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

Characterizing the Human-Companion Animal Relationship

Companion animals’ lives are pervasively regulated by their human caregivers. We make decisions about, and so impose restrictions on, virtually all of our companion animals’ behaviors, from their most basic functions such as eating, excreting, and vocalizing, to activities such as exercising, learning, playing, and giving affection. While flexibly and multiply realized,6 the necessity of such forms of regulation is seldom denied or unrecognized. While most of these forms of regulation are, as Jean Harvey observes (2008, 164-66), susceptible to slipping into forms of domination and instrumentalization disguised as paternalism, regulation can involve facilitating companion animals’ flourishing within the confines of an asymmetrically dependent relationship and the interspecies community at large. Human caregivers know that their companions must, for instance, develop social skills and enjoy play opportunities in order to thrive; neglecting to present such opportunities typically consists in bad care. It would be at least equally egregious to actively prevent a companion animal from pursuing such opportunities for some instrumentalizing reason, such as wanting to keep all his love and affection to oneself. Without proper socialization, companion animals are vulnerable to deprivations such as diminished access to public spaces and fewer opportunities to give and receive affection.

Thus we fail our companion animals in a painfully obvious way when we prevent them from pursuing activities like socializing, where both the activity itself and its fruits contribute enormously—and visibly—to companion animal flourishing. If reproduction makes a comparable contribution to companion animal flourishing, it will be comparably misguided to prevent our animal companions from reproducing. Perhaps because reproduction is not viewed as a good in the same way that receiving affection or nutritious food might be, the question of whether preventing reproduction is a breach of the duty of care is relatively murky. I argue that resolving this issue demands consideration of the prior questions of whether preventing reproduction will reliably hinder flourishing, and whether the freedom to pursue reproduction is at least prima facie desirable. Before taking up those questions, I briefly examine the traditional debate surrounding the ethics of reproduction for companion animals, and how it has been monopolized by an unproductive opposition between welfarists7 and abolitionists.8 I suggest that neither of these camps offers a tenable analysis of the considerations at stake in negotiating reproductive issues in our companion animals. And while the recently advanced relational account of human obligations to domestic animals supplies a more plausible direction for thinking through these issues, it is not clear that it can also supply a satisfying resolution.

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