I have had six pets in my life till now. I have opaque memories of the first one, Lucy, and very clear, painful ones of the fourth, also named Lucy. Both were Pomeranians, both female (as the name suggests).
When I left my hometown to go study in Pune, I left behind the second Lucy at home, to be cared for by family and helps. I would miss her, pamper her whenever home from college and hope that she would have a healthy, loving existence. But when I came back from Pune one autumn, I could not find Lucy anywhere in the house. No sign of her bouncing up and down, wanting to be petted by me, as she used to do, when I would return earlier.
Not even a whimper from her, when normally her happy barking would make my day and the trip home worth it.
Apparently, Lucy had cancer and it was in the final stages. So, she had been confined to the outhouse, out of sight, alone, at the mercy of her carers (who would have appeared more as captors to her). Her new dwelling was a tiny, dark room, with very little fresh air and even less sunlight. The first time I went to see her, she took a few seconds to register my presence. And then, began her happy yelping and familiar on-the-spot bouncing, this time constrained by a thin metal chain, however.
But since her disease had progressed to the final stages, Lucy was euthanised by my family soon thereafter. We buried her within the walls of the house, in a small pit covered with mud and with a few stones placed on top, to keep away any scavengers. That was one of the saddest days of my life. Trying but unable to love her with the same freedom and abandon as before, I nursed the pain of her loss for a long while after.
Then, time passed and I moved to the mountains for a three-year-long stay. Since I knew how painful the parting from a pet could be, I had vowed never to ‘own’ a pet again. But fate had other plans in store for me. Let’s just say that despite my firm determination and well-planned efforts, I ended up keeping not one or two but five little puppies in my home and caring for them. All but one of them — Coco — were female. They had been left to die in the woods after having been ‘selected’ by the locals for their gender and ‘value’.
My house was nearby and I could hear the cries of day-old puppies coming from somewhere close. What I saw was shocking. All five of the puppies had been abandoned and left in various spots near the tiny ‘cave’ where they had been born. Their Mother (Sammy) and Grandmother (another Lucy) were frantically trying to locate them and carry them back to the cave where they ought to have been safe. It so transpired that a local woman suggested, “Inko apne verandah mein rakh lena….” (Keep them in the verandah of your home) and I ended up bringing all five near-infant pups home.
However, nobody liked this development. Not my partner, nor the landlord, who said dogs would make their ‘devta’ angry. Soon, I realised that keeping so many pups was neither feasible nor safe and so, I dispatched three of them — Maggie, Scrappy and Coco — to my hometown. My brother took them, first to Delhi, then onwards to Bhopal.
I still had two pups to care for. Snowy and Pixie. Snowy, as the name suggests, was white as snow, not a single spot on her pristine frame. She would always follow me around. Pixie, the larger of the two, was more outgoing and had an independent streak.
I tried my best to keep them happy but did not succeed. There were several reasons for this. Foremost, in order to ensure their safety (locals were known to hurt and badly injure dogs who wandered into their compounds), I had to keep them tied up all the time. They got no exercise, except on the rare occasions when I would take them along to the nearby open area. Even that soon became a problem, for the locals had a deep aversion to dogs (unless they were guarding their properties). I had to constantly be on the lookout for undesirable elements trying to hurt Snowy and Pixie. The only time they were free of their shackles was at night, when I would bring them inside to sleep in my bedroom, because leaving them outside was not even an option.
I remember Snowy being afraid of fire-crackers during Diwali and Pixie barking with a complaining tone when it would snow heavily and all she wanted to do was roll around and play in it. But I just could not let them loose or set them free. My landlord suggested, “Aap inko sadak pe khula chhor do na..” (Why don’t you let them loose on the roads?), little realising that they would be unable to fend for themselves since they had been with me almost since the day they were born.
They were not born on or were raised on the streets, and so, they won’t survive a day out there, alone. It was a miserable situation, both for me, since I could see their suffering and do nothing to alleviate it and for Snowy and Pixie, since they were ‘domesticated’ and had no option but to remain tied up for the rest of their lives.
All this has made me question whether we as humans have any right to keep ‘pets’. Do we have any justification for subjecting other animals to captivity, for whatever reason? Animals are sentient beings and have as much right to self-determination as humans do. But a vast majority of them are brought into this world to ‘serve’ humans, become their food or provide them with ‘services’ (such as guarding properties, animal experimentation and animal trials) or just to act as a ‘man’s (and woman’s) best friend’.
A majority of dogs and cats are born because we want to keep them as pets. Their ‘pedigree’ is of prime concern to prospective owners. Rare is a family who adopts street puppies in India. The same holds true for pet fish, birds, rabbits, hamsters and tortoises. They are kept tied up, confined to appallingly small cages or enclosures.
As regards other ‘dometicated’ animals, while alive, we take their milk, eggs, hair and on killing them, we make use of their body parts and meat in food, medicine and for ‘wellness’ purposes. Be it cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, horses and other animals — they are exploited to the hilt from the moment they are born till the time they are mercilessly hacked to death.
But who gave us the right to do this? How did it even become legal to treat animals as ‘commodities’? Who made humans who keep dogs and cats their ‘owners’? There are no easy answers. The overwhelming truth staring us in the face is that, considering ourselves to be the ‘superior’ species, we somehow established ownership over other species of animals and have hung on to medieval notions and concepts of pet ownership even 21 years into the 21st century.
The foremost question is that of self-determination. Just as the human race has banned slavery of other humans, it is now time to consider doing the same for all other species of animals. We have as little right to treat animals as ‘chattel’ or property, as we have of treating other humans as slaves. This is not to say that some form of human slavery, however innocuous, does not exist somewhere in the world. The fact is human slavery has been outlawed but animal slavery and ownership continues to evade justice.
The other significant factor here is the role played by the Pet Care Industry. Here are some figures to drive the point home:
- India is the fastest growing pet care market in the world
- Growth is recorded in all categories including pet food, pharmaceuticals, grooming, toys and accessories
- The pet care market in India is expected to grow at 14% annually to become a $490 million (₹33,000 million) market by 2022
- The pet food market alone is projected to cross $310 million (₹20,000 million) by 2022
- Dog food segment is expected to continue its dominance as the largest revenue generator followed by cat and fish food segments
Just like in any other ‘industry’, the pet care industry in India relies heavily on seemingly-idyllic scenarios of the birth, existence and company of pets. From cherubic puppies to adorable kittens and all other manner of pets in between, the narrative put forth — in glossy print and digital ads — is one of ideal conditions for pets and handsome psychological returns for their ‘owners’.
But the mainstay of this article is the very fact that ‘ownership’ of animals is fraught with huge moral and ethical dilemnas. They are not ‘things’ to be owned and then treated as desired and eventually, for some species, exploited for their secretions, skin, hair or meat. Non-human animals have rich, complex brains, cognitive abilities and psychological faculties.
First bringing them into this world for our own selfish needs, then keeping them in a confined environment and dictating everything from how they interact with other animals to deciding whether or not they retain their sexual organs — all this is nothing but gross exploitation in the garb of ‘pet ownership’. The operative bit here is that pets are not commodities but sentient beings and hence, their ownership is indefensible.
While advocating ‘animal rights’ or ‘animal welfare’, some humans believe that ‘humane killing’ or ‘free-range enclosures’ somehow justify the exploitation and caging of animals in the first place, whereas it is the exact opposite. What you are reading here might seem radical but it is only anti-speciesist and non-exploitative. If we can no longer, by law, treat others of our species as ‘slaves’, then what right do we have to treat animals of other species as chattel, however ‘freely’ they are confined or however ‘humanely’ eliminated?