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Thom Barker: Does being a dog owner make me a bad person?

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being a dog owner.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to put our non-human companion — whom I will call Lady MacBeth because her name is Lady MacBeth — up for sale on Facebook, or take her down to the shelter and give her up, or abandon her on a country road… or worse.


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But I could, if I wanted to, because essentially, legally, she is my property. I ostensibly cannot be cruel to her, we do have animal cruelty laws, but cruelty is a bit of a nebulous term. Provided I give her enough food and water to survive, a relatively clean environment in which to live, and don’t beat her to the point of physical injury, I can pretty much do whatever I want with, or to, her.

And even if I did cross one of those lines, the consequences hardly even rise to the level of a mild deterrent.

In other words, she has some level of rudimentary protection, but she has no rights.

And that is what I am having an increasingly hard time accepting.

My opening statement was intentionally ambiguous, a hook, if you will. What I really mean is that the entire concept of animal domestication is starting to seem distasteful.

This is in large part because of Lady MacBeth. Sometime before Lady MacBeth came into our lives, I heard an interview on the radio with a law professor named Gary Francione, who was advocating the idea that, “We ought not to be bringing animals into existence to use as human resources, whether for food, or for clothing, or for experiments. Or, as pets.”

It seemed pretty radical at the time, and easily dismissed, but at the time I didn’t know Lady MacBeth. I had never really known a dog before her.

People’s attitudes toward animal rights run the gamut. There are those who believe everything on this planet was put here by God for us to use as we see fit—the secular corollary for this being some bastardization of the concept of “survival of the fittest.”

On the other side, there are those who believe all creatures big and small should have equal rights to human beings, the moral foundation of which also has both religious and secular counterparts.

Most of us live somewhere in between. We accept we have dominion over other animals for whatever reason, but also a moral obligation to treat them with compassion. At least that’s where I’ve always been, but when I look at Lady MacBeth, I see more. I see a sentient being who deserves better than being somebody’s property, because isn’t the most fundamental of rights the right not to be owned?

I find myself being inexorably drawn toward Francione’s position.

It’s a terrifying prospect because if I am to extrapolate it to its logical conclusion, it means I would have to stop eating meat, or at least stop eating meat that is derived from animals who are brought into existence solely for the purpose of being meat.

I already know people who only eat meat from wild animals they have killed themselves. And surely it is better to be killed while living a life appropriate to your species than to be confined to a coop or pen for the sole purpose of being meat?

Obviously, these ethical gyrations will not make any difference to Lady MacBeth’s life; that puppy has been bred and born. Living a life appropriate to her species, or rather, her breed, is to be property. I can’t very well just set her free to try to live life as a wild wolf would. That would be cruel.

And therein is the point Francione is trying to make, that if we were truly committed to the moral treatment of animals, Lady MacBeth would not exist in the first place.

That would be very sad for me because I love that dog and I like to think she loves me, but I could be anthropomorphizing her dependence as love. As well as I like to think I treat her, she exists at and for my pleasure, subject to my whims, my schedule and my good will.

In the end, I don’t know that these ethical gyrations will make any difference to my life either. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance it takes to be human — such as being capable of treating a pet like a member of the family while ignoring the plight of factory farm chickens — is the only thing that gets me through the day.

I hope, though, that taking the time to think about questions of morality surrounding animal rights makes me live more consciously and conscientiously with respect to how I treat not just animals, but other humans.

I think we all have an obligation to do that.

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