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Is Your Pet a Companion or a Hobby?

June 14th, 2013 by dk

We all love living in a college town. It probably came up last weekend, as you were navigating between the Prefontaine Classic, the Super-Regional baseball playoffs at PK Park, and the first wave of “Everything Must Go” yard sales.

If not, it may well become a topic of conversation next weekend during Fathers Day, wherein the first party pleads with the second party to please move closer, but the second party won’t consider it because his treasured “Stop Pre” T-shirt would plummet in value anywhere but here. “Everything Must Go” — except that.

But is living in a college town platitude or practice? In case for you it’s the former, here’s a quick tutorial in the latter.

On May 8, The Register-Guard featured local students competing in a three-minute thesis competition. Similar to the recent Japanese craze of Pecha Kucha, these students accepted the challenge to fit their scholarship inside the form of an American pop song, positing that AM radio has accurately divined the average American attention span.

Reporter Diane Dietz profiled several of the students’ work, including a sidebar that listed a philosophy scholar who presented on human/animal relations.


The day before, my friend Laura and I had a short meeting. relieved that her sister’s Laura had missed a committee meeting the day before to help a sister look for her missing cat. The cat was no longer lost, but we found ourselves contemplating, because we’re in a college town.

A missing feline might be reason for Laura’s sister to miss a meeting, but was it appropriate for Laura? It wasn’t Laura’s connection to the cat that registered as an emergency; it was her connection to her sister, triggered by her sister’s connection to the cat.

This was not a corporate conversation about responsibility and accountability. The question was being asked for its own sake. The very next day, I knew of somebody who asks questions like this one with rigor and regularity.

Based on Dietz’s article and without leaving my couch, I did a google search: “David Craig University of Oregon philosophy three minute thesis” — the second hit was a university press release about the event. One more quick search and I had Craig’s email address.

I wrote him a brief email and days later we were meeting at The Barn Light over a beer. I might have mentioned that I write for the newspaper, but I doubt that contributed to his eager reply. All the philosophers I know — in my experience, most academics at all levels — prefer an audience of one. That could have been you.

Craig and I had a 40-minute conversation about Kant’s seminal work and the recent boom in this subset of philosophical discourse. We only recently have shifted from viewing animals as being exclusively objects of use to now also becoming objects of reflection. As Craig put it, “It’s a lens we can use to better understand ourselves.”

We chatted about anti-anthropomorphism, speciesism. We explored the concepts of empathy, wonder, reflection, and indirect duty. I learned about the deep and widening gulf between activists fighting for animal rights and those advocating for animal welfare.

We discussed how Darwin turned the animal/human relationship frame on its pointy or floppy ears. Before Darwin, we projected onto animals some aspect of our own consciousness, insisting that our cats know us or that our dogs care for us. Since Darwin, more rigorous work has been in reverse, recognizing our animal selves expressed in our companion species.

As humans and domesticated animals have co-evolved, is there a point in time when “pet” becomes unduly objectifying and “companion species” is the more appropriate term? Have we passed that point already?

Maybe, but was Laura doing the right thing by skipping a meeting to help her pet-distressed sister? That was the question that brought us together, but so many other questions followed from that one. The questions became more interesting than the answer.

That’s how it goes sometimes in a college town.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. Three Minute Thesis:

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  • 1 dk Jun 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Does this get in? What else is required?