There is a picture of me as a little boy holding our cat Felix by the neck with a big smile. I adored Felix, yet he rarely wanted to play with me. Now I understand why: the beast fears my love. In my enthusiasm I made little distinction between his environment and mine. She recruited him in a way that tortured him.
You could argue that this form of animal abuse pales in comparison to routine animal abuse to slaughter, and there’s not much to argue with that. Felix had some risky moments, but he got his food every day and died of natural causes. But I want to talk about principles here, not proportions. This is the principle that animal cruelty thrives when we don’t see animals for what they are: living beings like and different from us.
From this perspective, cruelty to animals can take two forms. The classic form, where “the animals do not perceive anything” and therefore can, for example, rob their young. In the second figure, we mistreat animals by seeing very little difference between animals and ourselves. Traditional animal abuse still exists, but loud protests from animal lovers can now be counted on and the law also puts an end to it. However, our standards, laws, and regulations have not adapted well to that second, historically newer form – the one in which our love of animals tortures them. That must change. And they will, because animal recognition is the trend and people who sympathize with animals will protest and enforce regulations.
By itself I think wanting to acquaint yourself with animals is wonderful. It’s a welcome correction to a construction flaw in Western philosophy, in which we humans have defined ourselves for centuries through opposing animals. We have the mind, the language, the self-awareness, the sense of mortality, etc., and they are not, and therefore we can treat animals as we please.
Since Darwin, the realization has emerged that the differences between humans and animals are not at all. Based on scientific studies, you can now assert for a long time that some animal species do indeed exhibit signs of mind, language, emotions, and self-awareness (you name it), and that we have crawled out of the same mud anyway. This whole difference project becomes somewhat ideological. Why is it so important to distinguish between humans and animals? Could it be because we feel that without this hard difference, our treatment of animals is morally shaky? I think so. That’s why I think more identification with animals – with the fact that they, like us, breathe, feel and have the will to live – is a good thing. This realization usually leads us to treat animals more kindly.
But this increasing human identification with animals can be a burden on animals, too. Some people treat their dog or cat like a little human. They dress the animal, celebrate its birthday and wedding, let it eat risotto and get angry if it doesn’t behave “decently” or “socially.”
live with animals
Such messing with animals is so commonplace in our time and regions, and there is a simple explanation for this: we brought the animals into our home. Until the beginning of the 20th century, cats were always outside and dogs rarely entered. The companion animal now lives in half of Dutch homes. Increased prosperity certainly contributed to this historical novelty, but perhaps the main reason was simple technological innovations.
Dog shampoos, flea drops, and the cat box invented in 1947 made living with those once “dirty” animals a lot easier. From that moment on, animals have entered our intimate sphere – and our subconscious tendency is to think of everyone who lives in our home as a family. Then our attitude to such an animal changes radically. Where we used to throw a bone out for the nameless cat, Simba now gets free meat inside her own plate.
All this attention and care has undoubtedly improved the lives of most dogs and cats. But love can also be blind. When we begin to view the animal as “one of us,” there is a danger of this historically new form of animal cruelty. For example, because we tend to block the qualitative behavior of an animal. A cat licking its butt wide in front of a visitor feels uncomfortable—not to mention the embarrassment that occurs when the dog pushes its nose into the visitor’s crotch. No you can’t! While walking, the dog has to “just walk” and thus is snatched away from the scent trails that make their environment meaningful. We forbid new housemates from tearing up their prey “relentlessly,” or from having sex in public.
Neurotic or careless behavior
Now debugging behavior isn’t pathetic by definition; This is the price we all pay to live together. But if people begin to prevent healthy, social, and assertive animal behavior within their own species, those animals become unhappy, behavioral biologists infer from careless or neurotic behavior.
The imposition of abnormal behavior can lead to torture of the animal. No dog is happy with the “fluffy” raincoats with matching hats that can be ordered from (for example) AliExpress. Forced playmates of their kind can be stressful for animals that like to live solitary, such as most cat breeds and some types of hamsters. The problem of mirror image is the solitary confinement of animals that prefer to live in groups, such as rabbits, rats, guinea pigs and horses.
This man-made animal misery is also being solved in a humane way. For example, the market for animals with mental problems is growing. Numbers are still scarce, but US research this year showed that pet drug use increased by 13 percent compared to 2019. This also includes tranquilizers, which in 2017 already gave 8 percent of dogs and 6 percent of dogs in states United. Cats are described Washington Post†
Dogs living their lonely lukewarm days can now be prescribed the antidepressant Clomicalm. Kind of an anomaly, because the cause of most dogs’ distress is pretty obvious: a lack of exercise and companionship. So the treatment is also straightforward, and therefore not hidden in a pill.
We overfeed our rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, cats, and dogs, causing them, just like the rest of us, to suffer from the ailments of luxury. Recent studies report being overweight in 40 to 60 percent of Dutch dogs, between 11 and 27 percent of cats are obese, and the impression is that the number of overweight horses is also increasing.
The human drive to care has also led breeders to choose animals with a “baby” appearance: small animals with large, round eyes and a short nose that automatically evoke emotion. But short snout dogs often have shortness of breath, and those cute little dogs often suffer from a skull deformity that leads to chronic headaches. Fortunately, since 2014, it is no longer legal to breed for harmful external characteristics, but another breeding problem has not been solved with this law: breeding for character traits. In some people, a shivering and weak animal elicits a nice protective impulse that they seem to want to try. Some breeders act on this desire and deliberately raise fearful and frightened animals. As far as I’m concerned, that makes them guilty of genetic animal abuse.
What are you doing about these new forms of animal cruelty? For starters, take the law seriously. Cruelty to animals has been outlawed for more than a century, and the recently passed Animal Act recognizes animals’ right to “natural behaviour.” Especially deepening and enforcing this law is an obvious way to alleviate the suffering of any animal, including the suffering of animals that are often forced into the mold of human life. For example, it seems to me that banning the breeding of animals that suffer both physically and psychologically is a no-brainer in this light.
Education is another logical option. Most people truly love their animal and may need to hear more about how well they treat their animal. But personally, I don’t put all my cards in this. Information doesn’t always pass through psychological barriers – often not if that information means changing a practice she is so fond of. I know what I’m talking about, because my dog is also more home alone than I want to face.
But above all I think we are seriously – and therefore slowly – we are going to have to coordinate all that knowledge, thoughts and feelings about pets. To this end, each of us will have to examine for ourselves what it takes from us to live well with animals. This is no small matter: it will change society. I don’t know exactly how. But what I can expect is that ethical issues in the human world will spread to the pet world.
Thus, talking about raising pets will become just as prickly as a similar conversation about children. How do you address the neighbor whose cat enters your house by flaping the cat and terrorizing your cat? Do you say something when you see a very fat horse? Do you blame other dog owners for putting your pet’s health at risk by not vaccinating their dogs?
You will also meet human and animal health care. The current differences lie not in medical technology – cats can actually undergo chemotherapy – as in the organization and financing of care. Animals are not obligated to be insured, which means that there is a huge discrepancy between medical care for “poor” and “rich” animals. Groups of animal lovers will find this unfair, and therefore I think we will have to wait for the call for group animal welfare insurance. Another example: under the pressure of new family relationships, the judge in the divorce case will place less and less importance on who bought the dog at that time, and will essentially judge the previous person who can better take care of the animal. It may come to order. It is expected that in the future there will be a lot of fighting over the legal status of companion animals.
Such a new legal practice could be explosive. People will show up and ask why they make such a difference between companion animals and farm animals. What arguments do we actually have for that?
Dealing with animals touches an open nerve in society. I tend to leave that nerve exposed for a while, and I see what it excites in us. For example, I’ve noticed that I’m not at all consistent – I do my best, but I’m definitely not the perfect owner for my dog. Rather than discipline myself for it, I look at where my beliefs about the wonderful difference of animals conflict with my need to pull the dog into my lap. Not just to be kinder to myself. Also because I believe that checking discomfort eventually leads to more permanent changes. Because of one thing I am now deeply convinced. Animals are not for companionship. They are our company on earth. This belief has consequences.
Marjan Slopp is a philosopher and a member of the Council on Animal Affairs (RDA). She is writing this article in her personal capacity. This month the RDA publishes the book Love Makes It Blind, about the dangers of anthropomorphism.