13 May 2021

Should pets be treated as property?


Should pets be treated as property?


Topic and essay by Lawrence



The idea of a property is an idea of a personal right, especially a legal right, to use that property within a context in law. To be clear, in philosophy the term property may appear, for example, as a characteristic of an object or a personal right of ownership of an object. Although the topic question requires both considerations of the meaning of property at face value it is the second meaning of property that should concern us first.


We do not need to go too deep into the meaning of a property as an object of ownership. We start with the idea that something we own can be used as we want within the legal constraints of property ownership. We can sell our right to a property and we can pass on our property rights to others, for example as a gift to someone, or even as conveying a right to use our property for example when we invite friends over for drinks.


There is no issue that pets fall fair and square within the definition and scope of property as in the ownership of property. We can buy and sell pets, our legal ownership rights are protected by law and under the same laws we are bound on how we keep pets. For example in Spain dogs (as an example of pets) shouldn’t be left alone more than two hours. In Germany a member of parliament proposed that dogs have to be walked by law at least twice a day. These are well intended measures (ideas) by the state to protect animals from neglect, but this can also lead to serious practical complications in applying the law.


For example some dogs/breed can easily be left alone for longer hours if trained properly; other breeds need to be trained not to be possessive of their masters. And while dogs in Germany might be trained to walk under all weather conditions, I am sure many dogs and owners had a hard time earlier this year with the snow storm in Spain and especially Madrid. This perspective highlights the discrepancy between theoretical moral and ethical norms and practical applications of such normative morality.


In 2016 Profs. Gary L Francione and Anna E Charlton wrote an article “The case against pets“ in Aeon magazine (https://aeon.co/essays/why-keeping-a-pet-is-fundamentally-unethical) arguing that there should be no pets or zoos or animal farms: just true animal rights. The main argument of the authors is that if animals were property they can only be a thing.


The article is very interesting and worth reading, even though I totally disagree with the premise that if pets were our property they would be objects and, therefore, probably subject to neglect or lack of welfare. This is nonsense, just because something is our property it does not mean that I can do whatever I want with it or to it. Just because we own a flat it does not mean that we can rip off walls and structure at will: there are such things as planning permissions and regulations. Unfortunately, the authors tend to mix up pets with animals in general, veganism, wild animals and zoos etc etc.


Our topic is only concerned with domestic pets and not even exotic pets, such as lions, wolves or chimpanzees. Thus what might apply to pets does not necessarily apply to farm animals.


My second argument against the idea that if pets are a property it makes them an object, is based on property (ownership) being a characteristic of an objects. Pets have evolved from wild animals to domesticated animals by finding security in the company of humans and humans finding dogs useful for them. But being a property in not a characteristic of dogginess; property is a characteristic of humanness and our legal system. However, being a member of a pack for a dog is a characteristic of dogginess. The family or owners of the pet dog is the dog’s pack and they don’t care whether the family is functional or not or contracts or not. What matters for the dog is that there is structured and functioning pack to belong to: “who is my leader?”, “where is my position in the pack?” and “who are my direct peers in the pack?”


What is sure is that a pack of dogs would never elect dysfunctional leaders such as the ex President Trump or the ex Soviet President Stalin. This brings me to the other issue about pets, and animals in general, that is the matter of whether animals are sentient. The idea of sentience is whether animals are conscious, are creative, intelligent, self-aware and other characteristics.


As I write the British government is proposing legislation recognizing animals to be sentient. This is more of an issue regarding agricultural animals rather than pets, for example the transport of live animals. (“Animals to be formally recognised as sentient beings in UK law” The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/12/animals-to-be-formally-recognised-as-sentient-beings-in-uk-law?CMP=Share_iOSApp_OtherEvery pet owner).


In 2009 the American Psychology Association published a press release with the title: Smarter Than You Think: Renowned Canine Researcher Puts Dogs’ Intelligence on Par with 2-Year-Old Human (https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2009/08/dogs-think). Pet owners have a long time ago realised that dogs are sentient and no one has ever argued in modern society that a two year old human is an object or a property. So likewise an animal with the intelligence of two year old human demands some respect.


These issues with pets and property go back to when society believed that we were made in the image of God and therefore animals do not have the privileges of being human by virtue of our relationship with the gods. Whilst no reasonable person would agree that the welfare of our pets is not important it is quite acceptable to believe that dogs do not have the status of a human being. Of course, what matters for the dog is how functional is his or her family pack.


In 2019 the El País published an article: With more Spaniards living alone, pet numbers soar in the cities (https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/05/22/inenglish/1558512182_011864.html) they quote a dog owner from Valencia who said, “Dogs need to be dogs.” This is why our subject and the animal welfare debate needs to start with an understanding of the biological and evolutionary make up of our pets. The question is not whether dogs are not children or not (see the El País article), but rather what is the dog’s perception of our relationship to it?


The affirmation that dogs need to be dogs, implies that we have to learn how to integrate dogs and other animals into the functions of society. We cannot just let animals loose to their own free devices; they won’t survive out there. It is, therefore, well and good to legislate that dogs should not be left alone more than two hours, but this might conflict with needs of the owner of the dog. In many countries in the EU department stores and normal shops, including restaurants, allow patrons and clients to bring their dog onto the premises. On the other hand sometimes dogs need to wear a muzzle. But what is also true is that dogs in Europe are generally well behaved.


The problem here is a language one: not all dogs are created equal. A Yorkshire terrier should not be equalled to a Rottweiler; both dogs can be trained to interact civil in the community or a restaurant. But is it in the interest of the Rottweiler to be taken to a department store? It is a pity that dogs are not allowed in shops in Spain because this would be good quality time for the dog and their owner.


The Mexican/American dog trainer, Cesar Millan (Wikipedia:Cesar Millan), believes that the problems we have with dogs and dogs have with us are not the fault of the dog, but the fault of the people who own them. Countries should make owners of certain breeds of dogs subject to a training programme and licensing: it is not that big dogs are dangerous, but rather some owners are a danger to their pets. It is true that dogs are not children, but both dogs and children can be seriously harmed by some adults.


In conclusion, pets are more than just ownership property: indeed property is not a characteristic of dogginess or rabbitness or catness, but friendship and affection are characteristics of our pets.


Best Lawrence




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