The Ethicist: If Two People Claim a Lost Cat, Who Should Get It?

August 12, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “If Two People Claim a Lost Cat, Who Should Get It?”.

Driving home late one night, I saw a cat run into the street and get hit by a car. I stopped and picked him up. He had no collar or tag. Our local emergency vet pronounced him in stable condition but wouldn’t keep him because he was a stray: no collar, no tag, no microchip. All local shelters were closed until noon the next day, so I took him home. I posted photos on that night and on a Facebook “lost pets” page the next morning. When my vet’s office opened, I took him in and dropped him off.

When I spoke to the office later that afternoon, they said the cat had been a victim of neglect. He was recently neutered, but he was filthy and covered in fleas; it appeared from his condition that he had been living outside for quite some time (probably both before and after the neutering).

The vet’s office said they knew of a potential adopter who would give the cat an excellent home. I hadn’t received any response to my online posts, so I agreed and paid for the exam.

The next day, two different people responded to the Facebook post and claimed that the cat was theirs. I thought long and hard about the right thing to do. A few of the things I considered were the cat’s condition (indicating neglect), as well as the fact that he had no collar, no tag and no microchip: How to know which claimant to believe? Meanwhile, the cat has been living with the adopter found by the vet, and by all accounts, he is happy and getting healthier in his new home and is being kept indoors.

Faced with bad options on all sides, I decided I didn’t want to send the cat back to a neglectful environment, so I have not yet replied to the Facebook inquiries. Do I owe either claimant an explanation? If so, how should I respond to the two claims of ownership?

Alternately, was my decision not to facilitate reunification wrong, and were the previous owners’ claims paramount, despite the cat’s neglected condition? Should I not have allowed the private adoption and instead insisted that the cat go to a shelter?

My response: Columnists dream of getting this question.

Tell the respondents you’ll cut the cat in half and give each a piece. The one who says to keep it whole and give it to the other is the true owner.

The New York Times response:

It was good of you to take such care of this cat. Let’s be sure, though, that you face the quandary you describe. It’s possible to imagine less malign scenarios. The vet thinks that the cat was neutered recently but was living outside for longer. Yet sometimes when people encounter a free-roaming cat, they arrange for it to be neutered and released. (T.N.R., for “trap-neuter-return,” is the term of art here.) Or conceivably, the cat escaped from its owner a year ago, and all this happened since. As for the two claimants: Maybe they’re co-owners. Maybe one has lots of pictures that would establish ownership. Or maybe one has made an honest mistake, which a closer examination would put right. If you’re going to be depriving somebody of a pet, you want to be certain of your conclusions.

Suppose, though, that the cat’s owner establishes his or her claim and that you confirm your suspicions that the cat was neglected at home. (Which, as I say, now sounds like a premature inference.) All states have laws against animal cruelty, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can help you find the right local agency to contact. Nobody’s property rights in a pet include the right to abuse it.

I am going on a weeklong, privately chartered cruise. I began planning this trip in the fall of 2017 while torridly in love with a dear friend who had become much more. We included his friends and mine on our boat, and there are about half a dozen of us. After we chartered our boat, the boyfriend and I broke up. One of the many reasons we broke up is that I learned he had not recovered from his extreme binge-drinking habits.

As the trip approaches, I am becoming increasingly concerned that my ex-boyfriend may exhibit troubling behavior toward my female friends. Although he is compassionate and charming, and a respected professional, he has demonstrated physically and sexually aggressive behavior toward women during his binge-drinking episodes.

In the past, I have witnessed him cornering women in bars and parties and grabbing their hair. These episodes never escalated to serious battery or frank sexual assault, but their inappropriateness and inherent danger do not escape me.

As I recall these episodes, I feel ambivalence about having him on our trip. It is too late to “evict” him, but I am unsure of my responsibility to the other women. On one hand, I do not want to bias them toward a person who may not behave badly at all. On the other hand, I am fearful that not warning them may be unfair.

Have I made a grave error in planning this trip with my ex, who despite his goodness is a potentially dangerous presence for women? Should I warn the women of his tendencies or practice extreme vigilance and ensure that his behavior does not escalate into aggression?

My response: To answer your first question, there is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Since everyone has different values, asking if you made an error, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

As for the second question, you didn’t offer the option of talking to your ex first. I involve the people involved in the situation in the process as best I can. Since you’ll be in close quarters with the guy for a week, you’re going to talk to him soon. You wrote of many other reasons you broke up, likely some of them things he didn’t like about you. Possibly his views of the problems you describe conflict with yours. Without that context doing things that affect him without involving him sounds like it would escalate things right before a week together on a boat. I wouldn’t act unilaterally on something that affects someone like that.

Or were you a pure angel?

The New York Times response:

It’s a vacation on a yacht. There will be drinking. If a member of your party gets unpleasant or abusive when that happens, people need to know at the start. It may not make for a great holiday spirit, but you owe it to them to be straight about what has happened. If you feel you can safely do so, why not first tell your ex-boyfriend that, given what you’ve witnessed, you’ll have to warn the others? He can decide whether he wants to stick with his plans.

My 19-year-old son has been working for a local landscaper during his summer break from college. The crew chief for his group of workers uses racist, homophobic and other offensive language on a regular basis. After a few weeks, my son took a different job, in part because of this unpleasant work environment. I’m sure the crew chief is a valued employee and works hard. But should either of us inform the owner of the company that their crew chief uses this language?

My response: “What should I do?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

Instead of giving advice, I’m going to share something I learned speaking with Jonathan Haidt, coauthor of the book The Coddling of the American Mind, which expands on a 2015 Atlantic article of the same name, for my podcast. He said that he found many students today haven’t heard the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

It’s hard for me not to comment at length of a generation not learning to handle speech they don’t like, but Jonathan’s article covers it. It doesn’t exactly overlap with your situation but I suggest that you’ll find it relevant. This excerpt might motivate you to read it, though it may make you feel uncomfortable:

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control. One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought.

Practically speaking, if he leaves jobs every time he doesn’t like how someone speaks, he’s going to have a resume a mile long. Learning to handle such situations, particularly without his parents’ help at 19 years old, will help his career.

The New York Times response:

Your son has no beef with the company, just with the atmosphere created by the crew chief. That atmosphere has contributed to the loss of a steady worker. Maybe your son could find a way to convey his concerns to the actual offender. If not, it would be a courtesy to tell the owner what happened. (I’m assuming there’s no reason to fear retaliation.) But let it be your son’s decision. He’s old enough to vote, marry and serve in the military; he doesn’t need you to speak on his behalf.

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