Six Reasons to Think and Live With Animals
“Dogs are not surrogates for theory; they are not just here to think with. They are here to live with.” —Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto
Domestic and wild, companions and consumed, treasured and discarded, animals occupy a complex place in our academic theories and in our day-to-day lives. Animal studies (an interdisciplinary field that studies relationships between human and nonhuman animals) is often seen as peripheral to environmental studies as a whole. Yet both fields are invested in breaking down the barriers between nature and culture, environment and humanity. Animals help us think about what it means to be human and make us aware of our own animality. But as Haraway reminds us, animals are not just here to think with. Insisting on the study of animals within an environmental context means recognizing that we have rarely done a good job of living with animals. Here are six reasons why I believe animals help us both think and live more ethically and sustainably on this planet.
1. Animals Are Everywhere
Animals are, of course, an integral part of ecosystems and the natural world. But animals can be found in many other spaces—in our homes as pets, in the laboratory as genetically modified mice, on our highways as roadkill, in zoos as entertainment, in our supermarkets as food. Having an understanding of just how many different places animals can be found reveals just how many ways the “environment” is far more than a scenic landscape. I live right up against the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, Wisconsin, and the robin’s nest on my front porch, the mice in my garage, the flying squirrel in my backyard, and the Sandhill Crane family that I helped cross my street have all made me hyper-aware of how the boundaries between humans, animals, and the environment quickly breaks down when one lives on an edge.
2. Humans Are Animals Too
Thinking about animals helps us better understand what it means to be human. Philosophers who have asked “what is a human?” often point to language, tool use, emotions, foreknowledge of death, and critical reasoning as traits that fundamentally separate humans from animals. And yet, those who research animals have found evidence of these traits in other species. Once the line between the human and the animal becomes difficult to define, it becomes possible to reflect on the human from an evolutionary perspective and to begin to undo centuries of “enlightened” Western thought (while of course continuing to critique the animalization of specific groups of humans).1 Since the human/animal divide has often been used as a justification for dominating, consuming, and obliterating animals, recognizing humans as animals paves the way for more ethical relationships between species.
3. Animals Evoke Emotion
When it comes to representing intersections between humans and the environment, animals can often play a more powerful or influential role in cultural production than plants or ecosystems. Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto uses the intimate bonds between people and dogs to break down species hierarchies and to insist upon the value of the lived experiences we have with these companions. But these connections go beyond pets to include animals with whom we have less intimate connections, including the animals that we consume or mistreat. Recognizing pain in the face of an animal is a profoundly moving experience, something that may be difficult to fully understand and yet is even harder to deny. The unexpected recognition of animal suffering can be a powerful motivation for beginning to value animals and the environment as a whole.
4. Animals Make The Anthropocene Visible
In the Anthropocene, animals have started disappearing in places where they belong and appearing in places where they do not. The appearances and disappearances of animals, whether those be invasive species in our backyards or threatened mountain gorillas, are immediately measurable, obvious, and sudden. The popularity of Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent discussion of the sixth extinction supports this point—since animals provide emotional and tangible evidence of climate change, they encourage a more powerful call to action. For example, the recent documentary Virunga, which tells the story of the struggle to protect Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, uses the story of the dwindling population of gorillas to tell a broader story of environmental exploitation, neocolonialism, and human rights.
5. (Some) Animals Have Rights
The discourse of “rights” has been used to enfranchise and empower many human subjects—why not animals too? One of the difficulties of talking about animal rights is that it can seem like a slippery slope—if apes have rights, why not dogs? If dogs have rights, why not pigs? Rather than being a problem, however, the struggle to find an appropriate stopping place actually reveals the fallacy of human exceptionalism. It ultimately encourages us to ask: “might the environment also have rights?” What would it take for all nonhuman life to be considered valuable for more than its capacity to feed, shelter, clothe, and entertain humans? The question of rights—of valuing something for its own sake rather than its utility—is one that can and should be used to encourage environmental ethics and sustainability.
6. Animals Tell Stories
Animals are everywhere, including in our stories. From the bison, horses, and deer in the first cave paintings, to Aesop’s Fables, to contemporary fiction such as Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, animals have helped shape the means and meaning of storytelling. John Berger has stated, “it is not unreasonable to suppose that the first metaphor was animal.” If we are interested in telling stories about the environment, it is likely that animals will play leading roles in those stories. As a literary scholar, I can’t help but provide a brief example of this kind of storytelling. Margaret Atwood’s poem “Bear Lament” begins with a description of a white bear with a “heavy-footed plod that keeps / the worldwide earthwork solid.” Crawling inside the bear is supposed to “save you, in a crisis.” But soon, the poem takes a turn: “But no, / not anymore,” the narrator states. This phrase introduces fracture, risk, and insecurity. The polar bear becomes a metaphor for the moment when one realizes that the earth is no longer safe, nor infinite, nor solid. But this bear is not just a metaphor—when we not only think with animals but also live with animals, we can recognize the materiality of the bear, “thin as ribs / and growing thinner,” and the very real threat to our environments that all of us human and nonhuman animals currently face. In our stories, animals act as vehicles for ideas and emotions that can sometimes be difficult to find in data and statistics. The cultural and lived power of those connections must not go to waste. For, as Atwood states, “Oh bear, what now? / And will the ground / still hold? And how / much longer?”
Featured image: Lascaux cave painting. Photo by Prof Saxx; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Sarah Groeneveld is a Lecturer of English and Interim Associate Director of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received her PhD in English in 2014. Her dissertation, “Animal Endings: Species Necropolitics in Contemporary Transnational Literature,” argues that finding ways to see animals as grievable can shake us out of the anthropocentrism that keeps us from a sustainable future. Contact.
Much racist, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric—as well as the logic of colonialism—dehumanizes underprivileged groups in order to exert dominance or justify violence. For this reason, it is important to distinguish between problematic comparisons of humans to animals and connections between species that lead to environmental responsibility. ↩