Disclaimer: I always speak in general terms, and am fully aware that exceptions are everywhere. This is meant to be an opinion piece and not a means to judge individuals. That being said, I do use it to judge society as a whole as well as taking a shameful look in the mirror.
I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that owning a pet is akin to owning a slave, and we as a society are as lost as the ancient Athenian citizens of the 5th century BCE. The idea first came to mind years ago, but became articulable only recently when I asked myself: Can primates outside of Homo actually own pets, even from a conceptual level? The famous “Koko” came to mind, a lowland Gorilla that supposedly learned 1,000 signs of ASL, can understand 2,000 words of English, albeit does not make use of grammar/syntax. Koko has been reported to have passed the mirror test, showing the ability to identify self, shown to report personal memories and use deceptive language. Suffice to say, Koko has shown the ability to learn, extract data, distinguish future/past events and is sufficiently self-aware. In 1983 it was claimed that Koko asked researchers at The Gorilla Foundation that it wanted a pet, and a year and a half later she received a kitten named “All Ball”. At All Ball’s passing in December of 1984, Koko expressed her sadness by saying “bad, sad, bad”. It is unclear to me what Koko’s motivations were for acquiring a pet, but the need was clearly there.
So why is Koko’s desire relevant to this discussion? Let me explain myself. Humans are arguably smarter and less hairy (also arguably) great apes. We seem to share and even understand Koko’s desire for keeping a pet. Since the domestication of the canine, as far back as 34,000 years ago we have used animals as helpers, various form of comfort, means of protection, food security and to increase our productivity (namely in agriculture). Food aside, and to add ‘used for sex’, humans have also been used under these premises, but as persons in bondage. Societies past and present have kept slaves, and in my opinion, slavery is the most grotesque violation of inalienable human rights. This expression “human rights”, this string of two words, is in it of itself ‘specist’, but more on that later. To keep this brief I will list two examples, an ancient Greek one and a 14th century Islamic one.
From a linguistic and thus conceptual point of view the Greeks had many words to describe a slave, one such term is ‘dmōs’ a general term referring to war prisoners taken as booty, that is to say, taken in as ‘property’. Another word the classical Greeks used was ‘andrapodon’ which literally means ‘one with the feet of a man’. In both these cases, a slave was conceptually not considered a human being, described merely as ‘property’ and a thing ‘with human feet’ (human like). Thus, a keeper could treat a slave in any manner they saw fit, since no recognition of humanness is applied, therefore no attached rights. A 14th century Islamic scholar named Ibn Khaldun once claimed that the “Black nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [they] have little that is human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals”. His statement is obvious; to him Africans had no rights, simply because they were not really full-fledged humans. With this definition: “slave = non-human/sub-human”, it is difficult to apply judgment. It is comparable to applying ethical judgment to a man or woman who destroys a ‘thing’, which they were not fully aware was a sentient being in the first place. It only becomes an ethical dilemma when awareness is involved.
That being said, I now make the bold claim that animals are: A.) classified as non-human or sub-human, B.) since non-humans or sub-humans can be kept as slaves, we can conclude that C.) animals can be kept as slaves, and thus synonymous to pets (since there is no discernible difference).
However, some will argue that there are clear distinctions. In fact, arguments that can be used to distinguish the two terms: ‘pet’ and ‘slave’ are attributed to how they are treated, educated, fed and even how the keeper feels about the kept. This is built in the definition of the word ‘pet’, stating that a pet is “any domesticated or tamed animal that is kept as a companion and cared for affectionately”. But who are we kidding, slaves have been treated well (human rights violation aside), educated, fed well and most certainly have been loved, and conversely, pets have been left to starve, tortured, physiologically abused and loathed. The domestication argument is a very poor argument to own pets. I have heard this word being thrown around when debating this topic. The argument goes that due to human intervention, animals that have been tamed or domesticated have in fact become dependent, and thus cannot survive alone and requiring keeping. Clearly this is flawed. Have we not seen feral cats and dogs, seen wild American horses, dingos and stray rabbits in Australia? If you haven’t, you’ve been in a city full of pampered ‘pets’, for far too long. There is really only one, already mentioned difference between the two terms; one is applied to non-humans (generally speaking).
Allegedly Koko nurtured, expressed tenderness and kindness to All Ball. So why did Koko want a pet in the first place? I think it safe to say, and you may disagree, but Koko wanted to have a thing to love/nurture and to have love/company in return. In modern times men trade woman and children as sex slaves, getting pleasure and a feeling of power/control, a sort of twisted love, desire and comfort. These women have no choice, and they are qualified by the expression ‘having been dehumanized’. All Ball didn’t have a choice either, nor do any kept domestic animal. Since Koko didn’t hunt, eat kittens, herd cattle, or produce anything else, much like you and me, I think we can say that Koko wanted love/company back from All Ball. I at least appear to get that from Papu our golden doodle (cutest dog in the universe). Off course we can seek these things from others as well, but the essential difference is that ‘pets’ like ‘slaves’ do not have a choice. One can ask why we train (educate) our pets to react to verbal and physical gestures? The haunting answer is simple: “so we can control them”, there is a reason why they are called commands, and not interrogatives. Could Koko have wanted someone to control as well, and yes I meant to use the word someone?
By now you are probably still fixed by the idea that ‘pet’ and ‘slave’ are not the same thing, still fixed with the sensation that you cannot possibly be compared to a slave keeper, even a really kind and compassionate one, yet the ugly truth is that we are, and we are propagation agents of that very concept.
Within English, and likely other languages we hear phrases like “sold like animals”, “treated like animals” when referring to slaves. Does this not entail that we see animals in a different light? Let me provide you a list of what we can and do to animals just to make a point:
- We can and do euthanize animals ‘because they are suffering’ (disregard consent, control life)
- We can and do spay and neuter animals without their consent (control reproduction)
- We can and do keep animals in cages and confined interiors (control movement)
- We can and do modify animals, i.e. declaw, remove voice boxes (control behavior)
- We can and do attach animals to machinery or tools (forced labor)
Yet if we apply even one of these points to humans, it becomes despicable, and unethical. Society does not apply inalienable rights to animals, much like the ancient Greeks did not apply inalienable rights to non-humans, and the Berbers of the 14th century did not apply inalienable rights to sub-humans. Are we seeing a pattern yet?
The underlying issue is that society as a whole does not recognize other sentient beings; we are unwilling or unable to accept non-human intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. We are in essence, specists. We favor our species over others, and assign different values, rights, or special considerations to non-Homo sapiens. A recent ruling in the United States ruled that Kiko a chimpanzee living in a cage “is not a legal person with a right to be free, or at least less-imprisoned”. Kiko is now destined to live his remaining years isolated in a cage watching cartoons.
The problem poised here is not if a chimpanzee is a legal person but if it is sentient. The highest of courts in North America have not intervened on the rights of Great Apes, or any other animal. So why do we not see a problem with owning pets? Of course we don’t have a problem; we simply do not recognize it as a ‘problem’, much like the Athenian citizenry who didn’t recognize that holding sentient beings in bondage was unethical. We don’t have an issue with keeping pets, because semantically the word ‘pet’ isn’t inherently pejorative, nor does it carry connotations of ‘property’. That is the kicker, the lovely euphemism of property (slavery).
We cannot solve what we refuse or cannot see, this is why society really doesn’t have a problem with slavery. It just doesn’t know it. Rebuttals are welcomed and encouraged!