Building Bridges Between Critical Disability And Animal Studies
As the field of critical animal studies develops, a growing number of scholars are interested in exchanging ideas and collaborating with other fields. This may sound familiar to animal advocates, many of whom are recognizing that the animal protection movement would benefit from building alliances with other social justice movements. A recent paper by the Canadian Disability Studies Association seeks to build such a collaboration by introducing how animal studies and disability studies intersect, and by emphasizing their common ground.
To begin with, both disability advocates and animal advocates address some corresponding issues. For example, in the way that disabled people have historically been objectified for their “exotic differences” in circus shows, animals are placed in zoos to be observed and objectified by the public. Likewise, while animals are regularly experimented on without regard for their wellbeing, disabled people have also had their bodily autonomy robbed through medical procedures such as forced sterilization. The authors do not attempt to equalize these experiences, but they point out that the oppression of animals and disabled individuals can stem from similar, exploitative attitudes. In other words, because these groups deviate from the socially defined “normal,” they have traditionally been treated as problems to eradicate or exploit, rather than individuals to respect.
Despite the similarities between both movements, critical disability scholars have been reluctant to study the intersection of their field with one that has harbored ableism. The article mentions animal studies scholar Peter Singer, who has argued that parents should be permitted to euthanize their disabled children, thus discounting the experiences and autonomy of disabled people. It is up to those in animal studies, as well as the animal advocacy movement at large, to take proactive steps in bringing disability scholars and advocates into the conversation in respectful, collaborative ways that value the lived experiences of people with disabilities.
On a more practical level, the authors mention four different topics that critical disability and animal studies scholars have found intersections in, and which warrant further exploration within the academic community:
- Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a promising opportunity for scholars to investigate ableism and human-nonhuman relationships. Media coverage of AATs is often superficial and constructed around a narrative of “improvement” of the person undergoing therapy. Meanwhile, the non-human animal is often seen only as a heartwarming tool for human betterment. Some scholars have sought to challenge these speciesist and ableist frameworks by redefining AAT relationships as “co-emancipatory,” thus respecting the humans and non-human animals involved.
- Taxidermy provides an insight into how we exploit and otherize bodies through their display. For example, one scholar notes the parallels between museum displays of mummified historical humans and taxidermied non-humans, noting the problems associated with manipulating bodies. The paper highlights “rogue taxidermy” artwork that attempts to resist ableist, speciesist ideas of domination by meshing “monstrous” characters with non-human animal bodies.
- Works of literature can reveal the blurred boundaries between human and non-human, and abled and disabled. For example, in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, a man tries to turn non-human animals into humans but instead turns them into what Wells describes as a “subhuman” species. Using this novel as a springboard, one disability scholar argues that society should move beyond dichotomous ideas of what’s normal and instead account for many different forms of human and non-human existence.
- Popular media provides an insight into the pulse of public attitudes surrounding animal and disability studies. For example, the paper mentions a species of tick that attracted widespread attention for its ability to make people allergic to red meat. The scholars argue how the popular narratives surrounding this tick weaponize the animal as a means to further other animals’ interests, as well as a potentially problematic tool for biological warfare against humans.
As the field of critical animal studies and the animal advocacy movement evolve to be more inclusive, it’s important for scholars to continue exploring intersections between speciesism and other forms of oppression. Given the interconnected nature of critical animal studies and critical disability studies, there are many different ways that advocates can work together to achieve progress for both movements. Society will no doubt benefit from an interdisciplinary, intersectional approach that includes justice and respect for all marginalized groups.