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The Dignity of Companion Sentient Beings

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From dissolve.com
From dissolve.com

I do not exercise absolute control and power over another sentient life, even though many of the people in my neighborhood do. There is no living being whose existence and wellbeing depends totally on my goodwill and whim—though plenty of my friends possess this incredible privilege and supremacy. I do not literally and legally own another breathing, hungry creature, though many kids do. Here, I speak of “pets,” though they are more accurately described not simply as “companion animals,” but “companion sentient beings.” Are they really so different to human friends? Very often, “pet owners” (to revert to conventional terms) will stress that the difference is almost superficial, with the emotional fulfillment and company of “pets” being even better than that of human beings.  

I, too, was once an owner of another living being, its happiness and health completely dependent on me. I preferred keeping cockatiels, with their expressive crests and playful chirping. However, because I failed several of these little creatures in my early teens, I resolved to not keep another companion being until I’m in a position someday to give it most of my time, effort, and attention. Even the idea of bonding it with a second companion being, to stave off boredom and unhappiness, is not enough, at least to me.

Due to the ubiquity of companion beings in industrialized nations, it is only recently (with the rise of awareness in animal shelters and the terrible acts of the pet breeding industry) that families have become much more cautious in buying animals for children as a “birthday gift” or for a “household treat.” Sentient lives are not toys to be acquired and discarded on a whim. 

Of course, we all feel the love and affection for our companion beings in our bones, but just because we love non-human animals does not mean that we are in a position, presently or in the future, to care for them adequately. In Hong Kong there is a curious trend of adoring owners of companion beings “walking” their dogs in prams and carts, which seems counterproductive given the point of walking dogs is to provide them with outdoor exercise and to maintain healthy muscles and organs. Meanwhile, the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department puts to sleep 10,000 dogs and 4,000 cats every year.

The main reasons given for abandonment are: moving elsewhere in the city or to another country; the apartment or housing complex does not allow companion beings; a lack of time; or behavioral problems. In essence, the reasons consist of priorities that did not take the companion being’s full and healthy life span into account—a healthy dog, for example, can be expected to live about 10 to 12 years.

From cockatielsaspets.com
From cockatielsaspets.com

No owners set out to actively harm or abandon their companion being, of course. However, too many of these companions lives are ruined by human whims and weaknesses. The rates of pet abandonment globally are appalling. Take the US, for example. According to the ASPCA, “Approximately 6.5 million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year.” Among these, “1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized (670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats).” (ASPCA) There are millions of abandoned, suffering companion animals across Asia, Europe, Latin America, and other continents. Their time on Earth is brutish and short; their descendants, with some fortunate exceptions, endure similarly distressed, lonely, and painful lives.  

While Buddhist debates have focused traditionally on grander questions of how we consume animals as a resource and exploit the natural world (often resulting in discussions about vegetarianism and veganism), less has been written about the relationship between humans and companion beings. Hypothetically, would keeping companion beings be “ethical” if the animal, in our thought exercise, never experiences any kind of suffering inflicted (even accidentally) by the owner? What is the distinction between adopting a hungry and lonely animal and the mass industry of pet breeding that is causing so much suffering?

In a detailed article exploring Buddhist ethics concerning animals, Bronwyn Finnigan provides several layers of nuance to the general question of animals’ ethical status, which I believe we can apply to the specific category of pets. How do Buddhists treat animals? “The answer to this question is varied because human nature is varied; some people treat animals well, others do not. . . . There are also differences in context. Buddhism is a global phenomenon that spans various cultures, countries and historical periods. Practices that seem to define Buddhism in some contexts do not in others.” (ABC)

But what about the normative aspect: how should Buddhists treat animals? Even if one takes as a basic standard the teachings of the early Nikaya suttas (Agama sutras), since all Buddhist traditions accept them, they are interpreted differently in the commentarial schools of the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions. Once more we come to the conundrum of institutional diversity when discussing the adoption of companion beings.

I believe the answer lies in the much-loved text of the Dhammapada, one of the first introductions to Buddhism for the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It contains a simple exhortation to cultivate ahimsa, the idea of harmlessness that is honored in most Dharmic religions:

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?  

From midlandspetcare.com
From midlandspetcare.com

Harmlessness, in this context, should be broadened to include our non human others when “owning” a companion being. Radical empathy, to see the world through the animal’s eyes, is needed: how would I want a family to treat me should its members suddenly have to move to a new town? How would I want a family to treat me should I fall ill with a difficult illness? Most importantly, could I ever imagine a scenario in which I was benefited by being abandoned? The answer, of course, is emphatically not.     

Before we bring them into our home, we have a choice not to take on the responsibility of caring for a companion being. We are free to not make that commitment. However, once we bring them beyond that threshold, into our household, they are part of our family and should be loved as such. Maintaining this somewhat artificial distinction between two ethically “different” contexts might nevertheless be useful in reminding the more impulsive to think in terms of decades, in terms of an entire life. That is, after all, what the companion being is entrusting us with: their most precious thing, their life. We should give it the best life we can.

See more

The Outcome of Pets Overpopulation (LAP)
Reasons for Surrendering (SPCA Hong Kong)
Shelter Intake and Surrender (ASPCA)
Buddhism and the moral status of animals (ABC)

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