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Are Pets Slaves?

By on Sep 17, 2014 in Blog Posts | 25 comments

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For as long as I can remember my family had at least one pet and we’ve owned just about everything you can imagine: birds, ducks, geese, turkeys, fish, cats, dogs, goats, chickens (oh, the chickens) and the list goes on. I know what you’re thinking – what was it like on Old MacDonald’s Farm? – but we have never lived on a farm. All of those animals have been part of our family on less than a dozen acres of land and they were all pets. None of them were ever eaten…by humans.

I told you that so you would understand that having pets has always been a part of my life. There have been very few days when I’ve opened a door and an animal wasn’t waiting to be pet, or fed, or fed and then pet. We’re the kind of people who spend more money on healthcare for our pets than ourselves. My mom spends serious money saving the lives of baby chicks. I admire her kindness towards animals but question her financial planning abilities and mourn the loss of my inheritance. We take in strays, adopt, and if they are in pain when the time comes, put our pets to sleep.

So when I say that I question the humanity of having pets, it’s not stated lightly. It’s not some theoretical debate that I’m having with a group of philosophy students. It’s coming from a person who can fully understand both sides of the argument. However, when I stop and try to look at the problem objectively, it seems clear that pet ownership is nothing more than socially acceptable slavery.

Let’s be clear: I am in no way stating that the enslavement and subjugation of humans is equal to the owning of pets. Human slavery still exists, is inhuman, and must be abolished globally before we can even begin to consider ourselves “civilized”. It is interesting to note, however, that most of us do use the word “own” when describing our relationship with our pets. So we should ask ourselves: are pets slaves? If the answer is yes, why are we all OK with it?

Wolf and man kissing - are pets slaves, or are we?

Some questions remain as to who domesticated whom. Are pets slaves, or are we?

Let’s look at the similarities between the enslavement of humans and what we do with our beloved pets. The first animal domesticated was the canine, many thousands of years ago. This occurred in a very logical way; wolves ate our trash and we thought they were cute so we fed them and they stuck around. Sounds harmless enough, but that’s not how things work today. Most pets are born into the homes they are expected to die in. Some are not allowed outdoors, where, as anyone with a pet knows, they desperately want to get to. Others aren’t allowed indoors because they are “too wild” or “too dirty”.

We have indoor and outdoor pets, just as there were house slaves and field slaves. House slaves were given better clothing, had a premium placed on cleanliness, were typically better educated, and provided with superior living conditions. They were not usually allowed to work any other jobs – to “go outside” – for fear that they would mix with the other slaves or otherwise sully their appearance. This is very similar to how we think about and treat our indoor pets. We even implant our animals with digital tracking devices so they can be returned to us should they get lost – escape – and be found. A more accurate flier would state that the pet has escaped and the owner wants it back and is willing to pay for their return, not unlike the advertisements taken out by slave owners when their property escaped.


Slave Wanted Advertisement


When slaves were taken from their homes in Africa, they were considered to be “wild” in much the same way we consider “stray” animals to be wild, but look at the language we use. The word “stray” has a negative connotation, as if to say that the animal has left an acceptable group dynamic which, by the way, doesn’t exist. The only animals we consider acceptable are domesticated. This is eerily similar to the mentality of the whites who enslaved Africans considered to be heathens because they were uneducated in the ways of their subjugators and unfamiliar with the tenants of a particular religion.

Today we employ people who do nothing but gather up “loose” animals and eventually put them to death if no masters can be found. These people are often referred to as “collectors”, though the animals they collect are generally doing no harm. Although I’m not against some measure of population control for certain species whose natural predators we’ve eliminated, we’re going well beyond the pale when it comes to controlling certain types of animal populations. We routinely remove the reproductive organs of our pets, which we rather disturbingly refer to as “fixing” them, far more for our own convenience than theirs. Even the ASPCA doesn’t make a great case for this, and contradicts themselves by stating that “After sterilization, your cat may be calmer and less likely to exhibit certain behaviors, but his or her personality will not change.” I guess we can’t be expected to stop sterilizing animals any time soon when we’ve only recently stopped sterilizing humans in this country, but one can hope.

If you’ve ever taken in a stray animal, you know that they will try anything to escape, up to and including harming their captors. This behavior also occurred when slaves were captured and harsh punishments were doled out to discourage it. Our primary method of altering behavioral patterns with animals is a system of rewarding desired behavior. This is not much different than allowing a human to eat, or wash, or sleep, should they behave in an acceptable way. It’s certainly preferable to physical punishment, but the question that should be asked is why are we even concerned with domesticating wild animals? Why do we find their freedom so objectionable?

Part of the explanation seems to lie in the belief that they will live happier lives with us than if left alone. We’ll provide them with food, water, shelter and healthcare. They will be loved and fawned over. All of this may be true, but who are we to say that an animal would truly be happier in captivity, even if their prison is comparatively luxurious, than if they were free? How many thousands of stories have been written where a human, when given the choice between freedom and captivity, choose freedom even if the path was more difficult and the reward no more than the “right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint”?

Perhaps that’s why we train our pets. We don’t approve of their rebellious behavior, so we exert large amount of energy and money teaching them how we expect them to act, rewarding and punishing them accordingly. We rarely consider adapting to their needs, and instead lose our patience when an expectation isn’t met. In the end we’re hoping that they will do what we want and love us, alleviating any doubts we have about holding them against their will.

Alright, so we’re enslaving our pets. That much is clear, but what’s the alternative? If we release them, our beloved animals will surely perish in the wild which they are no longer prepared to inhabit, right? The very same argument was put forth by slaveholders when asked why they wouldn’t free their slaves. Many owners would not educate their slaves because the more education a slave received the more likely they were to demand their freedom or try to escape. Education was the open door to freedom that slave owners kept closed for generations. Pets are animals who, like humans, adapt to their environments. Although some may be ill-prepared and may die as a result, surely most would survive and carry on. That said, wide scale release is unlikely and even dangerous to animals and humans alike, for obvious reasons.

The more logical solution is to stop enslaving new pets; to end the cycle. Keep your existing pets, but don’t take on any new ones. The pets currently housed in shelters – prisons by another name – would all be adopted and reasonable population control measures could be put in place, eliminating the need for future shelters. In a few decades we’d have far fewer shelters and some veterinarians might need to find a new line of work, but we could theoretically end the enslavement of animals within a few decades.

But we all know that’s never going to happen. We love our pets and simply don’t want to lose that love. When one pet dies and an acceptable period of bereavement has been observed most of us will find a replacement. It’s the same process we use at the end of most of our relationships with humans.

Pants the cat, asleep

Here is Pants sleeping. She longs for freedom but instead gets strokes and routinely pushed off of things.

I’m no different. I have a cat named Pants. She is adorable and my daily companion. I don’t want to free her even though I know I’m keeping her against her will. I see the way she looks beyond the door when it opens and I close it before she has a chance to escape, just as slaveholders withheld education for fear that one day their property would leave them. I feel guilty for owning my cat but I also tell myself that she’s better off, even though there is no way to be certain of that. In my circumstance I can’t give her the freedom of being an indoor/outdoor cat because I live on the top floor of an apartment building, but even if I could I wouldn’t. I don’t want to be inconvenienced by more dirt or fleas or visits to the vet to keep her the way I want her. Just as Washington and Jefferson wouldn’t free their slaves for fear of poverty befalling them, I won’t free Pants for fear of being alone.

  • Mick9090

    You’re a hypocrite and a poser. Well done for making yourself look like an idiot.

    • sc456a

      I agree. Thanks for reading!

    • Alexis Urtiz

      Oh poor guy you can’t understand what you’ve read.

  • I’ve been searching the internet to see if I’m truly the only one who drew this same conclusion recently. I also brought it up myself in several places. Like your one reply, All I’ve received so far is personal attacks or strawman arguments (so you want pets to die, you must hate people who feel happy because of pets etc etc). Over and over it fails to turn into an actual discussion.

    I think what we believe makes sense. You’ve mentioned all the reasons that I also came to think of. There’s logic in it and I think people will find it very challenging to actually disqualify it. At the same time, it is also extremely controversial. We’re suddenly questioning a habit we’ve been doing and considered normal for thousands of years (domesticating animals for the sake of breeding pets). I like to believe that as long as something makes sense, a change is inevitable. The amount of controversy can delay it.

    And since I’ve never seen anyone really constructing an argument against this, it might one day lead to a very interesting and new shift in our moral perception towards animals.

    • sc456a

      Thanks, Toxy! Demetri Martin has a great joke in his latest special about pets; he calls them “animals that don’t taste good.” Such a spot-on observation about the reality of how with view other animals.

  • Alexis Urtiz

    I’ve never owned a pet because I understood this as a kid, when my little brother had a fish. He learned the same as I did that it’s selfish reasons why we keep animals in captivity, in fear of being alone.

    Thank you for this post, I agree with it completely. I thought my brothers and I were the only ones who saw this :).

    • Ian Corral

      You can see it that way but that doesn’t make it reality. You’re just anthropomorphizing animals, which is the usual error when it comes to evaluating this.

      • Xavier Gomez

        Again illogically suggesting human superiority

  • Mike Shaw

    Ive thought this for a long time.. like others no one will entertain the thought. Probably because its true 😀

  • Victor

    Man… I’ve always thought this. Never did anything about it, and I don’t suppose I ever will. I love cats, and will always have one for company if I can help it.

    I will say that my childhood pet, a sealpoint Himalayan named Higgins, hated going outside. The extremely rare occasion that he found himself outdoors, he was an unhappy dude.
    Of course house slaves didn’t want to work in the fields, but that didn’t mean they wanted to be slaves.

    What of the animals that go out of their way to return home? The ones that truly seem to love their family and home?

    What of my cat named Azerath, who my best friend rescued and brought home? He came and went as he pleased. He had his own entrance, open at all hours. He was never “fixed”, and impregnated every female he met. Lol He had free food, and shelter when he wanted it.
    He was a room mate without the responsibility.
    He died in the street a few years after we adopted him.

    Higgins died of old age, 22 years old, warm in his bed.
    If you had asked him if he was a slave, (and he could speak) he would tell you to fetch his treats, pet him from head to tail exactly twice, no more, no less, and then he’d probably remind you of your place.

    If you had asked Azerath if he was a slave, he’d probably say yes just to spite me.
    Cause as much as I loved that cat, he was kind of a dick. Lol

  • Ian Corral

    This is an invalid argument. You’re basically comparing apples to oranges and saying they’re both the same. You are comparing animals using human concepts and values, which is a fallacy. Ultimately you’ll never know how your animals feel about the whole thing. They might actually enjoy it, even if you think otherwise.

    • Xavier Gomez

      You sound extremely ignorant. Humans are a species of animal.

      • Ian Corral

        You are ignorant of you believe that’s a counter argument. There is a distinct between humans and animals.

        • Xavier Gomez

          Not according to science there isn’t. Number one, we actually are animals fundamentally so your argument is mute right off the bat. Number two your argument was used to justify the enslavement of Africans, that they probably like their enslavement so why dismantle it.

          • Ian Corral

            No, because according to science there is a different between human “animals” and nonhuman animals. So it doesn’t make the argument moot.

            Second it doesn’t justify the enslavement of African Americans. No idea where you got that stupid from.

            The term anthropomorphism is used to attach human qualities to nonhuman entities. Slavery, morality, all those apply.

          • Xavier Gomez

            According to science much if what is often seen as being unique to humanity exists in other species.

            Second that was one of the arguments that were used to attempt to justify their enslavement but as we know to today that was a disgusting point in history.

            And i know the term there are many terms like that as well and they all suggest human superiority which i can’t stand.

          • Ian Corral

            Again that isn’t entirely true. For the most part animals don’t have complex reasoning ability that humans do. While there are some Traits they share there are others that they don’t. They kill the young of others of their own kind to ensure their genes pass on. Or they just toy with a lesser animal without eating it. Or there is the constant portrayal of might makes right.

            Second whole that might have been a point, it was illogical.

            Whether or not you want to admit it, humans are the superior animal on the planet currently. By calling pet ownership slavery you are simply anthropomorphizing, that’s it.

          • Xavier Gomez

            There are various examples of other animals exhibiting complex reasoning. Obviously they aren’t exactly like us different species will obviously be different from each other. We kill each other more so with war.

            And yes it was illogical and thats my point.

            Humans are in no way superior to other species just different whoch isn’t saying much.

          • Ian Corral

            Actually there isn’t. Nothing comes close to the level of humans. The killing of each other has also gone on longer than what humans do.

            And we are superior to every other species because of our thinking ability. It’s what allows use to thrive

          • Xavier Gomez

            Thrive? Lol the majority of other species have been here longer than we have thats extremely arrogant.

            And again science would disagree with you. Science is truth we just make insinuations about it. Also when you define what it is to be intelligent then obviously you’re going to put yourself on the top of that system.

            And lets pretend we were smarter (even though thats extremely ambiguous) how does that suddenly make owning a LIVING THING ok.

          • Ian Corral

            The length of time we have existed is irrelevant, in fact it makes things more impressive. The fact that we are at the top of the food chain and are able to successfully perform many things other animals so naturally. It’s not arrogant if it is true.

            Science doesn’t disagree with me, also the fact that you use the word without specifics means to me that you don’t get science as much as you think you do. Dogs and cats paired with humans long ago. The less aggressive wolves approached early man and from then our fates were entwined. Cats joined later on their own.

            Unless you can point out any other animal that rivals human intellect then of course we are going to be at the top.

            As for pets, it’s mutually beneficial. Humans get a companion and the animal has all is needs meet to guarantee survival. As for owning a living thing, it’s no different than a plant. We do it because we can, and both parties benefit.

          • Xavier Gomez

            How i just love bow you keep declaring we’re on top when we’re really not. When’s the last time humans have controlled the weather? I’ll wait.

            I’m not really sure what you mean by specifics but the fact that biology (a human construct) considers us animals already dismantles your argument. The scenario you described means nothing that happens all the time in nature without humans. Still doesn’t justify owning them.

            Chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins have developed systems that are comparable to that of a society. Dolphins even have music.

            Its not mutually beneficial because being fed doesn’t justify lack of freedom. You want a companion get a boyfriend or something.

          • Ian Corral

            You clearly lack any sort of understanding. Mutually beneficial means that humans get a companion and the animal has all its needs met. You’re concept of “freedom” doesn’t mean much to them.

            What exactly does controlling the weather have to do with the food chain (besides the fact no other animal does it either)?

            Biology as a topic may be a construct but it’s subject isn’t. They are facts whether you want to admit it or not. If you know biology you understand there is a distinction they refer to as “nonhuman animals”. Because even though humans are animals, they also bear the distinction of being human. That makes us difference lent than everything else.

            As for “justification” ultimately there is none for any action. It’s based on one will overriding another (just like in nature). There is no justification for killing another organism so you can live. There is no fairness in nature. Organisms do things because they can. Life in the wild is brutal and short.

            As for your last statement, you are anthropomorphizing again.

          • Xavier Gomez

            You said yourself that ultimately you’ll never know how animals will feel about the whole thing.

            Biology has throughly proven that humans are not the most intelligent species in accodance to conventional psychology nor are we on the top of the food chain we are at the bottom.

            I gave the weather example because the idea that humans are in control of anything is laughable at best.

            Give me concrete scientific evidence as to why humans are superior so i can tell you why its wrong.

            And lets not even talk about the moral implications of that last statement of yours.

  • Miguk Moonpark

    You know, if you realese your cat in the wild it would kill off other species to the point of extinction, right? Comparing your cat to an african slave is insulting at best. There’s just no comparison to this.