Is it ethical to keep pets?

God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.
~Jacques Deval

I love aquariums. But other than the fish that were given to me by a friend who moved and couldn’t take them with him, I don’t keep aquariums anymore.

I’ve worked for several years at two different pet stores. One was a mid-size chain store, the other an independent locally-owned job. Along the way, I’ve kept every sort of pet you can think of…from giant African millepedes to horses. And if I haven’t kept it myself, I’ve taken care of it during the course of my work.

Fish in particular are what got me thinking about this. People probably don’t realize it, but for every fish you see swimming in an aquarium at someone’s home, there are probably ten or more dead fish somewhere along the line from breeder to wholesaler to store to home. The smaller the fish, the more die in order to get them into the store. They die in the breeder tanks, die at the wholesaler’s, die in transport, die in the store, and die in people’s homes. Fishkeeping is an art, not a science. I’ve seen even the best fishkeepers lose entire tanks after simply topping off the water level. No reason they can think of. They drew the water, treated it, let it sit, just as they always did. Next morning, a tank full of dead fish.

Exotic pets aren’t much better. They’re less apt to die before they make it home, but their very nature makes them irresistible to people who don’t need exotic pets. I was lucky…the stores I worked at didn’t sell much in the way of reptiles, hedgehogs, or fancy insects. Hermit crabs and ferrets were as fancy as they got most of the time. Even then, the hermit crabs were a toss-up. As best as we tried to educate ourselves about their care, we still didn’t know enough. And yet people demanded them, and so they were sold. My boss once pondered asking a minister to come in to bless the animals. For every owner who worked hard to provide their animal with a good life, there were others who meant well and fell short, or didn’t even bother to mean well in the first place. I once had a woman flat-out tell me that she wanted zebra finches for her son, but “only for six months because then he’s getting a puppy.” Thankfully she didn’t ever buy the birds.

No, I don’t think it’s ethical to keep such animals as pets, save for those rare few. I’ve seen too many animals die or get mistreated. I won’t buy fish anymore. There’s no reason to encourage a practice that results in unwarranted death and mistreatment. Eating animals is enough.

I do have cats, and I’ll continue to have cats. Cats, and dogs, too, enjoy a freedom unknown by fish and giant African millepedes. They’re large, hardy mammals that have needs that are easily understood by most people. But more importantly for me (and this is more pertinent to cats than dogs), I am not encouraging the further breeding of cats by owning them. No one bred my cats. They were accidents. One of them was the product of a pregnant stray that came to reside in someone’s backyard, the other was found discarded in a cardboard box on a university campus. They had been born anyway. The one of them would have died if I hadn’t have stepped in.

But unless I want to keep perch, bass, crappie, or catfish, my options for fish result in my continued support of a trade that I don’t feel is ethical. It’s no one’s fault…fish can be tricky to keep. I certainly can’t blame them too much. But I’ve made the personal choice to not participate in it anymore. I don’t want to be personally responsible any more than I already have been. It hurts too much.

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One Response to “Is it ethical to keep pets?”

  1. I’ve seen and thought about what you’re talking about, and I agree that it’s unfortunate and wasteful. It turns my stomach to see a tank at a store with a bunch of floaters on the surface. And like you said, it’s not really anybody’s fault; fish are delicate, even the hardy ones, and when placed in an industrial/commercial breeding/selling system, it’s essentially unavoidable.

    And I respect your decision to not support that. I think that’s a good way to settle it with yourself, just like the people I know who don’t eat meat unless they’re absolutely certain of where it came from and how it was treated. It might even have a bit of impact on the market. But that’s just the thing; it’s a /bit/ of an impact. As long as stupid people are buying pets, and stupid people are regarding fish as decoration instead of living creatures, not much is going to change.

    There are, however, things you can do to attempt to change a bit more. For one, you can be very particular about where you purchase your fish. And I’m really not just talking about location, but also suppliers. Avoid the big-box shops, and discuss the problem with the smaller ones. Or hell, talk about it with the bigger ones (but don’t expect as much to come from it). Ask them who supplies their fish, and if they know anything about the company. And you can always call and talk to the suppliers themselves, too. Express your concerns. Half the problems in most markets are there because no one has ever actually expressed an issue with them to the pertinent people. Poorly constructed (or built away from the way a long-time fan would prefer) video games are a HUGE example of this. It’s always the vocal people who effect change. No, there’s not a lot that can be done to improve the lives of the fish in the industrial/commercial setting, but there’s still some, and if the right people think about it then some improvements could be made.

    Personally, I will keep an aquarium (I don’t right now, but that’s for entirely different reasons), because to me the difference I can make in the lives of a few fish is more important to me. I recognize that keeping fish isn’t something that’s going to go away, and I also recognize that horrible pet-owners aren’t either. If I can keep a few from having to go through that, though, then that’s the sort of difference I’d like to make.
    Actually, I think that next time I decide to keep fish, I’ll try to find someone who has recently decided to stop keeping fish.

    A bit TL;DR, sorry XD

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