What Are Your Obligations When Your Dog Impregnates Another One?

I have a good friend whose dog is unneutered for health reasons. At the dog park, his dog had intercourse with a dog that was unspayed. It all happened very quickly, and by the time he had his eyes on his dog the deed was done, and the dogs were locked together. A few weeks later, he learned from the owner of his dog’s sexual partner that the dog was pregnant. The owner insisted that it had been his unneutered dog. She then demanded that my friend share the financial burdens of the pregnancy and the care of the puppies until they were 8 weeks old.

My friend offered instead to pay for the total cost of an abortion, but the woman was not comfortable with terminating the pregnancy, claiming that she was religious. My friend told her that he was not going to get involved financially or otherwise if the pregnancy was allowed to continue. At the time, my friend thought there was nothing wrong with his decision; after all, he had offered to pay for the abortion. He is also of the opinion that while human fetuses might, arguably, be persons, puppies are certainly not. However, he now finds himself having doubts as to whether he acted correctly. Did he do anything morally wrong? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Most American dogs are neutered or spayed, in part to avoid situations like this one. So when people bring their dogs to the dog park, other folks are entitled to assume that these dogs have probably been fixed and that we will take special care not to let them loose if they aren’t. Your friend’s vigilance obviously lapsed; he doesn’t dispute that he should bear some of the costs for what evidently happened.

Ending the pregnancy early would, I agree, be a sensible course of action. While there is controversy about the rights and wrongs of abortion in humans, the major arguments against it — which involve the particular sanctity of human life, or the potential of a fetus to acquire personhood — don’t seem to apply to dogs. People tend to think that the quality of life is what’s important when it comes to animals; the avoidance of suffering matters more than the prolongation of existence. Dogs are frequently euthanized, after all, when they fail to find homes. Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argue that the alternatives are usually worse.

But the decision to terminate the dog’s pregnancy isn’t one your friend gets to make. The owner is the person with the moral responsibility for making such decisions and the legal right to do so. This doesn’t mean your friend has to cover any costs the owner incurs — if she decides her dog’s diet should be supplemented with caviar, she can’t stick him with a bill from Petrossian. Still, the choice between abortion and going to term is up to her. He owes her the reasonable costs that result from the pregnancy and parturition. If he can’t look after the puppies himself, he may hire someone to do so.

There’s a corollary of this. The owner of the pregnant dog declined to fix her pet, too. He should ask her to agree that, once the puppies are born, she will allow him to carry out a paternity test — and that, should she prove mistaken about who sired them, she’ll reimburse his costs. It would show that she hasn’t kept as close an eye on her pooch as she thought. Dogs may do the deed, but humans hold the lead.

Readers Respond

Last week’s question was from a reader who found out his inheritance had been hidden from him. He wrote: “My only sister and I never speak, except at funerals — we’re on opposite planets when it comes to politics and religion. … A year ago, I got an email from her saying God had told her to pay me the $5,000 she had hidden from my inheritance when our mother died. I never would have known about it had she not spilled the beans. I know she’s not wealthy, so I was very nice and said to her: ‘Whoa! Who knew? Send it any way that works for you — the whole thing, monthly payments, I’m easy.’ I didn’t see any point in shaming her for stealing it, given that she seemed to want to make things right. In anticipation, I bought an expensive laptop. Now I wish I hadn’t. I never heard from her again. I don’t want to talk to her about it — her husband recently died (suddenly), and that’s sad, and in light of that and our estrangement, I’m not comfortable with cornering her. Should I just forget about it? Or should I pursue it some other way, legally or through her grown kids?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Stealing from a sibling is, from the perspective of both secular and religious morality, obviously wrong. So is promising to return money that you’ve stolen and not doing so. I agree that you shouldn’t insist on what you’re due while your sister is in mourning. But after a reasonable period has elapsed, you can remind her of her promise, letting her know that you actually spent money because you trusted her to make good on it. And yes, if you think it would be helpful to talk to her adult children, you should feel free to do this as well. Being shamed before their kin is one reason that people sometimes do the right thing.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

It seems that the siblings missed an opportunity to communicate. In the original contact, it might have been more gracious for the letter writer to acknowledge the magnitude of his sister’s admission. I understand differences between siblings, but accepting the differences and creating some form of connection is more important than the money. Judy

Good response from the Ethicist. I have a sister who attempted to hide money from our brother’s widow and children after our mother died. It was a lot more than $5,000. My sister’s greed basically severed our relationship forever. She never understood my position, despite the fact that she would be stealing the college funds of three minor children if she had gotten away with it. Judith H.

What’s five grand between siblings? “Being shamed before their kin is one reason that people sometimes do the right thing.” I’m sure it is, along with being a reason family relationships are sometimes fractured beyond healing. So unless the brother is willing to sue to get the money good luck with that forget it. The wrongdoer doesn’t need a reminder; I suspect she has been tortured by this for years. And why bring the nieces or nephews into it and possibly harm their relationship with their mother? Move on. Tim

It may be ethical to involve the sibling’s adult kids (I’m dubious about that) but it is definitely a bad move in terms of family dynamics. As a psychologist, I would be wary of triggering an intergenerational conflict that could outlast the lives of the estranged siblings. Judith G.

To what degree is debt forgiveness an option? A middle ground could be to request reimbursement for all or part of the computer cost and forgive the rest. I don’t see debt forgiveness as an ethical obligation, but it could be an act of charity to someone who may have had a change in circumstances. Tom

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