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Home arrow Environment arrow Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals

Self-Interested Motives?

Many human companions also reject the sweeping, self-i nterested motivation that is sometimes presumed to hold. Adopting a cat, dog, or baby is a voluntary act, but neither that nor expecting it to be rewarding establishes a motive of self-interest. Adoptions in emergencies or of a second or third shelter animal are often actually counter to self-interest. Someone unexpectedly faced with an abandoned and injured cat in desperate straits may step in and provide a loving home, although inconvenient and costly, if the alternative is certain death at the local shelter. The same is true for many adoptions of additional animals from overcrowded shelters: the question is more “Can we provide a good home for one more ?” than “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a third dog?”

“Lost Ability” Cases and the Gratitude Argument

Strictly speaking, the “utilization with safeguards” model says nothing about companion dogs and cats who fall into the “no ability” or “lost ability” categories. With complex uses, the general public has often been the voice objecting to financially abandoning the animals who can no longer serve the purpose, but on what grounds ? When the US police departments find homes for their retired dogs but refuse to provide further financial support, the objection usually heard is the charge of ingratitude. They have made use of the dogs for years, so ensuring their welfare is morally owed to them for life in return for all the benefits received. An analogous argument can be given for companion animals providing simpler benefits. The older, frailer cat who lives in quiet contentment but with little energy and initiative for making affectionate contact does not deserve to be abandoned after all the years of loving company he has provided. Anyone but a shockingly ungrateful person will cherish him in these later stages.

It is a tempting argument, but although the animals are no longer expected to provide the benefits, it nonetheless places the benefits received at the heart of the justification. So if this move rescues some companion animals from abandonment, it is the “lost ability," not the “no ability," group. Also, if the response is tied to benefits received in the past, does this mean that the measure of the grateful response may justifiably vary according to how successfully the companion animal provided those anticipated benefits, how valuable the benefits were, for how long they were provided, and so on? Does the refusal to abandon the animal in his senior years depend, then, on past achievements, so that the right to loving care and support in his frailer years must be earned? Clearly, if we think this way, it is not the relationship pointed to above.

If, on the other hand, our primary obligation is to respect, nurture, and protect the loving relationship between the companion animals and their humans, then they are to be treasured as much when elderly and a bit wobbly and confused as when young, vibrant with health, and eager to be the children’s playmate. Providing sought-after benefits is not a moral precondition for being cherished throughout their lives.

With cases like police dogs, perhaps we refer to gratitude because those we are urging to do something are not, and cannot reasonably be expected to be, in a loving relationship with the animals. Police departments benefit greatly from police dogs, but it is the handler, not the administrators, who lives in a close relationship with the dog. The public’s demand that police departments provide financial support for retired dogs cannot rest on the claim that the administrators are or should be in a lasting relationship of love with the dogs and that withholding such provision violates that relationship. Even so, appealing to gratitude is an uneasy line of support, given the role of benefits received.

Keith Burgess-Jackson argues that people who bring animals into their lives thereby acquire special responsibilities toward them (1998, 161), and this point, together with the one in this paper about our primary obligation toward animal companions, provides a sounder route. Although the police dog does not live with the administrators, they take the initiative in acquiring the dog, and this brings with it special responsibilities toward that particular animal. They know the close relationship that develops between dog and handler and the challenges the dog faces when retired to a non-working life. They also know that if the older dog is injured or sick, she will look to her human partner for comfort and help. The handler in fact is bailing them out of a morally unsatisfactory situation (where a dog the administrators have acquired is no longer wanted by them) and all at a difficult transition time for the dog. On my account, the close relationship between dog and handler is at the center of what is morally owed to her, and although the department’s administrators are not directly involved in the relationship, they do acquire the dog, and the least they can do by way of resulting moral involvement is to actively support that close relationship, for example, by providing stress-reducing financial support for predictable medical expenses.

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