Like many—probably most—men my age (and older), I’ve had some learning to do about personal autonomy, which is usually cited in arguments for legal abortion, but really applies in all cases where someone, anyone, would take a person’s body for purposes not their own. This obviously applies when conservatives insist narrowly that pregnancy is part of a woman’s “essential nature” and, therefore, she shouldn’t be allowed to exercise any control over her own reproduction.
I have been fortunate to have had a teacher. As it happens, this teacher, though female, is not human, but rather a cat, my cat, Admiral Janeway. Admiral Janeway first came to me early in 2003, soon after I moved to Lupin Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains (of California). She was actually reclaiming her home, one that her previous human had moved out of. But I was in that home then and so she accepted me as well.
We’ve had our ups and downs over the years. It was an enormous act of will for her to break into my home as she did. And that will, that stubbornness, has bedeviled us ever since.
The way she taught me about personal autonomy was only partly in her steadfast rejection of monthly topical flea treatments. She would respond to these by withdrawing from me for weeks at a time, not because she was afraid, but because she was furious. Trips to the veterinarian were largely out of the question and had to be kept to an absolute minimum. Through sheer determination and persistence, she would escape any contraptions intended to keep her from licking or scratching at a horrible sore between her shoulders that resulted from a food allergy.
Admiral Janeway is adamant that her body is her body and no one else’s. And it was my interaction with her that offered a visceral sense of what personal autonomy is about.
That food allergy has been a moving target over the years. She might not be allergic to some food when we first start giving it to her, but she is likely to develop an allergy to it over time. And there are very few foods she will even eat—with one highly important exception, she is generally uninterested in human food. So the moving target’s difficulty was compounded three ways: We seek food that won’t make her vomit, that won’t make her scratch the back of her neck, and that she’ll even eat.
This went on for years, with her typically vomiting at least once per day. Several years and several vets later, I finally found a really good one (a keyword to rely on is “holistic”). And it was with this vet that we finally succeeded—only partially—in transitioning her from kibble to a raw meat diet. But also with this vet, we are seeking food that won’t make her sicker.
Like other vets, this one overestimates the degree of control I have over Admiral Janeway and underestimates the toll that being an intermediary between the two takes. Admiral Janeway likes her kibble and she likes the cheap tuna that’s for human consumption and that’s heavily laced with mercury.
And recently, she’s been making it increasingly clear that the raw food is not to her liking. And that the skipjack tuna that is lower in mercury isn’t good enough to overcome her distaste for the raw food that she should be eating.
Which means that I am facing a future of her starving herself to death, holding out for the kibble, or her finding a neighbor’s kibble, and making herself sicker that way. She already has kidney disease; the kibble makes it worse. The vet’s offer of a tablespoon of kibble with her wet foods is a compromise she appears unwilling to accept.
Which means I am facing a decision to push her across the rainbow bridge. After nearly fifteen years, I am simply exhausted with the food battle. This has always been difficult and has gotten more so. And I don’t want her to suffer starvation or more sickness because she deeply believes she should be eating kibble and cheap tuna.
But it also means I would be committing the ultimate infringement of her personal autonomy.
There is a fringe of the animal rights community that holds that humans should not keep companion animals. I have never seen their argument in detail so I can’t properly address it. I think they neglect that many of these animals have lived with humans for thousands of years (if not longer), that they have evolved dependence on humans. But these folks seem to view relationships between human and non-human animals as inherently exploitative, and therefore, the keeping of companion animals as immoral.
I would not, in any event, advocate abdicating our responsibilities to animals that have lived with us, cooperated with us, comforted us, and amused us for so long. Certainly, I know from Admiral Janeway’s demands for my lap, from her desires to be petted, and, when she’s had enough, from her way of putting my hand under her paw and then resting her chin on it, that there’s more to our relationships than that fringe would suggest. I see no support for any claim that these relationships are necessarily any particular thing at all, let alone inherently exploitative.
That is not to say that human-nonhuman relationships are unproblematic. Certainly none the issues of kyriarchy disappear because one side of these relationships is unable to communicate literally with the other. The ethical discrepancy between human treatment of companion and farmed animals remains inexplicable.
But at this particular moment, I am wrestling with the question of what is kind. And I am wrestling with my own culpability in Admiral Janeway’s predicament. When she came to me, she was probably less than a year old. I wonder if I could then have changed her eating habits when, instead, I took advantage of kibble’s convenience while I returned to school.
It is hard for me to imagine finishing my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. without her. In that time, she has been (okay, not always) a friend in a time when I have felt forsaken by all the people I thought were my friends. And now after all that, she is paying the ultimate price for mistakes I made.
But the road that lies ahead for her seems to me especially cruel.
In deepest gratitude, if I could tell her, I would tell her I am deeply sorry. I hope I never again make the mistakes I made with her. I hope never again to be caught between a veterinarian and an animal. I hope that if I ever adopt a fellow traveler on this planet again, that I can spend more time with that being and not miss the opportunity that I now feel I squandered with her.
I would tell her—not that it does any good—that all this is not her fault. That she was the dearest, sweetest cat I could ever have hoped for. And if there is another side to that rainbow bridge, that it is a better place, and that I will meet her again there.