Many of us, even the staunchest animal activists, usually take it for granted that keeping a pet is morally acceptable.
Listener Jacob B. in the UK got in touch with a great question on our recent "Pet Ethics" show. He writes:
I am preventing my cat from staying out at night by limiting her food during her day so to make sure that she is hungry by night and returns around 11pm. It is for safety since foxes are roaming the area. Cats are nocturnal and I wonder whether I am depriving my cat of essential part of cat life experience.
I asked Ray to respond to Jacob's question. Here's what they had to say:
A lot of animal welfare frameworks designed for captive animals (such as zoo animals) take it for granted that natural behaviors are good for animals, and that unnatural behaviors. But that's not always true. Tigers tend to be solitary in the wild, but do better in zoos when they are housed in pairs. And orangutans really seem to enjoy playing computer games, even though this isn't something orangutans naturally do outside captivity. (I got these examples from an article about animal welfare by philosopher Heather Browning; you can read the article and look up the references here.)
If there were no foxes around, your cat would probably enjoy her night hunting, so in that case, I think night hunting would be both natural and good for her. As things actually stand, there's an obvious sense in which night hunting is bad for your cat: it could mean getting killed by a fox, which would be terrible for her. So overall, I think you've made a reasonable tradeoff.
Some environmentalists question whether it's a good idea to keep an outdoor cat at all. (The Audubon Society, for instance, has a "Cats Indoors" campaign.) Outdoor hunting might be good for the cat, but it's bad for the birds the cat preys on, as well as the predators that would eat those birds if the cat didn't! Here, I think, there's a deep question about what to value: should you care about individual birds, species and ecosystems (in which case lots of individuals might have to suffer in order to feed their natural predators), or your cat in particular (since she has a special relationship to you)?
Thanks, Ray, for the great response! And thanks, Jacob, for sending in your question!