The Next Chapter

Peter Christie's book Unnatural Companions is a call to climate action for pet owners

The Canadian journalist and author wrote about the ways we love and care for our pets.
Peter Christie is an award-winning Canadian science journalist and author. (Laura Christie, Island Press)

Peter Christie is a Canadian naturalist and science journalist who writes about climate change and conservation — and he is a pet lover. His most recent book is Unnatural Companions, a look at how our love for keeping animals as pets is actually enabling the present extinction crisis.

Christie spoke with The Next Chapter about Unnatural Companions.

The effect of pets

"Unnatural Companions is a book that I wrote primarily to alert people in general, but pet owners in particular, to the notion that our fondness for pets actually has an impact on wild animals as well. 

"I'm a science writer. I write about conservation and climate change, and have so for the past 20 years or so. But I was doing a story for a news magazine about Canada's decision to ban the import of salamanders to Canada.

It alerted me to that whole notion that pets could really have this devastating effect.

"Apparently, salamanders are quite a popular pet here. But Canada was alerted to the fact that there was basically a disease outbreak of fungal disease in Europe that was ravaging wild salamanders. This disease came from Asia via pet salamanders that had either escaped or released into the wild of Belgium. 

"It alerted me to that whole notion that pets could have this devastating effect. Then I began to look around: cats have been a hot topic over the past number of years because of recent science that has shown they're having a devastating effect on birds in the billions."

Thinking about conservation

"I began to discover that pets released in non-native habitats were becoming invasive species all over the world. They were causing a disruption to local ecosystems — and jungles and streams and oceans are being robbed of animals to satisfy their pet trade. 

"The pet food business is encouraging cattle farming and forage fishing that's depleting the oceans of fish and causing habitat destruction for animals in the tropics. When I began to put that all together, I learned of recent extinctions. The estimates suggest there's been about 500 in the last century. 

I am going into this as a pet owner; we're not here to say that we've got to get rid of pets.

"About a quarter of those have direct connections to the pet industry or pets. I tried to tell that story. I am going into this as a pet owner. We're not here to say that we've got to get rid of pets. But the irony in it all is that pet owners are animal lovers, too. 

"If we could get pet owners and the pet industry to be a bit responsive, then we could make quite a difference to conservation of wild creatures. That was the primary impetus for the book." 

Peter Christie's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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