Friday, April 25, 2014

The changing status of animals: interview with author David Grimm

US based author David Grimm with his cats Jezebel and Jasper.
Those of us who live and work with animals often talk about the changing status of animals. Pets, so the sweeping generalisation goes, have moved from the backyard to the bedroom…and the implications of this are profound.

David Grimm (not to be confused with the Brothers Grimm) is an award winning journalist and the Online News Editor of Science. His book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs has just been published.

It’s about the way dogs and cats have evolved from wild animals to members of the family – not just in the eyes of pet owners, but also from the perspective of the law. SAT caught up with David for a chat about the issues.

You're an award winning science writer and journalist. How did you get there? 

I actually had wanted to be a veterinarian from early in my life. I worked at a vet clinic as an assistant for about 6 years part-time in high school and college. And then I decided I really didn’t want to be…I realised that being a vet is more about dealing with clients than animals and was a bit turned off by that aspect of the job.

So I went to college where I majored in cell biology and decided I wanted to be a scientist. I went to Yale for grad school and did a PhD in genetics. That took about 6 years, but halfway through I realised I didn’t want to be a scientist anymore, and I always liked writing. I did some internships, got hired from an internship and was hired by Science. I’ve been there for ten years.

You've always had an interest in stories about animal welfare. Where did this come from and what do you consider your favourite story?

When I started writing for Science I was writing about all things from mouse genetics to nuclear testing. I really wanted to write about cats and dogs but needed to think about new research. One of the editors had come across the Michelson Foundation, founded by one of the richest men in the country – a multi-billionaire. He wanted to know if we could develop a birth-control vaccine for dogs and cats, not so much for the US but for third-world countries where there are a lot of homeless animals and really no infrastructure to do spay/neuter. Can science develop an injectable vaccine that would sterilise animal’s for life? I ended up writing a feature story for Science about the efforts to develop this birth control – called “A cure for euthanasia?”

I was really proud of the story and received an award from the National Press Club.

Your book discusses our changing relationship with animals. Over your lifetime, what have been the major changes?

I think there were a few factors that set up the relationship. One is the urbanisation of society. In the nineteenth century people used to live in very large families – you lived with your grandfather and your cousins. With industrialisation we’ve seen changes like an increase in nuclear families, higher divorce rates, people living alone and without children.

There also used to be a lot of farm animals in the city – people had cows and pigs in the backyards, there were horses on the street.

But even before the last few decades there was a big emotional void developing, and with less people in households cats and dogs started to become more like companions.

More recently we’ve seen an incredible rise in technology and mobile devices, so a lot of our interactions with people are electronic. We make friends on Facebook instead of in real life. It has been especially dramatic in the last couple of decades – technology has taken over our lives and our human relationships have disintegrated. But cats and dogs have been there to fill the void in a powerful way. They really have become the child that doesn’t live with you anymore or the friend who isn’t tuning you out for an iPhone. They are on your lap, they want to play and cuddle with you, we don’t get that sort of attention from people now.

In Australia, as in many parts of the US, animals are essentially property when it comes to law. What are some of the implications?

The disadvantage is that you can do whatever you want with your property. If I wanted to throw my toaster out of the window I could do that, if I wanted to set my couch on fire I can because it’s my property. But I argue in the book that while cats and dogs are technically property, they really have some rights that property doesn’t have. We have felony anti-cruelty laws, we can impose fines, up to 10 years in prison, if you abuse an animal.

We also have a remarkable development in our legal system as now we’re having a lot of custody cases involving cats and dogs and judges will ask what is in the best interests of the animal? There have been a few cases where dogs were given lawyers, but you’d never have a lawyer for the toaster. Even with all those considerations some people argue as long as cats and dogs still property our interests will always trump theirs in the court of law.

A lot of vets and vet nurses think their jobs would be easier, or less stressful, if animals moved beyond the status of property. Is that really a safe assumption?

Vets are very concerned about the changing status of pets. On the one hand, vets really benefit from the relationship people have with their pets. For example, our male cat was adopted from a shelter. He is now eight years old and we have probably spent close to $10,000 on him: he had kidney failure at an early age, had his tail accidentally slammed in a door and has been in some fights. We paid around $50 for him but we are willing to spend hundreds or even thousands on his health. Vets really benefit from that.

The problem for vets comes when they do something wrong, and somebody sues for malpractice. They might sue the vet for $5000 or $10000, and the vet may argue that cat is only worth $50? So the owner says, why did you let me spend $5,000 on it? The American Veterinary Medical Association has really fought this, saying that we should not allow these kind of malpractice suits as they will destroy the profession. It is a very tricky situation. It’s an advantage for vets to support the close relationship between pets and owners in the clinic but very much a disadvantage in the courtroom.

You've also suggested that biomedical researchers might be concerned about such changes. Why?

The biomedical research and the agricultural industries…the thing they are concerned about is what they call the slippery slope. If cats and dogs get rights today, what is there to stop that from being cows and lab rats tomorrow? If we have to see pets as people, we have to see cows and rats as people, and what will that do to meat production and animal testing? There is some worry that once we grant rights to one group of animals, there is really nothing to stop us granting rights to other groups of animals.

We’ve already heard a bit about your male cat. Can you tell us about the non-humans in your life?

Our male cat is Jasper and the female is Jezebel. They are littermates, we got them from a shelter when they were around 8 weeks old. My wife and I both grew up with cats but we moved around so much when we were first going out that we didn’t have a chance to get them.

One day I woke up in Baltimore and said “We have to get cats today.” So we drove to a shelter, those were the first cats we saw. So it was a bit impulsive. They’re great cats but they’re also bad in the ways cats can be bad sometimes (our male cat has learned how to turn on our alarm clock in the middle of the night). Even though we got them from a shelter, they very quickly became members of the family. We would treat them like children, ask about them when we went on vacation, we have pictures of them all over the house.

We actually trained them to walk on leashes which got on a lot of attention from the neighbours.

How would you describe your relationship with them?

They are definitely members of the family. We had twin girls about one and a half years ago and I was very interested in how this might change the relationship. A lot of people that I interviewed for the book who worked in animal rescue don’t have children, and some critics argue that they wouldn’t be so close to animals if they had children. I was happy to discover – though not too surprised – that even when we had human children it didn’t fundamentally change our relationship with our cats. Yes, they get a lot less attention but we still love them just as much – just everyone has to compete for attention.

In ten, twenty or fifty years, how do you think we will be relating to animals?

Especially in the last 20 years cats and dogs have been on really dramatic trajectory and where does it end? I am not sure we could get any closer to them in the home [Ed: I have to agree here. There are two sitting practically on top of me as I upload this post]. They are already considered family, I think it’s hard to imagine them getting any closer to us in the social aspect.

The question is what is going to change legally. I think if you ask owners if pets should have rights, you get mixed responses. But if you ask should cats and dogs be property, most people to say no. Is there a way to find a middle ground, give animals a legal status without giving so many rights that would make people uncomfortable? Just the fact that we are having big legal battles about this right now shows just how far these animals have come.

Any advice for vets, nurses or vet students?

When I was working on the book I saw a big generational divide. The older vets I talked to tended to be firmly against the idea of awarding animals personhood or rights. But the younger vets, especially female vets, tended to be more open to it. I am curious whether some of this resistance will fade as the younger generation takes over.

How do you navigate those waters? I think one of the big concerns veterinary clients in the US are having right now is how do vets ethically offer therapies?

Twenty years ago we didn’t have chemotherapy, MRI or ultrasound so when an animal got really sick euthanasia was the only option, it was the best the vet could do. Now euthanasia is one of many options. It may be that you can euthanase or spend several thousand dollars on this experimental drug, or X or Y or Z therapy. If you have a client that doesn’t have much money, do you even mention those therapies knowing they will spend the money and go bankrupt?

I think it’s a very confusing, dramatic time to be a veterinarian right now because there are a lot of different forces at play.

Thanks David for this really interesting discussion. Certainly there are some cans of worms opened there and a whole lot more discussion to be had. For example, can animals ever be considered to be moral agents? And should vets use, as ethicist Professor Bernard Rollin calls it, Aesculapian authority or respect client autonomy in decision making? This is fascinating territory to explore.

[As for that matter there are clear veterinary codes of practice which - with some variation depending on where you work - oblige veterinarians to provide clients with info on all reasonable options and recommend the best thing for the animal. Easy on paper, a lot more challenging in real life, especially with the patient can't offer explicit consent or express preferences in any definitive sense].