I don't just love talking, candy-colored ponies--I've always loved equines of the real life variety as well. I love horses. I took riding lessons at a public stable for a couple of years. Got pretty good. Unfortunately, I got jaded with it for a few reasons, but the biggest reason that I eventually quit is because I started having an ethical dilemma about keeping and riding domesticated horses.
All of the horses at the stables were kept in fairly small stalls, their entire life consisting of little more than standing in one place and eating. About half of the horses there were owned by the stables, and the other half were privately owned by people who rent a stall for their horse to live in. Of the stable-owned horses, only a handful were fit for daily use. Many just lived out their lives in their dirt pen. Of all of the privately owned horses, only a handful saw their owners regularly. Many owners didn't make time for them, and thus their horses just lived out their lives in their little dirt stall. The public lesson horses that saw daily use did the same lessons over and over. The same routine, the same patterns, the same thing day in and day out, year after year. I began questioning how happy these creatures were. Should we really be breeding them for our uses and keeping them in stalls like this?
Now, I should make it clear that my stables was a good and ethical one--the horses were well fed, groomed, and never mistreated. They were loved, in fact. But I began wondering more and more if simply keeping horses as pets constituted mistreatment. How happy can a creature be just standing in a small dirt stall for most of their life? How enjoyable is it to do the same mundane lessons over and over? During my time there, I learned that horses are very much creatures of habit--even more so than us. If conditioned to do a daily task or routine, they perform it on autopilot, seemingly with little to no thought. When such a habit becomes deeply ingrained, they perform it helplessly, even to the point of being agitated if they don't perform their routine. I think it's debatable exactly how much horses think, but it could well be that they just don't have enough emotional capacity or cerebral development to care much one way or the other if they perform daily, mundane tasks, or just spend their time standing in a stall. Perhaps the question of whether such horses are happy or not is an irrelevant one. Perhaps they are perfectly content. But are we in a position to make that call? Is it right of us to do so?
I felt sorry for these creatures, and seemed more and more to me that they were just being used like objects--bred, created, indirectly, but nonetheless specifically, by our hand, so that we might have them for our purposes. Oh yes, the stable owners loved their horses--petted them, groomed them with tlc. They didn't regard their horses with cold, callous disregard as if they were inanimate objects. Certainly not. But the horses were nonetheless bred and trained to perform tasks for our purposes. They have no say in the matter. No choice. Can we really say for certain that it's permissible, ethically, for us to domesticate and use animals this way? I'm not so sure. I felt like I wanted consent before I could continue riding these animals, but that's not possible. And a lack of resistance does not equal consent in my book; it simply means that horse was conditioned to do this, and do it they will, as their habitual nature offers no alternative. I eventually decided that I just couldn't do this to these creatures anymore. It didn't feel right.
I came to the conclusion that, at the very least, we should not keep any pets, domesticated animals, or creatures of any kind that must live in a stall, pen, cage, tank, etc. This is all a form of imprisonment. I believe we should stop keeping creatures such as rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, bugs, or insects as pets. Anything that must be kept in a confined enclosure shouldn't be kept as a pet, in my opinion. The only argument I need to convince me of this is ye olde Golden Rule. How would I like it if I were kept in a cage? I wouldn't. No one would. It's how we punish those who break the law. However, when we keep animals in cages, it seems to us to be kind, benign fun.
I feel I need to tread extra carefully here. I do not wish to offend or upset passionate pet owners. It's probably too late for that, I suppose. Surely, I have ruffled a few feathers. That's not my intention. I merely wish to postulate a new way of thinking. I also want to make it abundantly clear that I am well aware of the fact that many pet owners, including those who keep caged animals, go to extraordinary lengths to care for their animals and give them all of the freedom they possibly can. Many rabbit owners let their animals out daily. Many bird owners let their birds fly around the house. A lot of bird owners even take their birds places, training them to ride around on their shoulders. I recently saw one bird owner wearing a cage backpack. It was literally a semi-soft, wearable bird cage so that she could carry the bird around wherever she went. Owners like these profess such love and devotion for their pets that it seems highly offensive and cruel to question the ethics at all. I understand that, and I will concede that certain pet owners may well give their pets enough attention and freedom such that the pet is quite happy. However, I don't believe this to be a strong enough argument to continue breeding and keeping caged animals. Again, going back to the old Golden Rule argument, no matter how much freedom or attention I was given, I wouldn't want to have to be put in a cage at the end of the day.
There is, of course, the spectrum of emotional capacity for suffering to consider. Some creatures are obviously capable of suffering emotionally more than others. The higher the intelligence, the higher the capacity for emotional suffering. This, incidentally, is the reason why I believe that there is a hierarchy, a gradation to the priority we should place on the well-being of conscious creatures. I believe that people are most important, followed by higher mammals and other thinking creatures, and then you can just take it from there, all the way on down to insects and then single-celled organisms. Some folks argue that all living beings are equally important, and should be regarded with the same concern. I think this is demonstrably false, and easily so. Simply imagine that you're in a burning building, and you see a human child and lobster. Now, imagine, hypothetically, that you can only save one for some reason. If you choose the lobster, then I believe there is something seriously wrong with you. Now, that's not the same thing at all as a right to life. I believe that all living things have the same right to life. We have no more right to live than the lobster. However, we are correct to be more concerned with human well-being than lobster well-being, as the human can suffer in ways the lobster cannot. While the human has no more right to live, they are more important ethically.
Circling back to pets, this does mean that we should be more concerned with more intelligent creatures. For instance, there is abundant evidence that intelligent birds suffer greatly in captivity. Many such birds will engage in self-harm. To me, that's reason enough to not keep them as pets. I'm sure that lesser creatures, such as insects, don't care a wit if they're in a cage or not, but that doesn't give us any more right to make that call, in my opinion. It just means that certain animals should take priority over others.
It's also worth considering why people buy and keep pets. Many, if not most, of the caged variety of pet is purely for entertainment purposes. This is especially true of fish. People buy fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects simply for amusement. Rarely is any thought given to the quality of life of that creature. No example of this is more salient that a wonderful little Italian restaurant I used to frequent that had a snapping turtle in a tank in the lobby. The poor thing was simply stuck in a glass tank of water that was far too small, with absolutely nothing else in the tank, and nowhere to get out of the water if she desired. She simply treaded water, poking her nose up to breathe, for her entire life. We shouldn't be keeping any pets if the sole motivation is our own entertainment. Careful consideration should be given to creature's life. When keeping a pet, one should ask oneself--are you improving this creatures life by keeping it? If no, then this isn't a creature that should be domesticated in the first place.
I believe that the only animals that it is ethical to keep are those that live largely as we do--in other words, cats and dogs. In most cases, cats and dogs needn't be imprisoned, and live very comfortable, human-like lives. They live in houses with the same kind of space and freedom as we do. Outdoor dogs have yards to move around in, stimuli for entertainment, and their own houses with beds to sleep in. Most house cats live like prissy little princesses. Can't really see much wrong with that. Most dog and cat owners play with their pets, interact with them frequently, throughout the day. They hug them and cuddle them. Many dogs sit on the couch and watch tv with their owners. Some dogs even sleep on the foot of their owner's bed. We can interact with cats and dogs on our level. We can talk to them and interact with them much the same as humans. There's a reason they call dogs "man's best friend". They relate to us quite naturally. It is abundantly, intuitively obvious that dogs and cats relate to us on an emotional level, and derive much happiness and contentment from interacting with us and receiving our affection. They connect with us in ways that most other animals don't. This is why I am mostly fine with keeping dogs and cats as pets, however, I cannot stress enough how important it is that pet owners give their animals the proper space and attention they need.
I think it's also possible to keep horses ethically, but it's much more difficult. I would definitely concede that there are horse owners who absolutely do give their horses adequate space, freedom, attention, and stimulation, but it's rare for people to be properly equipped to do this. I think that keeping a horse as a pet is only ethical if the horse has a large, open pasture, enough room to run, and some type of indoor barn where they can come and go as they please to escape the weather. Many horse owners do not meet this standard, and keep their horse in a cramped stall, which I do not condone.
There may be some other mammals that meet my standard of human-like living, such that I'd approve of them being kept as pets. Perhaps ferrets. As I understand it, most ferret owners give their pet a lot of freedom. I believe that the less like humans the animal lives, the more unethical it probably is to keep them as pets. I encourage everyone to give careful consideration to the well-being of the animal before adopting any pet, and never buy a pet that must live in a cage, tank, or pen, nor one that is simply for your own amusement. Before adopting, always ask yourself what the animal is getting out of this relationship.