Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets

Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets

by Jessica Pierce


$24.10 $26.00 Save 7% Current price is $24.1, Original price is $26. You Save 7%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Friday, October 19  Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.
    Same Day shipping in Manhattan. 
    See Details


Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets by Jessica Pierce

A life shared with pets brings many emotions. We feel love for our companions, certainly, and happiness at the thought that we’re providing them with a safe, healthy life. But there’s another emotion, less often acknowledged, that can be nearly as powerful: guilt. When we see our cats gazing wistfully out the window, or watch a goldfish swim lazy circles in a bowl, we can’t help but wonder: are we doing the right thing, keeping these independent beings locked up, subject to our control? Is keeping pets actually good for the pets themselves?
That’s the question that animates Jessica Pierce’s powerful Run, Spot, Run. A lover of pets herself (including, over the years, dogs, cats, fish, rats, hermit crabs, and more), Pierce understands the joys that pets bring us. But she also refuses to deny the ambiguous ethics at the heart of the relationship, and through a mix of personal stories, philosophical reflections, and scientifically informed analyses of animal behavior and natural history, she puts pet-keeping to the test. Is it ethical to keep pets at all? Are some species more suited to the relationship than others? Are there species one should never attempt to own? And are there ways that we can improve our pets’ lives, so that we can be confident that we are giving them as much as they give us?
Deeply empathetic, yet rigorous and unflinching in her thinking, Pierce has written a book that is sure to help any pet owner, unsettling assumptions but also giving them the knowledge to build deeper, better relationships with the animals with whom they’ve chosen to share their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226209890
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/06/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jessica Pierce is a bioethicist, the author of The Last Walk, and coauthor of Wild Justice.

Read an Excerpt

Run, Spot, Run

The Ethics of Keeping Pets

By Jessica Pierce

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20992-0


Awash with Pets

"90% of pet owners consider their furry friend a part of the family."

"Two-thirds of American pet owners are bringing their pets to bed."

"Feeling depressed? Research shows that pets are better than Prozac."

"One out of ten pets has a Facebook page."

"Owner spends hundreds of dollars on surgery for George the Goldfish."

From the looks of it, a change has been occurring in American society, and it has to do with our pets. A tidal wave of animals is surging into our homes, streets, and stores. Since about the mid-1970s, the population of pets has grown more rapidly than the human population, and the number of pets living in the United States now exceeds the number of people by a good stretch. (There are about 470 million pets and only 316 million people.) The pet wave is not limited to the United States or even to industrialized nations. Driven by greater levels of disposable income, urbanization, and evolving attitudes toward animals and toward pet ownership, the global ranks of pet animals are also swelling.

And we don't just buy pets as never before. We also treat them differently. More and more animals are living inside; it is more common to hear animals spoken of as family; we have ways of indulging our pets that would have been unimaginable forty years ago: day spas, puff coats, organic foods of higher quality than what's in our own pantries; funeral parlors; hospice care; wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs for the disabled; antidepressants and behavioral wellness counselors; stem-cell treatments and chemotherapy. Veterinarians and psychologists call it the evolution of the "human-animal bond"; social critics call it the "humanization of pets."

It seems that the fortunes of pets are at an all-time high, even while things are looking rather bleak for other groups of animals around the globe. This is perhaps why it is very rare to see the welfare of pet animals raised as an ethical concern. Pets are pampered. They are snug in their little soft beds, while lab animals and food animals and zoo animals might be chained, caged, isolated, left out in the cold or heat, and allowed to suffer all manner of other miseries. We love our pets, so why worry about them? Well, maybe love is not enough. Maybe the 470 million–odd animals we call pets also need some moral attention. Their plight may be just as serious — and perhaps in some ways even more troubled — than the billions of animals caught in the wheels of agribusiness or the biomedical research industry.

Pet keeping has dark undercurrents: the breeding facilities, the wholesale marketplaces where animals are sold like guns or toys, the high mortality, the shelters overflowing with bodies, the shockingly high numbers of animals being sexually exploited or physically abused by their owners, the punitive training methods that leave animals emotionally traumatized, the failure of more than a quarter of all pet owners to provide their animal access to basic veterinary care. Notwithstanding claims about humanization and bonding, large numbers of pets aren't getting any love or are getting the wrong kind. These undercurrents challenge even the most thoughtful and responsible pet owner because it is often hard to know what we might be doing wrong or how our actions might or might not be harming the animals we cannot see beyond the curtains of our own windows.

While many may view the increasing popularity of pet keeping as a sign that we love animals more and more, it should give us pause. Pet keeping is a tidal wave we are being carried upon — we, along with millions and millions of animals — and this wave has huge destructive potential.


Neighborhood Menagerie

My ideas about pet keeping have gone through a long, slow evolution. I've been thinking about and living with pets since I was a child. But I didn't really start worrying about pets until I had a child of my own who, in line with family tradition, showed a marked interest in animals and began asking for a pet This and a pet That. I was too indulgent. By the time my daughter was in elementary school, our house had been dubbed the neighborhood zoo. All the kids wanted to play at our house because there were so many animals. We had, in descending order of size (and thankfully not all at exactly the same time): dogs, a cat, guinea pigs, rats, a hamster, a snake, a salamander, a leopard gecko, a tarantula, mice, frogs, goldfish, hermit crabs, guppies, ghost crabs, miniature frogs, worms, and crickets. We also had a tadpole from a grow-your-own-frog mail-order kit (who never made it past tadpole stage), a collection of butterflies from a hatch-your-own caterpillar kit, an ant farm with live ants who were shipped to us in a little plastic tube, sea monkeys, and a kit with "Triassic" Triops eggs that grew into creepy-looking things that cannibalized each other and gave my daughter nightmares.

Our house was the first stop for parents whose children had grown bored with their pets. It was in this manner that we acquired guinea pigs, guppies, and several of our rats. This is also how we wound up with a cage full of mice. Mice, in my experience, do not make good pets for young children. They are too skittish, too small, and too fast. And they are excellent jumpers. A little fellow named White Yarn hopped out of my daughter's hands one day and zoomed off to parts unseen in our house. He then systematically, by cover of night, chewed away a small square of fabric right in the center of each cushion of our new couch. This act of vandalism earned him a reassignment from "pet" to "vermin."

As you can imagine, my life was absorbed with the care and feeding of so many creatures. Perhaps it was simply the exhaustion of cleaning so many cages, filling so many water bottles, and making so many trips to the pet store for rat food or aspen shavings or Nature's Miracle or live crickets. Perhaps it was the research in ethology and animal behavior I was doing during working hours that opened my eyes to the incredible richness of animal minds. Whatever the cause, I began to feel increasingly uneasy about the well-being of our captive little friends. Reading a study about goldfish intelligence made me realize how bored these creatures must be swimming in endless circles in a small bowl on the dresser. A research study on hermit crabs, which shows that they feel and remember pain, made me look at the alien creatures with more sympathy. (I cringe, thinking of the time my daughter and some friends gave the hermit crab Spidey a warm bath, which crabs are supposed to enjoy. But the water was a bit too hot and the poor thing perished.)

It could also have been the experience of getting to know Hideous Henry. One day, while my daughter and I were in PetSmart buying crickets, a store manager with whom we had become friendly asked us if we could possibly take in one more rat. Henry had been attacked by the other rats in their pet-store cage, and his whole body was covered with bites and scabs. As a hairless dumbo rat, Henry was ugly to begin with; with festering wounds, he looked truly hideous and he couldn't possibly be put out on the floor with the other for-sale rats. Henry would need to be "put down" by pet-store staff. But the manager had a soft spot for Henry and begged us to adopt him. It was during this negotiation that I learned about the store's policy that any animal who escaped from his or her cage in the store would be killed rather than sold (and such breakouts were quite common), because the store couldn't guarantee the animal to be disease free. Needless to say, Henry joined our household.

It could also have been the accumulating death toll. The garter snake only lived for a few months. The salamander survived a single summer in our care. There was Spidey the crab. There were so many small deaths, even though we had read the how-to-care-for books and were trying our best. It could have been my sense, from watching Lizzy the gecko, that trapped within the walls of a twenty-gallon glass tank was a marvelously adapted creature whose life was essentially barren, thanks to us. I couldn't help feeling sorry for her. And I couldn't help feeling sorry for the crickets she ate, who came packaged (twenty-five "pinheads" by count) in a tiny cardboard container smaller than a box of paperclips. How did they survive in there? It might also have been the day I was in PetSmart buying crickets for Lizzy and witnessed the manager receiving a Tupperware full of baby rats from a delivery man. Like my own personal road to Damascus, I was able to see. These were babies, taken from mothers.

Perhaps it was as simple as holding so many diverse creatures captive, in my own house. The feeling that so many eyes were watching me from behind the bars of the cages and the glass of the terrariums and tanks. Mini-epiphanies and small feelings of guilt began to accumulate, and I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the whole pet-keeping enterprise.

Two and a half years ago we packed up and left the old neighborhood. Several months before we moved, the last of the small critters, a sweet old rat named GooGoo, passed away. I've since been able to stand firm on a no-replacement policy. I finally developed a backbone and say no to parents and friends who try to talk us into adopting their castoffs — though I say no with regret, because it isn't the animals' fault that they have become burdensome, and I know their fate is uncertain. But I just can't do it anymore. Don't get me wrong: I may be a reformed pet addict, but I'm an addict nonetheless. We still have animals living in our house, and I can't imagine it any other way. But we have finally whittled the census down to a cat, two dogs, and two goldfish.

Klondike and Dibs live in my daughter's room, in a large tank. (They keep growing, so we keep getting larger tanks; given more space, they continue to grow. Where does the cycle end? And can they really live for twenty-five years? Will I be caring for the fish long after my daughter has left for college and started her own life?) Thor the cat joined us about three years ago, after some time on the streets and a stint at the Longmont Humane Society. He has convinced me that I am a cat person and a dog person. Our dog Maya is a pointer mix, now in her twelfth year, and one of the gentlest souls I've ever met. She has lived with us since puppyhood and has seen the menagerie swell and then shrink again. Bella, a tricolored mystery mutt (but most definitely with a predominance of Border collie genes), has been with us about two years and is our most recent addition. She was picked up on the street by animal control when she was about a year old, terrified and injured, and taken to the shelter. She was the first dog we saw on the day we went in with the intention of adopting a housemate for Maya. Bella has issues. (She's looking at me right now, from her head-down-butt-in-the-air position on her office dog bed saying, "Tell me about the time when you first found me and sat down next to my cage at the shelter and I growled at you. Hehehe.") She keeps things interesting.


Who Are Pets?

The most common pets (e.g., dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters) are drawn from the pool of domesticated animals. These species have been subjected to selective evolutionary pressures, including goal-oriented breeding by humans, over hundreds or thousands of years and have undergone significant genetic, morphological, and behavioral changes from their wild ancestors. Domesticated species take on distinctive coloration (e.g., black-and-white coats), have smaller teeth and smaller brains, and have foreshortened snouts. In some species, tails become curly and ears droopy. Even more important, these animals are tolerant of human company. "Domesticated" and "tame" are not synonymous. An individual wild animal such as a lion can be tamed and socialized, if taken as a cub and raised by humans. But this lion has not been domesticated.

Domestication is often described as a process of enslavement, with humans as lord and master over animals we have tamed and made subservient to our will. Yet the domestication process is likely more nuanced: animals are not always passive victims of human manipulation and, in some cases, may have been active participants in shaping their evolutionary trajectory. For at least some companion animal species, particularly dogs and cats, the domestication process has been one of mutual habituation between animal and human. And we have been domesticated by them, too. The particulars of how each individual species of domesticated animal came into close relationship with humankind vary, and in many cases archaeological and genetic evidence is contradictory and fails to offer a unified picture of our human-animal evolution.

One recent hypothesis is that early human domestication of animals primarily focused on tameness, and that changes in physical appearance were secondary. Tameness, as an evolved trait, arises from changes in the adrenals and sympathetic nervous system, which are responsible for the fight-or-flight response. In some animals, the development of the fight-or-flight response is delayed or underfunctioning. These animals have a longer window of time — the so-called socialization window — during which humans could approach and interact, without the fight-or-flight response being fully activated. By the time the adrenal glands and sympathetic nervous system develop, the animal is already habituated to humans and is, accordingly, quite tame. The neural crest cells that form the adrenal glands and parts of the nervous system also determine pigmentation and the development of skull, teeth, and ears. If these fight-or-flight challenged animals were selected for over and over, the species would become increasingly tame and would also show distinctive changes in appearance.

This is only one possibility, of course, and research will continue to shed light on exactly what sorts of genetic changes have been taking place during domestication and what their reverberations are for animals. Scientific debates about how and why domestication occurred may seem purely academic, but they have broader relevance. They inform our understanding of who our companion animals are and often have practical fallout for pets and pet owners (e.g., when dog-training methods are based on the behavior of wolves).

Although domesticated animals, and particularly dogs and cats, are our most familiar pets, human pet keeping is hardly limited to domesticated species. We also make pets out of wild species, some of which we breed in captivity (leopard geckos, ball pythons), and some of which we capture from their home ecosystems (tortoises, blue macaws, monkeys). We make pets out of other mammals, as well as out of reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, and even insects. The only thing limiting the kind of pet humans are willing and eager to keep is our imagination, and some people seem drawn to the most bizarre animals they can find. Once you imagine what you want, you will have little trouble finding someone willing to sell it to you.

Although we make pets out of nearly anything that moves, and even things that don't, it might be said that some creatures make better pets than others. This, of course, depends on our definition of "pet." If we view a pet as an object or source of interest and entertainment, and if the relationship is purely one directional, then the more different the better, perhaps. But if we view pet keeping as the formation of a meaningful friendship or social bond with an animal — and if the animal's perspective on the whole affair is important to us — then domesticated species with the most behavioral and cognitive similarity to humans, and species like dogs that have coevolved with humans, may make the best pets.


Why Pets?

I ask sometimes why these small animals With bitter eyes, why we should care for them

Jon Silken, "Caring for Animals"

How humans form social attachments to nonhuman animals is well understood. But why we should be so drawn to keeping animals as pets remains elusive, as does that mysterious je ne sais quoi that makes us declare a particular animal "pet" as opposed to dinner. Nearly all infants and young children have an innate curiosity about and interest in animals, and there is no question that animals hold a magnetic attraction for the very young. James Serpell, one of our foremost experts on human patterns of pet keeping, argues that pet keeping has a long historical pedigree and, while perhaps not found in every single culture over time and across the globe, comes pretty close to being a human universal.

But there is huge diversity, both within cultures and between them, in how older children and adult humans relate to animals and, particularly, to pets. Some love animals, some feel fear or disgust; some love dogs and hate cats; some love snakes and lizards, while others find them creepy. Some of this diversity in animal feeling is surely related to enculturation (we in the United States tend to love dogs and be disgusted by the thought of eating them; other cultures farm dogs like we do pigs and relish the thought of grilled dog with hot chili sauce). And some is related to personal experience (dog lovers are statistically more likely to have grown up in homes with dogs than not) and serendipity. So we wind up with a notion of pet that is quite jumpy and slippery, like a little mouse in a child's cupped hands. As soon as one definition is offered, counterexamples spring to mind. The most we can say is that "pet" is an arbitrary assignation, a social construct.


Excerpted from Run, Spot, Run by Jessica Pierce. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

A Note on Language ix

Thinking about Spot

1 Awash with Pets 3

2 Neighborhood Menagerie 6

3 Who Are Pets? 10

4 Why Pets? 13

5 Tainted Love 18

Living with Spot

6 Family Constellations 23

7 Why Not 29

8 Sleeping Together 32

9 Stroke Me 35

10 Talk Talk 39

11 Animal Bling 48

12 Butt of the Joke 51

13 Planting Seeds of Empathy 53

14 Pets and Our Health 61

15 Cat Scratch Fever 65

16 Pets and Their Health 68

17 Feeding Frenzy 71

18 Who Should We Feed to Our Pets? 79

19 Your Dog Is Fat! 81

20 Poop 85

21 Animals Bite Back 88

22 Pet and Planet 92

Worrying About Spot

23 Turn Me Loose 101

24 A Boredom Epidemic 111

25 Don't You Want Me? 113

26 Cruelty, Abuse, Neglect 115

27 A Hidden World of Hurt 120

28 Quiz: Cruel Practices 122

29 The Strange World of Animal Hoarding 123

30 The Links 125

31 Heavy Petting 128

32 Licensed to Kill 136

33 Rage against the Dying 143

34 Fatal Plus 149

35 Eunuchs and Virgins 152

36 Breeding Bad 160

37 The Shelter Industry 166

38 Cradle to Grave 176

39 A Living Industry 179

40 Protect the Harvest 184

41 Rent-a-Pet 187

42 The Biggest Loser: Exotic Pets 192

Caring For Spot

43 What Do Pets Need? 199

44 Enriching Animals' Lives 202

45 Which Animals Should Be Pets? 206

46 Offering Better Protection 210

47 Speaking for Spot 213

48 So, Is Pet Keeping Ethical? 217

Notes 221

Bibliography 235

Index 255

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews