Editor’s Note: Rachel Silberstein is a writer for Catster’s sister SAY Media site, xojane.com. This article first ran on xoJane, and we’re running it again with permission. Silberstein takes a really controversial stand here, and it’s not in line with our Catster Values. But we’re running it so you can comment on it and discuss some of the ethical issues she brings up.
Once I had a cat who had a nervous breakdown. Now I have a neurotic guinea pig. I’m starting to think the problem is me.
My pet troubles began when I decided to spay 2-year-old Muffler, a chore I had been putting off because my ex and I were expecting our own child, and I was not ready to wrestle with the morality of depriving another living creature of its reproductive capabilities.
But Muffler’s monthly screeching at the alley cats behind our apartment was becoming a nuisance, so, a week before my son was born, we took our perfectly healthy kitty to the vet to be anesthetized, slit open, partially disemboweled, and sewn back up. She was never the same.
My sweet, affectionate pet, who had slept on the edge of my bed since kittenhood, had morphed into a vicious, snarling, clawing, grey tigress. One day, after she tried to attack my baby, we decided to put her down. I felt terrible.
I think we can all agree that surgically sterilizing human beings without their consent is barbaric, so perhaps the same sensibilities should apply to animals, amiright? As feminists — or perhaps, humanists — we are entitled to full rights over our bodies and reproductive capabilities, however irresponsibly we choose to use them. Why are animals not afforded that same dignity?
The sterilization movement started 40 years ago to address the overpopulation of dogs and cats, which led to an abundance of stray, neglected, and feral animals roaming the streets. The overpopulation of cats in particular has been known to wreak serious havoc on our environment and ecosystem ultimately leading to the mass-euthanizing of unwanted furry creatures "for their own good." Today, more than 4 million domesticated animals are killed in shelters because they have nowhere to go. The accepted wisdom is that overpopulation leads to serious problems for human as well as beast, and that mass sterilization — though not ideal — is the lesser of two evils.
Luckily, there is hope on the horizon. The New York Times reported earlier this month on a potential breakthrough in nonsurgical methods for sterilization of dogs and cats. The bad news is that surgical sterilization has become so standardized over the years that few vets are expected to jump on board.
Animal rights advocates say sterilization calms pets and mitigates their desire to roam free in search for a mate, but the actual health benefits of sterilization on cats and dogs are debatable. Some studies show lower rates of one type of cancer in spayed female dogs, while other studies show that fixed dogs, male as well as female, have significantly higher rates of some other type of cancer.
Obviously fixed animals have lower rates of health problems related to removed reproductive organs or pregnancy. Today, more than 83 percent of owned dogs and 91 percent of owned cats are fixed.
This may sound like an absurd comparison, but guess who else has an impending overpopulation problem? Humans. Our species is also afflicted with astounding numbers of unwanted and neglected children languishing in orphanages. In fact, scientists agree that human overpopulation is a greater threat to the environment than global warming. Yet, every justification for the mass sterilization of animals, when applied to humans, just sounds horrific.
Of course, we generally don’t euthanize unwanted humans, and it begins to sound pretty ridiculous when I argue that Muffler’s loss of her reproductive capabilities trumps the mass murder of unwanted pets in horribleness, but I just wish there was another way.
Found Animals is an animal rights organization that has offered $25 million in prize money to anyone who comes up with a single-shot, nonsurgical sterilant for dogs and cats. The group is also a strong advocate for sterilization of animals. For the sake of journalistic integrity, I gave them a call to find out why it is important that I fix my pet.
"Every year during kitten season, shelters are flooded with unwanted baby kittens, and [the shelters] don’t have the resources to bottle feed them so they will be euthanized the same day in the shelter," said Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Found Animals.
Then she told me that Muffler’s freakout was probably related to the other stressors in her life, such as the new baby and the change in family hierarchy or something. This explanation made more sense after I performed a quick web search about cats and their long troubled history with new babies.
"We as humans tend to anthropomorphize our pet. Cats and dogs don’t have a sexual identity the way humans do. So as far as we know, they have no idea," Gilbreth told me.
Phew, okay. So maybe I was wrong about the sterilization thing. Cats and dogs aside, the idea that we keep smaller animals in prolonged captivity is also starting to feel very wrong. Let’s take the saga of poor Fluffy.
A year ago, my son Peter adopted an auburn-haired guinea pig (named "Fluffy" because kids are literal creatures).
"I’m his dad and you’re his mom," he often tells me, and he kisses Fluffy on the nose. I smile back. Fluffy just squeaks and I think, "But we keep him in a cage!"
Some nights when I’m in bed, and all is silent (except for the occasional emergency siren, because I live in New York) I can hear Fluffy running in panicked circles, flinging his body against the walls of his cage — in search of an exit, perhaps? By morning, Fluff is back in his little house, morose as ever, and he seems to have resigned himself to his fate of lifetime captivity. Or some mornings he is squeaking hysterically, begging for a treat to salve his aching existence. If I let him out for exercise, Fluffy crawls behind the furniture and hides. If I so much as blow in his direction he flinches. I can’t help but wonder if, as his "parents," we have robbed our poor guinea pig of his optimism, his sense of adventure, and his appetite for life.
It doesn’t help that I am a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to animal welfare. I eat meat and poultry (free range, if I can help it). I wear leather. I find PETA’s crude equalization of animal rights and human rights distasteful. But when confronted with a furry creature who appears to be in prolonged suffering — be it a mouse glued to a sticky trap or those Central Park horses, bound to their carriages in perpetual servitude — it breaks my heart.
It is simply disturbing that we keep animals in captivity, enslave them for our own benefit, remove their internal organs without their consent, and then call them pets. And, based on my own track record, I am not wholly convinced that our pets get as much out of the relationship as we do. We all need to come to terms with the fact that we probably have no f***ing clue what our animals want and need. As much as we love them, we are probably doing it all wrong, and until animals can speak up for themselves, we may never know.
What do you think? Am I crazy or do our pets secretly hate us?
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