By Published: Dec. 1, 2018

Pet illustration

Inquiry: Leslie Irvine 

CU Boulder sociologist Leslie Irvine, author of My Dog Always Eats First, studies the relationships between humans and their pets.  

Should people keep pets? Is there an argument against it?

There is, and I’ll make this argument even though I am surrounded by cats and a dog: It is a relationship of captivity. It involves deciding at some point that this other species exists for our entertainment and our pleasure. 

You referred to several cats and a dog...

My husband and I have two cats and a dog. All of them from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, where I’ve been a volunteer for 20 years. Our crew is down from an all-time high of five cats and two dogs. It’s considerably easier at the moment.

What does the term “pet” imply about the relationship between person and animal?

We would never eat them.

Leslie Irvine

Adopt rather than shop’ is my message.

Is the human-pet relationship generally a good deal for the pets?

I think so, assuming no abuse and assuming adequate veterinary care and all the other things an animal needs for quality of life — good diet, plenty of exercise. An ability to exercise natural behaviors.

Are we aware of any species other than humans that keeps pets?

There’s the famous gorilla — Coco the gorilla had a kitten. But this was given to her by human beings.

So, we’re the only animal that keeps other animals around for this kind of social relationship.

That’s right.

What does that reflect about us?

First, you can say it reflects our capacity to dominate other species. On a more positive side, it says something about our capacity to relate to others, and by others I mean other beings, not just other humans. In our relationship with animals, we stretch our interactional capabilities. Dog-human friendship isn’t a replacement for human friendship — it’s essentially a different kind of a relationship.

Let’s talk about your book My Dog Always Eats First, in which you explored relationships between the homeless and their pets. What did you learn?

I was sure that the most interesting thing was going to be finding out how homeless people managed to provide food and care for their animals. And, actually, providing food was the least of their concerns. People on the street were coming up to them and giving them bags of food. And most food banks and soup kitchens are now providing pet food. The thing I thought was going to be the most interesting turned out to be the question that had the most straightforward answer.

How do you feel about zoos? 

In general, I don’t like them. I don’t like captivity. But I do see that, in some instances, they’re doing some good educational things and some good conservation efforts. And I’m not in favor of the kind of breeding that takes place in zoos, because it’s a very restricted gene pool. I’m not in favor of capturing wild animals anymore. I would like to see zoos phased out. This menagerie was an 18th, 19th-century invention.

Is keeping a single pet at home really that much different from having a one-animal zoo? 

Philosophically, no. It’s keeping an animal to look at, keep us company, entertain us — keeping an animal for our pleasure.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the grief many people feel when a pet dies…

Our responsibility for their care makes their deaths feel like something that we could have prevented, to some degree. So, there’s a lot of responsibility tied up in death. Did I do the right thing? Did this animal have a good life?

What are you working on these days?

Research that examines the roles of animals in social problems we generally think of as solely human. This refers back to some of my work on animals and disasters. I did the research following Hurricane Katrina, when it suddenly and very powerfully came to people’s attention that we have to plan for companion animals in a disaster, or people are not going to evacuate. People are going to go back into evacuated areas to rescue their pets. There’s going to be psychological costs of leaving them behind. There’s going to be public health issues.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the human-animal relationship?

The need to adopt rather than breed dogs and cats. I hope that we can do away with things like puppy mills within my lifetime. I guess ‘adopt rather than shop’ is my message.

Do you see that primarily as a moral imperative, or a practical need? 

Both. When I travel — a lot of vacations, I visit the local shelters. And I realize the practical need.


Condensed and edited. 

An extended audio version is available under podcasts at 

Illustration by Alison Seiffer