The War on Man’s Best Friend amidst the Climate Crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Jan 21

Quick! Think of a Scapegoat! The War on Man’s Best Friend amidst the Climate Crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic

Leo, the mixed-breed Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever


Let me open this up by first admitting that I am a dog person, through and through. I have a two-year-old mixed breed Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, named Leo, with a heart of gold and the emotional range of a toddler. Leo was very much a Pandemic Pet, adopted while still a puppy in March 2020 by my partner (when all the lockdowns hit). I joined the family in October 2021, and thus gained the advantage of experiencing lockdown with and without a pet—and what a difference it makes. As a final-year law student with plans to pursue further education, children are absolutely off the table for quite a while. Having a pet in lockdown marked the difference between whether I went outside during the day, whether I woke up early (to whining 7:00am pleas for a walk—but still), whether I was lonely or just alone, and most importantly—whether I received physical and emotional affection that day. Luckily, my solitary lockdown experience was only for the first few months before I joined my current household, but we should be aware that this is not the case for many.


Early coronavirus curbs and isolation measures drove a total of “3.2 million households in the UK” to acquire a new pet, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, meaning the country now has “17 million pet-owning homes”, with more than half of new owners “aged 16 to 34”. [i] Let’s call these Pandemic Pets. Pandemic Pets have largely been adopted by “Generation Z and Millennials”,[ii] the childless youths who couldn’t fill the void of an empty house in a dismal reality where seeing friends, family, and significant others was a violation of government guidelines. In a survey of 5000 people, more than a third of new owners likened the new pet to “having a baby” and, amongst the 3.2 million Pandemic Pets, only 5% have been given up.[iii] Human beings are simply not meant to endure extended periods of solitude—that’s probably why Solitary Confinement is the most severe punishment an inmate can receive during imprisonment (it’s also proven to induce symptoms of psychosis in certain conditions, but that’s another study for another blog post). The increased turn to owning domestic pets is a valid coping mechanism for lockdown, a valid human desire that has been around for centuries, and a personal choice world leaders would do best to avoid censuring.

On 5 January 2022, at BCP Council’s climate action annual report meeting, Councillor Mark Howell controversially decided to wage a war on our furry friends. Howell substantiated his point by explaining the carbon ‘paw print’ left by dogs like Labradors and German Shepherds “has the same emissions effect as a Toyota Landcruiser, in fact some estimates say it is twice as much”.[iv] He went on to explain that “pets consume 20 per cent of the world’s meat and fish and this demand adds to pollution as it has to be transported”, noting the methane emissions involved in feeding pets and the deforestation taking place “in other parts of the world” to feed pets here.[v] Feeling that his comments were being met with dismissiveness, Howell rushed to add that he is “not saying we should ban or exterminate dogs”, simply that people should withhold from replacing deceased pets or “scale down the size of their pets”.[vi] Howell also suggested animal lovers consider “sharing dogs as pets with friends and relatives in the future to reduce dog numbers”.[vii]

Unsurprisingly, the comments were not received well. The Kennel Club, the UK’s largest organisation for dog welfare and training, has described Howell’s comments as “worrying”.[viii] The Health, Welfare, and Breeder Services Executive at the Kennel Club, Bill Lambert, attested to the value of dogs as “part of the family” to many animal lovers who seek them for their “companionship, loyalty, [and] the many positive mental and physical health benefits they give”.[ix] Lambert went on to say that “many medium and large size breeds are used as assistance, support, medical detection, and police dogs”—undoubtedly we can assume Howell didn’t mean those dogs. Lambert also rejected Howell’s suggestion of sharing a dog with a friend, explaining “dogs need stability and to feel secure in their environment” so sharing a dog between two owners could lead to “serious behavioural issues”.[x] The Bournemouth Daily Echo news platform commented that Howell has obviously “blindly overlook[ed] the known figures and statistics”, going on to say that his view is “dwarfed by the reality that the massively lucrative meat factory farming industry is a vastly more serious threat than our innocent lovable pets”.[xi] Howell empathized with the generally emotional reaction, acknowledging that half the adults in the UK own pets, but reasoning that “the average dog emits double the annual electricity carbon emissions for the average UK household, and that’s before you consider a whole range of other environmental costs relating to pets”.[xii] Howell has called this topic “a big elephant in the room”, but insisted that smaller dogs may fix this issue, or perhaps a cat, going on to add that cats can also cause enormous biodiversity problems.[xiii]

These comments are not the first of their kind. In May 2021, environmental campaigner Donnachadh McCarthy (a proud frog-owner) condemned the rise in pet ownership during the pandemic, claiming that this “unsustainable huge number of pets” would prevent the UK from achieving “its carbon goals”.[xiv] His message was concluded with a plea: “please, gently tell your friends not to get a new pet or to replace their current pet when it passes to pet-heaven, unless they absolutely (absolutely!) have to”. [xv]

Howell’s comments came one week before Pope Francis’s absurd public speech accusing childless pet-owners of the kind of selfishness which “[takes] away our humanity”.[xvi] Pope Francis then added that “this denial of fatherhood and motherhood diminishes us”, and the humanity of our kind.[xvii] The comment spurred outrage amongst child-free pet owners, some of which cannot have children, others of which do not want children, arguing that “with climate change and overpopulation, surely it’s a good thing not everyone is choosing to have children?”[xviii] Rightly so, this argument has been mobilised more and more in recent times.

{On a side note, Pope Francis is not an animal lover and has no pets. His predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a cat lover, never even encroached on the topic. It is compelling to observe how personal preferences affect religious proclamations. All the strongest advocates for deescalating the prevalence of domestic pet adoption seem to be the same ones who opt not to have pets.}

Instead, Pope Francis encouraged “the simplification of adoption procedures”, essentially insinuating youths redirect their need for companionship to a child.[xix] This is not an unseemly comment for a Pope to make, drawing attention to the 153 million orphans worldwide in need of adopting.[xx] It is generally acknowledged that the adoption process is exceedingly stringent, and I am an advocate for more flexibility on that front. However, adoption (and more significantly, parenthood) is a huge decision. The childless Pope Francis should not be passing judgment on whether a woman decides to carry a child, nor guilt those unable to conceive into adopting a child. The choice is beyond the Pope’s influence and scope, and for many, the difference between adopting a child and adopting a puppy is the difference between poverty and financial stability.

Dr Murphy, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, commented that the pandemic has brought with it "the opposite of a baby boom", as “more couples are concerned about finances, job security, and keeping a roof over their heads than growing their families”. [xxi] There is a general distaste towards comparing pets to children (I feel uncomfortable even just writing about it), but for those who have opted to adopt a Pandemic Pet and regard it as a living member of their family—it is inherently unethical to mount arguments which objectively frame pets as chattel that you can remove from the family in doing your part for the environment (or in the Pope’s case, for ‘humanity’).

A 2017 study, conducted by sustainability scientists at Lund University, gathered comparative data on CO2 emissions to secure a better vision of which sectors need to be reduced most urgently. The study showed that the average annual CO2 emissions for one child is 58 tonnes (58,000 kg), and a simple google search will show that the annual CO2 emissions for an average sized dog stands at about 700kg—nearly 82 times less than that of a child. This is before one even takes lifespan into consideration. Choosing to have a child over choosing to adopt a dog is not a climate-oriented solution, but you don’t see the government attacking new parents over their decision to bring a child into the world. I cannot even begin to fathom the response that would provoke. Professor Kimberly Nicholas, one of the scientists conducting the 2017 study, clarified that the decision of whether and how many children one decides to have is a human right (shout out to HRA 1998, article 8) which “needs to be protected and respected—and the decision to fly in planes and drive SUVs is not”.[xxii] I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I won’t.

What I will say is this: Before we start chipping off members of the family (like some dystopian adaptation of Swift’s satirical Modest Proposal) for exacerbating the climate crisis, how about we start with planes, diesel trucks, cargo ships, or literally anything without a heartbeat?


Bibliography


Butterfield, M, ‘Pope under fire after calling people ‘selfish’ for having pets instead of kids’, Global News Canada (Vancouver, 5 January 2022) < https://globalnews.ca/news/8490958/pope-pets-children-comment/> accessed 12 January 2022.


‘Children’s Statistics: UN Data on the Plight of Children’, SOS Children’s Villages Organization (Imst, 2022) < https://www.sos-usa.org/our-impact/focus-areas/advocacy-movement-building/childrens-statistics> accessed 12 January 2022.


Gallagher, T, ‘What’s worse for the climate crisis: Your child or your pet?’, EuroNews Green (Lyon, 29 April 2021) <https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/04/28/what-s-worse-for-the-climate-crisis-your-child-or-your-pet> accessed 12 January 2022.


‘Households ‘buy 3.2 million pets in lockdown’, BBC News (London, 12 March 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56362987> accessed 11 January 2022.


Letters to the Editor, ‘Letter: Leave our pets out of climate change debate’, Bournemouth Daily Echo (Bournemouth, 11 January 2022) <https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/19837266.letter-leave-pets-climate-change-debate/> accessed 12 January 2022.


Lewis, J. ‘Emissions of cats and dogs raised as issue at council meeting’, Bournemouth Daily Echo (Bournemouth, 8 January 2022) <https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/19832833.emissions-cats-dogs-raised-issue-council-meeting/> accessed 11 January 2022.


McCarthy, D, ‘By owning a pet, you are doing more damage to the environment than you might realise’, The Independent (London, 5 May 2021) < https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/opinion/pets-uk-ownership-cats-dogs-carbon-environmental-impact-b1249610.html> accessed 12 January 2022.


Sleight, E, ‘Dog lovers react to Pope’s remarks that childless pet owners are ‘selfish’’, Wales Online (Cardiff, 10 January 2022) < https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/dog-lovers-react-popes-remarks-22676636> accessed 12 January 2022.


Terry, K. ‘Councillor urges people to ‘scale down the size of their pets’ because ‘large dogs have the same carbon pawprint as an SUV’’, Dailymail News (London, 10 January 2022) <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10387265/Councillor-urges-people-scale-size-pets.html> accessed 11 January 2022.


 

[i] ‘Households ‘buy 3.2 million pets in lockdown’, BBC News (London, 12 March 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56362987> accessed 11 January 2022. [ii] Ibid 1 [iii] Ibid 1 [iv] Kaya Terry, ‘Councillor urges people to ‘scale down the size of their pets’ because ‘large dogs have the same carbon pawprint as an SUV’’, Dailymail News (London, 10 January 2022) <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10387265/Councillor-urges-people-scale-size-pets.html> accessed 11 January 2022. [v] ibid [vi] ibid [vii] ibid [viii] ibid [ix] ibid [x] ibid [xi] Letters to the Editor, ‘Letter: Leave our pets out of climate change debate’, Bournemouth Daily Echo (Bournemouth, 11 January 2022) <https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/19837266.letter-leave-pets-climate-change-debate/> accessed 12 January 2022. [xii] Jason Lewis, ‘Emissions of cats and dogs raised as issue at council meeting’, Bournemouth Daily Echo (Bournemouth, 8 January 2022) <https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/19832833.emissions-cats-dogs-raised-issue-council-meeting/> accessed 11 January 2022. [xiii] ibid [xiv] Donnachadh McCarthy, ‘By owning a pet, you are doing more damage to the environment than you might realise’, The Independent (London, 5 May 2021) < https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/opinion/pets-uk-ownership-cats-dogs-carbon-environmental-impact-b1249610.html> accessed 12 January 2022. [xv] ibid [xvi] Emily Sleight ‘Dog lovers react to Pope’s remarks that childless pet owners are ‘selfish’’, Wales Online (Cardiff, 10 January 2022) < https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/dog-lovers-react-popes-remarks-22676636> accessed 12 January 2022. [xvii] Michelle Butterfield, ‘Pope under fire after calling people ‘selfish’ for having pets instead of kids’, Global News Canada (Vancouver, 5 January 2022) < https://globalnews.ca/news/8490958/pope-pets-children-comment/> accessed 12 January 2022. [xviii] Emily Sleight (n 16) [xix] ibid [xx] ‘Children’s Statistics: UN Data on the Plight of Children’, SOS Children’s Villages Organization (Imst, 2022) < https://www.sos-usa.org/our-impact/focus-areas/advocacy- movement-building/childrens-statistics> accessed 12 January 2022. [xxi] Global news (n 17) [xxii] Tim Gallagher, ‘What’s worse for the climate crisis: Your child or your pet?’, EuroNews Green (Lyon, 29 April 2021) <https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/04/28/what-s-worse-for-the-climate-crisis-your-child-or-your-pet> accessed 12 January 2022.

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