a very good dog
A very good dog on a hike in Colorado. Photo © Rebecca Mongeau

I’m jogging along a path bordering a nature preserve when I see a big dog galloping towards me. I pull to a stop, but an owner waves off my concern. “Don’t worry, he’s just a big teddy bear,” she calls.

I suspect the wintering mule deer that live in the adjacent preserve don’t share this assessment. In fact, I’ve seen numerous “friendly” dogs and “big teddy bears” chasing deer here over the years. The deer often escape, but they burn calories that they need to get them through the winter. For mule deer, harmless pups mean death.

This is a truth that many pet owners seem unwilling to accept. We love our dogs, cats and other pets. Really, really love them. Over the centuries, they’ve transformed from working beasts to cherished family members. The idea that your kitty is unleashing a wave of destruction on the local birds – or that our pet obsession is unleashing a wave of destruction on global wildlife – is heresy.

If you love pets, reading Peter Christie’s new book Unnatural Companions: Rethinking Our Love of Pets in an Age of Wildlife Extinction might be like taking the pill in The Matrix. It is a highly compelling and even page-turning read, but it’s not a comforting one. In it, Christie argues that the pet industry is a significant threat to wildlife conservation. Christie documents a startling array of issues associated with pets: free-roaming dogs and cats killing wildlife, the pet trade depleting wild bird and reptile populations, pet food depleting wild fisheries and increasing meat production and much more.

He talks to an extensive number of researchers and cites numerous peer-reviewed studies, and his conclusion is clear: “[Pet owning] is threatening the very diversity of life…that we’re evolutionarily programmed to cherish.”

If that’s the case, what can pet owners do about it?

The Other Side of Biophilia

Christie’s core message is a provocative one, and based on biologist Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis. Wilson has argued that humanity has an innate connection to other creatures, and there’s a need to have other creatures in our lives. Wilson believes that this deep need will ultimately lead humanity to protect and preserve our biodiversity. Biophilia deeply resonates with many conservationists, me most definitely included. The deep need to connect to other creatures is very real, Christie argues. But what he believes Wilson misses is that this connection doesn’t have to come from wild creatures and the world’s biodiversity. A dog, a cat or an aquarium full of fish will do quite fine. Biophilia doesn’t discriminate between wild and domestic. A tail-wagging beagle or wheel-spinning hamster will do quite nicely, thank you.
hamster under fabric
A domestic golden hamster plays peekaboo. Photo © digital_image_fan / Flickr

And is there any harm in that? After all, pets offer us numerous well-publicized benefits. Just being around a dog is known to be therapeutic (although, Christie argues, some rigorous studies dispute some of the common claims). A love of a domestic animal builds empathy for other species. Sharing space with another creature shows their intelligence and personality, which can lead to a great appreciation of life.

But there’s a flip side. Pets and pet industry can have a staggering impact on global biodiversity. And I can already hear the arguments: We can’t worry about stray cats when the world faces so many huge problems. But the reality is, our love of pets often contributes to many of these problems.

Free-roaming or released pets, for instance, are major invasive species around the globe. Cats and dogs are directly responsible for the extinction of 74 species, a toll that places them among the most destructive invasives. Free-ranging cats in the United States are one of the biggest killers of birds out there, far more than publicized threats like windows and wind farms.
cat in the grass
Free-ranging cats kill millions of native animals each year. Photo © Jorge Gonzalez /Flickr
The global trade in exotic wildlife for pets has perhaps had even more startling consequences. The silence of many Southeast Asian forests is because they’re being emptied of wild birds for the pet trade. The chytrid fungus, raging through amphibians globally, was spread primarily via pet frogs and salamanders. The list goes on. The pet industry even contributes to overfishing and increased meat production. One researcher, with a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, noted that if dogs and cats were their own country, they would be the world’s fifth largest meat consumer.

Unfortunately, many of these arguments are not what pet owners want to hear. The love of dogs and cats, in particular, seems almost sacred. Several writers and academics have faced lost jobs and even death threats for attempting to address the issue of free-ranging cats.

“An extinction crisis is underway…,” writes Christie. “Our love of pets – a modern incarnation of biophilia’s ancient urge – is its ironic accomplice: as wildlife numbers drop and a million wild species risk vanishing forever, our pet animals accelerate the losses while more than doubling their own numbers in the last half century.”

golden retriever
Another very good boy. Photo © Paul D /Flickr

Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

A love for animals, including pets, is often said to go hand in hand with environmentalism. It sounds good in theory, and it’s true that many environmentalists are also animal lovers. But the reality is that, when it comes to priorities, pets greatly outrank wildlife.

As Christie notes, “we spend more on the pet industry than most nations earn in a year.” People spend exorbitantly on their companion animals, buying gourmet food, daycare services, toys, clothes and even the services of pet fortune tellers. This amounts to an approximately $75 billion a year industry in the United States alone. Compare that to the global expenditure of some $21 billion for the conservation of all wildlife species.

I once wrote a story about research on how the presence of leopards in neighborhoods of Mumbai lowered the risk of rabies. One of the main prey species for the leopards was feral dogs. Fewer feral dogs meant fewer cases of rabies, thus counterintuitively meaning that a neighborhood leopard saved human lives.
A curious pug. Photo © James Jardine /Flickr

As a naturalist and advocate for large predator conservation, I found it one of the most fascinating stories I ever wrote. Many readers felt otherwise. I received numerous distraught social media comments and even hate mail suggesting I was heartless for writing about the death of “innocent dogs.”

Several well-meaning correspondents implored conservation organizations to launch rescue missions to save India’s feral dogs from “cruel deaths.” They suggested, seriously, that we capture the dogs and find homes for them, even though my article noted that India has some 30 million feral dogs. The cost of “saving” them could be put towards saving endangered tigers and leopards.

But that didn’t seem to cross the dog lovers’ minds. In fact, none of them expressed any concern over the fate of the leopards. Even more startling, no one noted that rabies from feral dogs claim 20,000 human lives in India each year.

Our love for pets brings to mind the famous line from Animal Farm: “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Our pets outrank the millions of other species that roam the planet. But, Christie argues, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Two pet guinea pigs on an outdoor adventure. Photo © Andy Miccone /Flickr

A Future for Pets…and Wildlife

I was relieved that Christie made his case without arguing that people shouldn’t own pets. He is a happy dog owner, and notes that his pet kept him company as he was writing this book. It is too easy for environmentalists to villainize people’s deeply held values. It is moralizing but does not change any minds or hearts.

People have had pets for a long time. Several recent books, like Pat Shipman’s excellent work The Invaders, argue that our early and close relationship with dogs allowed us to colonize the world and made us who we are. That deep relationship isn’t going away, nor should it, Christie argues.

However, changing some pet-owning practices would be good for us and for the planet. There is no reason to let your cat roam outside. There are endangered birds and reptiles that should not be owned, period. Identifying disease risk is essential before moving critters around the globe.

Here kitty kitty. Photo © K-nekoTR /Flickr

And, Christie hopes, perhaps pet owners can harness their love of animals to protect the beautiful diversity of the globe before it’s too late. After all, pet owners represent one of the largest interest groups out there. Harnessing their innate connection to other creatures could make a difference.

I hope pet-owning conservationists read this important book with an open mind. Think about Christie’s ideas before sending him (or me) nasty emails. I recognize that conservationists love their pets, too. I know dogs figure prominently in the hearts of many of my Nature Conservancy colleagues – and roam their offices.

But to address conservation issues is to know them. And sometimes, that dog that “wouldn’t hurt a flea” does far worse. Let’s see clearly, and work for a better future, one where our love of pets doesn’t come at a cost to the planet’s wildlife.