As a little girl, I was mad about animals.
We had pets, a cat and a dog, but living in a city council house meant my dream of getting a horse was an impossible one – I did, however, talk my parents into letting me have riding lessons. When I started doing well at school, becoming a vet seemed like the obvious choice.
After graduating from vet school, I worked for a short time in a practice which treated both farm animals and pets, but I soon specialised in pets. I loved working with dogs, cats, rabbits and whatever else came through the surgery door.
But over time, some aspects of my job began to trouble me.
Like all UK vets, I took an oath including the statement that “my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care”. Now, I had become concerned that the practice of keeping pets could never guarantee good animal welfare.
In my career, I saw pets with behavioural issues stemming from the conditions under which they were kept. I treated animals which were overweight or suffering from skin conditions that resulted from the ways they were looked after. I saw animals bred selectively to look a certain way, but left with functional problems affecting their breathing or mobility.
The final nail in the coffin came a year before I stopped practicing, when a client asked me to put their young, healthy dog to sleep.
I began to feel conflicted about what I was achieving. Operating to deliver puppies by caesarean was once a highlight of my work, and I felt immense joy in being in a room filled with the tiny squeals of new life. But I began to question whether, by carrying out these operations, I was inadvertently propping up an industry which prized looks over welfare. Many pups I delivered could not be born naturally, simply because the way they were bred meant their heads were too big to fit through the mother’s birth canal. Was I part of the problem for pets, rather than a guardian?
The final nail in the coffin came a year before I stopped practicing, when a client asked me to put their young, healthy dog to sleep. The client told me the dog was vicious, but I saw no evidence of that. I couldn’t follow through on what the client asked, but they refused to take the dog home, saying that would put the household at risk. So I took the only course of action available to me: I secured consent from the owner for me to find the dog a new home.
And I did. He’s lying next to me now as I write. I call him Zog.
It’s been just over seven years since that fateful consultation. During that time, Zog has never shown any signs of aggression, instead dividing his time between running very fast and sleeping soundly in comfortable spots around the house (he’s a sighthound, who are notoriously lazy).
I am aware of the extreme hypocrisy that I write this while my pet dog sleeps beside me, but my time as a vet made me confront the fact that keeping pets isn’t moral.Time and again, I’ve seen how people who profess to love animals fail to understand them as living, feeling entities in their own right. Instead, they treat them like accessories.
Take the client who asked me to put Zog to sleep, for example. Perhaps they did believe that he was aggressive – I’ll never know exactly what happened in that household – but the same client returned to the practice a month or so later with a brand new puppy. Zog wasn’t quite right for them, so they replaced him in much the same way that you might replace a bag or a pair of shoes that don’t fit correctly. Except that you don’t have to kill a bag or a pair of shoes to get rid of them.
As we become increasingly aware of the commercial price of pet ownership, I worry that we forget the intrinsic value of the lives of the animals themselves.
Years later, I still feel angry that someone could show so little respect for an animal’s life that they could decide to dispose of him – and that they would expect me to dispatch him, as if I was a paid executioner. That is definitely not what I dreamed of becoming when I was a little girl. I can’t be part of that world any more.
During lockdown, I’ve watched interest in pets rise. Who doesn’t have a story about a cat appearing in a Zoom meeting? Research even suggests that having a pet may be good for your health, but findings on this are inconclusive.
Still, the pandemic has seen people are rushing to get their own pets – and prices are soaring as a result. But as we become increasingly aware of the commercial price of pet ownership, I worry that we forget the intrinsic value of the lives of the animals themselves.
When we decide whether or not to get a pet, we ought to ask ourselves how well our needs, and those of the animal we are thinking of bringing into our homes, can be met. There are some wider considerations too. For example, do you know how keeping an outdoor cat can affect wildlife? Or have you read about the environmental impact of pet food?
But more than anything, I worry about what keeping animals as pets does to us as human beings. What does it say about us, when we can devalue the life of sentient creatures by treating them with little more respect than we would award to a handbag?
Yvonne Black is a writer and researcher. Follow her on Twitter at @YvonneB_Writes
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