Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Jessica Pierce's "Run, Spot, Run"

Jessica Pierce has written extensively within the field of bioethics, beginning with an early interest in the interconnections between health care systems, environmental degradation, and health (The Ethics of Environmentally Sustainable Health Care). Over the past decade, her work has increasingly turned toward one of her principle passions in life: animals. Her 2009 book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, written in collaboration with cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff, builds a scientific case that nonhuman animals exhibit of a broad range of prosocial behaviors, including empathy, cooperation, fairness. Her 2012 book, The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives, explores end-of-life care, dying, and euthanasia in the lives of our companion animals, weaving analysis together with a journal chronicling the decline and death of her beloved dog Odysseus.

Pierce applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, and reported the following:
I’ve always had pets. I grew up with dogs and cats, as well as guinea pigs, rats, tropical fish, a rabbit, and a guinea hen named Ivan the Terrible who followed my father on the daily dog walks through the fields behind our house. My daughter apparently inherited the Pet gene, and through begging and cajoling expanded our family beyond two dogs and a cat to include rats, hermit crabs, a gecko, a snake, and various other creatures. Even as our interspecies household expanded, I was growing increasingly uneasy with the pet-keeping enterprise. I had misgivings about the happiness of the animals we held captive and began to see stuffing an animal into a cage or tank as a strange form of human-animal interaction. These niggling worries that eventually turned into the book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets.

About 8 years ago, when I made a turn in my career from straight bioethics to work focused on animals, my thinking really started to change. It began as an intellectual journey: exploring the evolutionary roots of moral behavior, and the hypothesis that moral behavior is not unique to humans but is a broadly successful adaptive strategy. This exploration took me straight into the heart of the literature on animal cognition and emotion, and I’ve been actively reading in this area for many years now. What this body of research did was help me see how much we and other animals share: not only do we share anatomical structures, but we share the richer stuff of life—the subjective experiences and social connections that might life interesting. Animals feel fear, frustration, boredom, happiness, love. They form social bonds with their families that likely feel very much like what I feel for my family. They have individual lives that matter to them, just as my life matters to me.

This isn’t an earthshattering point—we all know that animals have feelings. But what I hadn’t adequately considered was what animals might feel about living in captivity as somebody’s pet. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether the feelings animals are likely experiencing in captivity are predominantly negative. To put this plainly, by keeping pets we are making animals suffer.

The third main section of Run, Spot, Run begins on page 99, which has just three words: “Worrying about Spot.” (Spot is a stand-in for all the pets in the world, and is a reference to the family pet in the Dick and Jane early reader books.) This section moves beyond questions of individual responsibility to consider the larger implications of our society’s pet-keeping obsession. Many aspects of pet-keeping are hard on animals: the confinement, the boredom, the stress of being placed in an environment very different from one’s natural habitat. Cruelty, abuse, and abandonment are shockingly common. And a number of tough issues need consideration: What happens when animals become commodities? Where do the animals on the pet store shelves come from? What happens to the “surplus” product? This is the darkest section of the book, and will hopefully encourage readers to become more careful “consumers” of pets.
Visit Jessica Pierce's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Jessica Pierce and Maya.

The Page 99 Test: The Last Walk.

Writers Read: Jessica Pierce.

--Marshal Zeringue