Of Course Pets Are Not People, They’re Who They Are

Dr. Paul Thagard’s very  thought-provoking essay called “Why Pets Are NOT People” caught my eye and those of people who wrote to me this morning asking something along the lines, “Did you see the essay called ‘Why Pets Are NOT People’? and what did you think about it?” I’ve been thinking about the myth of viewing nonhumans as humans for a long time, and once again was thinking about this topic this weekend as I worked on a piece for National Dog Day on August 26. Dr. Thagard’s essay is available online for free, so here are a few comments that I hope will be taken to heart. I’ve been particularly interested in dogs, and in numerous places I’ve explicitly argued that dogs are not people so let’s get over it, we must view dogs for who they are, namely dogs, and we must allow them to be dogs. We also shouldn’t look to dogs as models for who we are or how we should behave. (See Canine Confidential, Unleashing Your Dog, “Dogs Really Aren’t Good Go-To Animals for How We Should Live,” and “Allowing Dogs to Sniff Helps Them Think Positively.”) 

Species differences and similarities matter

“Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” (Dr. Louis Leakey’s response when he learned from Dr. Jane Goodall that chimpanzees make and use tools.) 

In a section called “The Human Advantages” Dr. Thagard writes, “Many of the supposed differences between humans and other animals have been discredited, including souls, language, emotions, creativity, and tools. But numerous psychologists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists have noticed more specific differences that give humans important advantages:” While this may be so, the phrase “give humans important advantages” doesn’t take into account that while some of these differences may give humans some sort of advantage, it’s only because humans are humans who have to at least have the potential to be able to do certain things to qualify as a card-carrying human. Of course, numerous other animals have “advantages”, too, that help make them adapt to their own environments and which make humans look stupid, slow, blind, deaf, or maladapted in comparison. The word “advantage” isn’t an objective assessment of cognitive and emotional capacities. 

There also are numerous similarities among all animals, human and nonhuman, that psychologists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists have recognized and which have evolved because, in utterly simplistic terms, they do more good than harm. These include consciousness, sentience, and the ability to perform complex cognitive tasks and to experience a wide range of emotions. (Numerous essays reviewing comparative research on the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhumans can be found here. Also see “Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animal Nature” for an interview with Dr. Nathan Lents about his book of the same title.) It’s also important to point out the work of Emery University neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns and his colleagues who note that there are similarities in the fMRI’s of dogs and humans when they process different emotions and what lights up their brains. In an interview with Dr. Berns called “What It’s Like to Be a Dog,” he notes, “The overarching theme is that we see startling similarities in how animals’ brains function. This means that all animals—whether dog or human—have many neural processes in common. (See “Canine Brains Process Novel Words” and “Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They’re Similar to Us” for additional references to neuroimaging research on dogs.1) 

To make the case that “there are many ways in which humans are dramatically different from dogs, cats, and other pets,” Dr. Thagard lists 18 differences—biologists call them evolved adaptations—that are advantageous to humans and which nonhumans lack. They are essentially descriptive, rather than morally significant differences. I suppose that one could argue against many of the cognitive and emotional capacities on his list, but the ones that caught my eye for which here are contrary observations and data include: We not only learn but can learn how to learn better.  Cultural learning transmits skills across many generations; We use tools to create other tools and extend the range of problems we can tackle; We modify our environments and expand our habitats to extreme locations all over the world; We navigate with physical maps (various nonhumans use cognitive maps better than most humans); We not only have emotions, but we also have emotions about emotions, e.g. fear of embarrassment; We evaluate ourselves and other people. We reflect on own behavior and engage in moral reasoning and judgment about ourselves and others. We punish strangers for breaking rules; and We consider the intentions and beliefs that produce actions. We can reason about our past, present, and future motives, beliefs, and actions. Once again, there is evidence for these capacities in nonhumans, and recall Louis Leakey’s response above when he learned from Jane Goodall that chimpanzees make and use tools. I realize chimpanzees aren’t considered to be pets, although on rare occasions some people regrettably do try to keep them in their homes and in other places as if they were. 

Human exceptionalism is a slippery concept

All of this is not to say that we aren’t all that good, but rather, to argue that human exceptionalism is a slippery concept and detailed comparative research on a wide variety of nonhumans is rapidly blurring lines among nonhumans and between nonhumans and humans. (See The Animals’ Agenda and references above.) And, this is not to say that pets are people, because they surely are not and I expect that many, if not all, would prefer not to be classified as such. Being called “people” means their specific species-typical and individual needs aren’t given the serious attention they deserve. It’s essential to view each companion animal as the individual being they truly are. What works for one dog or cat or fish might not work for others dogs, cats, or fishes. And, they are all exceptional in their own ways. 

The ethics of pet keeping

Dr. Thagard also discusses the morality of keeping pets, and the subtitle for his essay reads, “If pets were people, keeping them would be slavery. Fortunately, they aren’t.” Well, in many—far too many—ways, nonhumans are slaves. He writes, “The countervailing argument in favor of pet ownership is that both owners and pets gain many benefits from a symbiotic relationship. People receive company, affection, and amusement from their pets which in many cases are treated as well as family members. When all the needs of pets are satisfied, including food, water, shelter, play, and company, the pets are thriving rather than suffering.”

Most unfortunately, countless companion animals of all species, including dogs, cats, rodents, birds, fishes, reptiles, amphibians and many others, do not get what they need from their so-called human companions and the nonhumans suffer greatly because of this. Often, it’s because people don’t take the time to assess if they’re really ready to bring another animal into their home and accept the huge responsibility this decision entails. Also, far too many people don’t take the time to learn about who their companion animal really is—their species-typical behavior and communication patterns including how they tell us what they need—and become fluent in dog, cat, rat, gerbil, parakeet, fish, snake, or lizard, for example. (See “Should Shelters and Breeders Require Literacy in Behavior?“, “iSpeakDog: A Website Devoted to Becoming Dog Literate,” “New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior,” “Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends or Family?” and “Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?“) For more on pets as captive animals and in many ways slaves, I highly recommend Jessica Pierce’s excellent book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, Unleashing Your Dog, “Should We Still Make Future Dogs in a Crowded Canine World?“, “Dogs, Captivity, and Freedom: Unleash Them Whenever You Can,” and references therein.)2

I thank Dr. Thagard for his stimulating essay and for getting my and others’ brains in gear. There surely are differences and similarities when comparing humans and nonhumans, and we should appreciate them all and try to figure out why these taxonomic differences have evolved. We should all be very thankful for who we are and for what we can do, and for who other animals are and for what they can do, and make the most of what we know by appreciating and respecting similarities and differences and being very careful about their ethical implications. 

Stay tuned for further discussions on the wide range of topics that center on who we are and who other animals are. What a wonderful time to ponder similarities and differences among the fascinating beings with whom we share our magnificent planet. 


1I recognize that Dr. Berns wrote an essay for the New York Times called “Dogs Are People, Too” and wonder if he would use this phrase again, or if he even chose it. (See “Dogs Are People, Too: They Love Us and Miss Us fMRI’s Say” for an interview with Dr. Berns about this essay and his book How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.)

2Also see Dr. Stevan Harnad’s comments on Dr. Thagard’s essay. 

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