Pets: Exploitation and Affection

While keeping pets and eating meat is often described as hypocritical, I think they are actually two-sides of the same coin. Both involve exploitation, but in the case of pets the exploitation is marked by affection. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins writes:

Domination may be either cruel and exploitive with no affection or may be exploitive yet coexist with affection. The former produces the victim – in this case, the Black woman as "mule" whose labor has been exploited. In contrast, the combination of dominance and affection produces the pet, the individual who is subordinate and whose survival depends on the whims of the more powerful. The "beautiful young quadroons and octoroons" described by Alice Walker were bred to be pets – enslaved Black mistresses whose existence required that they retain the affection of their owners. The treatment afforded these women illustrates a process that affects all African-American women: their portrayal as actual or potential victims and pets of elite White males.

While Patricia Hill Collins is writing on the dehumanization of Black women and the intersection of race and sex, the above quote makes use of the no-less-real exploitation of nonhuman animals.

Pets are often over looked as a target of exploitation. Terms like "animal companion" in place of "pet" and "guardian" in place of "owner" are euphemisms that hide the exploitation in the relationship by emphasizing the affection. The concept of the pet is also used to suggest that if other animals were kept on idyllic farms it would be alright to exploit them. It is this idea of the pet that is behind the contrast between the "family farm" and the "factory farm."

As Patricia Hill Collins makes clear, it is not just nonhuman animals who are treated as pets. Children, women, and workers, to name a few, are also often treated as pets. Adults, men, and bosses as agents of exploitation may treat each respective target of exploitation with affection, but that doesn't mean the relationship is not oppressive.

Allowing for some members of an oppressed groups to be treated as pets only helps perpetuate oppression and forestall liberation. That is, making allowances for "nice" men who use women undermines the feminist movement; making allowances for paternalistic corporate executives who provide "competitive" wages and benefits but prohibit their employees from organizing undermines the labor movement; and making allowances for "guardianship" and "family farms" undermines the vegan movement.

Re: Pets: Exploitation and Affection

"While keeping pets and eating meat is often described as hypocritical, I think they are actually two-sides of the same coin. Both involve exploitation, but in the case of pets the exploitation is marked by affection."

I'm sorry if I'm completely misunderstanding you, but are you arguing against rescuing (I can see related problems with that term) domesticated nonhumans, that were bred into existence by humans, and providing a home for them? Sure, pets are targets of exploitation, but they are here because of a system of human domination and exploitation. As challengers of speciesism, should we not feel an obligation to care for the victims of this system since it is possible to do so?

Re: Pets: Exploitation and Affection

I agree that pets exist "because of a system of human domination and exploitation," and it is exactly this system of human domination and exploitation that I am arguing against. That is, I'm arguing against the very system that creates the need for rescuing, not the rescuing itself. As long as nonhuman animals are in a position to be rescued they will necessarily be in a position to be exploited.

Re: Pets: Exploitation and Affection

There are currently few vegans who will defend the need to end pet ownership. Indeed, most own pets. I cannot think of any organized campaign designed to make pet ownership obsolete whereas "rescue" programs are commonplace. Rescuing animals while simultaneously owning pets and supporting the billion dollar pet industry does nothing to end the industry.

Focusing on the inevitable carnage that results from pet keeping cannot get rid of the engine behind the carnage. We could rescue pets 24/7 and never make a dent since that ignores the source of the problem--pet ownership itself. Vegans understand that "rescuing" a handful of animals whom humans raise and kill for food will never bring about an end to that industry, so how can "rescue" end the pet industry and why is it the focus of all of our efforts?

I do not think private ownership of pets under any circumstances will bring about an end to pet ownership. Some of the most fanatical "rescuers" are those who "rescue" inbred dogs and cats. Merely placing the label "rescuer" on a pet owner does not change the nature of the relationship.

Ending pet ownership starts with each of us. As long as we keep pets, there will be ever more pets that need to be "rescued." As oppressors, I don't know that our biggest responsibility is to "care" for the victims. The minute we start thinking of ourselves as "caring rescuers," we seem to forget that we're the oppressor, and that maybe our "care" is equally oppressive.

If we're not willing to give up our privilege to keep other animals as slaves of our affection, then of course we feel a strong need to care for the animals who are exploited by the system that we are participating in. We also need to clean up the system and make it look good so that we can continue to own our animals.

We need to tell ourselves that we're "different" from other pet owners, sort of like how white people need to think of themselves as "good" white people because they're not out there at Klan rallies, never mind all of the other ways that we participate in and benefit from racism.

In any conversation I've ever had about pet ownership, the "rescue" issue is brought up for one purpose and one purpose only: to preserve the ability of a certain class of people to maintain pet ownership. Let's not be distracted by this backlash. The real question is: are you prepared to renounce pet ownership and never acquire another pet again? Until the answer is yes, there is no point in having a conversation about how to approach pets currently in existence since a "no" ensures that the problem will exist in perpetuity.

Re: Pets: Exploitation and Affection

Thank you for your replies. I oppose exploitation in all forms so I definitely do seek an end to pet ownership. I just wasn't clear on your position on "rescuing" the nonhuman animals already in existence because of human domestication, Ida. I appreciate the clarification.

"There are currently few vegans who will defend the need to end pet ownership"

Really? This is sad. It shows a real disconnect with the historical goal of veganism.