One of my older posts, “Why Pet-Ownership is Oppressive but Necessary“, has been getting a lot of traffic lately after being posted on some forum. It’s attracted a few comments on said forum, generally derisive.
Since this topic is liable to sound ridiculous to many and irrelevant to others, I thought I might try to clarify the point, as well as looking at a couple of comments and the way that they exhibit exactly what I’m trying to talk about.
I should start by being clear on ‘oppression’. When I call pet-ownership ‘oppressive’ I don’t mean that pet-owners are going around plotting evil things to do to their pets. I don’t even mean that life as a pet is necessarily worse than life in the wild, since it sometimes brings greater security. I certainly don’t think people are bad for having pets (I have some myself). I’m just stating the factual character of the relationship.
What I mean is that the relationship between an owner and pet is characterised by the control of one by the other, one having no adequate way to articulate their needs and hence finding their life dictated on terms alien to them. For example, it is decided for the mouse whether it will live in a cage or not, and how often it will come out. It has no way to express how often it wants to come out, how much space it needs, how it feels about any of this. So the parameters of its life are set by someone else, who only takes the animal’s feelings into account on their terms, when the owner happens to be aware of them.
I think this is problematic. I don’t think there’s a much better alternative right now, but I think in the long term we should aim for co-existence with animals on a different basis. For example, in planning a town, if we think there will be dogs living in it, we need to find out how dogs relate to space, to other dogs, to other humans, to territory, etc., and we need to design the town from the ground up with them in mind. We can’t design everything simply with humans in mind and then throw non-humans in as an add-on.
It might also be asked whether it makes sense to say that humans ‘prevent’ animals from expressing their feelings – animals can’t talk, so expressing themselves is just impossible, surely? But in the wild, animals do at least have an ability to change their own parameters: they can move from one area to another, associate with one group rather than another, engage in one activity rather than another, etc. When they have a desire, they’re able to act on it, though obviously not perfectly. A lot of the time, this ability to choose is severely restricted for pets.
So the comments. Two statements in particular struck me: “Our two cats clearly feel anything but oppressed…” and “If anything, my cats are oppressing me “
The first thing to note is the arrogance. I have owned pets my whole life, but I still find that sometimes I don’t understand what they’re thinking. And when we think we know, we have no real way to check. We are essentially guessing, on the basis of our human-centred standards of behaviour, about the meaning of behaviour in species that are in many respects very different from humans. We should at least have the humility to accept that our understanding of how our pets think and feel is uncertain and patchy, and must be, given the puny development so far of ethology. And yet this person can assert that their cats ‘clearly’ feel a certain way.
This is a typical characteristic of oppression: members of the privileged group can talk confidently with each other about members of the oppressed group, without having to worry that they will be contradicted. Another typical characteristic comes out in “if anything, my cats are oppressing me.”
This is the same dynamic as ‘reverse racism’. Whenever a member of a privileged group annoys, upsets, frustrates, or inconveniences a member of an oppressed group, it can be forgotten about, and they need never think of it again, because the oppressed are not enabled to articulate their experience. But when a member of an oppressed group does anything to annoy, upset, frustrate, or inconvenience a member of the privileged group, it is the end of the world. The greivance is articulated, shared, discussed, objected to. It can enter the culture in whatever way. Any understanding of why it happened, the background, the greivances they had inflicted on that oppressed person that led to it, is obscured.
The greivance of humans kept awake by barking dogs, or annoyed by cats weeing inside, etc., is a commonplace theme, often appearing in comedy or cartoons. But the greivance of a dog stuck indoors when it wants to go outside? Or the gnawing anxiety of an animal with a past history of abandonment whenever its owner leaves the house? Who could identify with that?
Hence we get white middle-class men complaining that they’re “the only minority left that can still be discriminated against” – and we get pet-owners suggesting that their cat “oppresses” them. ““.
In short: power dynamics determine what knowledge and experiences get articulated and shared, and we need to be sensitive to this, and recognise the limitations in the knowledge of the powerful about the powerless.