I’ve wanted to write about the issue of judging other pet owners for a long time, but I’ve put it off. It just seemed like such a big topic. When I saw the ASPCA’s blog post on optimism bias, about our tendency to assume the best of ourselves as pet owners, but less of others, it was the kick I needed to revisit this idea.
This is tricky territory. We already know that our moral framework actually has two underlying systems: the first is emotional/unconscious and the second is logical/rationalizing, the latter acting to justify the intuitive decisions made in a split second by the former. In psychology professor Hal Herzog’s words, “human moral judgments are more a matter of rationalization than rationality.”
This can lead to inconsistent behavior. If you’re anything like me, sometimes this means that you aspire to be open-minded and accepting, but end up being critical.
I notice this a lot in the animal welfare community. You let your dog eat that kind of food? She left her cat alone all weekend? They use a prong collar? She walked her dog outside without a leash? He fell behind on his puppy’s vaccinations?
It’s easy to jump to judgement of other pet owners. I know this because I do it myself. I screened hundreds of potential adopters as a volunteer with Rocket Dog Rescue. We had a pretty long application – I want to say it was four or five pages – that asked potential adopters to go into great detail about their lives and history of pet ownership. (This really turned some people off.) Seeing that a previous pet had been hit by a car, for example, would cause my antennae to go up. Could I allow this person to adopt another dog?
It’s appropriate to probe further if something like this comes up. It’s also important to allow that this, and other terrible things, happen even to very dedicated and loving owners. If I leap to judgement, in part that’s because I consider animals to be basically helpless creatures who are at our mercy. From my time working in the animal welfare field, where I had to deal every day with actually caring for, treating, and adopting out (or not) homeless pets, I know this is the hardest possible thing to do. You are confronted every day with the most heartbreaking failures of the human-animal relationship. In this context, it becomes very easy to suspect that people will not be as responsible, loving, or cautious with their pets as you are with your own.
Yet – I have walked my dog without a leash. I have on occasion left my cat at home alone for a day or two with a giant bowl of food. I have put off taking Birdie to the vet. I have occasionally yelled at a pet angrily because I couldn’t control it, even when I knew it would have a deleterious effect.
Is concern over how other people treat their pets justified? Sometimes it absolutely is, like in situations of abuse or neglect. Short of those, however, I don’t know how much there is to be gained from judging other pet owners. I think that much of the time, the person I’m thinking critical thoughts of is probably doing about as good a job as I am. And it might help decrease tension between people (ever had a really tense time at the dog park?) if we simply allowed that different people “parent” their pets differently.
I think most of us, to some degree, try to standardize the criteria of what good pet ownership looks like. We use things like brand of food, choice of vet, treat dispensation frequency, type and/or brand of collar, and a million other little things, many of them subjective, as markers of it. We should all work hard to be excellent guardians of our pets. Yes. And in the meantime, I know I could do a better job being aware of my own biases, and recognizing that we are all going the best we can. And usually, that’s good enough.
Image: Lollypop Farm