Simon Coghlan reviews 'Run, Spot, Run: The ethics of keeping pets' by Jessica Pierce

A sea change has occurred in the way we regard pets. In recent decades the West has fervently embraced pet keeping. Australia has one of the world's highest levels of pet ownership. Moreover, pets are described as 'members of the family'. Pets sleep on our beds, join us on holidays, and receive human-grade medical treatment. Furthermore, our moral concern for animals has generally risen. Witness the public concern with Australian live animal export and the greyhound racing industry.

American bioethicist Jessica Pierce explores some consequences of this social shift in Run, Spot, Run: The ethics of keeping pets. The title, borrowed from the blandly happy 1930s Dick and Jane school readers, is double-edged. Spot the frolicking dog is, like Dick and Jane, having fun. But Spot is also running from us. Pet keeping is a story of brutality as well as love. Pierce both celebrates pet–human relations and reveals their darker side. As the book proceeds, the darkness gathers.

Run, Spot, Run unflinchingly exposes what has made contemporary pet–person relations troubling and hence 'ethically rich'. Of course, some unsettling elements were never really hidden. The 'single biggest moral problem', the author rightly says, is the many 'relinquished animals languishing in ... shelters, pounds, and humane societies'.

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Published in October 2016, no. 385

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