I must have been about four when we drove to buy a dog. The day is now only a haze of Sunday afternoon impressions of rain and green, of the muddy track somewhere in the Stirlingshire countryside, a room, a log fire, and the two chosen puppies who would be the confidants of my growing up. The black dog died when I was in my early teens, and the brown one, the last dog I knew well, shortly before I left school. Our buying them must have been part of the growing tendency for post-second world war pet-keeping, which had been increasing since Victorian times, and was about to expand into the vast pet trade of today.
But what makes us choose one creature over another? Many studies have evaluated the importance of a species’ appearance in determining its popularity, commercial potential or conservation status. The conclusions are dismaying: “An animal’s attractiveness substantially increases support for its protection,” one study says, while another concludes: “A few charismatic and cute species … tend to receive most of the conservation funds and policy attention.” Creatures are ranked – “the 20 most charismatic species” – or described as “powerful commercial icons” or “the world’s cutest animals”. Even the birds in our gardens are subject to our caprices. The results of a study on the “likeability” of garden birds show that we like songbirds (even though we may not be able to define correctly what a songbird is), preferring robins and blackbirds to corvids, gulls, pigeons and starlings. We consider the former attractive but the latter argumentative, competitive and noisy – all necessary, natural behaviours of wild birds. “Charismatic”, “iconic”, “cute” – in a time of devastating and irreversible species loss, can these really be the measures of our love?
What about invertebrates? In any measure of love, we do not include thoughts of ecological niches, of trophic cascades, of the unseen, unknown benefits that we gain from other species in ways we might not understand. Species we regard as malign – the ubiquitous Highland midge, or winter moths – may be problematic simply because they are inimical to the interests of humans. Parasitoid wasps are efficient controllers of common garden pests. Parasitiformes and acariformes, the mites and ticks, more than a million species of them – most as yet undescribed – have important and complex roles in ecology, but fall very far outside the boundaries of our interest or concern.
An earthworm.Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
Earthworms, who we tolerate because we know of their benefits to our gardens, are never likely to be regarded as “charismatic” species, but Charles Darwin himself, in his monograph The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, writes with enthusiasm and even warmth of his discoveries of their likes and dislikes, of their intelligence and their unexpected abilities. That the vast majority of the world’s species, 95% of them invertebrate, will fail all the common tests and judgments we construct, belies their overwhelming importance and significance. The organisation Buglife suggests that for life to continue on a healthy planet, invertebrates play a more important role than we do.
In an astute and moving essay, Praise Song for the Unloved Animals, the American writer Margaret Renki pays tribute to the role played in the complex systems of life and renewal by some of the reviled creatures of the Earth, among them opossum, vulture, spider, wasp, bat and snake, and their place in the cardinal cycles of consumption and continuity. She writes beautifully of the red bat’s “canny wings”, of mosquitos providing food for the “chittering chimney swifts” and of the “glossy vulture” – often mistaken in flight for eagles, ospreys or hawks, “creatures we thoughtlessly love much more” – whose eating of the bodies of dead creatures is a vital stage in the process of returning flesh to life. She reminds us that perhaps, had our love been different, the world might have been, too.
If an emphasis on appearance has had vastly damaging effects on all species, it has exercised a cruelly malign influence over those we keep as pets. Once bred for their qualities as working or hunting animals, for speed and strength, the “selective” breeding of dogs over centuries created diverse breeds from the single canine line, but in more recent years criteria for selection have changed in response to the demand for “pedigree” animals who conform to particular standards of behaviour and appearance. Not just for dogs, the way a creature looks seems a major determinant of their fate. Beginning with an already narrow gene pool, selective breeding has greatly increased the incidence of disease in these animals, many of whom, as a result of our choices, suffer from life-limiting or chronic, painful conditions.
I stand at the traffic lights waiting to cross. A young man beside me holds a lead – at the end of it is a puppy standing patiently between us. In the moments before the crossing signal, I listen to the dog breathe. The sound is old and bronchitic, a dissonant issuing from this neat little body, the laboured wheezing of a young dog’s breath. The man is fashionably dressed, and the dog most probably loved and precious. I’m not sure if the dog is a French bulldog or a pug, but he’s one of those that now form a widespread, snuffling, breathless band of canine respiratory distress. The lights change, and man and dog walk off, the dog carrying his possibly malign genetic destiny, his future skin-fold pyoderma, the corneal ulceration that may affect his protruding eyes, the upper airway obstruction that is probably already causing him to wheeze. It’s not the first time I’ve wondered – what made this man and others seek out and pay for creatures who may live shortened, suffering lives?
Deliberate selection for short limbs and long backs has caused dachshunds, shih-tzus, basset hounds and other breeds to suffer from a painful bone condition called chondrodystrophy. Larger dogs such as rottweilers, St Bernards and retrievers experience hip dysplasia, arthritis, osteosarcomas and degeneration of the joints. Eye problems are common in many breeds, as is deafness. Skin diseases and inflammation are caused by breeding for wrinkled skin in basset hounds, bloodhounds and shar peis. Blood, kidney, gastrointestinal and neurological ailments are common – many King Charles spaniels, griffons and chihuahuas suffer from the spinal-cord destroying syringomyelia, caused by having skulls too small to accommodate their brains. It is a condition that has increased greatly over the past 20 years, and continues to do so. Cavalier King Charles spaniels also suffer from mitral valve disease, while other heart conditions afflict boxers, rottweilers and dobermanns. Very small “teacup” dogs suffer from increased bone fragility while “flat-faced” or brachycephalic dogs – such as pugs, bulldogs and Pekingese – frequently suffer from brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (Boas), which causes breathing difficulties and shortens their lives. Many dogs are artificially inseminated, and as a result of selection for large heads and narrow pelvises, are unable to give birth without a caesarean section.
Cats, too, suffer the results of breeding for “desirable” traits, most often those associated with colour and appearance. Pedigree cats suffer disproportionately from dystocia – difficulty in giving birth, and subsequent high death rates for pedigree kittens. Manx cats may suffer from a number of ailments related to selection for short or no tails including spinal deformities, spina bifida and digestive problems.
Scottish fold cats are subject to cartilage problems, leading to arthritic conditions, while Burmese cats are prone to diabetes mellitus, cranial deformities, glaucoma and kidney stones. Both Burmese and Siamese cats may also suffer from Boas, diabetes, asthma, lymphomas, strabismus, hip dysplasia and small intestinal adenocarcinomas. Rabbits such as the English “lop” have significant health problems caused by their overlong ears. Selectively bred rats are subject to a number of health problems, including greatly increased risk of tumours.
The small dog at the traffic lights is just one of many. Their popularity has increased to the point where, despite widespread publicity about their health problems, demand for them greatly exceeds supply, which has brought about not only the irresponsible breeding that produces unhealthy animals, but has also led to a huge increase in the hazardous and cruel “farming” of dogs, and their illegal trade and importation across borders. At least one danger of this trade is the possibility of the reintroduction of rabies, as a result of faked certificates and the importation of affected creatures. Images from puppy farms look remarkably similar to those from fur farms, showing the dirty, caged, abused and suffering creatures we still continue to buy.
What makes us do it? Why do we encourage a trade that exploits the sufferings of others? One suggestion is that the “childlike” appearance of dogs such as pugs and bulldogs attracts us – according to a theory in evolutionary psychology, Kindchenschema, also known as neoteny, a positive response to the appeal of babylike or cute faces is an evolutionary way of ensuring the survival and nurturing of offspring. The theory may be correct (if you really think that bulldogs look like babies), but it does not prevent us from making an ethical decision about who and what we buy. I watch at the traffic lights as the man leads the dog away, a lifelong victim of our desire for “cute”.
No longer simply a matter of small, personal decisions, our animal owning has implications far wider than the privacy of our homes. It is increasingly subject to the moral, financial and political questions raised by our knowledge of animal cognition, and urgent considerations of consumption and resource. Feeding our pets involves similar questions to the ones we ask about feeding ourselves – what is healthy, affordable, necessary, ethical and environmentally sustainable?
A 2017 study assessed the environmental impact of companion animals in the US. The findings were that dogs and cats were responsible for 25-30% of the environmental impact of all meat consumption, that they created 64m tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane, and produced 5.1m tonnes of faeces annually, the same as 90 million humans. The study suggested that, in the light of these figures, increasing pet-keeping worldwide will make a hugely significant contribution to our current ecological crisis. (The suggestion that the food fed to animals is a byproduct of human food production is refuted by the same study that points out that, increasingly, pets are being fed higher-quality meat and much of what is regarded as unfit for human consumption is deemed so more on aesthetic than other grounds.)
As pet numbers increase, so do our purchases. Browsing pet product websites is like entering an anthropomorphised nightmare of overextended consumerism. One site offers 698 varieties of dog “treats”. Another sells pet beer, wine and herbal tonics for pet anxiety. There are the luxurious beds, the electronic toys, the whimsical clothing. There are socks and shoes, hats, bowties and dresses. There are shampoos, conditioners, dog-nail polish, fur dyes and whirlpool tubs. There are extensive ranges of veterinary psycho-pharmaceuticals to treat anxiety and behavioural problems, aromatherapy candles, colognes and fragranced sprays to mask the creature’s natural odours. There are the fancy-dress costumes – sharks, spiders, sumo wrestlers, light-up Halloween pumpkins and hundreds more.
Looking after the health of our pets may once have been simpler, when treatments were limited and they had fewer complex problems. Now, in an endless cycle of concern and responsibility, we have to decide on the treatments and insurance, which may be too expensive for many pet owners, creating yet another division of privilege, an irreconcilable dilemma for those who cannot pay for treatments they know to be available for their beloved animals.
Another decision is whether or not to have a newly acquired pet neutered. It may be a responsible action in limiting the future numbers of free-roaming animals such as cats, but while it may be convenient for owners, there may be future health consequences for the animal, such as obesity, cancers or joint disease. We are embarrassed by the manifestations of our pet animal’s sexuality, the subject usually being referred to through jokes or awkwardness – reflections of our reluctance to accept that, however sensible the decision may seem, in terms of our own or their benefit, neutering is a denial of the natural right of another being. It is just another aspect of the total power we exercise over the lives of the animals we choose as companions. Writing in the poem Another Dog’s Death of the early spaying of his dog, John Updike describes her as knowing “no nonhuman word for love”.
We expect so much from other species. For our purposes, they must be sufficiently like us for us to want to understand their behaviour and believe it very much like our own, but sufficiently unlike ourselves for us to be free of our concerns. They have to be easily sent to kennels when we wish to go on holiday, and content to be left on their own all day, often confined in places much too small, or in conditions utterly unlike their natural habitats.
In 1943, the Nobel prize winning author Elias Canetti wrote: “It is not good that animals are so cheap.” He might have been writing about the hamsters, mice, rats, guinea pigs and gerbils frequently bought as suitable pets for children, some of whom will be loved, tended and eventually mourned, others of whom will be neglected or worse. Solitary creatures will be kept in pairs or groups, or social ones alone. Crepuscular or nocturnal creatures, as many of them are, will be expected to provide entertainment for diurnal children. Reluctantly, I remember school-gate conversations about unfortunate fates: the school rabbit forgotten over a summer when the parent who was to look after him went on holiday, the escaped mice, the hamsters who fell, disappeared, were drowned or squashed or found burned at the back of a gas fire. The incidents were invariably presented as amusing, told in a tone of mocking self-exculpation. I see a succession of online adverts selling unwanted hamsters and guinea pigs. The child for whom they were bought “lost interest”, the family is moving house, there was an accidental mating. (“Oops!”) What they are being sold for, the cost of a cup of coffee, is the cost of another creature’s life. What is the Umwelt of a puppy-farmed dog, a lone rat, a desert gerbil, a Syrian hamster in a small plastic box?
What do we really know of the animals we buy? Our perceptions of their behaviour tell us that often they experience things in a similar way to ourselves, and that we may describe their behaviour as love, anger, jealousy, delight, embarrassment, joy or grief, because we have no other way to explain it. We all know what another creature’s happiness or distress looks like, because they look very much like our own.
When we force explanations of their behaviour on them – “She likes it!”, when possibly she does not, or “He doesn’t mind”, when clearly he does – we skew the relationship by manipulating an animal into being what we want. Other species possess “intelligence”, but too often we want it to be a mirror of our own. Assessing intelligence in our own species is hard enough, and the attempt to understand cognitive ability in other species is an unfinished and never-ending quest.
Potential danger in other creatures is difficult to assess. We’ve all heard the dazed excuse “I thought he wouldn’t hurt a fly” expressed by the owner of the dog who kills or maims, the person who seems tragically unaware that a dog should not be expected not to hurt a fly, or anything else, and that dog and victim should both have been prevented from either suffering or causing harm. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, he writes of his relationship with his own dog, and her “foreignness”, which includes being sufficiently unknown for him to feel uncertain that the dog wouldn’t maul his baby. He is wary and sensible, unlike the advice I find on a website promoting the qualities of a particular breed of dog, which suggests they are entirely suitable be left alone with children. Would anyone leave a creature of any sort, or indeed some humans, in a room alone with a small child?
When we are considering the potential risk an animal may pose, appearance affects our judgment. Some dogs may be more belligerent than others, made so by training or treatment, but for those who do not know a dog personally, it may be difficult to tell. We bring our prejudices to the perception – some dogs are subject to the discrimination that afflicts us in our views of the other, and often it is the owner who is judged. Staffordshire bull terriers, or Staffies, are particularly subject to negative views, often because of associations with cross-bred “fighting” dogs. If people keep dogs who have an air of menace, it may be because they feel more protected in a particular dangerous world when they do.
Considering the total dependency of domesticated and pet animals on humans, the law professor and ethicist Gary Francione talks of the “netherworld of vulnerability” to which they are subject. It is a vulnerability manifest in every facet of our dealings with them. The cruelties of every day spin out, major and minor, our national claims of love often sounding hollowly over the cold ring of statistics – the 74,000 or so animals abandoned annually in Britain, the shameful list of prosecutions for hideous acts perpetrated daily against other species, the estimated 1.5 million abandoned “shelter” animals killed annually in the US, the 3,500 or so stray dogs killed in Britain. These are just the ones we know about. Once, while driving down a suburban street one quiet Saturday afternoon, I saw see a woman with a dog stop and look around briefly before raising her foot and savagely kicking the dog’s side.
In an essay, the American writer Alison Hawthorne Deming remembers her cat, one of a feral litter found under the poetry centre where she works. The mother cat was fierce, disdainful of humans, “like a war correspondent who has seen too much ever to believe in human kindness”. One of the staff tames the kittens and gives them away on the understanding that they’ll be given literary names. Deming calls her cat after one owned by the 18th-century poet Christopher Smart. A vocal lover of life, her cat lives as if “each moment were his first on Earth”. When one day the cat shows signs of neurological damage and tests positive for antifreeze, an agent commonly used for poisoning, Deming does not know if the act was deliberate or not, writing that she can imagine a neighbour doing it in irritation over some minor matter, but cannot be sure. The vet puts the cat to sleep, and Deming reflects on the initial bitterness that encouraged her to believe the mother cat wise in staying away from humans – a feeling she overcomes by remembering the happiness of the cat’s life, and her appreciation of his quality of innocent simplicity.
The vulnerability that Francione writes about extends beyond the boundaries of species. Our love for others – human or not – makes us vulnerable, open to pain and loss, and to the use and abuse of power and domination.