Skip to content

On Dominance and Animal Birth Control

Yesterday, regarding being a minority within a minority, mikey commented (among other things):

While I am fairly new subscriber to this blog, therefore not knowing your particular stance, I've often felt like a minority within a minority for my stance on animal birth control. When taking the issue to simplest common denominator, spaying/neutering is essentially exercising human dominance over non-human animals. 

mikey, my stance can be seen in the posts about Project Treadstone (and if you type Project Treadstone into the Google Search box just below my half-blind, diabetic greyhound, Violet Rays, on the right, you'll get a dozen more posts).

But my stance is also categorized under Gray Matters because, in my perfect world, we wouldn't be spaying or neutering anybody. Meanwhile, I would love to be able to have some kind of law against human beings producing/reproducing more than one person per person. We are a far bigger problem on this planet than the (over)population of feral cats, elephants, Canada geese, or any other creature we "manage" or want to manage, "humanely" or otherwise.

But alas, we' re too important and special to "manage," and every human pregnancy is treated as a sacred, blessed event, while we kill the kittens inside pregnant feral cats every day without batting an eyelash, and in fact we're relieved when we can catch one who's pregnant, as that's x number of cats who don't have to come into this world.

How contradictory is that?

So mikey, I agree with you in theory. Yes, sterilizing someone–anyone–without their consent is an act of dominance. However, I don't think (and as you allude to) the situation is black and white. (Hence, it's a Gray Matter.) In my experience there are at least a handful of issues that involve compromise when the idea of veganism collides with real life. And this is one of them. We are making a decision for sentient beings that we think will be better for both populations. And when the option is rounding them up and killing them, TNR looks like an especially attractive option.

But who cares about me? What do you all think?

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Vegan #

    Absolutely – because sterilization can be argued as a rights violation, I consider myself a proponent of both animal rights and welfare (sterilization being a welfare issue). Many ethical situations are unique and must be dealt with individually, as there are no cut-and-dried solutions.

    Also, I couldn't agree more regarding human population management – 7 billion "miracles" is more than enough!

    April 24, 2009
  2. I think the last two sentences of your post sum it up perfectly. If you look at it from the standpoint of reducing the amount of animal suffering, I think animal birth control makes sense. Allowing more animals to be born only to live in misery and/or be killed is less caring than spaying and neutering. It seems to me that in this special case the reduction of suffering is more important than respecting the animal's autonomy.

    April 24, 2009
  3. Nick #

    I agree with you. In an ideal world, animals wouldn't be our property, and we wouldn't even have to think about whether to sterilize them or not. But in this horrible world, animals are our property, so we should attempt to undo the original crime of domestication.

    I agree about humans, too. I will never biologically reproduce. It's totally unethical.

    April 24, 2009
  4. Nice post! Thank you for your comments on human overpopulate as well – agree 100%!

    I've had these thoughts too. I feel bad about having to spay/neuter pets, but at this time, in this world that is so brutally horrible to animals, it is what's best for them. Just like with children, we assert dominance over them because we know what's best for them in the long run.

    One more thought – I don't think animals are like humans where they might be sad if they can't reproduce (this is beyond me though – I certainly don't want to reproduce =)). I don't think they know any better. They're happy and content as long as they have someone to love – another animal or a human companion.

    April 24, 2009
  5. Henrik #

    In the real world, separated from noble notions of righteousness, millions of companion animals are killed in our shelters each year. Is them not being born in the first place better than being born to a life of misery and inevitable death by injection? As vegans, we have already made this choice for livestock – if a newborn calf would for certain be taken from his mother immediately, crated so he could not move, never see sunlight and ultimately be killed for veal, would we advocate for his birth? If our intention is to minimize suffering here and now, we must support spaying/neutering.

    April 24, 2009
  6. Gosh… wish I would have read this before commenting on yesterday's post. But to sum up… I totally agree that controlling animals now, is of much less harm than if we didn't. And in the end, the proof regarding animal "rights" will be when we not only stop manipulating how they leave this world… but how/when they arrive as well.

    April 24, 2009
  7. Dan #

    S/N is a pro tanto wrong – meaning, isolated by itself in a theoretical vacuum, it is always better to avoid it.

    Given an extremely speciesist society, however, and the necessary consequences that follow from such widespread and extreme speciesism, we are faced with knowing the abject misery that the vast majority of these potential beings will endure if they are conceived and born.

    Further, while sentient beings (including humans) have a moral right to not be exploited or caused unnecessary harm, I don’t believe we (nonhumans and humans) have a moral right to be unconditionally left alone under any and all circumstances. For example, a rescued dog may hate going to the vet, but going to the vet at a given time might be highly beneficial to her or necessary for her future survival or thriving. In this case, we act in her best interest to force her, via “human dominance”, to go to the vet and get healthy.

    The important question in S/N is, whether the harm we are causing is “necessary”. I believe it is necessary because of the extreme contrast between the harm of the operation itself, which is relatively mild and doesn’t violate what I would consider an “important interest” of the being who is being spayed or neutered, versus the harm that another feral being coming into a world crowded and dominated by an extremely unfriendly and violent species (the human ape) will likely endure. I know, as a rational being, that I would go to extraordinarily great lengths and misery to be spayed or neutered rather than to be born as a feral cat or dog into the mean streets of so-called human ‘civilization’.

    If humans were in the same predicament, I would certainly advocate the same position. The thought process has nothing to do with species, only with the situation and morally relevant characteristics.

    April 24, 2009
  8. Ana #

    In my opinion, it's a basic issue of carrying capacity for the planet. The most serious overpopulation problem is with human beings. There are too many of us and no end to growth in sight. I have no problem with birth control for humans as long as it's done in a fair manner that does not infringe on basic rights. Population management can only improve the quality of life for everyone.

    Needless to say, I also have no problem with controlling birth rates of non-humans who are experiencing overpopulation. I would rather control birth rates than wait for animals to be born and then kill them because no one will take care of them. That is the greatest wrong.

    April 24, 2009
  9. Connie Graham #

    There have been some excellent points made in favor of spaying and neutering already. I just wanted to add another point to the discussion: long term health and well-being of both companion (indoor) animals and feral cats.

    Spaying female dogs and cats can help prevent mammary cancer, ovarian and uterine cancer and pyometra, all of which are life threatening diseases. Neutering male dogs can help prevent prostate and testicular cancers and modify "unsatisfactory" behaviors like aggression, scent marking of territory among others.

    For feral cats it can actually make the difference between life and death. Unneutered male cats will fight with each other and if FIV is present in even one of the males, it can be passed among the entire colony. With this disease, their immune systems are compromised, making them more susceptible to infections. Living on the street, they are less likely to receive treatment for a minor infection that can, ultimately, lead to their premature death. For females, it's a much different story. Intact females living on the streets are either pregnant or nursing kittens their entire lives. Constant pregnancy or raising young shortens her life. Many times, desperately searching for food to feed her developing kittens or those she is nursing, she will go places she wouldn't normally, exposing her to hazards that may lead to her death, and ultimately that of her kittens. Life is hard on the streets, alleyways and woodlands. Spaying and neutering gives these too often forgotten creatures a chance to live a little bit safer, healthier life.

    April 25, 2009
  10. Ken #

    We are already exercising dominance over cats and dogs by not letting them run free, controlling what they eat, taking them on trips, etc. That is the nature of domestication. I agree with Gary Francione that animal domestication is an ongoing mistake that we should seek to ultimately eliminate. Spaying and neutering is the way to do that.

    April 25, 2009
  11. Tracey #

    The bridge from the Real to the Ideal World is a difficult one to traverse.

    I love that we have evolved to the point that even discussing a non-human animal's right to retain their reproductive organs does not immediately draw cals for the men in white coats.

    I volunteer for a cat rescue group and based upon what I've witnessed, I will continue to S/N every single feline I can get my hands on, and I will continue to encourage others to do the same.

    The lesser of two evils. Triage. A necessary evil; call it what you will.

    I hope — within my lifetime — I can look back upon my deeds and feel overwhelming guilt for making such decisions for thousands of beings because there are no longer millions upon millions of them dying.

    April 25, 2009
  12. Porphyry #

    Hello Mary, usual commenters, and new visitors. I’m on the same page with domestic animal population control. However, on the topic of human population:

    “I would love to be able to have some kind of law against human beings producing/reproducing more than one person per person.”

    This seems to be a shared perspective among man environmentalists, vegans especially, but I’d like to offer a different perspective on the situation.

    Sure, there are over 6 billion humans on the planet and that number will grow with projections putting us at 9 billion by 2050. However, since passing laws limiting human reproduction rights are not popular, at least not now, and other alternatives are too dodgy to really consider. It is important to know that the way to slow, and even possibly reverse population growth without imposition, is the solution to many human problems: education and prosperity. We have data that supports this.

    What stops population growth? (10 minute video – 2009)

    10 Reasons to Rethink ‘Overpopulation’ (4 page PDF – 2006)

    Cultural competitors with polar opposite ideas as those discussed in blogs like Animal Person share this notion that there are too many people on the planet as well. Hold on though, their argument goes something like this (more or less).

    Hunter-gathers and herding tribes lived off animals the way humans should. Meat is healthy, grain is not, and agriculture caused the degeneration of humans as indicated by fossil records. Since agriculture enables human population growth people who embrace plant-based agriculture are to blame for global human overpopulation which is the primary cause of environmental destruction. (I’m just the messenger here.)

    I offer that there are rational, practical and strategic reasons to part company with this overpopulation concept. First of all it, suggesting laws curtailing reproductive rights comes off as misanthropic and vegans have a bad enough reputation with that as it is. The way to reduce population is to be kind and caring vegans that you are and to persuade people that the world should pursue cooperation and compassion. We need to feed, educate, and help the less fortunate among our species across this world. It necessitates improving human welfare and rights, especially for women and children, and offering global equality and stability.

    Second, “There are too many of us!” hints at a fear ideology of “There are too many of ‘them,’ over there, ‘those people,’ eating grains and beans and rice. See how many of ‘them’ there are!”

    I don’t want to use the term outright, but suffice it to say that this is an idea that I’m sure no one here wants to embrace and it really does square up with linked oppressions that are associated with “cattle culture.” Consider that many industrialized nations have very low and often stagnant native population growth but growth is inflated due to immigration from less wealthy nations. This feeds into “us” versus “them” fears, or rather, “them” overrunning “us.”

    People are being born daily and more people are coming in the years ahead. It is inevitable. But look past sensationalized media “Octomom” examples and keep in mind that there’s good data to suggest that there is room for everyone, that we aren’t in imminent danger of exhausting the planet’s carrying capacity, and that there are ways that everyone can have a good quality of life. Indeed, global prosperity, reducing the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, may be a requirement to support sustainability and discourage international conflict.

    For as many people as there are “over there,” the majority of the global environmental damage is done by the industrialized minority “over here.” It will be a balancing act to not only share affluence and prosperity but to redefine what it means in our privileged culture to live “the good life.” Not only to reduce our tremendous impact, but to set the example the other nations will want to follow. The problem now is that we are exporting all of our bad habits.

    The challenge is that we have to come up with solutions, not resort to “going back to the way things were.” We can’t! Exploiting far less animals than is done now, among other things, integrates quite well with positive, forward thinking solutions, something the “other side” doesn’t offer.

    The Internet holds plenty of information and opinion on both sides of the overpopulation debate. I chose sources I felt were credible and easily accessible without having to wade through something like a United Nations report. My observation is that the positions that cite population manageability are based on data while positions suggesting that humanity is too far gone and needs to “thin the herd” are based on ideological assumptions.

    April 27, 2009
  13. Thanks for the link to the video Porphyry, I learned a lot from this new perspective. I also agree that small children should not "have to die"… It's tragic – and not at all what I wish for us. I agree that having smaller families is the means to regulating carrying capacity for the planet. I'd only like to add… that there is enough to sustain the entire world and the projected inhabitants if we just switch to a vegan diet. I see a future fully capable of feeding all (and the multitude to come) – but only if we convert away from animal agriculture.

    I'm an optimistic and enthusiastic fan of urban, vertical farming – barge crops – hydroponics… and even "vat" meat. I think we'll have more than enough… if we just shift what (food and resources) we define as "enough". In a nutshell regarding our future survival: no cows allowed.

    April 27, 2009
  14. Dan,

    “I believe it is necessary because of the extreme contrast between the harm of the operation itself, which is relatively mild and doesn’t violate what I would consider an “important interest” of the being who is being spayed or neutered, versus the harm that another feral being coming into a world crowded and dominated by an extremely unfriendly and violent species (the human ape) will likely endure.”

    Surely this is incorrect. As mammals, being able to procreate does seem to be of significant interest to us.

    Furthermore, deontologically, the harm/benefit calculation doesn’t follow because it isn’t considering the interests of the individual qua the individual. Yours is a cost/benefit measure that appears to aggregate – to some degree – the amount of harm caused by the action.

    As you mentioned, however, “S/N is a pro tanto wrong."

    April 28, 2009
  15. Dan #


    I personally have no interest in procreation and never have. I don't agree that procreation is a universal interest or an interest protectable by a moral or legal right.

    Also, while you're correct from a pure deontologocal ethics standpoint, I reject pure deontologocal ethics as much as I reject utilitarianism. I see ethical theories as tools to guide moral intuition and rational consistency in ethics and nothing more. W.D. Ross and Michael Huemer are good philosophers to read if you're curious about how I approach moral problems.

    May 4, 2009

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS