Animal Farm Now

I put my cat to sleep yesterday. She was old and had multiple health problems and had been sick to varying degrees as long as I’ve known her, but…it still hurt a lot. A lot more than I thought it would, given that I knew this would happen eventually.

I wasn’t going to blog about this, but I did find a legitimate policy issue (not that a lack of one has ever stopped me before): what degree of health care is owed to animals? It’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the last year while I played the role of asshole in arguments with my wife over how far to go in treating our cat.

Pets, and to a lesser extent other animals, are already granted protections against abuse, and the Vick saga was a good illustration of the social penalties to violating those protections. “Abuse” has also expanded to include certain positive rights — food, shelter in harsh environments — but certainly health care isn’t one of those. And even shelter is pretty iffy. I mean is a carrier on the roof of Mitt Romney’s car at 70 mph too harsh? (Liberaltotalitarianssaywhat. What?)

In the US, obsessed as we are with physicalizing class as quickly as possible, we don’t even recognize people as having a right to health care. But ignoring that silliness, I can think of 3 possible justifications for animals not deserving health care and they all are poor.

(Note that I’m largely making this case to provide fodder to right-wing slippery slope arguments about how socialized medicine is only the first step towards a PETA presidency. Since gay sex obviously leads to bestiality, it was only a matter of time before doctors become veterinarians, and you have to “press 2 for human care.” The people have a right to know.)

Scarcity — given finite medical resources, animals are not a spending priority. This makes sense if our economic choices are regarded as fixed, but as long as the highest marginal tax rate is less than one hundred percent there are untapped resources. Sure political realities prevent massive increases in social spending through steeply progressive taxation, and if and when these realities change many other programs are on the lefty wishlist before animal health care. But it should be on the list, somewhere after guaranteed housing and before making all enterprises worker collectives.

Fairness — Why should we all pay for the recreation of the crazy cat lady minority? We shouldn’t, which is why there are numerous fees associated with pet ownership/stewardship such as licensing, food, grooming, toys, bedding, transportation, etc. that provide motivation for people to limit their pet accumulation. However, health care is a different kind of good. I doubt many pet-inclined people decline ownership specifically because they’re worried about possible health care costs. Since no one forces you to treat your animal, one doesn’t have to worry about being forced by an injury/illness into a financial untenable situation — if the treatment is too expensive, the animal gets let go. Similarly, one doesn’t decide to have an outdoor cat, damn the increased risk of injury, once the government is on the hook for the medical bill. Unpredictable and non-binding health costs do not significantly impact decisions about pets.

Population — there are too many animals since they breed uncontrollably, and taking care of them all would be a huge, open-ended burden. This could be addressed if people were required rather than encouraged to fix their pets. The feral animals that this misses wouldn’t be heavy health care users anyway, so this should pretty effectively limit the population.

And the positive case for animal care? The instrumentalist argument is pretty weak, since, though animals are unique, the replacement cost in minimal compared to the “repair” costs of health care in serious cases. There’s an animal fairness argument — should the animals care really depend on the resources of the owner and how much the pet is loved (to put it crudely)? But this requires a view of animals as distinct from “property,” since I don’t worry about the relative fates of Poang Chairs (which are ridiculously comfortable). This leads me to the deep ecology, animal agency school of thought, but I’m not quite crunchy enough to argue for that.

What I need is some sort of middle ground between agency and property — pseudo-agency? I imagine this is the status that the “stewardship” term is trying to describe, though what the term and status mean in terms of rights and responsibilities is unclear.

The best real case I have for animal health care does come back to agency. The human/animal divide is not static. Invariably, exploited people are likened to animals in attempts to rationalize their treatment. One positive narrative of human history is the regular (if not continuous) expansion of personhood to new groups. Post-expansion, it seems ludicrous that newly admitted’s agency was ever in dispute. For example, read Mill’s writings on patriarchy from the 1800s. He’s writing for suffrage, and yet still annoyingly argues for female primacy in the domestic realm, and other essentialisms. Even the most progressive set of people from a time come off as bigots 100 years later.

I suspect that our descendants will view many of our practices as obscene, particularly with regards to animals. There are already movements to grant certain animals personhood, and one would be placing themselves on the wrong side of history to be against this expansion. In the absence of a compelling case for the withholding of treatment, I’m willing to pursue it based on the possibility that animals should have human rights. The possibility really should be enough.

But then, I am just another big government shill, looking for any opportunity to foist my union of soviets on unsuspecting middle America.

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