‘Run, Spot, Run’ explores the ethics of owning pets

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Pierce with her dog Maya.
Courtesy of Jessica Pierce

At the beginning of May, the elephants in the Ringling Brothers’ Circus performed in their last show. This comes on the back of SeaWorld announcing orca shows will end in San Diego in 2017, and San Antonio and Orlando in 2019.

As people rally around the rights of high profile animals, local writer Jessica Pierce asks: What about the animals closer to home? It’s the life of pets that Pierce analyzes in her new book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets.

“[Pets] get so much less attention than food animals, and research animals and circus animals, who we know are in trouble,” Pierce says.

“I think there’s this perception of pets as having this life of leisure — all they have to do is sit in a cage and we feed them. But that doesn’t do the animals any favors. Animals, like us, suffer from boredom and frustration. It’s rather a hard life for many creatures that we keep as pets, a life of leisure is not really what it is or what they necessarily want either.”

Pierce is a biomedical ethicist, with a Ph.D. in religious studies. She’s taught ethics classes in medical schools, and 14 years ago she moved to Boulder, where she spent two years teaching religion and philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder.

About a decade ago, Pierce started researching animals and morality. She went on to co-write Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals with Marc Bekoff and author The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives. But for her latest book, she turns to the lives of animals in her own home.

As an avid lover of animals, Pierce grew up with pets. She kept the tradition going with her daughter, filling the house with cats, dogs, horses, geckos, rats, mice, salamanders, newts, snakes, tarantulas and fish.

“Our house was the neighborhood zoo,” she says.

But during this time, Pierce was reading scientific literature about animals’ feelings and what they need to be happy. A disconnect started to form as she began empathizing with her animals, especially those in captivity like small mammals and fish.

“It’s a pretty barren life for an animal, just to spend their entire existence in a cage in someone’s house,” she says. “The only entertainment they have is when the child or owner takes them out of the cage. And to be honest, that’s pretty stressful, especially for something like a gecko that doesn’t like be handled. … I had this nagging sense it’s all about us, and that’s kind of exploitative.”

Pierce spent two years writing and researching Run Spot Run. At times, it was difficult for her, she says, to read the endless list of abuses animals went through from shelter life to the consumerism of the pet industry to the frequency of sexual abuse.

But while her book touches on the dark end of the spectrum, it focuses more on the average pet owner. Pierce — an owner of two dogs herself — isn’t advocating for the removal of all pets from homes but for a more conscious-minded pet keeping. Aside from raising an elephant in your studio apartment, pet ownership isn’t necessarily black and white. Cats and dogs are suitable options, as long as they’re given plenty of room to roam around. Owning small mammals can be in the gray zone, but they can thrive as long as they’re given plenty of space and time out of their cage. Research shows amphibians and reptiles don’t do well in captivity.

Pierce also wants people to reconsider how they treat fish. A goldfish can live about 25 years, and it grows along with its environment. Pierce adopted out her two goldfish to a friend with a pond when they got too big for their 20-gallon tank, and says she’ll never get fish again because it isn’t fair to them.

“We don’t think fish lives matter that much but to them they matter,” she says.

Run, Spot, Run also deals in detail with the struggles of the average pet owner: what to feed your pet, how much to leave them alone, the proper size of cages or tanks and the like. Pierce says no one is the perfect pet owner, including herself, but it’s all about effort to improve conditions.

“The typical pet owner is really loving and responsible and wants to do the best for their animal. It’s like being a parent. There’s no such thing as perfect, and there’s no single model of the perfect pet owner,” she says. “There’s a lot of variability with the way we’ve done things and the way we could do things, and I’d like to see it move toward doing it better.”

Pierce hopes people inform themselves fully before committing to a new pet. She encourages people to adopt from shelters as opposed to breeders or pet stores, which can encourage impulse buying.

But the biggest takeaway she wants people to get from her new book is to see conditions from a pet’s perspective.

“[We need to] put ourselves in their paws and see how it looks from the inside,” Pierce says. “Is it beneficial for them? Do they have a good life?”

On the Bill: Jessica Pierce — Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 18, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.