Disability Studies and Animal Rights

This article was published in Qui Parle, spring/summer 2011 vol.19, no.2

Painting the Animals
For twenty-two years I have been concerned with the exploitation
of animals. For twenty-eight (my whole life), I have been disabled.
For the past few years I have been painting images of animals
in factory farms. The following essay was born from this visual
artistic practice.1 My paintings not only led me to research; they
forced me to see and focus on animal oppression for hours every
day in a way I never had before. Through this focus I became increasingly
aware of the interconnections between the oppression
of animals and the oppression of disabled people. This connection
did not lie, as many people suggested, in my being confi ned to my
disabled body, like an animal in a cage. Far from this, the connection
I found centered on an oppressive value system that declares
some bodies normal, some bodies broken, and some bodies food.

The Freak and the Patient

my life I have been compared to many animals. I have been told
I walk like a monkey, eat like a dog, have hands like a lobster, and
generally resemble a chicken or penguin. These comparisons have
been said out of both mean-spiritedness and a spirit of playfulness.
As a child I remember knowing that when my fellow kindergarten
classmates told me I walked like a monkey, that they meant it to
hurt my feelings, which of course it did. However, I wasn’t exactly
sure why it should hurt my feelings—after all, monkeys were my
favorite animal. I had dozens of monkey toys. My parents recall
that my favorite thing as a toddler was to go to our local miniature
golf course to see the giant King Kong. I was small enough that I
could sit in the concrete gorilla’s open palm. Still, I knew that when
the other children compared me to a monkey, they were not doing
it to fl atter me. It was an insult. I understood that they were commenting
on my inability to stand completely upright when out of
my wheelchair—my inability to stand straight like a normal human
being. I understood that saying I was like an animal separated
me from other people. Whether I considered if the statement meant
that I was less than human, I don’t remember.
The thing is, they were right. I do resemble a monkey when I
walk—or rather I resemble an ape, specifi cally a chimpanzee. My
standing posture is closest to the second or third fi gure on a human
evolution diagram—certainly not the last. This resemblance is simply
true, as is the statement I eat “like a dog” when I don’t use my hands
and utensils to eat. These comparisons have an element of truth that
isn’t negative—or, I should say that doesn’t have to be negative.
When I ask members of the disabled community whether they
have ever been compared to animals because of their disabilities,
I receive a torrent of replies. I am transported to a veritable bestiary:
frog legs, penguin waddles, seal limbs, and monkey arms. It
is clear, however, from the wincing and negative interjections that
these comparisons are not pleasant to remember.
Animal comparisons abound in disability history—most explicitly
in the stage names of the world’s famous freaks. There was
Otis the Frog Boy, Mignon the Penguin Girl, Jo-Jo the Dog Faced
Boy, Darwin’s Missing Link, and of course the Elephant Man. In
sideshow culture, disability oppression crashed head-on into racism,
sexism, classism, and I would say, speciesism. Looking through
old medical textbooks and dictionaries, I see that the comparisons
have existed within medical discourse as well—elephantitis, ape-
hand syndrome, lobster-claw syndrome, pigeon chest, goosebumps,
chickenpox, and phocomelia (seal-like limbs), to name just a few. In
medical history, gender and racial lines were also often clearly delineated
as markers of normalcy and deviance, creating a standard
of human physiology that normalized whiteness and often animalized
people of color, while simultaneously pathologizing those who
physiologically and culturally defi ed accepted gender dichotomies
and roles. Teratology (the study of congenital disabilities—literally
the study of monsters) placed disability clearly within the category
of deviance. Teratology seemed to ask, which monsters do we count
as human, and which monsters are more like animals?
These animal comparisons exist in both sideshow culture and
medical discourse, which are two of the main fi lters through which
disability is still perceived today. Although only a few sideshows
remain in the United States, their tantalizing aesthetic continues as
a cornerstone of exoticism and camp. In many ways I am drawn to
the allure of the sideshow just as many people are; it is seductive.
The sideshow freaks’ charm and brilliance was in their showmanship.
If only I were to look as exceptional as one of them when I
perform my daily chores! The freaks had to embody their stage
names—if Mignon the Penguin Girl’s livelihood depended on her
embracing and exaggerating her penguinness, then she would wear
clothes that drew attention to certain aspects of her shape and
“waddle.” It is easy for me to romanticize the sideshow, fantasize
about their radical bohemian lives, and dream about the solidarity
and communities they must have had. But the sideshows were
no doubt complicated, abusive, and oppressive realities also, made
even more hideous by racism and sexism. And, of course, they
were virtual zoos, where people paid to wander from one exotic
beast to the next.
Despite the abundance of good medicine, I have few romantic
fantasies about hospitals. Disability studies calls the co-opting of
disability in the early 1900s by the medical profession “the medical
model of disability.” Disability went from being a moral, spiritual,
or metaphysical issue to a medical one. Where disability had once
been understood as an intervention by God or as the price paid
for a karmic debt, it was now understood as medical deviance. Al-

though in many ways this shift in discourse was better for disabled
individuals, it has also been problematic. The medical model of
disability positioned the disabled body as working incorrectly, as
being unhealthy and abnormal, as in need of cure. Rosemarie Garland
Thomson writes, “Domesticated within the laboratory and
the textbook, what was once the prodigious monster, the fanciful
freak, the strange and subtle curiosity of nature, has become today
the abnormal, the intolerable.”2 With this medical and scientifi c
colonization, the disabled body “demand[s] genetic reconstruction,
surgical normalization, therapeutic elimination, or relegation
to pathological specimen” (“FWE,” 4). Doctors probe, measure,
and stare, but as the joke often goes, “at least the freaks got paid.”
In hospitals, one is supposed to feel grateful for this invasion—
doctors are experts who can cure or care for us—but doctors do
not own the atypical body any more than P. T. Barnum did. The
medical profession’s gaze on disability is calculated, measuring, labeling,
and dissecting. The disabled person becomes a body to be
cropped, numbered, and labeled—not unlike a butcher’s diagram.

What does it mean to be compared to an animal? To be called a
“Monkey Woman”? Is there any way to consider these metaphors
beyond the blatant racism, classism, and ableism these comparisons
espouse? I fi nd myself wondering why animals exist as such
negative points of reference for us, animals who themselves are victims
of unthinkable oppressions and stereotypes. In David Lynch’s
1980 classic Elephant Man, John Merrick yells out to his gawkers
and attackers, “I am not an animal!” Freaks and patients are often
treated as such during their lives, “handled” by both freak-show
operators telling them how to perform and by doctors directing
them how to move so that they can be more easily inspected. No
one wants to be treated like an animal.3

But how do we treat animals? We treat animals as things to be
used for our benefi t—we watch them in zoos, gawking at their different
bodies, their different ways of moving and acting. We label
and number their body parts for purposes like meat, milk, and
leather. In short, we treat them as if their bodies exist solely for
us. As a freak, as a patient, I do not deny that I’m like an animal.
Instead, I want to be aware of the mistreatment that those labeled
“animal” (human and nonhuman) experience. I am an animal.

A friend of mine who has osteogenesis imperfecta (or “brittle
bones”) shared with me that while she was growing up her mother
told her she had a camel walk. “This was her label for me walking
with my hands and legs on the ground—with my bum in the air
like a camel hump. It never bothered me and I’d say I had camel
pride.” However, she went on to say, “I didn’t like being told by
my stepdad that I had arms like a monkey (they look long in comparison
to my body because they haven’t been broken as much as
my legs).” Why was the monkey comparison offensive, whereas
the camel was not? Was it because being compared to a monkey
has so much more historical baggage than being compared to a
camel (at least in Western culture)?
Some animal comparisons are no doubt more troubling than
others. In sideshows, the more truly disturbing comparisons were
left for people of color and the cognitively disabled. These were the
freaks who were displayed as missing links and as not quite human,
reinforcing and justifying extremely racist stereotypes. These freaks
were “What Is It?”; “Maximo and Bartola, the Aztec Twins”; “The
Missing Link”; and “Krao, the Ape Girl.” These are the animal
metaphors that epitomize what’s wrong with animal metaphors.
We hear phrases like “monkey girl” or “dog boy” and think of
oppression. Being compared to an animal is negative largely because
of history and culture, because of the discrimination such comparisons
engender against human beings. But what of the chimpanzees
and orangutans, elephants and tigers, dogs and other “beasts” who
were displayed alongside the sideshow freaks? Animals who themselves
were trapped and taken from their environments and trained
to perform tricks? Animals who, to this day, perform with Barnum
and Bailey Circus, where regular beatings force them to perform
and they are never again to see their natural environments?4 What
of these animals? Are they similar to us in any way that matters?
Are their oppressions similar to our oppressions?
I argue that at the root of the insult in animal comparisons is a
discrimination against nonhuman animals themselves. These nonhumans,
one large mass of greatly varying beings, are held together
by one similarity—they aren’t us. No matter how aware, sentient,
or intelligent, they are the ultimate other. The disabled are in many

ways a close second. We are the world’s
largest minority. We come in all colors, genders, nationalities, economic
and cultural backgrounds; and on top of this we are “freaks
of nature,” “monstrosities,” “beasts,” “abnormal,” “broken.”
I acknowledge that I am entering into slippery territory with the
writing that follows, territory in which terrible oppressions have
found footing. For although I have not directly mentioned them,
there is no way to discuss animal metaphors without recognizing
the atrocities that they have been used for: the rhetoric of Nazi
Germany, of racism, of slavery. And the rhetoric of the sideshow
was hardly better, clearly using animal comparisons to support racist
ideologies and demeaning and patronizing stereotypes. So why,
when so many people, myself included, have felt the negative and
hurtful consequences of being compared and associated with nonhuman
animals, would I enter this territory?
The simple answer is that I do it because more than 50 billion
animals die every year for human interests.5 They die for food, science,
fur, for products, entertainment, and sport. They die for these
uses because they aren’t human and because we can’t seem to fi gure
out what our ethical responsibilities toward them are. I argue
that many of the experiences of disabled people and much of the
work done in disability studies can help us to understand animal
oppression differently. By showing how disability studies reevaluates
the meanings of terms such as “independence,” “nature,” and
“normalcy” and by exploring the ways in which disability studies
demands new perspectives on embodiment, this essay will argue
that disability studies could have a positive and powerful affect on
the animal rights discussion.
I take a risk in exploring the parallels between disability oppression
and animal oppression, because this risk seems necessary
to challenge predominant themes and arguments that support the
continued exploitation of animals and of disabled people.

Independence, Nature, and Normalcy
Disability studies argues for realizing new ways of valuing human
life that aren’t limited by specifi c physical or mental capabilities.
We argue that it is not specifi cally our intelligence, rationality, agility,
physical independence, or bipedal nature that give us dignity
and value. We argue that life is, and should be presumed to be,
worth living, whether you are a person with Down syndrome, cerebral
palsy, quadriplegia, autism, or like me, arthrogryposis. Many
disability activists and scholars go further than this, arguing that
even those that are deemed to be severely and irrevocably braindamaged
have a right to a life of respect and dignity.
This is not just some trite declaration of pride or a romantic
statement on the sanctity of human life; rather, our reclaiming of
value comes from the recognition that much of what disabled people
can offer society has been undervalued or has been considered
detrimental by a culture invested in certain bodies and certain ways
of doing things. Paul Longmore, a disability studies writer and historian,
writes: “Beyond proclamations of pride, deaf and disabled
people have been uncovering or formulating sets of alternative values
derived from within the deaf and disabled experience. . . . They
declare that they prize not self-suffi ciency but self-determination,
not independence but interdependence, not functional separateness
but personal connection, not physical autonomy but human community.”
6

At their roots, all arguments used to justify human domination
over animals rely on comparing human and animal abilities
and traits. We humans are the species with rationality, with
complex emotions, with two legs and opposable thumbs. Animals,
lacking certain traits and abilities, exist outside our moral responsibility.
We can dominate and use them, because they are lacking
certain capabilities. But if disability advocates argue for the protection
of the rights of those of us who are disabled, those of us
who are lacking certain highly valued abilities like rationality and
physical independence, then how can disability studies legitimately
exclude animals for these reasons without contradiction? I argue
that disability studies has accidentally created a framework of justice
that can no longer exclude other species.
None of this is to say that abilities and variations in abilities do
not matter. Clearly, there are important differences between the
abilities of a conscious human being and someone who is braindead.
Clearly, there are differences between the abilities of a squirrel
and the abilities of a lettuce plant. To me, and to most animal
rights activists, the one ability that is a prerequisite for moral consideration
is sentience. Sentience is what sets us apart from computers;
it’s what sets human and nonhuman animals apart from
plants. Sentience is the ability to feel, to experience, to perceive.
Animals are physiologically very similar to us. Even fish, whose
capacities to feel are far too often disregarded, have physiological
reactions to pain that are similar to those of human beings and
react to painkillers as a human would.7 It is impossible to ignore
the immense amount of evidence that shows that the animals we
exploit are sentient, which means that they are able to experience
feelings—pleasurable ones and painful ones.8

The following questions thus must be asked: If an animal is living its own life, feeling
pain and pleasure, perceiving and experiencing, do we have an
obligation to avoid causing unnecessary harm to that animal? Furthermore,
do we have an obligation to acknowledge that animal’s
right to her own life—a life that she alone is experiencing? Do we
have an obligation to try to coexist rather than to exploit?

My work builds on Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice,
which shows how the tradition of the social contract has failed to
provide substantial groundwork for justice for not only disabled
people and nonhuman animals, but for human beings of different
nationalities around the world.9 The idea of the social contract, “in
which rational people get together for mutual advantage, deciding
to leave the state of nature and to govern themselves by law” (FJ, 3),
fails to address these areas of justice, as it assumes that in a “state
of nature” “the parties to this contract really are roughly equal in
mental and physical power.”10 Of course, as Nussbaum points out,
this assumption does not take into consideration physical asymmetry
between men and woman, let alone between the disabled and
the able-bodied, or between humans and nonhumans. Although
many animals are physically powerful, Nussbaum points out that
we still dominate them, “and the whole point of the state of nature
was to say that no one can really dominate . . . but with nonhuman
animals, we dominate them. We have totally won that battle”
(“JU,” 122). Nussbaum’s work also explores how the idea of mutual
advantage falls short when addressing disability and “species
membership” as disabled individuals and animals don’t necessarily
offer any mutual advantage (and in some cases may offer a disad-
vantage). Thus Nussbaum argues that a more complete theory of
justice must include other, more complex reasons for human cooperation
besides advantage, such as love, compassion, and respect.

Nussbaum shows how the physical vulnerability of disabled
individuals and animals is immensely problematic under a social
contract tradition of justice, because even in a “state of nature” an
asymmetry in power exists between these groups and able-bodied
human beings. Nussbaum thus argues that “the classical theory
of the social contract cannot solve these problems” (FJ, 3), as the
problems are built into the theory’s foundations, and thus new theories
are needed.11
An interesting parallel to Nussbaum’s critique of the social
contract is available in another contract theory that has recently
gained popularity among those who support eating sustainably
and humanely produced animal products. This theory says that
human beings and domesticated animals have entered into a contract
with each other that, like the social contract theory, is largely
based on the idea of mutual advantage.12 The second half of this essay
will explore and critique this theory and show how it fails as an
argument for continued animal exploitation, as the contract itself
is based in asymmetrical foundations and the rules of the contract
are themselves unequal.
Nussbaum’s work on the idea of vulnerability is also relevant to
the remainder of this essay, as I argue that vulnerability is closely
related to an idea of dependence that is problematic for both disabled
people and animals. Those who are vulnerable are also often
dependent, and this dependence can easily become an excuse for exploitation.
Viewing the concepts of dependence and independence
through a disability studies lens can add signifi cant strength to the
arguments for animal rights and disability rights in these debates.

Disabled people are negatively affected by limited interpretations
of the concept of independence, and disability studies has
worked to redefi ne what independence can mean. Independence,
I argue, is more about choice and civil rights than it is about pure
self-sufficiency. Like Paul Longmore, I argue that it is interdependence,
not independence, and community, not physical autonomy,
that should be supported and recognized as essential for sustaining
a just society.

In American rhetoric there is a strong emphasis on independence
and self-suffi ciency. America is the country where everyone has the
opportunity to become “independent.” Independence is perhaps
prized beyond all else in this country, and for disabled people this
means that our lives are automatically seen as tragically dependent.
Michael Oliver, like many disability theorists, argues that
dependence is relative: “Professionals tend to defi ne independence
in terms of self-care activities such as washing, dressing, toileting,
cooking and eating without assistance. Disabled people, however,
defi ne independence differently, seeing it as the ability to be in control
of and make decisions about one’s life, rather than doing things
alone or without help.”13 We as a society are all dependent on each
other. The difference between the way the disabled community sees
dependence and how the rest of society views it is that there is not
so much emphasis on individual physical independence. Today, independence
is more about individuals being in control of their own
services (be it education, plumbing, electrical, medical, dietary, or
personal care) than it is about individuals being completely physically
self-sufficient; this is true not only for the disabled population
but for the population in general.
A large part of the stigma attached to being disabled is that
those who are physically dependent are seen as burdens. The more
impaired someone is, the more of a burden he or she is. Disability
scholars argue, however, that the only reason why many people are
a (perceived) burden on their family and friends is that they have
such limited options.14 Disability rights activists and scholars argue
that, in our society, it is not the impairment that is the reason
for dependence; it is our impaired system of social services. I have
countless friends whom society would no doubt label as burdensome
and dependent—not to mention myself (I use a wheelchair
and have very limited use of my arms). And yet, these friends and
colleagues are some of the most directed, productive, and creative
people I know, despite the fact that many use and rely on attendants
and other support services.
For animals, dependence is what allows and even excuses their
exploitation by humans. This is seen in much of the philosophy
behind the humane meat movement. Authors such as Michael Pol-
lan and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall argue that to be vegetarian or
vegan would mean abandoning those animals who are most dependent
on us.15 Leaving them to their own devices, they say, would
be a fate far worse than the dinner table. The theory they follow
says that we have entered into a co-evolutionary pact with these
species that gives us the responsibility to care for them in exchange
for their services and fl esh. Some vegetarians and vegans respond
by arguing that human beings should stop breeding these animals
and let their species go extinct. They argue that the dependency of
these species makes them so vulnerable to human exploitation that
to keep these species surviving is irresponsible.
Is there another way? What would a reframing of dependency
look like to animals oppressed by humans? Viewing the dependence
of farm animals through a disability studies framework gives new
answers to the questions surrounding animal exploitation and may
also open up a third path. Instead of continuing to exploit animals
because they are dependent on us, and instead of leading these animals
to extinction as a potential vegan alternative, could we not
realize our mutual dependence on each other, our mutual vulnerability,
and our mutual drive for life? The big questions in disability
studies seem equally relevant to the animal rights debate: How can
we create new meanings for words like “dependent” and “independent”?
How can those who are seemingly most vulnerable within
a society be perceived as also being useful, strong, and necessary?

Along with dependency, the other two concepts that I argue are
of great importance to both the fields of disability studies and critical
animal studies are “nature” and “normalcy.” The phrase “the
natural cycle of things” has been used to justify everything from
infanticide of disabled babies to the continued slaughter of animals
for food. The idea of nature and what is natural has led to
discrimination toward disabled people and the medicalization of
the concept of disability, while at the same time it has been used as
proof of our right to eat and use animals.
Within certain social justice movements (especially those surrounding
food), there is a certain romanticization of nature—currently
very popular—that often leaves out certain bodies, including
the disabled body. It is a romanticization of “how things used to
be” and “how things are in nature” that often ignores that things
were not necessarily as good for some as they were for others and
that an idea of nature is diffi cult, if not impossible, to separate from
human culture and paradigms. Just as the social contract tradition
has failed to recognize the inequality that exists in a so-called state
of nature, so does this idea of nature fail to see the power inequalities
that exist within it.
Nature is one of the most common and compelling rhetorical
tools used by those who justify animal exploitation. Arguments
range from nuanced discussions of sustainable farming to passionate
declarations that animals eat other animals in nature, and that in
any case, nature is simply “red in tooth and claw.” Nicolette Hahn
Niman, author of The Righteous Porkchop, writes, “Clearly it’s
normal and natural for animals to eat other animals, and since we
humans are part of nature, it’s very normal for humans to be eating
animals.”16 But violent, painful deaths are also “normal and natural”
in nature. Would Niman use that fact to argue that we have no
moral obligation to kill animals humanely? What about human-onhuman
violence? That’s certainly “natural.” But is it ethical?
Patriarchy and disability oppression are also interesting parallels
to this way of thinking. Throughout history and in virtually all
cultures, patriarchy in some form has been the norm, and disability
oppression and marginalization has existed. Of course there have
been a few scattered cultures here and there that treated woman
and disabled people more fairly than others, but the same can be
said of our treatment of animals. Patriarchy is not something we
should accept as natural–and neither is a paradigm of able-bodied
superiority or of human domination over animals.
I argue that appealing to nature as a justifi cation for ethical belief
is a fallacy, and it has been used historically to justify every
conservative power structure. Other animals, with no alternative
sustenance, often with specifi c dietary requirements, and with
varying cognitive abilities regarding such things as empathy, do
not seem to be appropriate role models for our ethical lives. We are
animals that have evolved to recognize other beings’ subjectivity,
to experience empathy, and to make ethical choices. If a desire for
meat is in human nature, it must be remembered that it is also in
human nature to question the way we live, to think about ethics,
and to change our habits as our moral lives change. We, unlike virtually
all other animals, choose what we eat.17
As a disabled person I fi nd ethical arguments based on what’s
“natural” to be highly problematic. If history reveals something
of “the natural cycle of things,” I would have been killed at birth
at worst or culturally marginalized at best. Many of my disabled
friends would not be alive if it weren’t for their parents and society
thinking differently about the “natural cycle of things.” This is not
to say that we shouldn’t look toward nature or history for ways
of behaving and living sustainably. Rather, it is simply to say that
we shouldn’t forget that these traditions often grew out of paradigms
of domination and oppression. As Nussbaum explains, human
dominance and power asymmetry still exist even in a so-called
state of nature.
Disability studies has been critiquing what medical discourse
views as natural and normal for years. For decades disabled children
and adults were pressured by the medical establishment to
receive surgical treatment that could potentially decrease abnormal
functionality (such as the functional use of a “deformed” limb)
but increase a more “normal” appearance. This is still a common
practice in regards to intersex children and other individuals whose
“deformities” are seen as especially taboo. But perhaps an even
more vivid example of how the medical profession’s ideas of nature
and normalcy affect disabled people and medical policy is in the
current debate surrounding infanticide. Many arguments in support
of infanticide point out that “in nature” disabled babies are
often killed or left to die and that we should let “nature run her
course”—meaning we should let the disabled baby die in peace or
even help him or her to die. This opinion is grounded in the idea
that it is simply natural to think disability is a bad thing—it is common
sense, everyone knows it.
The disability community argues that impairment is not naturally
a negative experience. This is not at all to say that being impaired
does not have negative aspects that are very real and often
diffi cult, but instead to say that cultural and political oppressions
deeply effect and are entangled with nearly all suffering that surrounds
being disabled. An inaccessible society that stereotypes and
misjudges impairment is very often far more frustrating than our
bodies are. Stairs are no more natural than ramps. Disability oppression
is not natural, and the idea that disability is a personal
tragedy as opposed to an issue of social justice needs rectifying.

Impairment can offer many valuable insights and experiences to
human society and culture. It is pointed out by disability activists
and scholars that most people, if they live long enough, will experience
disability at some point in their lives, or at least in old age.
If this vulnerability of the human body was more acknowledged,
perhaps disability and aging would be much less feared, as society
would adapt and come to expect and prepare for disability. Of
course, when most people think of disability as abnormal and in
need of a cure, they don’t think of their elderly grandparents; they
think of those of us with curved spines, or no limbs. They think of
the “freak of nature.”
Nature is currently an acceptable framework from which to critique
and classify disabled and animal bodies, whereas it is no longer
an acceptable endpoint for discussions of race and gender. This
double standard needs to be addressed and questioned. Discourses
of normalcy and the argument of “common sense” are also commonly
used to justify animal exploitation.18 In reevaluating what
is natural and “normal” regarding disabled people, does disability
studies not then ultimately demand a reevaluation of what is often
said to be the “natural cycle of things” regarding human domination
over animals? I argue that because disabled people and nonhuman
animals (especially domesticated animals) are viewed as dependent,
their treatment and place in society is more commonly
considered within (and more deeply affected by) conventional notions
of nature and normalcy than that of other populations.
In the second half of this essay I turn toward the question of
animal rights, in particular, the debate over humane meat, to show
more specifi cally how disability studies offers new ways to consider
our responsibility toward nonhuman animals. The ethics of
eating animal products is arguably the most pervasive and hotly
contested form of animal exploitation, and I focus on the debates
surrounding humane meat as the strongest and most compelling
direction of the conversation.

Fig. 1. Lobster Girl. Oil on xerox, 2” x 5”, 2009.


Fig. 2. Dead Calves on a Conveyor Belt. Oil on canvas, 5” x 4”, 2008.

Fig. 3. Culled Male Chicks in a Dumpster. Oil on canvas, 5’ x 3.5’ (60” x 42”), 2008.

Fig. 4. Animals with Arthrogryposis. Oil on canvas, 6’ x 9’ (72” x 108”), 2009.

Animal Rights Today: The Humane Meat Argument
In my second year of graduate school in the Department of Art
Practice at the University of California, Berkeley, I began a painting
of discarded male chicks. The title of the painting was Culled
Male Chicks in a Dumpster (oil on canvas, 2008, 5’ x 3.5’). The
painting (see fi g. 3) is of hundreds of male chicks, maybe a day old,
who have been thrown in a dumpster alive, as they are completely
useless to the egg and meat industry. They are useless because
males don’t lay eggs and are not used for meat. The use value or
profi tability of these chicks is virtually zilch, so sometimes they
are simply thrown away. Sometimes they are spread alive or dead
on farms for fertilizer. Sometimes they will fi nd their way into dog
food, or sometimes they will be made into feed and fed back to
their sisters.
In factory farms, animals are never seen as individuals; they are
rarely even seen as animals. They are simply raw materials to be
transformed into product. In painting them, I hope to express what
they really are: alive and aware.
What does it mean to say something is alive? Is there a difference
between a dumpster full of uprooted tomato plants and one
fi lled with day-old chicks?
Most people, I believe, would say yes; clearly there is a difference
between the little birds and the rejected fruit, even though
both are alive. But what is this difference? An animal rights supporter
would say that as far as we can tell scientifi cally and biologically,
the tomatoes do not suffer. Chicks, on the other hand, are
biologically similar to us in that they feel pain; they are sentient.
One could say that we can’t be sure that plants don’t suffer, that
just because they are different from us doesn’t mean we should
count them out. Many thinkers have done a good job of giving
plants personalities (the most convincing being Michael Pollan’s
determined and adventurous corn in The Omnivore’s Dilemma),
and have shown how ingeniously plants have used us to their evolutionary
advantage. But however biologically ingenious plants
are, virtually no one, scientist or otherwise, claims that plants experience
pain and suffering.

Thus one dumpster is fi lled with beings that feel pain before they
die. They feel the cold or the heat. They feel the weight of others
on top of them. They feel hunger and thirst. The other dumpster is
fi lled with plants that have developed deterrents to being eaten or
who release different chemicals at different stages of their development,
but it is not fi lled with feelings.
Some may also say that to claim that chicks suffer is to be sentimental.
They may claim we are just anthropomorphizing these
birds that run on nothing but instinct, and that instinct is nothing
but nature’s equivalent to a computer or, as Descartes thought, the
mechanics of a clock. But the scientifi c evidence supporting animal
sentience is overwhelming and undisputable. Few people today
would condone the scientifi c experiments inspired by Descartes’
work, where hearts were cut out of fully conscious dogs, while
their cries were said to be nothing more than the equivalent of the
tick-tock of a clock.
The discussion on sentience used to focus mostly on the soul,
on who had souls and who didn’t. Throughout history, women,
the poor, and people of color sometimes had souls and sometimes
didn’t. Animals almost certainly were without souls, at least in the
Judeo-Christian tradition. Although many people would no longer
fi nd the concept of a soul to be a good justifi cation for giving
or denying rights, much of the current animal rights critique
is still rooted in this paradigm. Joel Salatin, the sustainable meat
farmer whom conscientious omnivores often reference (he’s profi
led by Pollan), is a prime example. When asked by Pollan “how
he could bring himself to kill a chicken,” Salatin replied, “That’s
an easy one. People have a soul, animals don’t. It’s a bedrock belief
of mine. Animals are not created in God’s image, so when they
die, they just die” (OD, 331). Salatin, however, does believe that
animals are capable of suffering and feeling pleasure, so he is opposed
to factory farming just as passionately as any vegan. His
animals genuinely seem to have a content life on his picture-perfect
Polyface Farm, but they are still killed after living only a fraction
of their natural life span. They are still bred by humans and are
legally property, two points that we’ll explore later on. Salatin also
still has to cull his male chicks, as they are just as useless to him as
they are to the large factory producers.

Another of my paintings, Dead Chickens on a Conveyor Belt
(oil on canvas, 2008, 4” x 5”), is an image of hens who have just
had their throats slit. If they are lucky they will bleed out and be
either dead or fully unconscious before hitting the scalding water
that removes their feathers. Whether at Salatin’s farm or at a factory
farm, this is almost always the way chickens die—upside down
with a knife to their neck, their feet held either by a metal conveyor
belt or by hands they have grown to trust as bearers of food, shelter,
and warmth. For the hen in the factory farm, who has never
known anything but neglect and cruelty, the treatment at the end
of her life is sadly in line with all she has known; for the hen at a
family farm like Salatin’s, however, it is a wholly new experience.

Do animals deserve equal consideration? Do their experiences
matter?

Imagine this scenario. What would Joel Salatin do if he lost his
faith and no longer believed in souls? Salatin would then find himself
asking our question: Do animals deserve equal consideration?
Potentially Salatin might become a vegan. A more likely scenario,
considering the fact that he makes his living by raising animals
for meat, is that he’d look to other farmers and writers for ethical
advice. He quite possibly would fi nd Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Fearnley-Whittingstall is similar to Salatin in that he practices
sustainable, grass-based farming while also trying to minimize his
animals’ suffering. However, for Fearnley-Whittingstall, religion is
not a good enough justifi cation for killing animals, and neither is
tradition, history, or taste. In fact, the fi rst few pages of “Meat and
Right,” the fi rst chapter of his cookbook The River Cottage Meat
Book, reads like a vegan manifesto. For pages he tears apart every
argument commonly heard for why eating animals is justifi ed. One
would hardly believe that the same book contains recipes for pork
chops and smoked sheep liver. Fearnley-Whittingstall is no vegan.
He is, however, not afraid of the debate. He argues that the right
to breed, raise, and kill animals comes from nature itself and from
evolution. Fearnley-Whittingstall condones killing largely because
of the contract theory of co-evolution. This contract with domesticated
farm animals, he says, gives us not only a right but a responsibility
to kill animals for food.19 This argument may sound familiar,
as Pollan argues the same thing in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

The theory says that if we look at things in evolutionary terms,
domesticated animals are doing remarkably well. Their populations
are high and spread all around the globe, and they have another
species—humans—providing them food and shelter. The theory
argues that the relationship of domestication—and the killing
that goes along with it—is just as benefi cial for the animals as it is
for the humans. After all, if we didn’t eat them, they wouldn’t exist.
“From the animals’ point of view,” Pollan writes, “the bargain
with humanity turned out to be a tremendous success, at least until
our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and chickens have thrived,
while their wild ancestors have languished” (OD, 120). Thus we
have entered into a sort of social contract with these species, based
on supposed mutual advantage; we provide and care for them, and
in return they feed our soil and give us their fl esh. To be vegan
would be to turn our back on this relationship and send these dependent
domesticated animals out into the wild, where they would
die of starvation or be brutally killed by other animals.
“It is not only the death of our farm animals over which we
have such complete control,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall. “It is
also their birth, and their life. We breed them and we feed them;
and after we kill them, they feed us. In this sense, the relationship
is undeniably symbiotic. And such is the success of the symbiosis
that, along with ourselves, our sheep, cattle, pigs, and poultry are
among the most ‘successful’ species on the planet—at least in crude
terms of overall population and global distribution. Should they be
grateful?” (RC, 23).
Should they be grateful? There is something perverse about
claiming that species that literally have no access to almost all of
their natural behaviors (dust bathing, companionship, foraging,
grazing, sexual contact, raising of one’s babies, etc.) are successful.
The idea that the enormous number of domesticated farm animals
constantly living and dying is somehow a boon to these species
seems ludicrous and is a misuse of the idea of evolutionary success.
True, there are billions of farm animals on the earth every year, but
their individual lives are fi lled with suffering and frustration from
the day of their birth till the day of their slaughter.

Of course, Fearnley-Whittingstall and Pollan’s point is that fac-
tory farms and the suffering they cause are a terrible breach of this
contract. As an argument, however, this is contradictory. They both
cite high population as proof that these species have become successful
with our help, but in the same breath they declare that factory
farms, which are the main reason for such high populations, are
a breach of this contract. Fearnley-Whittingstall says this of factory
farms: “This isn’t husbandry. It’s persecution. We have completely
failed to uphold our end of the contract. In the face of such abuse,
the moral defense of meat eating is left in tatters” (RC, 25).
The only reason there are so many domesticated farm animals
on the planet is that humans are constantly breeding them (many
can no longer breed on their own, and the vast majority are bred
by factory farms and the related animal industries). So if a species’
evolutionary “success” is really what matters (and justifi es our exploitation
of them), how can Fearnley-Whittingstall and Pollan
argue against factory farming practices and for small, sustainable
local farms, which will inevitably and drastically reduce these species’
populations?
For now, let us leave this contradiction and proceed from their
assumption that this contract is benefi cial. Most small farms are
not as conscientious regarding animal contentment as Salatin’s and
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, but even if we use these farms as the example
of how things could be, we are still confronted with ethical
questions. On the best of these small farms, animals aren’t tortured.
They live decent lives, even pleasurable ones. They are fed,
have companionship, are given shelter and veterinary care, and live
in environments that are appropriate for their behaviors and needs.
They are, however, still often branded, castrated, have their babies
culled or used for veal, and are killed when they are no longer
productive. They are killed when they have years of life to live, as
animals are almost always sent to slaughter when still very young.
They are still emotional, sentient beings who are nothing more
than property—a cow reaching weight to become a steak to sell.

Do humans have the right to make other living and sentient beings
into objects of production that we can kill even when it is unnecessary
to do so, merely for our pleasure? Even if the animals die
quickly on their home farm (a rarity for larger meat animals, who
must legally be sent to certifi ed slaughterhouses), what justifi es this
killing? How are we justifi ed in ending a life of happy contentment
to satisfy a passing craving?

Here’s Fearnley-Whittingstall: “Pro-meat arguments based on
habit, health or survival, persuasive though they may feel to their
protagonists, do not really bite on a pragmatic level, let alone in
the realm of pure ethics. At best, they establish the self-evident fact
that the human race is, and has long been, meat eating. But we carnivores
must also concede that, in all but a few extreme environments,
meat is not essential for human survival or even for good
health.” So if religion is not an acceptable justifi cation for meat
eating, and neither are habit, health, or survival—and this coming
from someone who makes his living off of slaughtering animals—
then what is? Is this co-evolution theory convincing enough to justify
continued and unnecessary slaughter?
I will argue momentarily that this contract is not ethical in the
fi rst place, but for now I want to point out that even if we accept
this evolutionary contract and its symbiotic relationship between
humans and domesticated animals as a valuable concept, we must
still reevaluate how and what is important about this relationship.

On these small farms, slaughter is actually a deep breach of trust
between the interdependent beings who are mutually supporting
each other. After all, these animals do far more for us than just
give us meat: they care for our soil, feed our plants, and enrich our
lives as friends and companions. In fact, according to Fearnley-
Whittingstall, Salatin, and Pollan, we could not grow food sustainably
without these farm animals. This leads us to the biggest
problem with the co-evolution argument: the evolutionary bargain
is simply unequal. We care for these animals, and they in turn care
for our soil and land, making it possible for us to grow our plantbased
foods. This is the symbiotic relationship. But instead of appreciating
the mutual relationship we have with these animals, we
charge them an extraordinary extra cost—their lives and the lives
of their children. We breed them as we deem fi t, eat their babies,
and then, when we no longer see them as animals but as meat, we
kill them. The above farmers and writers may agree with this bargain
as it’s been philosophized by those who eat animals, but if the
tables were turned and we were offering up our babies and fl esh,
no doubt the inequality of the theory would quickly be determined.

Whether this contract was fair in the fi rst place is in many ways
the most important question. Nussbaum’s critique of the power
asymmetries in a state of nature is even more pertinent here. To
argue that animals were on a level playing fi eld with human beings
when this supposed contract was made ignores the obvious fact
that humans and animals have extremely varied mental and physical
capacities. This bargain was not made between beings “roughly
equal in mental and physical power,” but between powerful human
beings and more vulnerable animals. It is clear that this contract
was written by the more powerful human beings for their
own interests: under this contract, humans benefi t not only as a
species but also as individuals, whereas animals “benefi t” (if that
word can be used at all) only as species, not as individuals.

Fearnley-Whittingstall and Pollan argue that on some evolutionary
level the animals have agreed to slaughter, that because animals
have historically continued to stay around human encampments,
even when there were no physical fences and when they continued
to be slaughtered, this is proof that a relationship with humans
was worth death for them. But not all fences are physical. One
only has to look at the history of male domination over women,
the rampant and insidious nature of patriarchy, to see various fences
and barriers at work. One cannot argue that the domesticated
animal chose slaughter anymore than one could argue that women
chose patriarchy.
There is an aspect of trickery in the philosophy of the humane
meat movement. No animal would knowingly put herself in a situation
of danger. On Polyface Farm and many others, the farmers
and animals do have affection for each other, which Salatin,
Fearnley-Whittingstall, and others have openly talked about. But is
this affection misleading? Is it trickery? Is trickery of this sort unethical?
To bite the hand that feeds is part of a well-known idiom,
but perhaps it is more apt to speak of being killed by the hand that
feeds.
There is yet another problematic aspect to the contract theory
of co-evolution, and that is its reliance on the idea of dependency.
Fearnley-Whittingstall argues that we must kill animals because
they are now domesticated and dependent on us. They will be burdens
unless we get something in return—their fl esh. “Of all the
creatures whose lives we affect,” he writes, “none are more deeply
dependent on us—for their success as a species and for their individual
health and well-being—than animals we raise to kill for
meat. . . . We control almost every aspect of their lives: their feeding,
their breeding, their health, their pain, or freedom from it, and
fi nally the timing and manner of their death. We have done so for
hundreds of thousands of years, to the point where their dependence
on us is in their nature—evolutionarily hardwired” (RC, 31).
Dependency: a reason that has been used to justify slavery, patriarchy,
colonization, and disability oppression. Slaves were said
to be dependent on their “masters.” Pro-slavery rhetoric used the
supposed dependency of slaves as a justifi cation for their continued
exploitation. Women were said to be dependent on their husbands
and male society. This dependency was seen as being part of their
charm, a natural and preferred feminine condition. The language
of dependency is indeed a brilliant rhetorical tool, as it is a way for
those who use it to sound concerned, compassionate, and caring
while continuing to exploit the supposed subjects of concern.
Some may argue that animal dependency and disability dependency
are different from the above examples, because the descriptor
“dependent” is simply more “accurate” for animals and disabled
people. But dependence is relative and, as these historical
examples show, has everything to do with how society is arranged
and who is privileged. When women had no rights to income or to
partake in politics, their dependency (although not purely physical)
was both real and oppressive. Disabled people, the elderly, and
animals, although often more physically vulnerable than women,
are largely made dependent by a society that has not been arranged
with their rights and lives in mind.20
Whom is society made for? Some may argue that the fi nancial
burden of making society accessible, and of coexisting with animals
without profi ting off their fl esh, is unrealistic. I do not pretend
to offer in this text a reorganized national budget to do this.
But that is not the purpose of this essay, just as it was not the role
of nineteenth-century abolitionists to explain to a fearful public
how freeing the slaves would benefi t a fragile American economy.
As Nussbaum says, “theories of social justice must also be responsive
to the world and its most urgent problems, and must be open
to changes in their formulations and even in their structures in response
to a new problem or to an old one that has been culpably
ignored” (FJ, 1).
Society must take into consideration the lives of disabled people
and of nonhuman animals. And society will not come away from
this relationship empty-handed, as disabled people and nonhuman
animals have much to offer. Disabled people are often seen as being
inspirational and brave, but even this well-intentioned rhetoric
misses the point of disability studies and continues a discourse of
pity that is oppressive for disabled people. I argue, through a disability
studies and disability culture lens, that among many other
things, disability can offer new perspectives on such core concepts
as independence and embodiment. It offer new realizations
of physical and mental creativity and of community and support.
It would be impossible, considering the vastness of the animal
kingdom and its deep entanglement with our environments, to try
to sum up in a few sentences what nonhuman animals can offer
human beings. Suffi ce it to say that domesticated animals are at
this moment an integral part of our relationship with nature and
some would say with agriculture. It is time we stop taking advantage
of these animals who are currently doing so much for us beyond
providing animal protein.
It is important to note that there is a debate as to whether domesticated
animals are truly essential for sustainable plant-based
agriculture. Much of the humane meat movement argues that veganism
is naive in thinking we can grow sustainable food without
the use of domesticated farm animals. I am not a farmer, but I must
express my distrust of this argument, as none of the authors I have
written about above actually take on the possibility of veganic
farming (sustainable farming without domesticated animal products)
in any detail. I have never seen it mentioned by these authors
that in the United Kingdom there is a certifi cation process for what
is called “stock-free” farming, a viable and practiced form of ag-
riculture.21 Whether or not this form of farming is practical in the
end, I cannot help but question this large gap in the writing of these
authors who clearly are capable of thorough and fair research. I
also must question a certain lack of imagination surrounding the
possibility of sustainable vegan agriculture. Throughout history
people have managed to grow food under amazing circumstances
and in myriad ways. The fact that it has never been a human priority
to develop farming methods that don’t rely on animal products
(such as blood and manure) and that minimize harm to fi eld animals
(who often die during farming processes) says more about the
paradigm of human domination over animals than it does about
the viability of developing a sustainable and vegan agriculture.

The more signifi cant question for our purposes, however, is
whether killing is necessary and justifi ed under our current agricultural
methods. When proponents of humane meat argue that we
need domesticated animals for sustainable agriculture, they fail to
mention that slaughter is not a necessary component of this need.
Animals do not need to be killed to poop. In fact, our constant
cycle of breeding, killing, replacing, breeding, killing, replacing
seems like a terribly ineffi cient way to go about accessing manure.
If people really only ate meat for plant-based agriculture, surely
someone would have reminded them of this one golden rule: animals
still poop in their old age. In fact, most of the positive effects
animals can have on crops and soil comes from the very fact that
the animals are alive. The one exception to this may be in the common
practice of using blood, bone, feathers, and other discarded
animal parts as compost. However, even this use seems to not depend
on killing so much as on the simple inevitability that animals
die (and despite claims to the contrary, vegans are not opposed to
death, but to unnecessary killing).
The claim that humans should, in some way, continue to have
an interdependent relationship with domesticated animals is not
a very common vegan argument. Many vegans argue that the responsible
thing to do with these animals is to stop breeding them.
In a way, I understand why the prospect of having these species
(that humans have bred to be vulnerable, dependent, and pretty defenseless)
go extinct seems like the most responsible answer; after
all we’ve done, why should we be trusted as caregivers? However,
I disagree that it is necessarily the ethical and responsible thing to
do. For one thing, I think the problems brought up throughout
this essay surrounding issues of dependence are relevant. People
often make gross misjudgments on quality-of-life issues about disability
and jump to conclusions about which lives are worth living.
We must question these assumptions as they relate to animals as
well. An animal may be dependent, but what does this dependency
really mean? Is an animal’s dependence simply a negative condition
that makes her vulnerable to exploitation, or is this dependence
actually more closely related to interdependence, in which
humans recognize the value of a relationship with these animals
beyond a simple calculation of mutual advantage? Could the dependence
of domesticated animals be seen as an opportunity for
humans and animals to coexist, as humane meat supporters say,
“symbiotically,” but without exploitation? I argue that for humans
to stop treating animals as exploitable “things,” we must actually
continue to have relationships with them, relationships that are not
shaped by ownership (pets), spectacle (zoos), or exploitation (eating
them), but by interdependence, where we recognize, value, and
respect the help they give us and their right to live.
Of course, precisely how such a relationship would work and
how much of a role humans would play in these animals’ lives
must be considered seriously, and I won’t pretend to have the answers
in the remainder of this essay. The question of population
would perhaps be the greatest challenge to this relationship, as
culling to keep the population down would no longer be an acceptable
option, but clearly population explosion would need to be
avoided. Currently, humans breed virtually all domestic animals.
What relationship would we have to these animals’ reproductive
lives? How could we be sure that these animals would not just
be exploited as property again under a new guise? The questions
brought up by this human and animal relationship would no doubt
be complicated, but I believe it is worth considering such questions
and scenarios as possibilities for how a paradigm shift toward animals
might work and what it might look like.
I have been focused here on issues of dependency and domesti-
cation, but a fuller consideration should also take up the humane
meat movement’s other main point of contention with animal
rights: nature. Pollan, Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the movement
they represent argue that vegans and vegetarians “betray a deep
ignorance of the workings of nature” (OD, 322). Fearnley-Whittingstall
seemingly accuses vegans and vegetarians of wanting to
deny death, by reminding us that animals will never be “immortal”
(RC, 18). Pollan accuses us of wanting to “airlift” humanity and
all the other carnivorous animals out of “nature’s ‘intrinsic evil’”
(OD, 322). They both accuse us of ignoring “the natural order of
things.” To me, such statements indicate these authors’ ignorance
of the ideas and philosophy of veganism and animal rights, which
are not opposed to death and are defi nitely not anti-environmental.
Sustainability and environmental justice are basic tenets of animal
rights philosophy. After all, nonhuman animals need this planet to
survive just as much as humans do.22
The knowledge that farmers have about nature is no doubt powerful,
informative, and important, and I in no way discount that.
But it is not the only lens through which to view nature. Phrases
such as “the natural order of things” cannot be separated from human
culture and biases. “To think of domestication as a form of
slavery or even exploitation,” Pollan says, “is to misconstrue that
whole relationship—to project a human idea of power onto what
is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species”
(OD, 320). But where does Pollan think our understandings of
nature come from? They come from human conceptions, conceptions
that are inevitably biased and have grown out of a certain
paradigm of human domination over animals. The distinction Pollan
makes between a “human idea of power” and a natural state of
“mutualism and symbiosis” seems deeply problematic, especially
when one considers that slavery and patriarchy were both seen as
simply natural at one time. The difference between the rhetoric of
historical forms of human exploitation that were rooted in an idea
of “natural order” and the rhetoric of our current system of nonhuman
animal exploitation that is rooted in an idea of “natural
order” is that it is still considered justifi able to exploit animals. By
criticizing the humane meat movement’s use of the idea of nature,
I am not denying the validity of their farming methods or their
knowledge of nature; rather, I’m denying that their view of nature
is the only view and an unbiased one.
As I have discussed, “nature” has also been a predominant justifi
cation for the continued oppression of disabled people. Reliance
on farmers (such as Salatin, Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Hahn Niman)
as “experts” who understand animal nature parallels the reliance
on doctors as the experts on disability. While these “experts”
have great knowledge about certain aspects of the nature of disability
and the nature of animals, they are also deeply biased in the
way they see animals and disabled people and in the way they profit
from them. Both farmers and doctors are trained to “see” in a
certain way; they are both trained in specifi c paradigms of nature.
Most farmers don’t look at their animals for signs of intelligence,
compassion, individuality, emotion, or drive for life, and doctors
rarely see their disabled patients as whole, healthy, and fulfi lled
individuals (this I know from experience). A doctor may know every
detail about what can cause arthrogryposis or about what the
latest surgical options are for correcting aspects of it, but a doctor
knows nothing about disability culture, the disability rights movement,
about the “social model” of disability versus the “medical
model,” or about how my disability has positively affected my creativity.
Of course, there are exceptions—doctors who understand
disability as a civil rights issue and farmers like Salatin who know
many of their animals individually. But even Salatin is caught in
a specifi c paradigm, a paradigm in which he is unable to imagine
that animals may have souls. It seems problematic that the very
people who are in many ways leading certain aspects of the conversations
around both disability and animal advocacy are those who
are profi ting from the continuation of these oppressive paradigms.

Conclusion
Do animals deserve equal consideration? Do their experiences matter?
Do our desires to eat them instead of eating other available
foods outweigh their desires to stay alive?
I have focused on issues of humane meat throughout this essay,
not because it is a better example of the connections between disability
and animal rights than in the broader animal rights conversation,
but because it is the most prevalent and well argued of the
contemporary anti-animal-rights discussions. The humane meat
debate and its support of animal welfare also exists as an interesting
counterpoint to the idea that disabled people are in need of
charity and welfare versus being deserving of equal rights in access
to housing, education, careers, social opportunities, and so forth.
The similarities and parallels that exist in the rhetoric and language
of proponents of animal welfare and the charitable organizations
that “help” the “handicapped” are striking. The idea of helping
those who are dependent is prominent within both lines of thought,
but rarely is it ever asked what social injustices make these groups
dependent and how these injustices could be rectifi ed. It is presented
as simply natural that these groups are in need of help and it is
emphasized that they can’t help themselves. Both lines of thought
use the rhetoric of pity to gain support for their cause. Both lines
of thought advocate for better treatment and more sympathy, but
usually shy away from suggesting a broader struggle of oppression,
inequality, discrimination, and the need for justice, not charity.
There is no doubt a limit to how far these parallels between
disability studies and animal rights can go. They are vastly different
forms of oppression in many ways. Many might say that
this sort of comparing of oppressions is not helpful, as it simplifi es
the complex issues that each group individually faces. As much as
I agree that these differences must not be forgotten, I also think
the existing parallels could be valuable to both fi elds; to shy away
from them would be unproductive and have the effect of closing
off potentially valuable areas of dialogue and thought. Throughout
this essay I have thus argued that examining these two subjects together
reveals many important intersections that have the potential
to push both fi elds in necessary and challenging ways.
One of my most recent paintings, Animals with Arthrogryposis,
shows an image of myself standing nude (my posture bent, some
would say like a monkey), with two factory farm pigs and a calf
(fi g. 4). The image is large, six feet by nine feet (oil on canvas,
2009). In the image, yellow medical arrows point to each of us.
The image is reminiscent of a medical photo, and we are numbered
A–D. The full name of my disability is arthrogryposis multiplex
congenita. The animals shown in this painting have the same disability
I do. In cows the condition has its own name: curly calf.
Pigs, cows, lambs, and numerous other animals can also have this
condition, and it is found often enough on factory farms to have
been the subject of Beef Magazine’s December 2008 issue.23
I say this not because I think disability should make us more empathetic
to these animals but to show just how closely we are like
them. Of the 50 billion animals that are killed every year for human
use, the majority are literally manufactured to be disabled—
bred to be “mutant” producers of meat, milk, and eggs.
This essay has tried to present a case for why disability and animal
rights should be taken seriously as social justice issues, while
simultaneously hoping to challenge the fi elds of disability studies
and animal rights to take each other seriously. By showing how
disability studies reevaluates the meanings of such loaded words
as “independence,” “nature,” and “normalcy” and by exploring
the ways in which disability studies demands new perspectives on
embodiment, this essay has presented an argument for why disability
studies needs to incorporate nonhuman animals into its
framework, as these reevaluations affect nonhuman animals just
as much as, if not more than, they do disabled people. I argue that
disability studies is left in a state of contradiction if it claims to
fi nd value in differing bodies and minds, different ways of being,
but then excludes nonhuman animals. Although many infl uential
theories of justice and equality are already incomplete in leaving
out nonhuman animals, I argue that disability studies, because of
its particular values, has an even more urgent responsibility to consider
justice toward nonhuman animals.
I acknowledge that there are areas in which the needs of disabled
people may bump heads with the needs of nonhuman animals
(such as in certain dietary and health requirements or in the
use of nonhuman animals to test drugs that will be used to treat
illnesses and impairments). It must also be acknowledged that asking
persons in the disabled community, an extremely marginalized
group, to potentially marginalize themselves even farther by in-
cluding nonhuman animals is a lot to ask. These issues must be
considered thoughtfully. Despite these valid complications, however,
ignoring issues of justice toward nonhuman animals will leave
disability studies in a contradictory position. What’s more, it will
support an unjustifi ed paradigm of human domination and abuse
toward billions of nonhuman animals.
Notes
1. Exploring factory farm imagery in my artwork came naturally, as
animal rights and environmental issues had always been of concern
to me growing up. My siblings and I became vegetarian by choice as
young children when, as we put it, we learned that “meat was animals.”
During this time we would often see huge trucks loaded with
hundreds of cramped chickens driving down the highway. When I
learned as an adult that I unknowingly lived a few blocks away from
a chicken-processing plant (the fi nal destination of these trucks), I
quickly decided that I wanted to use the opportunity to photograph
one of these trucks as it was stopped outside the plant (these trucks
never stop in public locations). These photos led to a series of paintings
of animals in factory farms, which I worked on throughout my
time in graduate school in the Department of Art Practice at the University
of California, Berkeley.
2. Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “From Wonder to Error—A Genealogy
of Freak Discourse in Modernity,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles
of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Thomson (New York: New York
University Press, 1996), 4. Hereafter cited as “FWE.”
3. The term “nonhuman animals” and the more effi cient but less accurate
term “animals” will be used interchangeably in this article to describe
all animals but human beings, except in places where the word
“animal” is clearly being used to describe all of us.
4. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “Circuses,” http://www
.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/circuses.aspx.
5. Stephanie Ernst, “Animal Use and Abuse Statistics: The Shocking Numbers,”

http://animals.change.org/blog/view/animal_use_and_abuse

_statistics_the_shocking_numbers.
6. Paul K. Longmore, Why I Burned My Book and Other Writings on
Disability (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 222.
7. Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our
Food Choices Matter (Emmaus, PA: Holtzbrinck, 2006), 130–31.
Copyright © 2011 Qui Parle, not for resale or redistribution
Taylor: Disability Studies and Animal Rights 221
8. There is debate as to whether animals such as oysters, who lack central
nervous systems, are sentient. See Christopher Cox, “Consider
the Oyster: Why Even Strict Vegans Should Feel Comfortable Eating
Oysters by the Boatload,” Slate, April 7, 2010, http://www.slate
.com/id/2248998; and Marc Bekoff, “Vegans Shouldn’t Eat Oysters,
and If You Do You’re Not Vegan, So . . .” Huffi ngton Post, June 10,
2010, http://www.huffi ngtonpost.com/marc-bekoff/vegans-shouldnteat-
oyste_b_605786.html.
9. Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species
Membership (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006). Hereafter
cited as FJ.
10. Martha Nussbaum, “Justice,” in Examined Life: Excursions with
Contemporary Thinkers, ed. Astra Taylor (New York: New Press,
2009), 118. Hereafter cited as “JU.”
11. Nussbaum offers a solution to these problems with a theory of justice
she has developed called the Capabilities Approach in FJ.
12. Although many authors take up this theory, Stephen Budiansky fi rst
popularized it with The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Choose
Domestication (New York: Morrow, 1992).
13. Michael Oliver, The Politics of Disablement (New York: St. Martin’s
Press, 1990), 91.
14. Some of this section has been taken from my article “The Right Not
to Work: Power and Disability,” Monthly Review, March 2004,

http://www.monthlyreview.org/0304taylor.htm.

15. Michael Pollan, “The Ethics of Eating Animals,” in The Omnivore’s
Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin,
2006), 304–34 (hereafter cited as OD); Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall,
The River Cottage Meat Book (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2007)
(hereafter cited as RC).
16. Nicolette Hahn Niman, “I Am a Vegetarian Rancher,” in Eating
Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer et al. (New York: Little, Brown,
2009), 207.
17. Some of this paragraph has been taken from an article I wrote with
Alexander Taylor called “Is It Possible to Be a Conscientious Meat
Eater,” February 18, 2009, http://www.alternet.org/story/127280/
is_it_possible_to_be_a_conscientious_meat_eater.
18. See the work of legal scholar Richard Posner.
19. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s version of this theory comes from Stephen
Budiansky’s The Covenant of the Wild (see n. 13).
20. I want to again make clear here that I am making a distinction be-
Copyright © 2011 Qui Parle, not for resale or redistribution
222 qui parle spring/summer 2011 vol.19, no.2
tween physical autonomy and independence. Someone who is quadriplegic
may not be physically autonomous in the same way an ablebodied
person is, but this is not necessarily what makes this person
dependent. If this person has access to the social services he or she
needs to live independently and an accessible environment in which
to live and work, than his or her life becomes one more of interdependence
than of dependence. This, as I pointed out earlier, is in many
ways the status of all of us to a larger or lesser degree—in a society
we are all interdependent.
21. Vegan Organic Network, http://www.veganorganic.net/.
22. Vegans are also not opposed to animals killing other animals.
23. Beef Magazine, December 2008, http://beefmagazine.com/genetics/
1201-curly-calf-issue.
Copyright © 2011 Qui Parle, not for resale or redistribution

About animalsanddisability

Sunaura Taylor is an artist, activist and writer. She’s currently working on a book on animal rights and disability, forthcoming from the Feminist Press. www.sunaurataylor.org.
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