Owning pets is normalized in many cultures and has been for centuries. Pets are beloved members of our families; we name them, we give them special toys and treats, and we love them as one of our own. The debate on the ethics of owning pets is rarely broached in conversation, but seems to be a worthy topic of further contemplation.
The argument for the domestication of animals as pets has multiple dimensions. Domesticating animals is ultimately a good thing because the alternatives could be far worse. As pets, animals are treated, cared for, and loved in a way that animals in factory farms, animals testing labs, circuses, and zoos are not. Their quality of life is so improved that it seems wrong to leave them to suffer. The other argument for pet ownership is a recognition of the seemingly symbiotic relationship between pet and owner. The owner cares for and loves the pet, and likewise, the pet show affection and love for its owner in return. Many animal owners have found solace, companionship, and love in their pet. The playing field seems level. We love our pets, and our pets love us.
However, in reality, this can never actually be the case, at least not by definition. The assumption that there exists a symbiotic relationship between pets and their owners is problematic just by nature of the words we use to describe the dynamic itself. One is called owner, the other is not. This implies that no matter the level of seeming equality we think exists between the two members of the relationship, ultimately one, the human, owns the other, the pet. Thus a hierarchy of power is inherent to the relationship.
As much as we try to elevate animals to members of our families by rescuing and naming them, including them in Christmas cards, and loving them fiercely, we do not ever treat them as such simply by virtue of the relationship between the two. We cannot treat them as equals, true equals, because they are not. Not only do we buy and sell them, but we also breed them, and this is all to make the animal dependent on the human.
This is why the animals rights activism group PETA is opposed to pet ownership. The power dynamic that exists within the relationship creates an inherently unfair disadvantage for the pets. Even when we are taking care of our pets, we have control over basically all aspects of their lives. As humans, we decide what food they will eat and when, we choose where they will live, and we dictate commands that they must learn and obey.
What is fundamentally wrong with the assumption that the relationship between pets and their owners is symbiotic is that, by definition, it never can be. As humans, we have created a structure of power and control that the animals are unable to escape.
This all seems rather bleak, but by no means am I telling you to get rid of your pets. I am aware that for the most part, people take good care of their pets, they treat them with dignity and respect, and do truly love them. There is, however, something we as a human species can do to better understand the relationship we have to our pets, and thus make the concept of pet ownership more ethical: we can recognize and admit to the power dynamic that inherently exists instead of trying to pretend that it doesn’t.
At the end of the day, most pet enthusiasts are right; owning pets in a safe, loving, and caring environment is a far more ethical way to treat animals than leaving them at the hands of abusers, large factory farms, or as testing specimens. If we can admit to the existing hierarchy of power that we ourselves have created as we continue to treat our pets with love and care, there is no reason to eradicate the domestication of animals.