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Curfews and the Liberty of Cats

photograph of cat silhoette at night

Starting in April 2022, the city of Knox, Australia, will impose a ‘cat curfew’ requiring pet cats to be kept on their owners’ premises at all times. The curfew has sparked a great deal of controversy, with many cat owners not only arguing that it’s perfectly acceptable to let their cats roam freely, but that it’s morally wrong to force them to remain indoors.

In order to properly analyze this issue, it’s important to understand why the Knox City Council has resorted to such extreme measures. On average, a well-fed free-roaming domestic cat will kill around 75 animals per year. As a result, pet cats are responsible for the deaths of around 200 million native Australian animals annually. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The refusal of negligent cat owners to spay or neuter their pets has led to an explosion of the feral cat population (currently estimated to be somewhere between 2.1 million and 6.3 million) in Australia. A feral cat predates at a much higher rate than a domestic cat, killing around 740 animals per year. Because of this, feral cats are responsible for the deaths of an additional 1.4 billion native Australian animals annually.

Many may look at these numbers and see little to complain about. Animals kill other animals – it’s the circle of life. But it’s not that straight-forward. Despite their enormous importance as companions and family members, the sad truth is that in Australia – as in many countries – cats are a major invasive species. As a result, cats have already been directly responsible for the extinction of 25 species of mammal found only in Australia. This accounts for more than two-thirds of all Australian mammal extinctions over the past 200 years. Cats are currently identified as a further threat to an additional 74 species of mammals, 40 birds, 21 reptiles and four amphibians.

Australia is currently pursuing a number of strategies to control the feral cat population. But this will largely be for naught if the contributions of domestic cats are not also addressed. And this is precisely what Knox’s curfew seeks to do. But is it morally wrong to keep our cats indoors? One way to answer this question is through a simple cost/benefit analysis – what is often referred to as ‘consequentialism’ by philosophers.

So how does a cat curfew stack up on a consequentialist analysis? At bottom, the point of this policy is to (1) reduce the number of native animals being killed by domestic cats, and (2) stem the flow of feral cats resulting from the free-roaming recreational activities of unspayed and unneutered domestic cats. The results of doing this include not only the protection of individual native animals, but the preservation of entire species. And there are further benefits outside conservation. The curfew will also curb other undesirable behaviors like spraying, fighting, and property damage, and limit the spread of a number of parasites that can infect many mammals (including humans) but that are only spread by cats.

A consequentialist argument for the curfew would need to show that these benefits outweigh the costs to those cats that are now forced to stay indoors. Given the above considerations, there are compelling reasons to think that this might be the case. But these reasons can be made even stronger when we realize that the costs to cats are nowhere near as great as we think.

Free-roaming cats are vulnerable to all kinds of risks, including everything from getting hit by a car, to feline leukemia, to wild animal attacks. As a result, the life expectancy of an outdoor cat is only 2-5 years, while indoor cats live for an average of 10-15 years. Given this, we might argue that even if forcing a cat to stay indoors does reduce its quality of life, this may be made up for by the fact that it gets to experience far more of it. But there’s little evidence to even suggest that such a reduction in quality-of-life does occur. While it might be easier for an owner to keep a cat enriched by allowing it outside, experts state that it’s still possible for a cat to be just as happy indoors without all of the associated risks of a free-roaming life. What is required is careful, attentive pet-ownership with a focus on providing indoor enrichment. If this is done, then the benefits of a cat curfew can be achieved at no cost whatsoever to the cats being forced to stay home.

Nevertheless, the consequentialist analysis isn’t the only approach we might take. There are, in fact, a number of scenarios in which it might lead us to unsavory conclusions – like justifying animal testing where doing so would lead to the development of a drug that would save millions of lives. An alternative approach can be found by focusing on the rights of the animals in question, and refusing to violate those rights regardless of what kinds of benefits might be achieved by doing so. What, then, might a rights-based approach make of the cat curfew?

Clearly, the biggest concerns arise around a cat’s right to liberty. Cats should be free to roam, and any restriction on that ability is an infringement of their right to liberty. But let’s unpack that a little bit. Firstly, we need to figure out the content of this right. Put another way, we need to know what a cat requires in order to have this right respected. Clearly it would be wrong to keep a cat in a two-square-foot cage. How much space does it need, then? Is a reasonable-sized apartment sufficient? How about a two-story townhouse? Or must it have access to at least a football-field sized territory to roam? One simple answer might be to say that respecting a cat’s right to liberty involves allowing it to go wherever it wants to. But this seems to overstate the right considerably. When a cat wanders down to the river bank, we are not obliged to fetch a boat and ferry it to the other side so that it might continue to roam unhampered.

Even if we are able to explain the content of a cat’s right to liberty, we must then consider in what circumstances it might be overridden by competing rights. Among the other rights possessed by a cat is, presumably, the right to life. And the cat curfew does a lot to ensure the preservation of this right – extending a cat’s life-expectancy by 2 to 5 times. Seen in this way, the curfew no longer becomes a case of violating a cat’s right to liberty, but balancing that right against the cat’s more fundamental right to life.

Cat curfews, then, appear to be morally acceptable on both a consequentialist approach (saving the lives of native animals and preserving endangered species at no cost to the wellbeing of cats), and a rights-based approach (maximizing respect for a cat’s right to life at a small cost to their right to liberty). As such, it seems that – even in the absence of such laws – we all have strong reasons to rein in the murderous urges of our cuddly companions by keeping our cats indoors.

Considering Custody Arrangements for Companion Animals

Two beagle puppies on leashes sitting in a field of green grass

In most states, pets are viewed as personal property in the eyes of the law.  Last year, California shook up the status quo by passing Assembly Bill 2274, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September. The law will allow judges in divorce cases to make more nuanced decisions when it comes to animal custody.  Prior to the passing of the bill, courts were required to divide community property roughly equally. Judges now have the flexibility to consider factors like which of the parties in the relationship provides care to the pet in the form of walking, feeding, accessing veterinary services, and providing shelter and protection.  Pleased pet owners in California claim that, in passing this law, California has rightly recognized companion animals as members of the family.

Most states continue the tradition of treating companion animals as property, but California is not alone in its move to recognize the unique importance and status of companion animals.  In January 2017, a law went into effect in Alaska that required courts to take into account the well-being of the animal when making divorce judgments about animal custody.  Alaska’s law goes further than California’s—in California courts are merely permitted to consider factors other than equity of distribution when awarding custody.  Alaska’s law also allows courts to include pets in domestic violence protective orders.

Opponents of the new California law argue that if judges are permitted to make custody decisions pertaining to pets, the courts will inevitably be clogged.  Child custody hearings already draw out divorce proceedings to unbearable lengths. If the court takes careful, conscientious care to place pets where they belong in every single divorce case, opponents argue that it will surely extend the time it takes to go through the divorce process to an unmanageable and undesirable length.

Opponents of the bill also argue that once custody hearings become the norm for animals like cats and dogs, there can be no conceivable end to the types of creatures who might be deserving of consideration in a divorce proceeding.  Further, some opponents argue that the factors involved in these kinds of decisions will inevitably involve anthropomorphizing animals to some extent. Though it may be true that animals can be harmed to some degree by changes to their living situation, typical companion animals simply don’t have the mental capacity to understand the nature of divorce or to be traumatized by it.  As a result, there is a reason for treating decisions about custody of animals very differently from, say, custody of children.

Supporters of the law argue that it is about time that legislators recognize that the interests of animals ought to be taken seriously.  Animals, after all, are not objects.  The common custom of treating animals as property fails to take into account that they are sentient beings, capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.  Some non-human animals are capable of a much wider range of experiences and emotions. Treating a companion animal no differently than one might treat a sofa or a desk lamp is an archaic and morally indefensible practice.  Philosophers from times long past may have viewed animals as automatons, but we know more about the psychology of animals than we ever have before. We know that they experience a range of emotions, and those considerations should be factored into custody decisions.

Other arguments in favor of the bill are more anthropocentric.  The bonds that human beings form with their companion animals are intimate and intense.  Many people are forgoing having children, and those people often take the care relationships that they form with their animals very seriously.  The custody of an arrangement for a pet, then, is tremendously important to the human caregivers. If one party in a relationship takes on more of these care obligations, that seems like a consideration that should be taken seriously.

One objection to the California law in particular is that it does not go far enough.  The law allows judges to take the well being of the pet into consideration when making custody decisions, but it doesn’t require the judge to do so.  As a result, the message is sent that the interests of companion animals deserve to be taken seriously when a particular judge decides to take them seriously, but not otherwise.  This feature of the law makes consideration of animal interests too strongly contingent on the whims of individual judges or on the attitudes of the parties seeking the divorce.

Ultimately, many argue that this law constitutes a step in the right direction for the cause of animal welfare.  That said, it is worth pointing out that our practices with respect to animals are far from consistent. We arbitrarily designate some animals as “companion animals” and we let these animals live in our homes.  For many, these animals become highly valued members of the family. The decision concerning which animals will become members of the family is largely based on species membership.  Cats, dogs, birds, and guinea pigs are animals we might consider bringing home to join our families.  Most people wouldn’t consider taking on a chicken, turkey, hogs, cow, or sheep as a companion animal. This is largely a matter of historical practice.  The new California law recognizes that the interests of animals deserve to be taken seriously, but, by focusing on companion animals in divorce cases, it places animals into different categories arbitrarily.  If the interests of companion animals deserve to be taken seriously, so too might the farm animals that we raise in inhumane conditions and slaughter unnecessarily for food.

On Meat Eating: Cats, Dogs, and Carnism

Photograph of a person's hands holding a knife and fork with a piece of raw meat on a plate beneath the utensils

This September, the US House of Representatives passed the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018, a bipartisan piece of legislation targeted to “prohibit the slaughter of dogs and cats for human consumption, and for other purposes” by specifically making it a felony to slaughter, buy, or sell a cat or dog with the intent to eat it. Although Jeff Denham, a Republican from California who sponsored the bill, admitted that rates of dog and cat meat consumption in the US are not high, “Adopting this policy…demonstrates our unity with other nations that have banned dog and cat meat, and it bolsters existing international efforts to crack down on the practice worldwide.”

On one hand, it’s unsurprising that a country where nearly 184 million cats and dogs make their homes as companion animals to humans would place a priority on preserving the lives of these creatures. But, on the other, the behemoth of American agribusiness and the record-setting diet of the average American consumer predicted to eat over 220 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018 might also lead one to ask: what is so special about these two particular animals? Why are we happy to eat pigs, cows, and chickens, but – if this new Act is eventually signed into law – may face federal penalties for eating comparably similar nonhuman creatures?

This is the question Melanie Joy takes up in her 2010 book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Joy argues that it is is simply a matter of cultural perspective which leads people in the US to view some animals as food and others as friends; empowered by a violent ideology labeled carnism, Joy explains how a variety of social and historical facts have developed over time into a system that conditions the majority of US citizens to simply take for granted that different species of animals are categorized in various arbitrary ways. It’s not the case that most meat-eaters have consciously chosen to eat some animals and not others; it is instead the case that, because carnism operates invisibly, most carnists have simply never actually considered the question of what they are actually eating.

Roughly twenty years ago, my family sat down to dinner in the home of a Saudi-Arabian national; as a normal part of the meal, a goat had been killed, prepared, and served on a large platter as a main course. Two decades later, my mother still tells the story of how uncomfortable she felt when the platter was placed directly in front of her, forcing her to face the empty eye sockets of her dinner’s skull for the duration of her meal.

The presence of the goat’s head on that dinner table remains memorable because it violated a key principle of carnism: invisibility. Normally in the West, animal slaughtering practices are removed from the public eye, allowing carnism to promote what Joy calls ‘psychic numbing’ as eaters mentally disconnect the animality of meat from its role as food. Trying to have a polite meal with a reminder of one’s dinner’s pre-mortem life as a centerpiece unavoidably grates against that invisibility.

So, because cats and dogs are less invisible to most Westerners, the thought of betraying our species-level relationship with them by treating them like food sounds reprehensible; doing so to other animals is contingently easier because they are socially removed from our general experience. Joy argues that such a disparity is ultimately inconsistent; pigs and dogs, for example, are far too similar in emotional, intellectual, and physical capacities to justify being treated so differently. However, raising the awareness of the current carnist state’s arbitrary conclusions will take time.

For now, the potential ban on cat and dog consumption still has several legislative steps ahead of it before it becomes a law, but with support from the Humane Society of America, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and cosponsorship from congresspersons representing eight different US states, animal rights advocates are celebrating this incremental step towards protecting vulnerable creatures. Whether or not similar legislation protecting other defenseless animals will eventually make its way to the floor of Congress seems unlikely given the strong ideology of carnism, but, as Shakespeare’s Richmond says in Richard III, “True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings.”

Dogs and Cats First? Evacuating Pets During Times of Disaster

An image of a helicopter pilot rescuing a dog from flooding

In two back-to-back assaults on the mainland, Mother Nature sent Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hurling into the American southeast. The destruction from the former in Houston and surrounding areas has news commentators already drawing comparisons to Hurricane Katrina. Many residents of New Orleans have struggled to fully recover from the devastation left in the wake of that storm, so many now are hoping that the lessons learned from Katrina will be applied to the situation in southeastern Texas.

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