Love and Animal Advocacy


Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave, Ardèche, France — replica of the painting from the Brno museum Anthropos, Czech Republic (CC)

by Kathy Rudy

At no point in history have humans used animals like we’re using them in America today. Factory farms crank out almost three pounds of meat per person per day from 20 billion food animals who function literally as flesh machines; thousands of breeders offer inbred, often aggressive, damaged pets for sale on the internet and in pet stores everyday; the black market in exotic animals from chimps to tigers to wolves crosses through zoos, laboratories, and collectors of all sorts; and the number of animals maimed and killed for the testing of products and pharmaceuticals is almost double what it was twenty years ago. In terms of sheer numbers alone, the situation for animals in America today has never been more dire.

However, I don’t believe that the animal rights movement has not really made significant improvements in these conditions. It does not claim membership anywhere near other contemporary social movements such as feminism or gay rights; indeed, many people—even many animal lovers—have a hard time fitting into groups like PETA or HSUS, and an even harder time embracing the radical abolitionist philosophy espoused by many animal rights theorists. This abolitionist philosophy behind many animal rights agendas takes American slavery as its metaphor, and extends human emancipation into the realm of animals: animals are not ours to wear, eat, use for entertainment, or in scientific research, they say. Most people are unwilling to embrace this perspective because they believe that animals have been and will continue to be enmeshed in human culture.

Over the last ten years, I’ve attended many animal rights conferences and participated in countless meetings, email lists, and websites of the movement. In virtually every setting, I’ve encountered newcomers who initially show up because they love animals. They come because they love animals, and are shocked once they get there to find that the world of animal rights does not reflect this experience of animal love. They want to join a movement that shares their passion, but instead are disappointed to find that there is little room for animal-love there. The world they encounter in animal rights is not a world centered on connection with animals. Rather, it’s a world full of rules and predetermined membership criteria that they neither understand nor assent to.

Using attachments to nonhuman animals as my starting point, Loving Animals maps a territory between current oppressive practices toward animals, and the abolitionist policy associated with many animal rights people. I argue that increased cultural representation of the human animal connection can function to recruit more people to animal advocacy and operate as a guidepost for the kind of social change animals require. I suggest that through sustained relationships with humans, both real and fictive animals become their own advocates through the stories we tell of living with and loving them. Rather than shy away from the love we feel for certain animals, I argue that animal advocacy critically depends on such emotional attachments. While policy and law are important to the process of social change, massive shifts only occur when hearts are moved to witness new realities.

I have spent my career studying the theories and practices of social movements, such as feminism and LGBT liberation. In every case, transformation in the emotional realm has been critical. Loving Animals uses the lessons learned from other social movements to argue for increased attention to affective connections. When we look at the way the world has changed for women and gays over the last fifty years, for example, the greatest force in that change took place in the realm of public attitudes; Loving Animals argues that a similar shift must take place in relation to animals. Instead of treating pets as a side issue in animal advocacy, the book begins with the affective connection we have for the animals who are closest to our hearts, and uses those connections to shift cultural attitudes about many different kinds of animals. In many ways, people are more concerned about and connected with animals than ever. The $40 billion pet industry is really just the beginning of this phenomenon; consider, also, serious public concern with the impending extinction of many beloved species such as tigers, polar bears, and gorillas. Or the wildly popular free-range, humane meat movement that grants food animals a full, natural life on pasture. The general public seems more interested in and concerned about animals than ever before in our history. But while animals themselves have captured their interest, the animal rights movement has often left them cold.

Part of the reason animal advocacy is so marginalized in American culture today, I think, is that most philosophers and organizations demand that animal advocates use no animal products whatsoever. By my lights, that is just not going to happen anytime soon. Humans have been eating meat for tens of thousands of years, and for most of that time, we have done so compassionately and sustainably. It’s only in the last fifty years that agribusiness has made suffering the norm for farm animals. The general public is not going to convert to veganism in the near future, but a mass movement for a more connected way of eating is happening. We can tap that for better lives for animals. My research on this issue brought me to the small farm movement, where animals are given longer, healthier, more natural lives. While the cost of this meat is higher, I argue that farm animals deserve such treatment if they are ultimately asked to sacrifice their lives to become our food.

In the last fifty years, while many other marginalized groups have experienced better conditions in American culture, the plight of animals has gotten much worse. They are increasingly treated as disposable commodities. Whether in factory farms, puppy mills, or numerous other animal industries, the subjectivity of animal life is erased. This treatment completely overlooks their own emotional and affective lives, and their significant contributions to humankind. The animal rights movement solves this problem by liberating them from human use altogether. I suggest instead that we need to pay greater attention to their emotional and affective worldviews; we need to connect with and understand them better; we need to view them as fellow travelers and give them good lives in return for their contributions. The world would be diminished without domesticated animals, and we need to treat them with the respect they deserve. The best way to combat the commoditization of their lives is to connect with them. Knowing them more fully will prompt us to treat them better.

About the Author:

Kathy Rudy is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University. Her early research included reproductive ethics, religious ethics, sexuality, and feminist theory. Among publications in her early years are Sex and the Church Gender, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Beacon Press 1997), Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Moral Diversity in the Abortion Debate (Beacon Press, 1996), as well as many scholarly articles. Her new work focuses on animals and ethics, nature, food politics, ecology, and ecofeminism. She is the author of Loving Animals: Toward a New Animal Advocacy. She is currently working on an ethnography of local farmers and their perspectives on care of animals and land; this project is tentatively titled The Promise of Meat: Science, Ethics, and the Local Farm. She also has several essays coming out in the next year, including “LGBTQ…Z?,” “Locavorism, Feminism, and the Question of Meat,” and “On Changing the (Post) Human Subject.”