This post has been brewing for a while. Even so, as I sit down to write it, I remain unsure of my argument or if I even have one at all. It’s certainly a topic with a less clean-cut answer than I’d originally considered, so much so that I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to offer you much in the way of an opinion. Instead, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it – so read on for mine, then let me know what you think in the comments.
A while ago on everyone’s favourite social network, I got into a conversation with a plant-based mutual (who I’ve since unfollowed for several reasons) in response to my post on feeding cats a vegan diet. Although she didn’t label herself as vegan, she held the view that people who do use the term to describe themselves cannot do so in truth if they keep any animals as pets. I had never encountered someone who held that kind of opinion before and I was pretty shocked to say the least. Did my giving our cat a loving home suddenly mean I was less vegan than other non-pet having vegans?
I responded by pointing out that humans domesticated certain animals centuries ago; that it is now a fact of life, to which keeping pets is a responsible and caring reaction. Despite this person’s counter-argument to that, I do not see keeping pets in the same way as eating meat: they are two very separate things, subject to differing degrees of scrutiny and likely to change or not change in very different ways over the years to come. Sure, the rise of plant-based living might see a real change take place in terms of reducing factory farming, but talking the population out of keeping pets will have no such effect, I am quite sure of it.
It seemed to me that this might be an isolated case; just another example of someone who doesn’t even call themselves vegan expressing restrictive and unhelpful opinions which put the most optimistic of omnivores off giving meat-free life a try. Since then, though, I’ve been surprised to find other examples of people (both vegans and omnis) who feel that our owning of animals – in particular cats – is more problematic than we might care to admit. Keeping cats indoors is cruel, but letting them outside harms local bird populations. Neutering your felines is what any responsible pet parent would do, but is it not tampering with an animal’s body unnecessarily? I gave up trying to organise my thoughts on this subject when someone on Twitter used quotation marks to refer to “their” cat.
The fact that there is even a debate around whether or not keeping pets is compatible with vegan living compounds my belief that some of us are far too wrapped up in the idea of ethical perfection. It might not be ideal for me to keep a cat in a small London flat, in an area where it isn’t safe for her to venture outside. Similarly, it might not be optimally ethical for me to buy cruelty-free cosmetics from a problematic brand, buy clothes from a charity shop that funds medical animal testing, buy processed vegan food from a brand who are owned by a dairy multinational. The fact is, I am doing what I can given my means and circumstances, and that is better than doing nothing at all.
There are several ways you can strive to keep animals in a more ethical way. Firstly, if you’re able to, you can adopt an animal who has been abandoned or mistreated, giving them the forever home they’d never dreamed of. Secondly, if you are looking to buy an animal, you can do your research on particular breeds – on genetic illnesses and debilitating defects which have been bred into these animals – and avoid the obviously problematic ones, no matter how cute you might think they are. You can read up on the signs of cruel breeding farms and make sure you are not contributing to that. Generally speaking, you can show your support for animal welfare by staying away from zoos or other attractions and, if possible, reducing or cutting out animal products from your diet.
As vegans, we love animals and want to share our lives with them, and have them share their lives with us. My cat brings me joy every day, and I try to give her the most loving, stimulating environment that I can provide. Keeping the definition of veganism in mind, I am doing what I can with what I have. And if that means I’m not vegan enough for some people then so be it.