Spay/Neuter Redux

The spay/neuter question came up in my animal law class the other night and I continue to ponder its many facets.  Perhaps some more public wrestling is in order (I previously raised the issue here) .

If forced to make a general distinction between animal and environmental advocates on questions relating to animals, I would say that environmentalists tend to concern themselves more with species and ecosystemic integrity whereas animal advocates focus more on individual animals.  If one accepts this distinction while also accepting that no animal volunteers or consents to be sterilized, then one finds oneself (or at least I do) in an ethical morass.

It seems to me that the rights perspective must acknowledge individual animals’ claims to bodily integrity.  After all, rights adhere to the individual, not the collective.  The fact that you have a right to vote does not mean I do, and vice versa.  Causes of action arise when individual rights are trampled even when the rights of the majority remain intact.

Professor Francione maintains that since the institution of pet ownership is morally wrong, it is permissible to sterilize animals because failing to do so perpetuates the wrong of pet ownership.  But I have to ask: regardless of the morality of pet ownership, do not those animals alive now have a claim to membership in the moral community?  And if so, how then can their respective rights to bodily integrity be ignored?

One might respond that sacrificing individual rights for the greater good is sometimes necessary, and that may well be true.  However, I remain unconvinced that those forfeiting their rights would agree that the greater good is being served.  This is particularly true, for example, with feral cat colonies and the policy of trap/neuter/return (TNR).  In the case of the cats, the overall goal is the eradication of the colony.  That goal seems more attuned to human needs than those of the cats.

Let me state for the record that I recognize the necessity argument here.  Companion animal overpopulation is a terrible problem and many animals suffer and die in shelters because of it.  I am also all too aware that TNR is by far the most humane option available for feral cat management and that those who manage the colonies often go to heroic lengths to save these cats from otherwise grisly fates.  Nevertheless, recognition of this reality need not preclude a full exploration of the ethics involved in the practice and I invite your thoughts as we continue this dialogue.


7 Responses

  1. Does it follow for one who believes there is an ethical issue here that there also may be a problem subjecting pets (dogs and cats in particular) to veterinary procedures they do not comprehend but which may reverse or stay the ravages of diseases such as cancer?

    Some romanticize feral cats. My barber, a fervid animal lover, logistically supports a colony of feral cats, their exact number beyond her knowledge but that it changes regularly is clear. Many of these cats transmit diseases to pet cats allowed to go outside and they often suffer from debilitating and painful diseases with no hope of palliative intervention.

    I understand the “rights” argument that correlates an animal’s interest in its bodily integrity with that of a person’s. Understanding it, I reject it.

    As to the comment about the difference between the world view of some environmentalists versus some animal rights advocates, I was surprised several years ago to stumble across a valid British study which demonstrated, rather conclusively, that both outdoor pet cats and feral colonies decimate bird and rodent species with palpable impact on the ecosystem. I don’t think we have to tolerate this. I don’t think we should.

  2. I add to my comment above that years ago I represented a couple being prosecuted in upstate New York for criminal neglect of their dog. The dog had cancer and the couple genuinely believed it was unethical and immoral to intercede with the disease process (so my argument was that they lacked the mens rea required by the charged offense. Wanna guess how I fared with that one?).

    Despite the fact that the trial was in Justice Court in a very small town, animal rights activists made the trip there so they could demonstrate demanding conviction and jail (of course there may have been others who saw things the way my clients did).

    Not a simple subject, is it?

  3. The British study was flawed because it relied on questionaires filled in by owners whose cats caught small mammals and/or birds. The problem with this is that it wasn’t really sampling cats who didn’t hunt (too young, too old, not interested). This meant multiplying the average number of prey by the total number of cats would have given a massive over-estimate.

    Cats are primarily rodent predators so many of their prey would be killed in order to reduce THEIR population if the cats weren’t there (cf. the disastrous effects of cat removal on Macquarie island )

    That said, I think total numbers of feral cats do have to be limited and it’s more respectful of the cats to do it by contraception than by killing them (and spay/neuter is safer for cats than immuno- or chemical contraception).

    The interesting thing about feral cats is that they are responsible for a surprisingly large percentage of the domestic cat population and this probably explains why cats have largely retained control of their own gene pool (unlike dogs).

  4. Just as humans (who are, after all, a form of domesticated animal, like dogs, cats, cows, pigs, etc.) should practice birth control in an attempt to control human overpopulation, so should humans limit the population numbers of their fellow domesticated animals, e.g., cats and dogs.

    Although there isn’t a neat, pretty answer to this problem, it’s far more humane to spay and neuter than to abort fetuses or kill puppies, kittens or adult dogs and cats. The other choice is to keep the animals sexually intact and hope that their human guardians manage to keep them from breeding, which is very unrealistic. Also, if you have intact both male and female cats or dogs living in your household, how on earth do you keep them from mating and producing a steady stream of litters?

    I’m an animal advocate and ethical vegan with eight rescued cats and dogs. I don’t believe that cats and dogs should all be eradicated or that pet ownership per se is unethical. I think a lot of people who have pets shouldn’t because they neglect or abuse them. But in most cases, the pets own the human as much as the human owns them, and that’s certainly true in my case. It’s not a slave/master situation. However, I do think their numbers should be reduced to a much more manageable level through spay/neuter and, once that is accomplished, adoption requirements made more stringent for those who want to adopt them as members of their family.

    Puppy and kitten mills should be totally banned, of course, and any breeding done by purebred dog and cat “fanciers” or backyard breeders should be strictly controlled.

    Spay/neuter has got to be part of the equation, in any case.

  5. Rosemary said: “Cats are primarily rodent predators” I find it odd all cat fanciers attempt to spread that myth, while the cats themselves continue to spread evidence to the contrary like the wings and feathers of the nesting Mockingbirds and Blue Jays in my yard.
    The words “Ethics” and “Trap, Neuter, Return” should never be used in the same article, unless it is attacking the practice. There is nothing ethical about abandoning domestic animals into a perilous ecology to murder our wild life.

  6. […] have pondered before the ethical basis for sterilizing nonhumans even as I recognize the practical necessities […]

  7. […] Related Animal Blawg posts: Fed Up With Feeding; Spay/Neuter Redux […]

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