A Benevolent Exploitation?
Several years ago, while sitting in an Agrarian Studies seminar at Yale, I listened to an Indian student remark that that first two things that an Indian family does when it reaches the middle class is “eat meat and buy a pet.” This comment stuck with me, initially because of my interest in the first habit (eating meat) and now for the second (getting a pet). The implication behind this comment, which I assume is probably true, is that bringing a companion animal into the household is a clear mark of bourgeois respectability, a sure sign that an urbanized patriarch can dominate not only the human, but the non-human world as well. Sit. Stay. Fetch.
It’s an interesting hypothesis, one that I gather many scholars generally support. John Berger (“Why Look at Animals?”) has written critically of pet keeping as something people do in order to re-establish the natural intimacy we have lost with animals as we’ve become more enmeshed in the fabric of urban capitalism. Owners tend to believe that they are treating “their” animals with the utmost dignity and care when, Berger suggests, they are more like zookeepers who have denied their animals basic freedoms in order to indulge in the pleasures of fixing our gaze upon them or, even better, having others fix their gaze on them. And then us.
I like this argument a lot and, I imagine, there’s a great deal of psychological and sociological merit to it. But I just don’t feel it. I mean, as the keeper of several companion animals, I often wonder to what extent I would have experienced the (relatively) enlightened (this might be the wrong word) view toward the non-human animal world had I not the chance to interact, most notably, with my dogs on a daily basis.
As Berger would agree, humans have become radically detached from animals. His hypothesis is that pet ownership is a false salve to ease the pain of that loss, one that necessarily ends in exploitation for the animal. While I do not deny this argument, I cannot help but wonder, due primarily to my own interactions with the dogs with whom I share my space, if these (usually) wonderful animals haven’t provided me at least some of the foundation upon which I question the entire notion of human superiority over the non-human world. I’m curious to what extent ethical vegans grew up with companion animals.
At the least, even if Berger is right, I think we need to acknowledge this powerful benefit of sharing space with and caring for companion animals. These animals, who are relentlessly insistent about illuminating the meaning of sentience, encourage us to dissolve species barriers and rethink relational arrangements. They force us to, as Kari Weil puts it in Thinking Animals, to reject “the exceptionalism of the human condition.” Few people I know who have lived with companion animals for any period of time—unlike many farmers I’ve interviewed about their relationship with farm animals—would deny that companion animals have distinct, undeniably distinct, personalities. This may be especially true for children.
If this claim is right—the claim that living with animals helps humans reconsider the significance of the species barrier—I think it must be factored into Berger’s claim that keeping pets is zookeeper-like behavior representing yet another of the myriad ways in which humans dominate non-humans to our own advantage. There are millions of animals held up in shelters seeking a decent caregiver and companion. Should that companion “save” one of those animals and, as a result, become attuned to the reality of animal sentience and, in turn, go vegan, I would say that this is a form of exploitation that I could live with. I would call it a benevolent exploitation.