Uber – the somewhat notorious minicab app – has launched a scheme allowing customers to ‘rent’ rescue kittens ‘on demand’ in Australia. Called UberKITTENS, it’s a programme that’s been running periodically in America for a while. And one I strongly disagree with.
Uber knows its reputation is shot to pieces. Multiple rape cases, incredibly inappropriate comments from its executives, ramping prices up during a terrorist attack – it’s been nothing but bad headlines for the company lately. So what’s the answer? The lazy marketer’s first resort, of course: kittens!
The internet loves kittens, and Uber knows a story about a kitten delivery service – however short-lived – will boost it up the social rankings. The hashtag #uberkittens has trended throughout the promotion, and plenty of people (and press outlets) have sung the scheme’s praises.
But let’s take a closer look at Uber’s ‘selfless’ use of live baby animals to rescue its public relations. Yes, the kittens are from rescue shelters, not pet shops, which is laudable. Yes, all the money made goes to said shelters. But how ethical is it to rent live animals (many of whom, if they’re from rescue homes, may well have been abused at human hands) to completely unvetted random people whose only prior requirement is to have a taxi app and some money?
Uber say they “ask a series of screening questions,” but despite apparently being “for kitten safety,” the questions are actually because “we need to make sure your boss, landlord or neighbour is going to be cool with the adorable, unmissable meows (and that no one in the area is allergic).” Not a whole lot of concern for the welfare of the kitten there, is there? Only the humans paying for the service. After all, they’ll be the ones leaving the reviews.
After passing the screening questions, it’s extremely unclear as to whether people handling the kittens are supervised in any way – and if they are, it’s presumably only by an entirely unqualified taxi driver. 15 minutes is more than long enough for a child unused to animals to cause some major harm, and no one’s going to answer the screening questions with “actually, I have a 2-year-old who’s never seen a kitten before and might drop, throw or bite him.” Not to mention the possibility of malevolent adults. You’d hope no one would intentionally injure a kitten, but you’d also hope no one would put one in a microwave. Sometimes the world isn’t what we’d like it to be.
I’m not angry about all the people saying this is a great idea, because it sounds good in theory: you give the kitten some cuddles and the rescue centre gets some much-needed money. But it seems few people have considered whether the cats actually want to be mauled by an endless parade of unknown people, who may or may not be friendly. When you’ve paid money for a performing animal and it doesn’t co-operate by rolling over adorably for tummy tickles – or feels threatened and bites – who’s to say customers won’t be angry about not getting their “money’s worth”? This just isn’t a situation that should ever arise. Kittens aren’t pay-per-view playthings, they’re living creatures who have absolutely no idea that the total strangers pulling them out of their box don’t wish them any harm. They have no way of knowing they’re helping to fund their shelter. They have no say. And I’m really not OK with that.
Nor are UK charity Cats Protection. Nicky Trevorrow, Cats Protection’s Behaviour Manager, told ShinyShiny: “Whilst we are in favour of highlighting unwanted kittens in need of homes, we have concerns about this method on the grounds of cat welfare. Cats are a solitary species that like to control their own environment and territory and many would find it stressful to be transported and introduced to a number of strangers. If they are already anxious, then this is likely to increase their fear of travelling or social situations. Raised stress levels could affect feline health, causing conditions like cystitis and a lowered immune system, increasing vulnerablility to infectious diseases. Kittens already have a weaker immune system than adult cats.
“If people in the UK want extra kitten or cat contact, then there are many opportunities to volunteer at one of Cats Protection’s branches or adoption centres, which are looking after thousands of unwanted cats and kittens in need of homes. A taxi service would be far more useful to help owners take their cats to be neutered at the vets, reducing the numbers of unwanted kittens in the care of cat charities.
Exactly. But that wouldn’t be quite so PR-able, would it?
Asked whether their kitten ‘delivery service’ will be coming to the UK, an Uber spokesman told us: “There are no current plans to bring UberKITTENS to the UK although having seen the pictures, videos and stories coming out of the US and Australia there are plenty of people in the office who are desperate to have their 15 minutes of kitty-cuddle time. When we run UberKITTENS we partner with animal shelters to make sure that the cats are treated with love and respect, that good amounts of money are raised for their charity and we also hope that many people who enjoy their time with the kittens end up adopting them and giving them a permanent loving home which is the perfect outcome.”
Ah yes, the adoption angle. Of course the cats need homes, but if you’re the right kind of person to take that on, you won’t require someone to literally deliver the kitten to your front door before you’ll consider giving it a forever home. Taking on a rescue animal isn’t a snap decision, made in the heat of the moment because “aww, cute!” – it’s something that requires consideration and planning. Not to mention that all the older cats are just left in the shelter because they’re not commercially adorable enough to be rented out.
I’m all for raising money for animal charities and shelters – it’s something I’ve done myself many times. But Uber aren’t trying to help animals at all. They’re trying to salvage their deservedly appalling reputation, not by fixing the problems that caused it, but by bussing in some entirely innocent kittens and hoping you’ll be distracted.
You can help rescue kittens in an ethical, PR-free way by buying a gift from Cats Protection’s Amazon Wishlist, or texting NCAC99 to 70070 (they’ll text back to ask the amount). Not by ordering one as if it’s nothing more than a cuddly toy.