San Francisco is considering accessing its inner PETA by enacting a ban on a the sales of any pet with fur, hair or feathers, meaning that little Scotty will have to make do with a boa constrictor, an iguana or a guppy if he wants a non-human companion to cheer him through grade school. The measure began as a ban on pet store sales to stick it to unscrupulous puppy mills, then gradually morphed into a nearly China-like proposal to ban almost all pets. True, the city’s proposal would still allow the adoption of dogs and cats from shelters, but don’t bet on that being the final result. PETA-ism, once it gains a foothold, won’t be satisfied until we are all tofu-sated and pet-free.
A Los Angeles Times story on the public debate over the ban concentrated on the business angle, for pets are big business. This is, however, an effort by the city government to set ethical values and standards, a legitimate government role when necessary and reasonable. Protecting innocent and vulnerable animals is an important government function; the question is whether it is necessary to protect animals from those who love them as well as those who abuse them.
Well, why not? There are slippery slopes all over this issue, in all directions. Laws ban the sale of exotic animals like tigers, wolves and chimps in many jurisdictions, because keeping them in private captivity is viewed as inherently cruel. Hmmmm…more cruel than keeping Shamu in that small tank? More cruel than keeping a polar bear in a Washington D.C. zoo? The logic for banning birds and small mammals as pets is pretty much the same: it’s inherently cruel. Does the life of a hamster deserve as much protection as the life of a leopard? Why stop at hamsters, then?
Are ant farms cruel? ( I know what happened to mine, and I don’t want to talk about it…)
Dogs, which are pack animals that have adopted humans for a symbiotic relationship, and cats, which will exchange their pleasant company for food, are often supremely happy in human homes. Many of them are also neglected and abused. If San Francisco’s edict expanded to all pets and became the norm world-wide—applying Kant’s test of Universality—would dogs and cats as species be better off, or worse off?
The ones who would have been loved and cared for would be worse off, and humans would undeniably be worse off. Is that a sensible trade-off to wipe out puppy mills?
What about service animals. such as seeing eye dogs? Would San Francisco apply the same ban to them? Again, why not? Is helping someone who is blind a better justification for subjecting an animal to involuntary servitude than giving a cat or dog food, medical care and lodging in exchange as a reward for combatting the curse of loneliness?
I don’t think so. I don’t think that society or human beings or a majority of pets themselves will be made happier, healthier or better off by declaring the human-pet relationship wrong, exploitive, inherently unjust or “speciesism,” and banning the primary means of establishing it. I also think that the less intimately we are involved with animals, the less respect we give them, and the less we care about their welfare. A San Francisco law requiring everyone to keep a chicken as a pet would prevent more suffering in the animal world than banning canaries.
We can establish a culture that appreciates the need to treat all creatures with kindness and respect. The government has a proper role in this process, but San Francisco’s proposal goes too far.