The Chronicle Review

A Change of Heart

November 27, 2011

The world of animal rights is busy, perplexing, and uneven. Sometimes, people who call themselves animal-rights activists simply mean they don't eat meat or wear leather, sometimes they eat fish, cheese, or eggs, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes activists break into scientific research labs and steal animals. Sometimes activists kill animals in "shelters." Sometimes the term "animal rights" applies to people who rescue injured wildlife for rehabilitation and release them back to the wild. Sometimes it means people who run permanent sanctuaries for retired entertainment animals or exotic pets; other times it refers to people who believe wild and/or exotic animals should not be kept at all, and work to shut such sanctuaries down. Sometimes people who say they're into animal rights mean they really love animals, and share a large portion of their lives with them, even trying various sound and unsound methods to communicate with them. Other times being an animal-rights activist means holding a strict abolitionist policy with regard to all animals, and condemning zoos, pet ownership, and all other venues in which humans come into intimate contact with nonhuman animals.

It's not easy to make sense of all these conflicting views. Indeed, all these projects have something to do with animals, otherwise it isn't clear what holds these agendas together. It's even more confusing when the general public sees animal-rights activists as extremist food police; when I try to persuade women's-studies majors to take an animal class, for example, their response is almost always "I can't because I'm not a vegetarian." It reminds me of the way people in the 1970s equated feminism with lesbianism: "I can't be a feminist because I like men." The public discourse around feminism has changed, and it's time for the conversation around animals to change as well.

For animal rights to become a mainstream movement, advocates must change the way the public thinks about animals. "Women's rights" does not mean the same thing in every pocket of feminism, nor does "gay rights" or "civil rights." Those terms point to orientations around social change, not specific, agreed-upon agendas. Indeed, inside each of those other movements, arguments and conflicts abound; what holds them together in the public eye, though, is a fairly general cultural acceptance. The same thing needs to happen for animal rights.

Let's step back from the rational principles employed by many animal-advocacy philosophies to examine the emotional and spiritual connections that, for many, produced the desire for change in the first place. Stepping back allows us to ask different questions about our relationship with animals: What mechanisms of language sorted all living things into only two categories called "humans" and "animals"? What practices in capitalism rendered some animals as killable commodities? What religious practices gave only some of us souls? What scientific data render some animals as wild and others as domesticated? What stories support the view that animals could and should be exploited for human benefit? And what, exactly, counts as exploitation?

How do we interact with and connect with real animals, and how do those connections reflect (or not) current ethical thinking about animals? How well are our relationships with animals reflected in culture today? Do these stories adequately portray the way we feel with and about animals? When and under what circumstances do we get our relationships with animals "right," and how can those examples serve as a model for treatment of other animals? Examining the ways that emotion, connection, and stories have constructed our current world can build new strategies for change.

Although my writing is informed by my work in theological ethics and women's studies, it begins, really, with passions that are closer to my heart. The most important and successful relationships I've had in my life have been with nonhuman animals: dogs, a half-dozen cats, a few birds, one horse, and, most recently, two pigs. Almost every picture of me as a kid is taken with a dog or a kitten or a horse; if there's no animal in the picture, chances are I'm not smiling. It's hard to explain, but I am most "myself" when I am with animals, they alone "speak my language" (and not all of them, just some); without them around, I feel invisible. I start with a dog by my side and go from there.

This self-revelation is important upfront because—in addition to the general confusion around the theoretical stakes of animal advocacy—there is a large disconnect between the theory of the animal-rights movement and the experiences of animal advocates. Most of the people I encounter who self-identify as animal advocates love animals. Some articulate it as a spiritual bond, others say that animals have purer hearts or are easier to live with than humans. Many of these folks would sell their last possessions to help an animal in need; and some have done just that. For them, no sacrifice is too great.

Yet very little of this love or emotion is reflected at the level of ethical theory. Many writers speak about animals as a distant other, a creature that needs our consideration but not necessarily our love. Few ethicists write about their pets; indeed, some believe pet ownership is wrong. They implore us to take the interests of animals seriously, but not necessarily to be involved with them at the bodily and emotional levels. I believe that emotional connections with real animals, connections based on love and shared lives, need to be included in the discourse of animal advocacy.

This new approach imagines a world where animals are subjects, agents, and actors in their own right. Through their relationships with us, they can gain more of a voice in public debate about the conditions of their existence. Inside the connections we share with animals, a new sense of subjectivity emerges where humans and animals are not separate entities, but creatures inextricably attached to one another through emotional bonds.

Put differently, this approach to advocacy is not only about humans loving animals, but about animals loving us back. It recognizes that animals have choices, and one of the choices many of them make is to become loving, to be loving animals. They transcend the boundaries of their bodies and their species by trusting, caring for, and communing with us. Thus, "loving" is both a verb and an adjective, something both humans and animals do, but something both of us also are. Inside these attachments, animals can fully be seen as subjects, rather than objects.

When I think about other social movements, it is not only principles that made them viable, but a host of other things, like language, stories, identification, and love. Social movements all start somewhere, usually from a few voices crying out not only for better treatment, but for a different outlook on the world. The first time we heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, or watched Cesar Chavez march, or knew someone who died of AIDS, our world shifted just a little to let in this new reality. A deep change in the way we act and think almost always starts with a change of heart, and our hearts are usually changed by hearing, seeing, feeling, and sensing something different.

Thus, those of us who have intense emotional bonds with specific animals bear a particular burden right now to share our worldview. Only when we change people's hearts will animal advocacy become a more viable social movement. Those of us who love animals must think and talk and write about our connections; we then need to extrapolate those relationships to the 20 billion or so animals that have no advocates, those creatures that never see sunlight or grass, that never know the touch of a kind hand.

Humans are not inherently destructive toward animals; rather, social structures like gender oppression, capitalism, Western religion, and scientific objectivity obscure the reality of animal suffering. But there's more to the story than what is done wrong. We also need to ask: Is the human use of animals ever done right? Is deep connection with animals possible in environments where we use them? What does it look like, and how will I know it when I see it? Are there spaces where animals seem happy, where they aren't mutilating themselves, where they aren't engaged in obsessive behavior, where they seem (to my eyes) to be fulfilled? What kinds of cultural artifacts might better represent these successful connections? How can we construct a different kind of society where connection with and affection for animals is the norm?

We may not be able to ask animals what they're thinking or feeling, but most observers can tell when animals are miserable and unhappy. They act in a way that seems wrong. They bite themselves or pee where they're not supposed to or pick on animals bigger than them or spin or cry or just lie unnaturally still.

At the same time, most observers can tell when an animal is filled with pleasure and joy, when they run and seem to dance and act as if the world was designed especially for them. They cuddle and laugh and lick their young and turn their faces to the sun, and smile. These are the markers I use when evaluating animal happiness.

I could be wrong on many counts, but I believe that communication between humans and animals is not different in kind than communication between two humans. We don't all speak the same language, and, yes, people and animals can lie about what they experience. But in the final count, if (as evolution tells us) we're all made of the same "stuff," then some impressions about happiness can be discerned across species.

Many theorists of animal advocacy begin their thinking by valorizing the wild animal. For them, wild animals function as a representation of the beauty of nature over the tameness of culture and domestication. My work flips that paradigm and looks toward domestication as the location for a cultural shift. I begin my thinking with the animals that are closest to us, our pets, and move out from there to examine human relationships with farm animals, exotic animals in zoos and sanctuaries, and animals in science labs. I am not interested in making stark contrasts between nature and culture, but rather in seeing how the "natureculture" worlds we inhabit with other animals can become healthier and happier spaces for them, and for us.

Consequently then, this is a different kind of animal advocacy. What we need are not only analyses of how humans oppress animals, but also narratives about animals that aren't suffering, animals that are thriving, animals that have reached across the species divide and chosen to connect with humans. These stories can provide guideposts to help us into a new form of animal advocacy.

Over and over in my research, I found humans living in harmony with animals in ways that established ethical methodologies simply cannot account for or endorse. That is not to say that my observations and experiences render philosophical theories wrong; it's more that they are incomplete, especially when it comes to capturing the goodness that can come from sound human/animal connections. Many readers will call this approach particularistic, a soft method for reform at best. After all, we can always find exceptions that prove a rule, but those exceptions can't form the basis of public policy, right?

But remember that emotional connection has transformed our lives in relation to every other social movement, and it needs to be engaged more fully in animal activism. There are many models of humans connecting with animals that—if we could extrapolate them into wider social norms—would improve the lives of animals. Change happens in many ways at many different levels, and altering the hearts and minds of many people through affective shifts will lead to an easier job for philosophy and policy, and mostly to a better world for animals.

To bring about a cultural shift in animal advocacy, we must consider the concept of affect, which differs slightly from emotion. Whereas emotions can be too easily manipulated, affect includes a sense of reason, but not a free-standing or objective reason. Rather, affect recognizes that reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined; like two sides of the same coin, you can't have one without the other.

Through processes of development and identification, we form habits that give expression to our emotional bonds. These bonds are not without reason, but they often do not entirely depend on reason either. The creation of the self emerges through attachments and disattachments, identifications, disidentifications, and misidentifications. We are part what we love, part what we think, part what we feel, and part what we believe. The term "affect" captures the almost liquid nature of subject formation and allows for a different sense of self to emerge.

We become who we are by being involved with—affected by—the people, places, things, and ideas that draw us in. Our world is made by the interplay of our environments with our bodies, our reason, and our emotions. What drives us forward is the desire to connect with the world in different ways. The engine of that change is affect.

Affect is also deeply rooted in material, corporeal bodies; it is about the way bodies live near each other, inside each other, with each other. Whether a tree, a vegetable, an animal, or a human, affect attends to the ways bodies move through life relying on other material beings, using living things to make houses, food, clothing, and meaning. Who gets to exploit what or whom, who gets to eat what or whom, who gets to love what or whom are central concerns in the agenda of affect.

Thus, the concept of affect forces us to focus on competing claims for scarce resources; it pushes us to think inside the limitations of the material world. On the shrinking planet we all inhabit, this corporeal aspect of affect is perhaps most salient, especially when it comes to animals.

Affect is also about a certain notion of spirituality or sacredness. I use these terms not to signal organized religion, but rather to acknowledge the fact that, as bodies crash up against and change each other, something sacred happens, something that cannot be contained by the concepts of reason or emotion or even corporeality. Affect points to the mystery that accompanies us through our daily lives, how our attachments and enmeshments transform us in ways that sometimes seem magical or otherworldly.

Other terms could be substituted here: animism, pantheism, vitalism, enchantment, and process thought. But I use the terms spirituality and sacredness because they open up the possibility that the sharing of scarce resources, the crashing together of all kinds of bodies, requires a sustained attention to larger meanings. It demands that all of us (and really every living thing) make sacrifices in order to cohabit this planet together. Who and what are forced to make those sacrifices and under what conditions is the work of advocacy, ethics, and politics. But without a sense of spirituality and sacredness, sacrifice has little value.

In his famous 1967 essay, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crises," Lynn White Jr. wrote, "More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one." White was not really interested in finding a new religion in his writing, and I am certainly not interested in that here. Rather, I think both of us are pointing to the kinds of excessive meaning that often accompanies deep interconnections with animals and the natural world.

White and I are both calling for a shift that reorients our attention to the more-than-human world. Reason, emotions, and bodies produce things that are greater than the sum of their parts: ecstasy, peace, tragedy, fulfillment, wholeness, brokenness, hope, grace, to name a few. These are the kinds of things I want the concept of affect to capture, things beyond simple emotions, things that open our hearts, minds, and bodies to new realities and new possibilities.

The language of sacrifice, sacredness, and spiritual embodiment haunts the margins of animal studies. For me, the concept of affect helps to bring those (almost) otherworldly realities into sharper relief. It is because we are embodied, emotional, rational creatures that attention to these matters is required.

Donna Haraway's work, for example, is peppered with spiritual metaphors, especially when she discusses both human and animal suffering. "My story ends where it began ... when the logic of sacrifice makes no sense and the hope for forgiveness depends on learning a love that escapes calculation but requires the invention of speculative thought and the practice of remembering, of rearticulating bodies to bodies."

I understand her to mean that human and nonhuman animals are enmeshed in a world that requires sacrifice on both parts, and that the nature of that sacrifice depends on the idea that such interconnection, even when it causes suffering, is sacred. Susan McElroy locates and identifies a transcendent power associated with human/animal interconnection:

Indigenous people look upon wild animals as living incarnations of special powers, traits, or virtues that humans might learn from if we watched closely and with reverence. Early priestesses and magicians donned animal skins and masks to call in specific virtues and abilities inherent in particular animals. Rituals and ceremonies in which people acted out or danced the essence of animals have been practiced since human time began. For centuries, animals have served as our bridge to the natural and supernatural.

Spiritual and sacred experiences of and with animals are not limited to indigenous peoples, or to priestesses and magicians, or rituals and ceremonies. They surround all of us who are connected to the world of animals. We only need better eyes to see them rightly. Such a sacred dimension resides in pet owners who keep the ashes of their beloved departed friends on their mantels, in hunters who keep a few bones of their prey around the house to remind them of sacrifices made on their behalf. This kind of spiritual, affective connection rests in stories of animal love, like John Grogan's bestselling book Marley & Me, and films like Babe and Black Beauty. It lives inside human/animal relationships that are based on kindness, kinship, and reciprocity.

What if we could, for just a moment, assume that animals serve as our bridge to the natural and to the supernatural? What if their different biologies hold the key to healing the wounds we humans have inflicted on this earth and the animals that inhabit it? Thinking about animals like this, in the realm of spirituality and affect, can offer us new forms of relationship with them, new methods of creating reality together.

Given the right opportunity, most humans can connect with animals, can look in their faces and see the spirit of a fellow being, and can make the changes necessary to improve their lot in life. It's the structures of our world that impede this process, structures that could be organized differently. Few people want to see another being suffer.

The problem is always either that they don't see the suffering (in factory farms or labs, for example), or they don't understand that an animal's life is made of the same "stuff" as yours or mine. Sustained attention to love, and the stories that produce that love, can help us address both of these issues. Stories about animals can entertain us and educate us and help change the nature of humanity. I believe such transformation is possible, that we can dismantle the arrangements that allow the unnecessary mistreatment and torture of animals. By speaking about our deep connections across the species divide, we can call forth the goodness in even the most hardened human heart.

We must embark on this project of advocacy by first noting that the world is messy: It's filled with both bad attitudes toward animals, but also with grand and positive relationships as well. An orientation toward animal advocacy that chooses to see only a world full of agony pushes us to the premature conclusion that all human intervention with animals is deeply flawed, that nothing can be saved. Such a strategy misses the goodness that happens when things are done well.

When the abandoned puppy finds a new, loving home, when the single guy looks forward all day to coming home to his cats, when the cow plays chase with the butterfly in a field of sunshine, when the orphaned chimp puts her arms around Jane Goodall's neck, when my dogs sense I am just about to finish writing and start to get excited about their walks, when the lonely teenage girl finds delight in galloping on her horse, and when that horse anticipates that girl's daily return from school with joy—these are things we simply can't give up. In a funny twist on the velveteen rabbit's story, these are the things that make us (humans) real.

Kathy Rudy is an associate professor of women's studies and ethics at Duke University. She is the author, most recently, of Loving Animals: Toward a New Animal Advocacy (University of Minnesota Press), from which this essay is adapted.