The Ethical Dilemma of Being a Vegetarian with Cats
Like anyone else, people who are vegetarian primarily for ethical reasons have pets. In fact, it is fair to say that ethical vegetarians and animal rights advocates in general are likely to save as many animals from the shelters or streets as they can, whether taking them into their own homes or placing them in other homes. It is as much a part of the philosophy of helping animals in need as is refraining from eating them. This is true in the circle of my vegetarian friends, and the much larger circle of my vegetarian acquaintances. It is definitely true of my wife and me.
I estimate that in the last decade, we have rescued several hundred cats and kittens, placing most in good homes, and adopting a few to live with us. It is a privilege and a joy to share our lives with these beautiful and intelligent creatures. We provide them with food and shelter, toys and medical care, attention and affection. In exchange, our cats comfort us, soothe us, amuse us, and teach us love. They also ensure that we will never oversleep, and they keep us humble and down to Earth. Sire, a thousand pardons that your litter box is not pristine. I will attend to it immediately! It’s nothing, honey. I just stepped on another hairball. That’s why God invented paper towels. Alone at last! Just thee and me in our candlelit boudoir, Coltrane for Lovers playing in the background, and the sound of a cat puking under our bed. Ah, cats.
As vegans, we neither purchase nor consume any animal products. For us, this is an ethical choice, but it also plays an important role in our physical well-being. However, cats are not vegan or even vegetarian by nature, and it would be immoral to force this kind of diet on them. Cats are obligate carnivores. Despite the fact that they will jump onto our kitchen table and try to help themselves to whatever they desire from our meals (cats understand every single word in the English language except “No”), our cats must eat meat to stay healthy. After all, cats are astonishingly good hunters for a reason, even if the typical indoor cat, such as ours, limits himself or herself to dismembering the occasional bug and pouncing on our toes while we try to sleep.
We realize that feeding our cats meat contradicts our own refusal to support the meat industry. We understand that other animals are killed in order for our cats to live, and that we are paying for it to happen. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil that we must commit. Millions of cats and kittens are euthanized in shelters every year. Millions more perish in the streets from starvation, exposure, disease, and predation by other animals and sadistic humans. And even in the face of these heartbreaking figures, kitten mills and amateur breeders and pet stores continue to breed ever more kittens; this is in addition to the many people who neglect to spay or neuter their cats and then, when the inevitable happens, dump the kittens in a shelter – or worse. All of this needlessly compounds an already tragic situation. My wife and I thereby consider it a worthy undertaking to do what we can to rescue kittens and cats from a terrible fate forced upon them by human greed and ignorance. Naturally, rescued cats need to be fed.
The fact of the matter is that a large majority of Americans eat meat, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The meat industry is not going to go away for a very long time, if ever, though from our perspective, that is the hope. While advances in the artificial production of meat – meat grown from cells, without the need to raise and slaughter the actual animal – are no longer the stuff of science fiction and may turn out to be the solution that lets humanity eat meat without the ethical, environmental, and health problems created by factory farms, that is still a long way off. Given this ongoing industry, then, we choose the lesser evil of partaking in a small part of the meat trade in order to achieve the greater good of feeding the cats we have rescued from death.
And yet, what if our dreams were realized, and one day all of humanity went vegetarian? Unlikely, but anything is possible, especially given the impact of the environmentally destructive cheap meat industry on a planet whose resources are fast being irreversibly lost. What would people of that future vegetarian society feed their cats? Put another way, how could people of that meat-free future ever justify continuing to keep cats, and if they could not, would we want to live in a world without cats as companions in our lives? Are we willing to give up cats as pets?
So goes an argument occasionally lobbed at me and other animal rights advocates. My answer is this: if humanity ever gets to the point where it decides for ethical reasons to stop eating animals, then obviously, humanity will have reached a fundamental shift in how we interact with nonhuman animals. Our relationship to them will be entirely new and different: it will no longer be owner-property, or oppressor-oppressed, or superior-inferior. It would mean that we have, at long last, come to treat and respect nonhuman animals as our equals. Not the same, either physically or mentally, but equal in their right to live their lives free of human control and exploitation. Should we ever reach that point, then the question of having pets will resolve itself, one way or the other. Until then, it is only speculation. For now, two realities are self-evident: people have pets, and people eat meat.
Accepting these two realities (and what choice do we have but to accept reality?), we buy meat for our cats despite our ethical opposition to the meat industry. But this is not the only such compromise we make in our lives. We drive cars, though we know that doing so contributes to global warming and further enriches the despicable oil industry. We buy goods made in China, though we know doing so helps keep in power a totalitarian dictatorship that brutally oppresses its citizens. We go out to eat in nice restaurants or take exotic vacations, knowing that the money could be used to help the poor and suffering. It is the difference between making our messy way as best we can in the world as it is, versus living an ideal life in the world as we would like it. Until reality meets ideality, our guiding principle will continue to be, do what we can to minimize the amount of suffering we cause in this world, and work towards a better future. It is not the perfect solution, but what is?