On Animals, Part II: A Conversation with Barbara J. King and Jessica Pierce


We’re back with Part II of a conversation between anthropologist Barbara J. King and bioethicist Jessica Pierce on the lives of animals—and how our relationships with them correspond with certain philosophical and ethical ideals. King’s current project extends a nuanced look at the ethical questions raised by eating (or not eating) animals; its working title is Animals We Eat. Pierce, too, has a book in the works: Run, Spot, Run, a scientifically and philosophically grounded exploration of the ethics of pet ownership that seriously questions whether we are good for our pets. Here, their dialogue draws on the confines of animal ownership—and the implications of our own food ethics on the choices we make for our pets. You can read yesterday’s post here; be sure to join us tomorrow for the conversation’s final installment.


PIERCE: So let me ask you about cats, since it sounds like you share your life with several feline companions. I think cats pose an interesting and challenging case. Although I have cats in the “maybe” category, I don’t feel confident that this is the right place for them. It’s possible that they belong on the “yes” list.

One of the big issues, for me, is the inside-outside dilemma. I have a cat (Thor) who is an inside cat. The reasons I keep him inside seem pretty convincing: 1) Thor probably wouldn’t live very long if he roamed free. I live on a hillside populated by coyotes, eagles, foxes, and mountain lions. Thor has already been hunted by an eagle and a fox–both on the same day!–during one of his rare escapes. 2) Thor would undoubtedly hunt the birds and small critters that also live on the hillside, and I hate to depopulate the wild. BUT, I can’t get over the feeling that Thor is being held captive against his will, like a slave. He yearns for the wild. All day, every day he sits by the glass doors to the back and watches. He darts out whenever he can. As a compromise, I give Thor supervised outside time, where I basically follow him around like a helicopter mom, until I get tired of dodging cactus. But these little ten-minute excursions just seem to whet his appetite. Thor has a pretty happy life, I think, but it seems to be that he’s a happy slave. I would say that nearly every day, I think about just opening the door and saying to Thor “Go and have fun and take your chances. Hopefully I’ll see you tonight for dinner.”

What are your own thoughts on the ethics of cats as pets?

And, to bring things around to the topic of your own next book, what should we be feeding our dogs and cats? I’ve chosen veganism, for my own “food ethic,” but I don’t feel right about making Thor or my two dogs, Maya and Bella, vegan. Nevertheless, I cringe every time I go into the store to buy meat for the pets. How do you think about this question?

KING: Well, “which animals can we confine without too heavy a moral cost” is an extremely important question, and I’m so glad you are taking this on. In a way, it’s a parallel to the question I’m asking in my own new writing, which could be phrased as “which animals can we eat without too heavy a moral cost.” But right now, sure, let’s talk about cats! At the moment we live with five rescued cats in our house (they are entirely kept indoors), and we care also for eleven former feral cats that we rescued from a threatening situation (by humans), who live in a spacious pen in our yard, and two semi-feral cats who come and go in our yard. All of these eighteen, of course, we paid to have spayed or neutered.  Other than that commonality, it’s a vast range: even after years of gentle care, we can’t touch a few of the formerly feral cats at all—they are still too wary. So is that pet-keeping or animal rescue? The two overlap, but not completely, I think.

But, yes, we grapple with ethical questions. We do feed all our cats meat, and for me this is honoring a particular evolutionary path: cats are carnivores. Since we don’t buy or eat meat for ourselves, it’s not our favorite thing to be bringing into the house, but I see this as just one of those fallouts from a cross-species friendship. Having said that, I do find it very difficult when one of the yard cats hunts, captures, and kills a bird. I’m all the time being told that feral-cat rescue work is morally unacceptable because these cats take a great toll on birds and other wildlife. It’s not an easy situation, because I care about all  animals. But I can’t see that cats’ hunting behaviors should doom them to inhumane treatment or even death anymore than coyotes’ hunting our cats (which in Virginia they most certainly do) should condemn the coyotes to that fate. And our own species’ negative impacts on bird and other wildlife populations is immense; we would do well to work on those aspects. For me, another key, as I’ve indicated, is spay-neuter, to work seriously to reduce cat populations.

I see that some of this is a bit muddled: I’m tacking between inside-the-house pets, and out-of-the-house rescued cats. For me the bottom line is that all our cats seem, insofar as we can assess this with any degree of accuracy, content. Our indoor cats don’t visibly yearn to be outside. Among the five of them, they have well-defined favorite napping places, routines, cat play partners, cat allies and sometimes cat enemies, with a fairly complex social system going to occupy their minds. All eighteen—indoor, pen, and yard—are dear to us, dear personalities, but I want to say very much that we aim to enhance their lives as much as we know they enhance ours. At this point, Jessica, let me throw it back to you. What do you think? Do cats now make it to the “conditionally acceptable” list, and if not, what do we do with the millions of pet cats?

PIERCE: I like your idea of “honoring the evolutionary path” of cats, by feeding them meat. And I use a similar logic with Thor: as I understand it, cats need animal protein to be optimally healthy, and it seems unfair to deprive them of this. But every time I feed Thor (and my dogs—they get meat, too), I feel sorry for the suffering of the animal that has become their dinner.

And yes, cats are on my “conditionally acceptable” list. I think there are lots of different contexts in which cats can and do co-exist with humans—as pampered indoor cats, as barn cats, and as feral colonies. Cats can probably thrive in all of these environments. Cats and humans can certainly form mutual attachments and can bond very deeply. I also think that veterinarians, behaviorists, and cat owners are paying a lot more attention to making sure that cats have stimulating and enriching experiences and aren’t suffering from boredom. The fact that millions of unwanted cats languish in shelters is simply awful, and with certain moral trepidation I endorse active spay/neuter campaigns. I agree with you that the impact of feral cat colonies on birds and small mammals is a drop in the bucket compared to our own human impacts (cars certainly kill more birds and small critters than cats), and it seems unfair to blame the cats for doing what comes naturally.

Join us tomorrow for the final installment—

And, in the meantime, read more about the work of King and Pierce, click here and here.