The Ethologist Jordi Casamitjana explains why ethical vegans don’t “have pets”, but they may share their lives with rescued companion animals — which is not the same thing — instead.
The first non-human I lived with was Titina.
Well, I shared my childhood residence with wild geckoes, spiders, and other crawlies, but I would not say I lived together with them. Titina, on the other hand, was an albino deaf cat who definitively lived with us when I was a small child growing up in Barcelona.
Then Nuska, a mongrel mix of greyhound and who-knows-who, was the next four-legged person who lived in our flat. In my teens, Nit came along, the German shepherd who became my best friend and mentor (I even wrote about our special relationship in my first book). And when I left home, Mozart, the grumpy cat, had just joined my family. After I emigrated to the UK, for about five years I shared dwellings with a colony of Amazonian Woolly Monkeys at the Monkey Sanctuary (now called Wild Futures), but that was not really living together, but just being neighbours sharing some of the facilities of Murrayton House in Looe, Cornwall.
Since I became a vegan about twenty years ago, I have not lived with any non-human animal (or human-animal either, for that matter). Now and then, I have spent some time with some while house-sitting for friends, but not living together for more than a week or two. Is this because I am a vegan? No, it is not. I know many vegans who live with non-human animals. In my case, it is simply because the circumstances of my accommodation and work did not allow me to live with others so they can receive the proper care and attention they deserved — or at least, this is what I felt.
However, I will never have a pet. Why? Because we, ethical vegans, do not “have pets” as such. We can share our lives with rescued dogs and cats, and be the guardians of others in need, but we do not “own pets.”
If you are confused, read on and you will understand.
The “P” Word
If you have met ethical vegans (as opposed to people who only eat what vegans eat, sometimes called dietary vegans or plant-based people) who have been vegan for quite some time, you may have noticed that they don’t tend to use the word “pet”. For us, it’s almost a taboo word — not quite a slur, as those who use it do not intend to “insult” those animals they refer to. It has a similar subtle connotation to other words used to “talk down” on others. It feels that is part of the vocabulary of “the oppressors”, supremacist humans who think they are superior to others and used infantilising or demeaning words to describe them.
Think about it. Where does the word “pet” come from? It is defined as “a domesticated or tamed animal kept as a favourite“, and it is believed it originated in 1530 in Scottish and northern England dialects. Apparently, it was not used in the South until the mid-18th century. The precise origin is not known, but records show that the meaning “indulged or favourite child” precedes “animal kept as a favourite” by about 30 years. However, it is believed that could be associated with the adjective petty used in the 14th Century, meaning “small, little, minor,” derived from a phonemic spelling of Old French petit, which means “small”. In English, we still use this meaning in the term “petty cash” (small sums of money received or paid), or “petty officer” (a minor or inferior military officer). Do you see what I mean? Do you see the connotation of a “supremacist” talking down a “minor” inferior person?
We, ethical vegans, are anti-speciesists, which means that we opposed the discrimination against sentient beings because of the group they have been classified into. We can think of racism or misogyny as types of speciesism, if we consider the broader term of the common use of the word “species” (meaning a “kind” or “sort”). But if we only look at the scientific definition, then speciesism would be the discrimination because of belonging to a particular biological species (such as a pig chosen to be eaten for belonging to the species Sus scrofa rather than the species Canis familiaris, or a deer shot for sport for belonging to the species Cervus elaphus rather than Homo sapiens). If you are anti-speciesists you would try to treat everyone with equal respect, no matter which species or group they belong to. You would not deliberately harm anyone. But also, you would behave respectfully when meeting others. And part of the way such respect is expressed is through language.
We try not to use words that are demeaning, insulting, condescending, or that generally indicate we believe we are somehow superior to others — and if we still do, this means that our veganisation process has not been completed yet. Many of us believe using the word “pet” to describe someone is one of such words, regardless of whether it has become so widely used that the original meaning may have been lost to most people — but not to us.
“Petting” is also a verb, and it is often used in the context of non-human animals. It is defined as “stroke or pat someone affectionately.” However, that “someone” is hardly a person we look up to (like a parent or a boss), but normally one we look down on (like a child or an animal). Again, it has domineering connotations.
Sometimes, we may still use the term to aid comprehension (since so many people use it) or in combined words (such as “pet food” or “pet shop”), but we tend to avoid it. What do we use instead? Normally, “companion animal”.
We Do Not Own Anyone
Another way we may invertedly use supremacist language is by choosing some verbs and adjectives when describing companion animals that suggest they belong to us. Saying things like “this is my pet” or “he owns this cat” are some examples. For this reason, some vegans who do not use the word “pet” but use the word “companion animal” instead also try to use different verbs and adjectives than “owning”, “having”, or “my”.
Wait a minute, don’t we use “my” and “have” for people too? Although we no longer say, “I own this man”, don’t we say “this is my son”, “I am having a baby”, “this is my husband”, etc? We do, but is this usage respectful enough? Do parents really “own” their children so they can use possessive adjectives to describe them? Legally, they may do in many respects, but would not be better not to use anything that implies “ownership”? Regardless of their age, children are individual people with rights, not property, so perhaps a more egalitarian language might be better.
The same happens with saying this is “my” wife. In misogynistic patriarchal societies, this may have meant, literally, the “woman I own.” Today I know women also say, “my husband” or “my boyfriend”, but would not be better to move away from these “possessive” adjectives when using them to refer to human beings? I think so, and as a vegan, I believe this applies to all sentient beings too, not just to humans, because the idea of one sentient being owning another sentient being sounds far too supremacist to me.
What would be the more “veganised” way to use these types of sentences? For instance, instead of saying “have you got any pets?” we could ask “do you live with any companion animal?” Instead of saying “this is my pet” we could say “we are companions.” Instead of saying “who is the owner of this dog?” we could say “who is the guardian of this dog?” And instead of saying “do you have a wife?” we can say “are you married?”
I have already noticed that many scientific papers written by vets (especially vegan vets) now regularly use “guardians” rather than “owners”, which I think not only is more equitable but also more precise. The actual relationship between the two companions, the human and the non-human, may be of equal respect, but unequal decision power. The human decides where to go, when and what to eat, etc., so the human takes the role of “carer” (looking after the animal’s needs in a difficult human world) and “guardian” (protecting the animal from human hazards), so these verbs seem much more accurate than “owner”.
Shopping, Exotics, Service Providers, and Food
It’s not only about words, though. It is also about actions. We, ethical vegans, don’t treat the animals we live with as workers, commodities, or fashion accessories, but rather as friends we rescued from a bad situation (as the slogan “Adopt, Don’t’ Shop! reminds us). So, for many vegans, the term “rescuer” would be even better than “carer” (“fostering” animals looking for adoption is also a form of vegan activism). We don’t buy pedigree dogs “designed” by humans to have particular features (such as handy sizes, cute faces or intimidating looks) but instead we rescue dogs of whatever breed from shelters, as otherwise they may be killed. We don’t buy animals of any sort, just rescue them, or adopt them. Additionally, we would prevent any companion animals we share our lives with from breeding, as there are not enough rescuers to look after all the abandoned domestic dogs and cats who desperately need adoption.
We are also against the keeping of wild animals as companions (the so-called “exotic pets”) as we do not believe they can live happily in captivity (although, sometimes, if they are captive born, they may have lost the ability to survive in the wild, and they may also need to be rescued and looked after by experts in the right settings). This includes tropical birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish (if you need a cage, a tank, or a terrarium to keep them in, they don’t want to be with you). But we would come to the rescue of anyone in need regardless of species, as otherwise denying help to “exotic” animals would be speciesist.
As far as the “service animals” are concerned, many of us do not support the industry that breeds and trains animals for specific human needs (such as guide dogs) as we consider this animal exploitation (even if the non-human animals involved are often eager to help, as such is their generous nature). However, I support the right of people with disabilities to share their life with rescued companions like everyone else, who may happen to help each other regardless of who has a disability — I consider ignoring the needs of marginalised people also an act of speciesism.
We then have the issue of the food we give to our companions. Although science has now shown that we can feed dogs and cats a nutritiously complete plant-based diet and not only do they like it but they may end up being healthier, some vegans avoid looking after companion animals created from carnivores species and choose to rescue, for instance, herbivorous animals instead, such as domestic rabbits (as the vegan writer Mark Hawthorne has done).
We Are Not Better than Them
All this may sound quite trivial — and I would never correct a vegan who still says, “this is my pet” — but veganism is a philosophy that leads to a lifestyle and an attitude, and these apply to everything, including language. When talking about non-human animals, we try to use “him/her” rather than “it”, to show they are someone, not something. To highlight the fact that animals are individuals, not goods or commodities that can be measured in tonnes, we often use fishes and sheeps for the plural of fish and sheep, even if this may be, technically, grammatically incorrect. And we try to avoid speciesist expressions such as “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” or “bigger fish to fry” and replace them with others that seem more considerate (such as, in these two examples, “An ace in the hand is worth two in the deck”, or “bigger fish to free”).
By using non-speciesist respectful language, we are reminding others, easily and subtly, about the worth of non-human animals. And by living with non-human animals who want to be with us and need us, not those we just happen to like and we want to “have” as part of our possessions, we can create fulfilling mutually beneficial relationships without harming anyone.
I would even go as far as saying that the use of language that suggests superiority is more justifiable for children than for adult companion animals. Children may lack most of the physical and mental skills their parents have, but adult dogs and cats a far superior to their guardians in many respects. They see, hear, and smell much better than us, they can run faster and have better stamina, they can catch things with far more dexterity, they have faster reflexes and better balance, and they can live in the moment more often. They can even express love and loyalty better than we do, and rightly judge people’s character in a few seconds. And they are much better at avoiding global ecocide. They are certainly not inferior to us, and I don’t think is respectful enough to treat them as if they were children — let alone human children, far less capable than the young of other species.
A “pet” someone can “have” and a “companion animal” a person may live with are not the same thing, because the attitude would change the relationship. Vegans would share their lives with domestic animals only if they can provide them with a good equitable life with maximum respect and minimum exploitation, tailored to the animals’ needs, not to the guardian’s convenience — and this explains why I recently have not shared my home with any other animal.
Vegans should live with other non-human animals to help them survive in a dangerous human-centric world that treats them as disposable commodities, not to perpetuate the vicious circle of exploitation.
This is the vegan way.