Vegans Need to be Better Advocates for Neutering
It’s 9pm on a Sunday night and I’m stood in the middle of an empty street in a rough part of Plumstead. I’m sick, with a fever that is somehow failing to take the edge off the blistering November cold.
With me is fellow rescue volunteer, Conchi. We’re investigating a report of kittens running loose near Eglinton - an area I’ve written about previously as especially notorious for strays. And we’re staring at the scene before us not quite knowing where to start.
There is an entire stray cat colony milling about in the darkened street. Between ten and fifteen cats, including a cat with a worryingly swollen belly, a huge, battle-scarred, and likely FIV positive tom, and the two kittens, who dodge the odd car as they dart from one side of the road to the other.
Earlier that day, through a haze of max strength Wilko cold and flu remedy and a backlog of snot, I’d had an argument on a Vegan Facebook group. It was with not one, but three vegans who were vehemently opposed to neutering, on the grounds that it was exploitation or cruelty or both.
I’ve been encountering such people with a worrying frequency of late.
In that moment, shivering, sweating, exhausted at the sight of so many desperate cats, I wished with all my heart that I could trade places with those vegans. So that they might understand why neutering was the lesser of two evils; preferable to ten homeless cats who in a year would be thirty. Preferable to generations of hunger, cold, dead kittens, and cats created by people for homes who would never know a home. And also so that I might be in bed, watching crap on Netflix like every other twat on a Sunday night smart enough to not get sucked into rescue work.
With that in mind, it might surprise you to learn that there was a time when I too, was a vegan with reservations about neutering.
Back when I had plenty of experience in the animal rights movement, but had merely dipped my toes into the world of animal rescue, I sat in the reception of a veterinary surgery waiting for my dog’s name to be called, and was plagued with anxiety.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was crossing a line, about to commit to something at odds with my most dearly held beliefs. What right did I have to surgically alter my dog’s body? To deprive her of a biological imperative, a sexuality - even a sexuality so crude that it mainly manifested through the humping of sofa cushions?
A quick disclaimer; I have no desire to make excuses for anyone that spouts anti-neutering rhetoric, regardless of their dietary preferences. I have seen first-hand the damage that failing to neuter a single pet can cause; in fact as an employee and then volunteer for a cat charity, I’ve spent a sizable chunk of my adult life trying to undo said damage. The intro to this piece being just one example.
I'd also like to point out that my doubts were never enough to prevent my family from neutering our pets. Even back then, as a teenager earnestly alienating loved ones with my new-found veganism (before it was cool), I had enough sense to go through with it. Mindie was neutered. And she continues to hump sofa cushions anyway, the little freak.
I’m confessing to once having had this anxiety not to make allowances, or to paint a negative picture of vegans, but because I think it may highlight a dissonance between the worlds of animal rights and animal welfare that is relevant to the topic. Though us ‘animal people’ tend to get lumped in together, in reality there can be a divide between those who work with animals on a day-to-day basis, like vets and occasionally rescue workers, and those engaged with the wider moral and ethical issues related to animals.
This means that there are people who will pour every ounce of their time, money and energy into saving the life of say, a puppy, just to go home that night and eat lamb for dinner. And then, as I’ve recently discovered, there are people who haven’t touched meat in ten years for ethical and environmental reasons, who have an unneutered cat that they allow to roam the neighbourhood, banging the shit out of all the other local cats. Starting stray cat colonies like the one in Eglinton and arguing with me on Vegan groups.
It’s interesting that it was only once I had a foot in both worlds - and I’m not the only one, there’s a bunch of us in the centre of this venn diagram - that I truly saw the importance of neutering. And I think that’s because stripped of all context, looked at on a purely surface-level, neutering might appear at odds with animal rights (and therefore vegan) ideals.
I know that seems hard to believe. For those of us who’ve seen awful things - like stray kittens shivering in the rain, or dogs with a week left to live in council pounds, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
But imagine that you’re a vegan who works in B&Q rather than at an animal rescue, and that you don’t have any first-hand experience to draw from. Deprived of the wider context, you might mistake neutering as yet another symptom of human entitlement; removing an animal’s urge to breed because it inconveniences us, because it improves that animal’s suitability as a pet - isn’t that typical of our relationship with animals? in which we genetically engineer, selectively breed, and manipulate their bodies in every imaginable way to cater to our whims?
Like forcibly impregnating cows to keep them producing milk; breeding dogs with crushed faces and breathing difficulties because it looks cute; removing the tips of cat’s toes so that they can’t fuck up our furniture. I could go on.
What someone without the benefit of context or experience might not realise, is that regardless of whether neutering is ideologically imperfect, in practice, it prevents far, far more suffering than it could ever be accused of causing. Because as a procedure with a quick recovery time, rarely detrimental to an animal's long-term health and in some cases actually beneficial to it, neutering is the single most effective and humane solution to the dog and cat overpopulation crisis. And therefore, to suffering and death the world over.
And if you’re a vegan who hasn't heard of such a thing - well, let me summarise what the crisis looks like;
Animal shelters perpetually full with unwanted dogs and cats, because there are simply too many born and not enough homes for all.
Mass euthanasia of animals in these shelters, due to not enough space, funds and volunteers to meet the demand. Approximately 1.5 million shelter animals euthanised in the US alone each year; by methods such as injection or gas.
‘Puppy and kitten season’ in said animal shelters, a period between spring and autumn when rescues are flooded with accidental, unwanted and stray litters.
Staggeringly huge stray and feral cat and dog populations the world over, many starving and living in appalling conditions. The UK is bad enough; take a look at how strays live in India or Egypt. All all these stray animal populations began with someone’s unneutered pets.
The rapid spread of diseases like FIV throughout populations of unneutered animals; imagine a world with zero contraception and you get the idea.
The management of stray animal populations, particularly in areas with high incidences of rabies, by mass killing programs - by poisoning or shooting, for example. Egypt is another example of this.
Litters of puppies and kittens sold or given away on websites like Facebook and Gumtree; leading to them going to irresponsible homes (in my experience the majority of animals surrendred to resues were acquired this way), or to people who use them for breeding, for bait in dog fights, and in some cases, just to torture for fun.
Puppies, kittens and designer breeds seen as an easy means of making money - leading to puppy mills and backyard breeding. Every kitten or puppy born is one less home for an animal in a shelter who will literally die without it.
The decline of wildlife linked to high populations of feral cats, who are then culled as a result (as happened in Australia recently - all those dead ferals are the descendants of someone’s unneutered cats).
I could go on.
If your cat or dog is not neutered, if there is the potential for your animal to breed, then it is non-negotiable; you are contributing to this crisis. To all of the outcomes of this crisis described above. This is particularly true of unneutered cats - if they go outside, it is 100% certain that they will either become pregnant or impregnate other cats.
And if you are merely helping to propagate anti-neutering ideas, like the vegan lady below, then again; you are contributing.
Let's talk about nature for a minute. The idea that neutering is wrong because it's unnatural is one of the biggest obstacles rescues face when encouraging pet owners to do the responsible thing - that and sheer laziness. It was also a point brought up repeatedly during my little Facebook spat.
But we're not dealing with a situation in which nature is the prevailing factor. Domestic dogs and cats are a product of human interference; of hundreds of years of selective breeding and domestication. They have no natural habitat or prey to sustain them. Their populations are not able to achieve a natural state of equilibrium. Bred for reliance on people, they are not suited to life outside of a home. And there will simply never be enough homes if we fail to neuter en-masse. Dogs and cats will continue to grow in numbers, and suffer. And die.
We've orchestrated an unnatural situation with dire consequences for companion animals - in which an unnatural solution is the most humane way forward. Yes, it's true that they can't consent. And that means that subjecting them to surgery when it’s not an immediate medical need, is not something that we should ever take lightly. To justify it, the reasons would need to be compelling. Guess what; they fucking are.
And this is why as a group defined by their commitment to ending the unnecessary suffering of animals, vegans should be the most enthusiastic advocates for neutering of all. Because like I said, it just takes one unneutered cat to cause untold damage. And it takes just one ignorant vegan - who might be looked on as an expert in all things ‘animal’ by their more carnivorous peers - to spread bullshit misinformation that inspires more unregulated breeding.
As a vegan might say to someone unaware of the horrors of the meat industry; in the age of the internet, there is no excuse for being uninformed.