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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.

Pet Ownership and the Ethical Perils of Domination

photograph of dog in cramped cage

For many of us, our pets are our beloved family members. However, the lives of many pets are an excruciating ordeal, full of pain and boredom. This is an inescapable consequence of the fact that they are utterly dependent upon us to meet their most basic needs. For these reasons, I think that pet ownership should be drastically reduced and radically rethought.

What is a pet? Let me propose a novel definition, paraphrasing Yi-Fu Tuan: a pet is an object of our affections that we dominate. Philosophers define domination as an unconstrained imbalance of power that enables agents to control other agents or the conditions of their actions. My view is that our control of our pets is unjust because it is largely legally unconstrained: it is almost entirely up to an owner how she will or will not use her power. This fact, in turn, makes pets extremely vulnerable to abuse and, much more commonly, neglect.

Consider the average urban-dwelling dog. Almost nothing about her life is up to her: whether she receives adequate food, water, shelter, medical care, and social interaction is entirely down to the owner’s whims. This is because legally, pets are considered property; besides animal cruelty laws, there are no legally enforced standards for pet ownership.

The evidence suggests that the result of our dominion over our pets is an incredible amount of suffering. Although some pets are able to have genuinely good lives, owners as a whole seem either unable or unwilling to meet their pets’ complex needs. Let’s start with physical health. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of all dogs and cats in the U.S. are obese. The number of cats and dogs who never, in their entire life, visit a veterinarian is anywhere from about twenty-five to fifty percent, with most estimates falling on the higher end. At least 70 percent of captive reptiles die before they even reach the pet store shelf, and of these survivors, about 75 percent will not live past their first year as a pet.

Most of the animals we keep as pets are social creatures. Some, like dogs, have evolved to form strong emotional bonds with their human owners. But we humans are just as bad at ensuring our pets have rich social lives as we are at maintaining their physical health. The amount of time the average pet owner spends interacting with his or her critter is estimated at about 40 minutes a day — hardly enough to be called a reciprocal and mutually enhancing friendship. Goldfish are social creatures, but many are kept in tiny aquaria with no possibility of stimulating interaction either with their environment or other fish. For example, on Amazon one can find a USB Desk Organizer Aquarium — with attached desk organizer, including a multifunction pen holder and LCD calendar — that holds one and a half quarts of water (6 cups) and is advertised as suitable for live fish.

Many owners simply give away their animals when they no longer feel like shouldering the burden of caring for them. Somewhere between six and eight million dogs and cats and other sentient creatures pass through the shelter system each year; about one third of these are there because their owners brought them in. If they are lucky, these animals are adopted by a loving family. But many are not lucky: some 3 million are euthanized every year.

One challenge of ethically assessing pet ownership in the United States is the paucity of data, itself a sign of a troubling ethical insouciance. But the evidence of our mistreatment of our pets is all around us. To give one personal example: I once rented a house next to a family that owned a St. Bernard they kept in the backyard. This “family” dog spent almost all of the day baking under the New Mexico sun with no stimulation and no interaction with humans.

As we might expect, just as allowing humans to legally dominate one another — a practice that is outlawed almost everywhere in the world — leads to extreme suffering, so does allowing humans to legally dominate their pets. The echoes of human slavery in pet ownership raise the specter of a more radical objection: that pet ownership, like slavery, is wrong in itself. Luckily for pet owners everywhere, I do not think this claim can be sustained.

What makes slavery wrong in itself is that human beings have an actual and strong interest in autonomy, or in the ability to fulfill their desires unconstrained and uncontrolled by external forces. To say that they have an interest in this ability is to say that they desire it: human beings have the complex higher-order desire that they be able to fulfill their first-order desires without external constraint or control. Because slavery as such negates autonomy, it violates a human being’s autonomy interest. This makes slavery wrong as such. By contrast, I do not believe that animals have an autonomy interest. My dog wants to go outside, wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and wants to chase squirrels, but I very much doubt that my dog wants to be able to do these things without constraint. Having an autonomy interest requires a level of cognitive sophistication that our pets lack.

Although pet ownership is not wrong as such, this does not mean that we should rest content with the legal domination that is part and parcel of contemporary pet ownership. Instead, we should introduce far more stringent, and legally enforceable, standards. In particular, I propose that states adopt a pet “bill of rights,” to be enforced by a dedicated government agency, with at least the following provisions:

  1. Every pet is entitled to adequate food, shelter and water.
  2. Every pet is entitled to adequate medical care.
  3. Every pet is entitled to adequate physical and mental stimulation.
  4. If appropriate, every pet is entitled to adequate human or non-human companionship.

What can individuals do to make the world a better place for pets? Perhaps the choice with the greatest impact would be to not have a pet at all. The evidence suggests that many pet owners are not prepared to shoulder the burden of satisfying the pet bill of rights provisions. One should take this responsibility extremely seriously, which starts with considering seriously whether one is both willing and able to provide for another sentient being’s entire welfare.

Perhaps humanity’s greatest moral achievement to date was the abolition of legal slavery, driven by the insight that giving people legal dominion over other people is morally wrong. Our relationships with our pets are different in important respects from slavery. After all, many — though by no means all — owners are profoundly emotionally connected to their pets. There are already some legal protections for pets, as for all animals — although I have argued that these protections are woefully inadequate. Most importantly from the moral point of view, animals do not have the autonomy interest that would make pet ownership, like slavery, wrong in itself. Nevertheless, our history of slavery should make us sensitive to the moral implications of tolerating legal domination, even over non-human creatures.

Saving Animals in Emergencies: The California Wildfires

Photograph of two men and a dog standing in a burned structure

California is facing some of the most devastating fires that it has seen in years. Camp Fire, Woosley Fire, and Hill Fire spread over Paradise and Los Angeles, CA destroying more than 125,000 acres and counting. As families are being forced to leave their homes, the question arises for many: “What do we bring, what do we leave?” Unfortunately for many, this becomes a question of what to do with their pets and other domesticated animals.

Local shelters and relocated farms are options for families to move their dogs, cats, horses, and other animals. When local shelters become full, citizens have sought out local law enforcements or agencies that protect animals. One such agency is Ride On, a therapeutic horsemanship program owned by Abigail Sietsma. Sietsema and her father worked relentlessly to address emergency calls to rescue horses from barns amid the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire. The executive officer of Ride On, Bryan McQueeney, described the rescue process as a form of art. “You have to really control the energy of people around you,” he says. Horses are able to pick up on when people around them are anxious and it can make an already dangerous and time-sensitive situation that much more difficult.

Emergencies like the California fires make it difficult to protect the lives of humans and animals alike. McQueeny says, “Human lives take priority but Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control, which has set up centers in safe areas, is collaborating with fire and sheriff departments. As of the latest update on Saturday night, the agency had 591 horses, ponies and donkeys in its care, along with llamas, pigs, goats and even a tortoise.” With all of these resources going into protecting the lives of the animals, it begs the question, do we have a moral obligation to help them in emergencies?

According to virtue ethics, emotions are key in ethical decision making. Humans are typically emotionally attached to their pets or farm animals in some way. Therefore, it is ethical to spend the resources to save them in emergencies.  Some would even argue that it would be negligent to leave them alone to die. Animals, for the most part, are dependent on humans to help them and according to the ethics of care, with this relationship, there is an obligation for humans to help out their loved pets. It is considered virtuous, responsible, and compassionate to look after and go out of the way to care for animals in times of need. This belief, that it is good to rescue animals, is socially praised.

Along with being socially praised, the rescuing of animals has been found to unite communities. McQueeny describes the phenomena: “I have been around a fire in a horse area, it is amazing to me how the equestrian community rallies. It’s complicated, it is hard, but I am always impressed that the horse community will jump in. They will move heaven and earth to make sure these horses are taken care of.” The rescue of animals unites communities and gives them hope in situations where hope can seem scarce.

However, all of the time and energy that goes into this rescue isn’t always the most efficient option. Not to mention, some animals like horses take up even more resources to feed them, clean them, and house them once in safe environments. One may argue that we should value human life and use the resources allocated to horses, for example, towards helping the people who have been displaced from their homes. Some animals, such as a pet cat, are easy to relocate, but larger pets like horses or wild animals in zoos create many additional challenges.  

The LA Zoo has recently faced the problem of what to do with their zoo animals. Smoke in the surrounding air makes it hard for animals to breathe and increases the risk of disease. However, precautionary measures to move the animals isn’t always the best option. Moving animals can be more dangerous because moving them away from their familiar habitat increases the risk of disease and death. The most that the zoo staff  can do in these cases is to establish evacuation plans for fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes and move animals only if necessary.

If the resources are available, saving household pets and animals would be ideal for many families. Yet taking the extra time to relocate animals in the fire adds additional risk to the family members and more smoke exposure time. The animal rescue personnel even risk their lives to go into the fire zones to save them, but despite their heroic reputation, the California fires make us reconsider: should we bring our animals or leave them?