an animal’s welfare.