choice, intent, and feeding companion animals

A recent post on ‘One Green Plant‘ by Leslie Irvine, a scoiologist at the University of Colorado, outlines three options for companion (nonhuman) animals, specifically related to what we feed them. Irvine provides her rationalisations to the ‘difficult position’ in the context of ‘ethical veganism’ (for me there is one form of veganism, and coming up with labels such as ethical is as problematic that for vegetarianism — see the redicularity of the term ‘pescatarian’ for example. To create a demarcation here, anyone who is not an ‘ethical vegan’ is not a vegan: they adopt a plant-based diet). Three ‘options’ are outlined: feeding companion animals a vegan diet; not having companion animals; the status quo (with some rationalistions).

Irvine provides some empirical support for explicit and implied arguments. With the vegan ‘option’, she correctly outlines that whereas dogs can thrive on a vegan diet, there are very clear and potentially serious challenges (life threatening) for cats. What is most problematic here (amongst other rationalisations) is the argument often put forward by carnists and others seeking to defend their ‘choice’, or at least make them feel better about their actions: ‘a plant-based diet requires killing’. What is referred to here are other animals that are referred to as ‘collateral damage’. I am not for a second debating that agriculture kills other animals. Every action we take causes harm and suffering: to human and nonhuman animals. The vast majority of purchases we make perpetuate exploitation and suffering on many levels, be this sweatshop labor, environmental destruction, class, the objectification of women (and bodies more generally) and the perpetuation of consumer capitalism (to start with). They key issue here, which is not addressed in any way by Irvine is intent.

We can seek to minimise our impacts in an ethically consistent manner, or we can seek to rationalise choices that make us feel better. To me, that is at the core of Irvine’s piece — how she can rationalise her ‘choices’ so she can feel better about her actions.

Amidst the politics of bad choices, which is where were are situated today, we can easily become stifled in seeking to make a good choice when there are none. With regards to the food we feed companion (nonhuman) animals, there is no good choice. It is still unclear that there is a healthy option for vegan diets for cats. Irvine claims it is also not clear for all dogs. Lets accept these claims. If we feed cats and dogs other animals, we are explicitly supporting industries that exploit and kill other animals (for profit). We are making a choice between which lives we see as more valuable: a cat, dog or other animal we have direct exposure too (an animal we may love) and animals we do not know. What is at the core of this are our own experiences. It is about us.

This is very confronting, and I have addressed aspects of this in previous posts. What we have here, alongside and deeply intertwined with being about us, is a moral conundrum. To restate a question I preciously posed, “how can I [we] justify killing one animal to keep another alive?” Putting it quite simply and bluntly, this is a decision we are making. This is not about what certain animals eat ‘in the wild’ or naturally. It is about us making a choice, our intentional actions, that cause harm. Here we can see and expand on the conundrum much further. Whatever ‘choice’ we make has consequences that are quite unpalatable. We kill other animals to feed companion animals we have a connection with, or we feed companion animals a diet that is either potentially or quiet likely to cause physical harm and death. Amidst the politics of bad choices, we do need to make one. For me, the issue here — and the key issue left (strategically?) nonconisdered by Irvine is intent. We can make arguments about how many (human and nonhuman) animals are harmed and killed by our lifestyles (some more intentionally than others). Accidental deaths, as much as we can make the argument (and we should strive to continue to reduce our impacts on other animals, ecosystems and the planet more broadly—a cornerstone of veganism), are not intentional. Feeding one animal to another, as outlined by Irvine, is intentional. To be reflexive here, deciding not to is also intentional. In either scenario and situation, an animal will die. On a purely utilitarian level, how many tens, hundreds, thousand(?) of other animals are we intentionally killing to keep one companion animal alive?

Is keeping a companion animal alive merely to help us feel better, with it being easier to kill other animals we do not have a connection with? To be (much?) more controversial here (and the issue is much bigger than this), PETA is widely criticised for is high rate of euthanasia of nonhuman animals at its shelters. Could we not see this as saving lives along the lines that other, unknown and unexperienced by us, animals are not being killed to keep them alive??

There is more to the option 1 (feeding companion animals a vegan diet) outlined by Irvine: farming methods kill other animals, and changes in methods are impractical as they are ‘needed’ to feed the worlds population. Whereas articles are cited, even referring to a TIME article (with a broken link) which claims that less animals would be killed with different forms of animal agriculture than if the world went vegan. The very limited scope and specific focus of the TIME piece is taken well out of context by Irvine. Referencing aside, again the issue here is intent. How many people intend to cause harm to another person every time they purchase cheaper clothing (i.e. Sweatshop labour)? How many people intend to oppress women every time they buy a magazine or product that appropriates a women’s body and perpetuates the beauty myth? To surmise, farming, as well as existing in contemporary society, is ‘bloodless’, yet should we not try to reduce our impacts. To do otherwise is a very slippery slope in which almost all actions can be rationalised-justified.

Option 2 is to not have companion animals. This is an ideal that we should be aiming towards. Yes there will continue to be nonhuman animals in shelters as long as they are seen as property, bred and sold at the whim of socially constructed human desires. Aside form continuing to work towards the end of the animal industrial complex, what we do here is the key. Making arguments to justify the killing on one animal for the benefit of the other actively undermines any critique of carnism. Rather it perpetuates the status quo irrespective of intent. Irvine’s reference to companion animals living ‘out their natural lives’ is also a stretch. The specific reference is to her (‘my’) companion animals, providing another clear implication that this is about her, and what is comfortable for her (as it is for many). We need to move beyond this…

Option 3 is the status quo, based on rationalisations mobilised for the previous options and reference to an ethical paradigm as ‘a process’. In much the same way that learning about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableness and other forms exploitation is a process, we cannot use this to justify continuing to privilege one at the expense of the other. By way of example, PETA’s sexist advertising is not a consistent (nor appropriate) approach for seeking to end the exploitation of nonhuman animals.

The reflexive ‘Some might call my attitude “excuse-itarianism”’, reference to ‘choice’, and ‘living with contradiction’ are all centred on making ourselves feel better, rather than grappling with the moral conundrum in a consistent way. What is clear here is that we privilege the animals we know at the (ultimate) expense of others. We can openly state that we will take the contradiction and surround such a statement with as many rationalisations as we like. In the end, the root here is a combination of feeling better and strategically ignoring that which we are unable to respond to. I am not saying this is easy, and I have given a number of years reflection to this challenge. At its core, this is (and should not be) about us and how we feel. It is not about deciding between one individual and another, it is potentially between one and hundreds, potentially thousands.

Yes, our existence causes harm to nonhuman animals. What is key here is intent. Intentionally harming is not consistent with progressive ideals across the board. As many ways as privileging one over others can be rationalised, the crux of the issue is, once again, human chauvinism — of us choosing who lives and dies. What Irvine seeks to justify (and many many do, often without anywhere near the level of reflection provided by Irvine) is her ‘choice’. Yes, neither ‘choice’ is a good one. Yet the choice she makes is cannot by justified from the simple utilitarian level through to seeking to be ethically and morally consistent. This is something we all need to reflexively interrogate.

companion animal adoption and vegan diets

After giving away most of my material possessions, saying good bye to family and friends, and moving to the other side of the this planet** I am in place (in the broad sense) to consider fostering (possibly adopting) a cat from a shelter. I am still trying to get my head around/resolve some concerns and a moral conundrum. In reflecting on these, I share some concerns that the words of others have helped me to gain perspective on — to a point which I feel I can make an informed decision.

I am opposed to the notion of a ‘pet’, of animals being chattel property. That we can walk into a store and buy an animal, that this animal becomes ‘ours’ and that we have a number of legal rights to do what we wish (within differing limits, depending on where we live) is predicated by and on human chauvanism. There are many others who have provided clear expressions of the why behind this, so I will not expand on that here.

I also have concern with keeping companion animals locked up. The most clear example being birds in a cage (I am horrified how many Australian bird species I have seen as ‘exotic’ pets in other stores and homes in other countries). I also have issues with dogs in yards, cats indoors, etc, etc. To me a cage is a cage irrespective of size. This has been one of two significant issues that have played a significant role in my not adopting an animal in the past (my transient status, and not feeling that I could provide enough care/attention, what I would consider adequate are also significant concerns/barriers). My thoughts on the housing of companion animals (in specific circumstances) have since been influenced by people who someone I meant earlier this year.

To put it simply, keeping an animal locked up is preferable to an animal being kept in a shelter, and most likely euthanised because of how fucked up our society is.

The numbers of companion animals euthanised every day is astounding (in the order of 10 million in the USA, based on 1997 figures) — all because of the manifestations of anthropocentrism, subset by notions of what is considered cute and the whims of animals as accessories.

In light of this, I feel that I can do at least something to improve the life an an animal whose suffering is no fault of there own, rather our species’ outrageous non-consideration and selfishness. In such a context, restrictions on freedom (i.e. some level of a ‘cage’) are not as significant as issue. Notwithstanding concerns that I may not be home enough, I feel that I can do something here.

My main stumbling block is a moral conundrumºº that I have struggled with for more than a decade. It is a conundrum as there is not an ideal outcome. To frame this directly, how can I justify killing one animal to keep another alive? I am aware, and have discussed the issue of vegan cats with a number of people at length — many of the stories have been fraught with concern and struggles seeking to ensure health and well being. Serious health (urinary tract) issues have emerged with many people who have rescued cats and sought to feed them a vegan diet — even those commercially available and advertised as 100% nutritionally complete.

To be clear, I do not have issue with cats being carnivores. My issue is the farming of animals by humans to feed other animals. We should not be farming animals at all. The moral conundrum is rooted in a moral disconnect at best, and a moral schizophrenia at worst.

I guess what emerges from this is that I need to do more research on the suitability of vegan cat food…

** There is much I am still coming to terms with, which has prevented me from posting any thoughts here for some time — though these will come.

ººThis moral conundrum is something I have reflected on for many years.

we buried a member of our family today.

Tae, a blue-cattle cross we adopted more than 10 years ago, was put to sleep today, after suffering a ruptured (previously undiagnosed) Hemangiosarcoma. It was the first time I was directly involved in a euthanasia decision and process. The varied emotions, thoughts, hope, catharsis of it all. The apparent peace, the warmth, the softness, the sleep-like state that resulted were all new experiences. The level of compassion of the staff at the veterinary hospital is something I could not have expected. Something almost overwhelming in itself.

In the weeks prior, Tae’s vision and hearing had deteriorated rapidly, after more than a years steady reduction, and we were adjusting to caring for a vision and hearing impaired companion. She was adjusting well, (re)learning to navigate via different means — after a couple misadventures. In monitoring her, we noted some changes in her behaviour, physical stature, energy levels and mobility over the last few days. I had hoped it was an intestinal blockage. On arriving at the veterinary hospital early this morning I became aware rather quickly that it was far more serious.

Given her age and the symptoms resulting from Hemangiosarcoma, the vet outlined the options. Kidney failure (revealed by bloodwork) and cardiac arrhythmias may or may not have been related to the Hemangiosarcoma, though the latter would significantly reduce the chance of her surviving a splenectomy. My concern was for Tae, and it became apparent that euthanasia was the most compassionate option, though this option was not one I was 100% certain on — for reasons I will return to…

It was decided that I could take Tae home for others to have the opportunity to say good-bye to her, to give her a few final hours in which we could express our love. How much this was for us is up to question — and a valid one that does require some reflection.

Whilst she was at home today, I decided on her resting place (adjacent to the other animals we had adopted) and began the preparation. It was somewhat cathartic — as writing this, trying to consider how to broach her condition with others in her life, and trying to (rationalise how to) come to terms with it myself have been.

Why was I not 100% certain about euthanasia? What it comes down to is perhaps a romanticised notion, but also based on speciesism. I have grave concerns about decisions humans make for other animals. Often, euthanasia is the easy option. Looking at the notion of euthanasia for humans exposes some of the issues (comparatively). I also hoped that she would either get better/be found to have a treatable condition without loss in quality of life or any suffering or that she would die without me making the decision.* The latter is perhaps problematic, and shares, somewhat, some of the recurrent themes/issues that debate about human euthanasia. For me (problematic or not), it was about not making decisions for her, wanting it to be on her terms.

To me, it seemed like Tae was deteriorating as the day progressed. She was comfortable, though it was obvious that the internal bleeding, Abdominal distension, inappetance and general weakness were progressing. When we returned to the veterinary hospital, with Tae sitting on my lap, my reaction to her appearance differed to those of who I was with. Tae was starting to drool heavily. I thought this another sign of her deteriorating condition. The member of the family with me viewed it as a sign she was very happy in her final living moments.

The injection and Tae’s passing was very quick. What was to immediately follow has given me a new perspective. I have never witnessed an animal euthanised, and it seemed to be very peaceful. As the injected chemicals passed through her body, Tae had two members of her (adopted) family stroking her with almost benign familiarity. She was in a very comfortable position, one I had seen her sleep in many times. The Veterinarian adjusted her head position, placing her head between her front paws post the process. It was picturesque. I continued to stroke Tae, and the warmth of her body, the softness of her fur. These were far from any thoughts I had about how this would progress.

As mentioned, albeit perhaps lost in the cloudiness of my own emotions and reactions, my main concern was for Tae. The compassion of the veterinary hospital staff certainly made the process easier on us. Their compassion was far from anything I had considered would be provided. It was almost overwhelming. I will be going back to thank them. Their actions has made the process easier, whether it should be a factor or not, for the thoughts that have emerged. Clarity. In the past when a companion had died, the grief was a barrier to adopted another animal in need. I am now able to more clearly recognise that adopting animals is about them, restitutive justice as much as it can be, their quality of life (I have renewed feelings of anger about the world we have constructed, the suffering inflicted on other species for our wants).

Whilst being about them — as it should be, adopting animals does impact on our lives and change us. Tonight as we reflect and each of us deals with Tae’s passing in our own, some very different, ways, this is strongly reinforced. The first emotion/reaction I have had (and I think it is one I have experienced in the past) is the profound emptiness of the yard without Tae there…

These are my immediate thoughts and feelings. I have shared them as is, no to suggest they are free from critical comment or challenge. They may, however, provide some solace to others in similar situations or a starting point for thought.

I will search for a photo of Tae. I considered taking a photo of her lying on the couch at home today, though thought I would rather a picture of her happy, playing. This contrasted with my thoughts on her lying peacefully, picturesque, immediately following the euthanasia…

* My usage of the term hope shares Derrick Jensen’s definition, which I have mused about before