Tag Archives: Animals & Society

Ghost Stories Tell Us a Lot about Animals in Human Society

In a content analysis of over 600 ghost stories I published with the peer-reviewed journal Mortality, I discovered that Nonhuman Animals are a sizable feature in the supernatural imagination. About one in ten ghosts recorded in the 20 anthologies I examined were that of departed nonhumans. In this article, I argue that ghost stories, like any other cultural medium, can tell us a lot about the status and visibility of other animals.

For instance, although 10% of the stories featured a nonhuman spirit, most of those spirits were that of dogs, cats, horses, and other animals which are more familiar and proximal to humans. Ghosts frequently haunt as a result of some sort of grievance or wrongful death. Because dogs, cats, and horses are more likely to be ascribed some degree of personhood, they are also more likely to be described as mournful or vengeful spirits in cultural remembering.

Those species which are slated for exploitation and killing for food, however, do not warrant much remembering. They very rarely surfaced in ghost stories. What this suggests is that, culturally speaking, their deaths are not sensed or noted as remarkable. To be able to haunt, then, is a privilege reserved for humans and the other animals deemed important to them.

In general, however, it was clear that ghost stories worked to elevate humans as the more civilized, superior group. The majority of nonhuman ghosts were described as threatening, violent, and even lethal. One of the most common human responses to witnessing these ghosts was an attempt to harm or destroy them. Because ghost stories are meant to be shared, particularly with children, the oppressive cultural messages embrued within them should be cause for concern.

Vegan animal studies scholars have critiqued the media as a major force in the maintenance of speciesist ideologies. However, media can also be disruptive. Vegan activists might consider challenging speciesist culture by telling ghost stories which center the experiences of typically invisibilized species like cows, chickens, pigs, fishes and so on. Veganism is a form of necromancy, then, in its ability to conjure the spirits of the dead and force a cultural acknowledgment of speciesism.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the sociological critique of speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Save the Lambs! Why I Reject Antioch College’s Lethal Lamb-killing Classroom ‘Experiment’

To the Editor of Yellow Springs News:

I am writing to express my strong disapproval of the Antioch College lamb-killing project. I have read the president’s response to the campaign to end this antiquated and violent “educational” “experiment.” As a citizen and a sociologist, I find the university’s rationale to be deeply problematic and, frankly, uninformed.

The sociological (and psychological) research on projects of this kind indicates that they foster attitudes of denial, dehumanization, in-group bias, domination, and oppression–the exact sorts of attitudes which run counter to American values. Lambs are not things, they are not tools, and they are not food. They are persons who care about what happens to them, just like us.

For that matter, with climate change at crisis levels, it is frankly laughable that the university would suggest that animal agriculture is in any way compatible with goals of sustainability. The science simply does not support such a claim. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.

As an alumnus of an agricultural school myself (go Hokies!) and proudly hailing from an agricultural community in southwestern Virginia, I am also critical of the blatant miseducation of rural communities who are misdirected into unsustainable, violent, polluting, and precarious animal agricultural initiatives. Lower class, working class, and rural communities have been exploited for the profits of Big Ag for generations, such that this is not just a matter of animal oppression, but also human oppression. The longer the community is forced into economic dependence on animal agriculture, the more suffering and vulnerability is imposed on already struggling farming communities. We need to support agricultural initiatives that are in line with the long-term needs of humans, animals, and global systems–plant-based farming is the only way forward.

Students would be better served by lessons in compassion, coexistence, and truly sustainable plant-based alternatives in agriculture. This is the way of the future.
 
 

– Dr. Corey L. Wrenn, Chair of the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association
 
 

This campaign to end the lamb-killing “experiment” at Antioch College is led by Dr. David Nibert, founder of the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association. Read Dr. Nibert’s response here.  SIGN THE PETITION HERE; write your own letter to the editor of The Yellow Springs News here.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Is It Ethical to Keep Pets?

According to the UK veterinary charity The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), half of Britons own a pet. In the US, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports the same. Many of these owners view the millions of birds, cats, dogs, rabbits and other Nonhuman Animals sharing their homes as family members. Although we love them, care for them, celebrate their birthdays and mourn them when they pass, is it ethical to keep pets in the first place? Some activists and ethicists, myself included, would argue that it is not.

Pet-keeping as a Social Injustice

The institution of pet-keeping is fundamentally unjust as it involves the manipulation of Nonhuman Animals’ bodies, behaviours, and emotional lives. For centuries, companion animal bodies (particularly that of dogs, horses and rabbits) have been shaped to suit human fashions and fancies, often causing these animals considerable physical harm. Particular breeds, for instance, are highly susceptible to painful and frequently fatal genetic defects, while highly prized physical features (such as small stature or pushed-in noses) can cause discomfort and difficulty in breathing, birthing, and other normal functions.

Even those Nonhuman Animals who are not purpose-bred often face bodily manipulations which impede on their comfort and safety, such as confining clothing, painful leashes which pull at the throat, docked tails and ears, and declawing (which entails the severing of the first digit of each toe in cats). Nonhuman Animals confined as pets are also constrained in their daily movements, sometimes crated or caged, oftentimes restricted indoors, and always at the whims of human desires.

Pets also symbolically reinforce the notion that vulnerable groups can be owned and fully controlled for the pleasure and convenience of more privileged powerful groups. This has implications for vulnerable human groups as well. For instance, sexism is partially maintained by treating women linguistically as pets (‘kitten’, ‘bunny’) and physically by confining them to the home to please and serve the family patriarch. Social workers also recognize the powerful link between pet abuse and the abuse of children and women in domestic settings. The notion that it is acceptable to manipulate the bodies and minds of a vulnerable group to suit the interests of more privileged groups, in other words, is consistent with the cultural logic of oppression.

Companion Animals Cannot Consent

Through the forced dependency of domestication and pet-keeping, the lives of companion animals are almost completely controlled by humans. They can be terminated at any time for the most trivial of reasons including behavioural ‘problems’, simply belonging to a stereotyped breed or the owner’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for veterinary treatment.
In the mid-20th century, sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of a total institution as one in which inhabitants are cut off from wider society under a single authority in an enclosed social space in which natural barriers between social spheres artificially eliminated and an intense socialization process takes place to ensure that inmates conform.

Sociologists typically study prisons, asylums, and other physical spaces as examples, but I argue that pet-keeping constitutes a sort of dispersed total institution whereby Nonhuman Animals are unnaturally forced under human authority, restrained, and resocialized. True consent is not possible under such conditions; Nonhuman Animals are groomed to participate and those who are likely to be punished (sometimes fatally).

This is not in any way to suggest that dogs, cats, and other species cannot express love and happiness as ‘pets’, but it is important to recognize that their complacency within the institution of pet-keeping is entirely manufactured (sometimes quite cruelly) by humans through behaviour ‘corrections’ and through the manipulative process of domestication itself.

A World without Pets?

Some companion animal advocates, such as Nathan Winograd, the director of the US based No Kill Advocacy Center, argue that to stop keeping pets altogether would be a violation of Nonhuman Animals’ right to exist. Winograd believes the widespread killing of healthy companion animals can be curbed through a restructuring of the sheltering industry. He rejects the need to end pet-keeping given the abundance of humanity’s capacity for compassion and adoption.

To his credit, Winograd’s pro-pet position reflects the No Kill movement’s strong disapproval of Nonhuman Animal rights organizations such as PETA which frequently support ‘euthanasia’ policies to curb pet populations. If a no kill society is reached, however, many of the ethical violations previously discussed (bodily manipulation, non-consensual confinement, enforced dependency, and vulnerability to human abuse) would remain even if, as Winograd supposes, increasing legal protections could be obtained to improve their standard of living.

In short, companion animals, by their very position in the social order, are not and cannot be equals. The institution of pet-keeping maintains a social hierarchy which privileges humans and positions all others as objects of lower importance whose right to existence depends wholly on their potential to benefit humans. That said, the population of dogs, cats, rabbits, and other domesticated ‘pet’ animals currently rivals that of humans such that they are likely to remain a consistent feature of human social life.

Although I suggest that it may not be ethical to pursue the future breeding of Nonhuman Animals for human comfort, humans do have a duty to serve, protect, and care for them. Recognizing the inherent inequality in human/nonhuman relations will be vital in making the best of an imperfect situation.
This essay originally appeared in The Conversation on April 25, 2019.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Black Veganism and the Animality Politic

Why Animality Matters

In Ko & Ko’s 2017 publication Aphro-ism, the sisters critique popular applications of intersectionality theory, identifying that what has traditionally been defined as “human” has always been categorized as white, male, and European, while racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other marginalized groups have been dualistically constructed as “animal.” Thus, “animal” is not so much a catch-all category meant to refer to nonhuman species, but to all manner of disenfranchised groups, humans included.

Animality is, they insist, endemic to the colonialist project, providing justification for social control and suppression. The Kos argue that anti-racism activists, feminists, and vegans all have a stake in challenging the false divide between human and animal, and, more specifically, challenging the category of “animal” itself.

Without challenging this basic mechanism of oppression, activists are bound to fail in their efforts for liberation. In fact, they merely embrace the same oppressive logic by either ignoring (or rejecting) the relevance of animality or insisting that intersectionality praxis stop short of species solidarity. Doing so dangerously preserves hierarchies. As Aph warns: “What hasn’t occurred to many of us is that this model of compartmentalizing oppressions tracks the problematic Eurocentric compartmentalization of the world and its members in general” (71).

Why Race Matters

From the same reasoning, vegans who do not incorporate a critical racial lens are missing the entire point of speciesism: marking particular bodies as distinct from the dominant group based on perceived physical, cognitive, and cultural differences, and then employing this distinction to rationalize oppressive treatment. Racism and speciesism are inherently entangled. Explains Syl: “[ . . . ] the organizing principle for racial logic lies in the human-animal divide, wherein the human and the animal are understood to be moral opposites” (66).

The Kos are careful not to prescribe a “we are all animals” perspective to solve this boundary-maintenance, as this is poised to deprecate rather than accommodate difference. There is little need to push for sameness, and such a push usually maintains the dominant group as the standard to which others should aspire.

Read more of my review of Aprho-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters in Society & Animals here.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the racial politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Presentation at Monmouth University

Animals and Society Lecture

Hello! If you are visiting this site following my presentation at Monmouth University on March 2nd, you may access a copy of the powerpoint with full lecture notes by clicking here.  Interested in learning more about the Animals & Society section of the American Sociological Association? Visit our website and follow us on Facebook.  Want to know more about my work? Check out my public sociology and my academic research in this area.

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