A few months ago, my wife and I acquired a pet cockatiel named Chandler. We went to a fascinating store in Manhattan that specializes in birds, and waited for a breeder who delivered five recently hatched chicks. My wife picked the largest, most assertive one and the manager put a band on his leg to identify him as ours. Over the next six weeks, until he was ready to come home, we visited Chandler at the store.
The next time we saw him, he still had a bald head. The store had a couch upstairs where you could take your bird and spend some quiet time; we saw other people bonding with cockatiels and parrots. Downstairs was very loud, with African greys and cockatoos shrieking. Chandler and his siblings lived in a glass tank on the counter, where they became inured to the noise and to people passing by.
My wife sat on the couch with a towel in her lap while Chandler perched on her hand or crawled up her sleeve to her shoulder. He was a docile, friendly animal, perfectly trusting of people; he had been handfed since birth. We were very excited at last to bring him home, when the store manager determined Chandler was ready to dispense with the baby food fed him by eyedropper. He seemed regretful to let Chandler go.
Chandler has been home with us for two months now. We take him out and play with him for at least a quarter of an hour in the morning. When I get home at night (my wife works several hours later each day then I do), I take him out again. He loves to be on shoulders and will ride around while you do chores in the house; he has learned that with his claws he can climb around on you safely, so sometimes while you are doing stuff he will transfer himself to your chest or climb down your arm to investigate what you are working on.
Chandler has noises: a happy quiet chirp when he is being petted; an angry squawk when you are trying to get him off your shoulder and he does not want to come. Like a puppy, he likes to chew things. His favorite toys are pieces of uncooked pasta, which he crunches up, and cardboard, like the subscription cards from magazines, which he shreds. I ordered a jungle gym from pets.com, which terrifies him and he will not go anywhere near it. But you can carry him anywhere in the house on your back, near sinks and in front of open refrigerators and in closets, and he does not get scared.
We were looking for a way to prolong his time out of the cage without having to hold him all the time. We bought a small wooden free-standing perch, but he will not stay on it. Recently we have discovered that if you place him on top of his cage with some pasta and paper, and a piece of millet or seedcake, he will play quietly for a half hour or more before attempting to fly.
Usually once you cover him over he is oblivious to outside noises after a while, but sometimes if you rattle the cage or make a loud noise after hours he panics, thrashing frantically for minutes until he quiets down. At these times, we are afraid he will hurt himself.
The first week or so Chandler was home with us, he seemed to be a quiet, docile bird, but since he has become more assertive. If you leave the room he shrieks; if he is on your back and does not want to come off, he pecks you and squawks. When he does not want to go back in the cage he spreads his wings or climbs up the cage side above the door.
We have watched with great interest as Chandler learns. The first few weeks he could not climb or jump with confidence; now he knows exactly how he wants to get one from a perch to the table, or the cage top to your shoulder. The other day he came off the cage top for the first time and climbed on the open door and on the sides. At first, you could not put him into a sink or bowl without causing him to panic, but the other day he ran down my arm into the kitchen sink to investigate the dripping water.
All the books we have read say that a cockatiel will pick one sleeping place, usually the highest spot in the cage, and stick with it forever. Chandler usually sleeps on his water dish, one of the lower spots in the cage, but has several other sleeping places he switches to for variety.
Of the higher animals, birds in particular are often said to be heavily wired for repetitive behavior: head-cocking, singing, etc. Nonetheless, anyone who keeps a pet cockatiel has the sense of establishing a relationship with an individual who has some clearly expressed preferences and dislikes. Chandler can communicate a few things quite well: distress (the shriek he utters when left alone), a wish to come out of the cage (climbing on the door, squawking and rattling the bars), pleasure (a low chirp he utters when being petted) and anger (another kind of squawk accompanied by an aggressive head movement).
Most people make too little or too much of the sentience of animals. Dog and cat owners in particular often regard their pets as human (or even telepathic) and tell you heavily anthropomorphized stories of their behavior. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who regard all animals as machines, programmed for certain behaviors but not sentient. This belief is usually held strongly by people who are involved in making animals suffer; for example, fishermen will tell you fish cannot feel, but a bass on the hook certainly does a credible imitation of panic and pain.
In a science fiction story I read as a child, a superior alien race captured some humans and kept them in an enclosure. The humans attempted to communicate but were disregarded: neither their use of language nor their scratching of symbols in the sand were understood as intelligent behavior-- but when they made a pet out of an animal which shared their cell their captors understood they were a higher life form.
The human need for and interest in pet animals is a fascinating phenomenon. It is common for dog owners in particular to tell you, "You can buy love". People who have come to believe through harsh experience that all human friendships are conditional treasure the uncritical love of an animal. While Chandler is not as smart or as expressive as a dog, a lot of the pleasure in keeping him is similar: he would rather be on my shoulder than in his cage; I can hold a toy (a piece of uncooked pasta or a seed treat) and he will gnaw on it.
I have another pet which I believe illustrates some other explanations for the human interest in animals. In September of 1972, a girl I was dating gave me a three toed Carolina box turtle (terrapene carolina triungis) whom I named Berryman, and he is with me still, twenty-eight years later. Berryman lives in a thirty gallon tank, and his activities mainly consist of drinking water from his bowl and eating the lettuce, tomato, and fruit I offer him. He does not like to be handled and does not communicate anything other than hunger (in the alacrity with which he responds when food is placed in his tank) and fear (withdrawing his head with a hiss when picked up unexpectedly.)
Despite the fact that he is a rather uninteresting animal (I have no cute Berryman anecdotes) I am very attached to him. I enjoy the responsibility I feel for him; he has acquired immense symbolic significance for me through his longevity (he survived a fire in my house in 1973 in which my room was destroyed by smoke and the axes of the firemen; he was saved by his water bowl, which fell on top of him and sheltered him from the shattered wood and other debris.) I have a feeling that if Berryman is well, so am I. He is my ward.
I learned recently, though, that Berryman and I have more of a relationship than I thought. In a park on Eastern Long Island, I found a wild cousin of his; when I picked it up, the turtle wrenched its head in all directions but never looked at me, apparently unable to process the fact that I--a large primate--had lifted it; it behaved exactly as if it had been whirled up in the air by an invisible force. Berryman, by contrast (long associating my presence near his tank with the delivery of something to eat) looks right at me and moves towards me when I appear.
If I needed any proof that Chandler is aware we are living things and not simply an ambulatory platform for feeding and playing, there is the fact that even when he nips he does not bite us nearly as hard as he does a piece of pasta he is offered as a toy. He can distinguish between hard objects a human is wearing, such as watches, eyeglasses and jewelry, which he will bite hard, and the parts of a human, which he will not. Another interesting fact is that he will climb from your hand (or even from the floor) to your shoulder, but not to the top of your head, which he could just as easily reach. I believe that Chandler, like a cat or dog, knows what a face is, and has extended the knowledge used in interacting with other birds, to human beings. The face is the source of verbal and visual cues about the owner's moods and intentions. On your shoulder he can see your face; on the top of your head he cannot.
The fascination of keeping animals lies both in their strangeness and similarity to us. A bird is shaped very differently from the other higher animals: walking, its form is extremely clumsy (Chandler sometimes trips and falls on his face while walking on an uneven surface such as your lap). Claws are very unlike hands or paws; beaks are unlike mouths or muzzles. The activity for which Chandler is optimized (but which he does not get to do, a point I'll discuss below) is flying: an activity which is strikingly beautiful, even a matter of envy to humans, but very alien to us. All my life I have had flying dreams; I have long known that scuba diving is appealing to me because it is the best simalucrum we have of being able to move in three dimensions, without being glued down by gravity. We are used to being upright, or sitting, or horizontal; birds do not have to preserve any particular physical orientation to the ground and have a freedom of action we lack. Our own achievement of flight in airplanes bears no similarity to what birds do: it is accomplished by brute force. The human activity which most closely simulates bird flight is hang gliding, done for hours barefoot, sensing the up and downdrafts with the soles of one's feet (a dangerous activity I will never try but which I imagine must be very beautiful.)
All higher life forms are also remarkably similar to one another: two eyes, one mouth, four limbs. Both Berryman and Chandler have a tongue which stretches out to taste their food before they take a bite; both extend their jaws in a sort of yawn sometimes. Both place a claw on top of a piece of food to hold it down while they are eating it. Chandler has numerous other behaviors which he shares with dogs. He scratches his neck with his foot exactly like a dog does; his preening is similar to canine grooming. Chandler's squawking and nipping is similar to the snarl and bite of a harassed cat or dog. Chandler enjoys being petted and will put his head down so that you can scratch his neck.
While Berryman will always react the same way to the same stimuli, Chandler has "moods." When he first wakes up in the morning he is docile and well-behaved when you take him out of the cage. If he has been left alone until late in the evening, he is frenetic and mischievous, engaging in his worst behavior (he clamps your glasses with his beak and attempts to walk up your face). Sometimes he comes off your shoulder and returns to the cage obediently; other times he nips, yells and retreats to the middle of your back where you cannot reach him. People find this inconsistency in higher animals particularly "human".
When I was a child, I knew where every pet store was within a five mile radius of my home in Brooklyn. A favorite Saturday activity was to ride our bicycles to every one of them: five shops in an afternoon, where the main interest was to look at what they had, less often to buy anything.
In every pet store you saw a certain amount of death: a few dead fish the owner had not yet removed; a dead frog or salamander in every tank of amphibians. The realization only came later that pet stores trade in the death of small animals: they remove them from a wild environment, put them under stress, and then sell them to people who do not have the knowledge, or even the desire, to take care of them properly.
Through the late nineteen-sixties, every pet store had a tank full of baby "red-eared" turtles (Mississippi pond sliders), and everyone who grew up in or prior to this period owned a number of them. Red-ears live up to twenty years, and I only ever knew two people who had one that survived its first year. While adult red ears are about as hardy a reptile as you can own, virtually all of the babies sold were killed within a few months by one of several causes. The food the stores sold for them (dried insect eggs) was not nutritious enough to keep them alive. The water must be kept scrupulously clean; otherwise they get fatal eye infections very easily. And turtles can only digest if the water temperature is above sixty five degrees, so a turtle kept on a cold windowsill in the winter dies of starvation. The bowls sold by the stores--the plastic oval with the little palm tree in the center-- were also not particularly well designed for these creatures (not to mention that they would outgrow these small containers in a year if properly cared for.) Finally, most were over-handled by their child-owners.
Luckily for the red-ears they were found to be a vector for salmonella, and sale of the young ones was banned. You can still find a few adults in every pet store.
The red-eared turtles are grown on farms in the south, but most of the reptiles and amphibians, and some of the birds and salt water tropical fish you see in pet stores have been caught in the wild. Through-out the third world are people who catch animals which they place in crates and parcels and ship to pet dealers in the first world. The majority of these animals die in transit, and the ones which do not, arrive ill, starving and tremendously stressed. While there are federal laws now prohibiting the import of wild birds and other endangered species, a certain number of animals slip by every year and may show up in your local store.
Removing animals from the wild also tends to decimate natural populations over time. While the collection and sale of a box turtle like Berryman would not be legal today in New York state (and as far as I know, anywhere else in this country) they continue to be popular pets abroad and are frequently smuggled out of this country for sale overseas. When I was a child they were already uncommon (catching one in the woods was a big event). Today, in eastern Long Island, I have seen only four specimens in the last eleven years.
While I still visit pet stores occasionally to admire the animals, I would never buy any wild-caught animal from one. I believe that Berryman should never have been removed from his natural habitat. With some unease about the decision, I would not return him based largely on the assumption that after all these years of captivity he would be unable to survive in the wild.
Australia, well ahead of its time, banned the export of wild cockatiels in 1899, so every pet cockatiel anywhere else is the offspring of a century of breeding stock. These birds have already diverged from their wild relatives in coloration and probably in behavior; we are at the beginning of a development like that which has occurred for dogs and cats over thousands of years, which has culminated in their bearing only a slight resemblance to any wild species.
Nonetheless, there are ethical issues in keeping even captive-bred animals. The man who sold us Chandler had clipped his wings and the books we bought recommended that we cut them again every time he moults. Chandler launches himself occasionally, when startled or in a mood to explore, but his wings without the key feathers which were cut are only sufficient to retard his fall. Even if all his ancestors for a hundred years (cockatiels live twenty) were unable to range freely, there is something very sad in the spectacle of a bird optimized to fly across dozens of square miles of forest living cooped in a small cage. When I was looking at a much larger parrot cage, the honest owner of the bird store guided me to a smaller one: "This is the right size for cockatiels." While Chandler will sit quietly for hours, or play with the various toys in his cage, when he thinks we are not around, much of his activity when we are present consists of asking to be let out: squawking and rattling the bars.
Berryman in a wild state would, in the course of his lifetime, explore miles of woodland; instead he has lived for twenty-eight years in a few square feet. In the early years he sometimes pushed against the walls of the tank; now, never. Sometimes I look at him and see a docile, well-adjusted prisoner living in solitary confinement. Neither he nor Chandler will ever have the opportunity to breed. While wild box turtles are loners except for a few minutes at mating time, cockatiels are social birds, living in flocks. For Chandler, we take the place of his interaction with other birds.
In 1975, the philosopher Peter Singer published his influential book Animal Liberation, in which he points out that certain animals are more "sentient" (function on a higher level) than human infants or certain impaired adults, and that any attempt to draw a strict line between them is based on the uncritical assumption that "humans are better". (He calls this "speciesism"). Ultimately, he says, the consideration given a being should be based, not on its intelligence but on its "capacity for suffering and enjoyment". In this he follows Bentham, whom he quotes:
[A] full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?
That a pet animal in an important sense is a "person" is a truth that children know instinctively, like certain others that are too often lost in adulthood. (Children are also not racist until taught to be.) Chandler has a personality in that he has preferences (to be out of his cage; to be on your shoulder rather than on top of his cage) and opinions (the sink is interesting, but the jungle gymn is scary). He is an individual in the sense that his preferences and opinions may be different than those of other cockatiels, who play on gymns but sleep in a single place in their cages.
In deciding to acquire a cockatiel, my wife and I discussed the fact that we were (at a time when our only child is grown and out of the house) choosing to make a twenty-year commitment to another sentient being. This may influence many choices we make in the future: we have always wanted to live abroad some day but may not be able to bring him. In formulating a rulebook to help determine when it is ethical to acquire a pet, this is the most important point. You are in effect deciding to welcome another person in your house. Can you make this commitment and are you equipped to create an environment which will accomodate this person's needs?
Ironically, one reason often given for treating animals differently than humans is that they have no conception of the future. But humans all too frequently acquire pets without thinking ahead either.
If you can answer these questions satisfactorily, thinking about the environmental impact comes next. Creating a good home for a wild animal is still a selfish choice. Here the Kantian categorical imperative must be considered: would you be happy if everyone else also went and removed another member of the same species from the wild? If not, you shouldn't do it. There is a powerful contradiction involved in claiming to love animals while harming them and the surroundings in which they belong.