Sunday, May 17, 2009

No more pit bull smiles?

Well, red velvet femme is still having internet issues, and I've been traveling, so I'm not sure when blogging will resume in earnest. But I've been thinking a lot about some discussions that are happening on the human-animal studies listserv. There are some animal welfare advocates who fervently believe that all animal breeding and pet-keeping involves exploitation, and that the end of domesticated animal populations is a worthy goal. It's easy to dismiss this as some kind of ivory tower insanity or fringe freakery, but I've watched this debate unfold for years and the argument continues to gain steam and the people who believe it gain power.

This iteration of the debate has been more heated discussion than what usually takes place on this (mostly academic) board, with a fair amount of snark involved. Some sensible folks have rightly pointed out that all kinds of relationships involve some aspects of utility, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

What has been most striking to me lately is the very serious ways in which people are describing domestication of animals in terms of slavery and also imperialism. In animal studies circles, this idea that domestication of animals should be abolished is known as the "abolitionist" approach. The comparison of domesticated animals to human slaves is hardly new, and comparisons abound, but when this is brought up it's usually done cautiously and with qualifiers out the arse. It may not be that every animal welfare advocate who identifies as an abolitionist believes that domestication is tantamount to slavery (or that it simply *is* slavery), but the reference is surely there.

I'd like to articulate some kind of response to all this that goes beyond mute horror. It's definitely fair to remind ourselves, over and over again, of the power imbalance and inherent inequities involved in animal-keeping. I'm not sure though that it's fair to insert cattle into the same position as African slaves or colonized people in a new vegan freedom narrative. It's just not the same. It's just not. But why?

It's not just because I can't imagine life without my animal companions. That would be true, and I also pity all the poor saps that will live in future generations without rabbits doing binkies in their living rooms if these new abolitionists win out. I don't want to imagine life without family farms (there are few enough of those left anyway), with sheep for wool and cows for milk, chickens for eggs and goats for laughs. Did slave owners feel the same way? Maybe the tradeoff would be worth it if it would in fact be a world without cruelty, or at least without the same institutions and cultures of cruelty.

It bothers me to think that the eventual goal of these abolitionists is that domestic animal populations and breeds would die out. Only animals that could survive in the wild would continue. And I don't know what would become of self-domesticating animals like dogs under this scenario. To think of dogs being cast out of human society is approaching the realm of the bad sci-fi novel. But stranger things have happened, are happening. Not that history is ever a justification, but we've evolved together for a long, long time. Who would we be without each other?

Part of the abolitionist argument seems to be that breeding animals to fulfill human needs is especially problematic, more so than companion animals. And it's true that there is something vaguely fascist about the fetishization of purebreds - at least when those that aren't purebred are devalued (or worse). Still, I feel like we haven't really figured out what it means to compare (animal) breeds with (human) race. And besides, is there no room for all the diversity of domestic animal breeds or hope for compassionate stewardship, if not human-animal partnerships? Does animal welfare really dictate a complete reboot?

I guess I find it especially ironic that while so much prejudice against pit bulls only barely disguises anti-black racism, with the result being the extermination of pit bulls, now we're holding up the emancipation of slaves as a model for freeing domesticated animals, with the same result - but for all breeds. Race is alternately effaced and trotted out, whatever suits the argument for animal welfare, in this bizarro world where freedom equals death and white privilege equals moral superiority.


  1. I would not be adverse to seeing the bastardized versions of farmed animal breeds go extinct.

    Broiler chickens would never survive, their physical structure prohibits flying or perching. White leghorns wouldn't last long with their frail bones and egg-related problems...but they could interbreed with feral chickens. Domestic white-breasted turkeys cannot mate naturally. Holsteins produce an unholy quantity of milk (which causes health problems) and probably wouldn't thrive unless they interbreed with beef breeds (excluding the double muscled mutants some folks are fond of). Domestic pigs feralize easily and would thrive, same for beef cattle and goats. Domestic sheep with wool wouldn't last but a few years. Their wool is an unnatural side effect of human interference - wild sheep have hair that sheds, domestic wool/most meat sheep do not. Any climate with temps above 70 will pose a problem for a sheep with multiple years worth of wool.

    I'm not saying that if they went feral that that would be in the best interest of the ecosystem, just that some species/breeds would do better in a "natural" environment, that they could survive without us.

    I guess I don't see what the big deal is if these breeds/species went extinct or if they were allowed to feralize. Domestication has made life easier for humans, not for the animals (who are castrated w/o pain relief, tail docked, ear tagged, branded, torn from their moms too soon, caged, denied exhibition of natural behaviors and slaughtered by the billions in the prime of their lives). It seems disingenuous to argue that preserving dairy cows and broiler chickens is in the best interest of the animals being artificially inseminated, confined unnaturally and killed in slaughterhouses.

    I do think people become defensive with the slavery comparison. No one wants to be treated like livestock (and human slaves certainly were/are), which has always made me wonder why it's okay to treat other sentient, feeling beings that way.

  2. Maybe this is a stupid question, but hey, I'm a stupid guy.

    What makes the relationship between humans and dogs any different from any other symbiotic relationship? Who is calling for the emancipation of those birds that pick hippos' noses for them?

  3. We've got more human slaves now than at any other time in our planet's history ( So, human slavery abolitionists haven't even been able to get rid of human slavery, where the victims actually have an understandable voice and where there is some ideal of universal human rights based in religion and other popular moral constructs, I doubt very much animal abolitionists will make much headway with animal "slavery" where there is no coherent voice coming from the victims, no universally accepted moral code, no way of even getting a response to the question, "Do you want to be free?".

    Animal abolitionists, seem to me, to be a lot like some kind of utopianists (like the Nazis and the Communists and free market Capitalists), who believe in being able to achieve some fantasy based societal ideal. They generally see in only black and white. Their "solutions" to whatever problem they're tackling usually involve a lot of death and extinction. They have a very poor understanding of human nature and think that people are robots so that once the Utopian "ideal" is achieved, there will be no reverting back to the old ways.

    Also, I think there's a huge difference between owning companion animals and owning utility animals raised for work/slaughter. Factory farming may be hell for those meat animals but that's a very different situation from a beloved dog in a responsible pet owner's home. Of course abolitionists with their binary brains can't see that. It's all or nothing for them and extinction is always their cure for suffering even if the suffering is happening elsewhere.

    Even for modern day meat farm/factories, I think it's more realistic to try to get them to change their methods rather than to try to abolish them altogether. Someone's going to have a really hard time convincing the billions of people on the planet to stop killing animals and eating their meat. We can't even convince people to stop killing each other.

    I can totally see where the abolitionists are coming from, though. They're fed up with all the endless forms of animal abuse that go on a billion times or more a day and no longer believe that humans can have any good impact on animals. But, I believe that animal abuse starts and ends with people. People are the problem and it's our attitudes and behaviours that need to be addressed and, no, that's not an ideal solution but there is no such thing as ideal in our non-utopian world.