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NYT on Nonhumans as Property

Rarely do we get the opportunity to discuss the concept of nonhuman animals as property without being the one to raise the topic. But in today’s New York Times, in "Should Most Pet Owners Be Required to Neuter Their Animals?"  Verlyn Klinkenborg, who’s no vegan or animal rights activist, writes:

There may be better ways than a statewide law to reduce the number of unwanted pets. But the opponents of mandatory neutering make it sound as though the problem can be solved mainly by teaching owners to spay or neuter their pets voluntarily. That might be true, if we thought more rationally about our pets. But keeping pets isn’t about rationality. When it comes to them, Americans are lost in a seemingly endless act of transference.

It’s apparent in the obesity of our dogs and cats, and in our increasing spending on veterinary care and gourmet pet food and dietary supplements and everything else that helps us treat them as our superconsumerist equals.

This transference extends to how we think about the sexuality of our pets, which is, all too often, a projection of our own.

Many owners feel a sense of implicit posterity, a kind of family-values virtue — think a litter of kittens in a warm corner of the kitchen — in the reproductive potential of their pets.

Others feel what, in America, is an even more basic emotion, the conviction that they have an absolute right to do with their property exactly as they like.

This opinion piece is fascinating, even going into why older animals are less likely to be adopted, and how much responsibility comes with owning a dog:

We expect to find as much innocence in our pets as we do in newborn children, which may be one reason why so few older pets are adopted from shelters.

We want the pleasures of neoteny — the adorable sustained appearance of infancy — in part because it helps us forget how much responsibility is involved in owning and training a dog.

Unfortunately, for many people, dogs and cats are things that fill a need the people have. They purchase, or even adopt, the nonhuman animals, not to give them a loving home (or save the animal’s life), but to make some kind of statement about their own lives.

Though requiring neutering would reduce the number of dogs and cats, the origin of the cat and dog overpopulation crisis is their property status. The reality is that many (dare I say most?) Americans cannot be trusted to meet the needs that cats and dogs have. I see that every day, as I’ve blogged about in the past. I know two couples–a total of four people–who spend the time, energy and money on their dogs that is necessary to provide them with wholesome food, adequate exercise and socialization, boundaries and affection. As Klinkenborg concludes:

Americans are consumers of pets just as we are consumers of everything else. We expect gratification without responsibility. We see only the easy pleasure, not the work. The rate at which dogs are purchased and euthanized in this country is not a sign of our affection for them. It’s a sign of our indifference.

Neutering laws address a symptom, not to mention they take the animals’ reproductive control away. Perhaps it’s time we start discussing (in a mainstream forum) that all of the problems we currently have–and dogs and cats have–are unintended consequences of property status. From breed specific legislation to dogfighting to dog and cat obesity to the overpopulation crisis. They all originate with humans, and that is made possible by their property status.

Write a letter ( thanking Klinkenborg for raising this important topic (and of course, provide your opinion as well).

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Thanks for writing about this article. Great job, as always. I've pointed to your post at AAFL.

    July 30, 2007

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