I am aware that questioning our love affair with our pets borders on heresy, but someone has to mention this particular unsustainable character trait in our species. Even here in Rochester, NY, our preoccupation with pets in the face of truly important matters like Climate Change and other environmental issues must be addressed. It’s not that pets are especially damaging to our environment; it’s that there are so many of them, eating so much food that could go to humans who really need food, and stealing our attention, our energy, and our economy from that which really matters.
For all their companionship, our pets don’t teach us much at all about our environment. When wildlife becomes domesticated they serve our needs and get removed from their role in our environment. You aren’t going to learn what role canines play in our environment by having Fido fetch your Frisbee.
That love, loyalty, and attention our pets give us are there by design—our design. Remember, the reason our dogs and cats attend to us at all is because we shaped them that way. Dogs, from the canine family (like wolves), are not especially fond of humans. Don’t even think of petting a wild wolf. Only a couple of thousand years of breeding and domestication created something as mellow and lovable as a mutt.
My point is that dogs and cats are not wildlife. They play no role in shaping or maintaining the health of our environment. They certainly play a role in our psychology, but that is another thing altogether. Wildlife shapes and is shaped by our environment—they are one. Extract a species from that role and they become irrelevant to our environment.
The role of pets in our lives is no small matter:
“There are approximately 77.5 million owned dogs in the United States. There are approximately 93.6 million owned cats in the United States. “ U.S. Pet Ownership Statistics : The Humane Society of the United States
Last year was the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, and the loss of biodiversity world-wide created almost no attention in the United States. This is despite the fact that animal species are dying at a rate consistent with the five other major extinction events in our planet’s history. Check out this film, where you can get a sense of the importance of biodiversity loss:
“All over the world species are becoming extinct at an astonishing rate, from 1000 to 10,000 times faster than normal. The loss of biodiversity has become so severe that scientists are calling it a mass extinction event. ” Call of Life
Animal ethics, or how we treat animals, is an important ethical issue--but not in the way that we usually approach this issue. Usually, when we speak of animals ethics we describe animals we put in zoos, or whether someone tosses a dog out into traffic because of road rage, or uses them to test drugs in our pharmaceutical labs. While these are important, I submit that first and foremost animal ethics should be insuring that wildlife continues to play critical roles in our environment. Amphibians (probably lousy as pets) are needed to maintain healthy wetlands (although 50% have been destroyed since Europeans came to America). Frogs, insects, and those tiny creatures that break up dead material matter. Fido, not so much.
This issue about the relative importance of pets in our lives gets demonstrated at critical moments. When push comes to shove, meaning, when our situation becomes frightfully dangerous, our pets will be the first to go:
“… 750,000 cats and dogs were killed at their owners’ behest before the first bombs fell on London. ( 16 July 2009) Wartime cat and dog massacre examined | Scoop News
“An estimated 600,000 pets were killed or left without shelter as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Social effects of Hurricane Katrina - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Why go after pets? I’m not. I’m trying to remind folks of what is truly important. We must put priorities in the proper order. Pets are nice. But our environment is critical. We lavish lots of money and attention on pets instead of focusing on reducing Climate Change and solving many of our environmental problems.
If we truly loved animals, we’d leave them alone and let them do their job—shape and maintain our environment. They weren’t put here for our pleasure, as almost all of them we here and doing just fine until we humans came along.
We are deluding ourselves if we think our love of pets and our fondness for those wildlife prisoners in our zoos mean we are a wise and compassionate species. If you are thinking when you keep a pet you are keeping it from extinction, think again. With billions of dollars going to billions of pets, they aren’t in danger of extinction.
If only we loved our environment and the Third World the way we love our pets.