I took the subway on a warm autumn evening from trendy Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., to the distant Maryland suburbs. As directed, I waited on the street by a line of pay phones. At the appointed time, a couple pulled up in the kind of rumpled and earnest vehicle typically associated with a riotous display of leftist-leaning bumper stickers. They helped me into the back seat and looked both ways to make sure the coast was clear. Then they covered me with a wool blanket and drove off.
I was held overnight. Nobody knew where I was. It was part of the deal.
The host couple didn't say much. They were, after all, members of an international terrorist network, the Animal Liberation Front (or ALF). I had three meals with them. They were orthodox vegans; they ate a lot of beans, veggies and tofu, most of it raw, nothing that had ever breathed or that could be considered a life-form. They shared their space with a number of rescued companion animals—cats, dogs, a pot-bellied pig and an expensive talking bird that had apparently witnessed unspeakable acts while in residence with a notorious drug dealer. The house smelled like a domicile in one of those cultures where it is customary for the livestock to live under the same roof as the family. For their part, the couple didn't seem to notice the odors. They were also ecologically conscious; a sign in the bathroom advised guests to "let it brown before flushing it down." Wherever you moved throughout the house, the animals would settle around you; during dinner, they begged underfoot, waiting for scraps—they were also vegan. A long-haired cat lolled a corner of the table, licking itself contentedly with its sandpaper tongue. It felt a little like the foxes were running the henhouse, but I wasn't there to judge.
Late in the afternoon of the next day I was taken to a hotel, where I joined with the anonymous members of the ALF who'd been tapped for that night's mission. As the sky grew dark, we drove a distance in a cargo van, more than 15 of us, jammed together, sitting uncomfortably on the hard metal floor, nervous and wearing black, everyone a vegan. Noxious gas gathered in the small, airless space. Nobody mentioned it.
We all jumped out of the still-moving van like paratroopers from a plane. We pulled down our facemasks, cut through a fence and made our way to an isolated facility where innocent animals were being used for medical research. I would later learn that the lab was a U.S. government facility and that the scientists employed therein were working to discover a cure for toxoplasmosis. In humans the disease causes birth defects, dementia and death. At the time, it was responsible for the deaths of one-fourth of those who were suffering from AIDS. Cats are carriers of the parasite that causes the disease, but they are immune from the effects.
The ALF guerillas—in real life they were housewives and professional people, affluent and dedicated enough to pay their own way to participate in raids around the country—set about trashing the lab. They spray-painted slogans on the walls (e.g., MEAT IS MURDER) and left behind fliers with recipes for vegan dishes. Then we were all given an animal carrier and/or a special backpack with breathing holes. We trekked across a dark field—through a herd of cattle—to a rendezvous point with our original van and several other vehicles.
That night, 28 cats and 7 miniature African piglets were whisked away from certain death, bound for new homes via a network the ALF loyalists called, without irony, the Underground Railroad.
After the raid, the ALF members confiscated my black, high-top Converse sneakers (they'd already spray-painted the white parts) and threw them away with all the others into a random huge dumpster—so as not to be traced, I suppose. They let me off at the original subway station in my black socks.
On the train home, I ran into some people I knew. They didn't ask about my shoes. I didn't volunteer.
I tell you this story to establish my bona fides as someone who has thought and written a fair amount about animals.
I tell you this story as a guy who has put himself at risk—as a semi-non-participating observer/journalist—to help illuminate an important ethical debate. Indeed, the threat of federal charges was nothing compared to the difficult hours spent within the host couple's house/manger (I have allergies) or to the time riding in the gaseous troop transport that hauled us to and from the insurgent action.(Stifling the urge to hurl in the crowded van, I believe, was one of the great triumphs of my career.)
I tell you this story because I want to talk about pets.
And about why I choose to live a pet-free existence.
Why I'd rather not eat in a restaurant with your dog at my feet.
Why I don't want to come over to your house if I'm going to leave all itchy and runny and covered in dog hair. I still get shivers thinking about the hair-inundated blanket with which I was covered by the vegan host couple as we drove away from the subway station.
Why I'd rather not be charged by your barking dog as I take my daily walk. Your precious Alfie might be a sweetheart, but all I see is teeth.
And why, deep down, the idea of having pets feels wrong to me.
Because when I see a pet, I see something like a slave—a living soul owned by another living soul. One life-form carefully bred and traded and trained (or not) for the selfish enjoyment of another life-form. Separated from families, living without freedom of choice. If it is believed that animals have some rights—i.e., the right not to be forced to act as a test mechanism for drugs or other medical treatment—why don't they have other kinds of rights as well?
Now, before we get too far, arbitrary as it might be, I see a difference between animals used as companions and animals used as food—though I know this line is blurred in some cultures. To my mind, breeding live food is necessary at this juncture in human developmental history. I understand the species-to-species ramifications, but I can deal with that. One can always choose to be a vegan.
But pets? I'm not sure I really understand. They seem like another reflection of our vanity. They're here because we want them, another thing to purchase and own, this cute toy, animated by a low-voltage brain, ready to serve any master that feeds it.
As I write this, my next-door neighbors' dog is barking. It's been barking for the last three hours. The neighbors are old. Through the hedge, their house looks like an episode of Hoarders. They put the pooch outside on the porch for looong periods of time. It's a small dog. It barks nonstop. The same four tones repeated over and over. I don't know what it's saying but the poor thing's voice has grown hoarse. Yap-Yap-Yap-Yap! Yap-Yap-Yap-Yap!
I have some other neighbors at the foot of the canyon. Every morning, at precisely 6:15, their dog commences barking. This one is a bigger dog, louder, with more of what military types might call command presence. What it's barking about, whatever it's saying, also has four parts. YAP-YAP-YAP-YAP. Again and again. I could bark it for you right now; it's etched into my brain like the chorus of a bad song. The barking echoes upward, through the prickly and aromatic cleavage of the canyon valley, and floats into my open window, the screen still wet with morning dew.
And then, after 15 minutes, it stops.
Most mornings as I'm lying there awake listening to it bark, I wonder, What the hell is the dog saying? I wish I knew. (Clearly he's been trained to think if he barks for 15 minutes, the door will magically open.)
I also wonder about the owner. What is he doing during that time?
You might say I never got off on the right foot with pets. I'm admitting that here. My family never had a pet; my mother didn't much care for dog breath and slobber and wet fur and hair everywhere and cleaning up dog shit—and she hates how dogs always want to smell her private parts. Frankly, I feel the same. Not to mention the notion of taking responsibility for the health and welfare of another living being. Or having to follow something around with a baggie to pick up its poop.
I don't need a friend that bad.
I know what people say: "Shiner loves me unconditionally." "Duke never talks back." "Chloe's soooo cute; she's my little baby bear."
But what I want to know is this: What are your pets saying?
Let me back inside?
This sweater is stupid?
I need to pee?
I hate this cage?
What is this slop?
Please get another life?
Please free me now?
Photo by © Juniors Bildarchiv GmbH/Alamy