In previous blogs I’ve written about green criminology and zemiology, both exciting ways to hold to account powerful people and corporations that exploit the planet for huge profits. In this blog I want to talk about humanocentrism and the inequalities that exist in our current relationship with nonhuman animals. Due to the lockdowns caused by Covid-19, there has been media interest in how our relationship with nature improved as a result of the time we had to appreciate it. For example, less traffic on the road meant wild animals began to make their presence felt in towns, and we appeared to like it. Working for an animal charity and with an interest in green criminology, I’m not so confident this has been the case and I believe that humanocentrism – the belief that humans are more important than all living things including animals – still drives our decision-making. The consequences are inequalities that lead to the continuation of animal cruelty, the example of companion animals demonstrating this.
Changing lifestyles during lockdown meant many people felt they could now offer a companion animal a home. A number of animal sanctuaries near me stated initial demand for indoor cats for those living in apartments who could not provide outside space. Meanwhile, the demand for dogs ‘skyrocketed’, according to Paula Boyden, veterinary director to Dog’s Trust. You might stop and say that this is a positive feature of the lockdown, with people learning to appreciate the relationships they could form with companion animals. However, the inequalities still exist in this relationship and the evidence proves that once again it is the animals that suffer.
Firstly, some sanctuaries don’t designate cats as ‘indoor’ as all of them should be given an opportunity to access outdoor space, unless medical conditions prevent this. Of course, one could argue that it is better than life in a sanctuary particularly given the sheer number of cats requiring rehoming. It is the need of the human driving this demand though, rather than the need of the cat. What about dogs then? Such was the demand for particular breeds during lockdown, including pugs, chows and French bulldogs, that prices are said to have risen by 70%. Far from offering any dog a home, the demand was for certain breeds, and the supply chain raises serious concerns. Paula Boyden stated that as a result of initial lockdown restrictions fewer dogs could come into the UK and no post-import checks could take place, worrying in itself. Since then, health certificates that accompany ‘commercial movement’ of puppies has ‘skyrocketed’. Given that post-import checks are still low, fewer than 10%, she states ‘there is a real worry as to the numbers, scope and scale of puppies coming into Great Britain’. She therefore concluded that ‘illegal activity’ could not be controlled for.
This isn’t a new feature of the pet trade. Daniella Dos Santos from the British Veterinary Association stated that in 2018 three in ten companion animal vets had concerns they had seen puppies brought in illegally. For example, approximately 44% of clients said a puppy had been brought in from abroad but vets found they were too young to have been imported. However, as Dos Santos states, lockdown has given rise to unprecedented demand and where there is demand, the supply will meet it whether legal or illegal. There is also the risk posed to all dog populations if puppies brought into the country are not properly health checked.
So why is all this important? Many animal rescue charities and sanctuaries have faced an unprecedented loss of earnings during the pandemic, whilst still providing care and support to animals that came into their care. Added to this will be the consequences of people buying an animal during lockdown and getting rid of it once they return to work. Sanctuaries are already stating they are providing care to many animals in this situation. Another factor that will add pressure to sanctuaries is that whilst vets remained open for emergency treatment during lockdown, this did not cover neutering, meaning there will be increased numbers of unwanted kittens and puppies as a result. It is the sanctuaries that will be under pressure to respond to all of this.
Although initial media reports suggested lockdown would lead to a greater appreciation of nature and non-human animals, much of this appears once again driven by humanocentrism. Regardless of whether companion animals were bought legally, the huge prices that people were prepared to pay for designer dogs means the economic benefits for breeders is stronger than ever, so animals will continue to be bred for profit and supplied to whoever can pay, regardless of their ability to care for the animal. Broader consequences are also evident. Recent criticism I saw on social media was aimed at animal sanctuaries, people bemoaning the time and costs of adopting an animal from a sanctuary. We have become so used to animals as commodities that, given sanctuaries don’t comply with this model, they face criticism. A good sanctuary should carry out mandatory home-checks, ask for donations to cover the considerable costs of the care and treatment of the animal up for adoption – including its microchipping, neutering and vaccinations – that ensures the animal leaves in the best of health, and time must be taken to place each animal in the best environment. Perhaps the greater legacy that emerges from lockdown could be the recognition of just how sanctuaries are helping to challenge humanocentrism by repositioning the relationship of animals to humans and centralising their needs over ours.