December 2020

Has the Growth of Critical Animal Studies Been Good for Animals?

Animal liberation activists and scholars must be equally invested in anti-racist, feminist, anti-ableist, decolonial work that rejects the validity of the capitalist state, in order to achieve total liberation.

by Moe Constantine and Z. Zane McNeill

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, President Bush gave a now infamous speech in which he launched the “War on Terror.” In a declaration that would define the next two decades of American politics Bush proclaimed: “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” The effect of this statement, and of the War on Terror itself, has been the increasing terrorization of ethnic and religious minorities, activists, and whistleblowers by the U.S. government. Animal liberation activists have historically been criminalized for their actions, but after 9/11, they managed to reach the top of the F.B.I.’s domestic terrorism list. The effect of this policy change was twofold: it necessitated further critique of the state and its relationship to nonhumans and drew attention to the interlocking oppressions of racialized, colonized, and animal others. Critical Animal Studies (CAS) was created to help facilitate the development of research on human-animal relations that is critical of our conceptualization of, and relationship with, nonhuman animals. Despite this, CAS has a spotty history with its service to marginalized communities, including animal others, so much so that environmental feminist Greta Gaard has asked “has the growth of animal studies been good for animals?”

This question is increasingly pressing because of how intertwined social justice issues are to CAS, animal agriculture, and food politics as a whole. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, numerous scholars and activists have looked at the interconnections between white supremacy, environmental degradation, environmental racism, food scarcity, settler colonialism, and our relationship with nonhuman animals. From the racialized violence of COVID-19 hotspots in meatpacking to the increased interest in racialized speciesism and the construct of the human/animal dualism by Black scholar-activists such as Christopher Sebastian, Julia Feliz, and Aph Ko, a current evaluation of CAS’ impact, not intent, is paramount. The question, “has the growth of animal studies been good for animals” is inexorably tied with the questions “has the growth of animal studies aided in human emancipation as well?”

Critical Animal Studies (CAS) argues that human and animal liberation are intertwined. Image via Wikimedia.

In the fifteen-or-so years since CAS was founded, it has developed into an international field of study. Nonhuman animals have always been a subject of study in both the natural sciences and social sciences. However, before CAS, there was little academic consideration of non-human animals that was not anthropocentric. Previously, fields focused solely on animals were called Animal Studies (within the sciences) and Human-Animal Studies (within the humanities). These fields have contributed to the exploitation of animals by denying them their bodily autonomy, freedom, agency, and subjectivity via non-consensual physical experimentation and uncritical theoretical examination. For centuries, this treatment of animals in academia went unchallenged, and the subjective experiences of animals was considered only insofar as it generated data beneficial for the advancement of humans. But a growing movement calling for the liberation of animals from human exploitation called for a more critical analysis of nonhumans in academia. In the introduction to the first issue of the Journal of Critical Animal Studies in 2003, the editorial board writes that CAS was formed from the realization that:

the animal liberation movement needed not only activists working in anonymous cells but also the above ground presence of scholars, writers, teachers, and professors. Radical practice needs radical theory.

The development of theory is meant to be a starting point for social and political engagement, used to develop strategies, increase efficacy, and promote system alternatives. Furthermore, CAS outlines a diversity of strategies for achieving liberation, which are reflected in the field’s interdisciplinary involvement.

Critical animal studies offers three theoretical foundations to animal studies rooted in abolition. The first emphasizes the theory-to-action model implied in the earlier quoted passage: CAS is meant to extend past scholarship to enact theory through practice. The second foundation is that CAS takes a radical approach to animal liberation: CAS addresses the issues at their root, rejecting reformist approaches that do not offer a pathway to total liberation for non-human animals. The term “total liberation” is used by CAS scholars and activists to refer to the elimination of all systems of domination and the liberation of humans, nonhuman animals, and the Earth. The third foundation of CAS is taking a multi-issue approach to animal liberation that incorporates other social injustices beyond the mistreatment of animals: CAS views all oppression as being founded on a speciesist hierarchy that relegates some human groups to the “animal” end of the spectrum in order to justify their exploitation and oppression. Together, these three foundational elements establish the necessity for animal liberation activists and scholars to be equally invested in anti-racist, feminist, anti-ableist, decolonial work that rejects the validity of the capitalist state, in order to achieve total liberation. However, this mandate too often remains in theory and not carried out in practice; the field, both in it’s activism and scholarship, is still grappling with the colonial, racist history in which it is situated (for more on this, see Belcourt, 2015 and Brueck, 2017).

Regardless of the theoretical contributions of CAS or its commitment to work centering nonhuman animals, examining how the growth of CAS has benefited animals brings into question CAS praxis and its concrete outcomes. Even supposedly-critical animal liberation has been weaponized against racialized and Indigenous people. For example, in the Niagara Region of Ontario, a region known for producing CAS scholarship due to the establishment of the first and still only CAS academic concentration at the local Brock University, there is a parallel history of racist and colonial animal activism. Niagara Action for Animals (NAfA), has been tied to the Critical Animal Studies concentration through their work with a professor within the concentration and the financial support they offer to CAS students, is also the organization that puts together an annual anti-Indigenous protest. During the annual Six Nations Hunt, Haudenosaunee hunters are given permission by the Canadian government to access their own land (currently occupied by white settlers) for a few days in the fall to hunt white-tailed deer. In response, NAfA mobilizes its white membership to protest the hunt, which last year resulted in white people calling for Indigenous people to be “harvested” and murdered while disparaging them as “drunks” and “barbarians.” This has been going on for seven years, and did finally prompt the professor working with them to exclude their participation at an upcoming conference this year. It is important to note that there are professors, instructors, and students within the local Critical Animal Studies academic concentration who work diligently against this anti-Indigenous and violent mobilization of veganism by publicly speaking out against NAfA and centralizing de- and anti-colonial work in their CAS work, research, and teaching, and it is their work that we see as building the future of CAS.

To aid our assessment of the strength of CAS as a means to achieve total liberation, we’d like to bring in a question posed by Jessica Yee Danforth from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network regarding the Reproductive Justice Movement, who outlines a framework that could be easily applied to CAS as well. As quoted by Loretta Ross in Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, Critique (2017):

Actualizing [reproductive justice] beyond a hot, new buzzword still has a long way to go and it has to start with being honest about where we are at and what’s really going on in terms of racism, sexism, classism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more—not just systematically, but what we ourselves are complicit in as well.

Critical Animal Studies, in its three foundations, prioritizes an analysis of and attention to the interlocking issues mentioned by Danforth and acknowledges that they all must be addressed simultaneously in order to make any meaningful progress for animals. But what framework does CAS provide for grappling with our own complicity in these oppressions? As a movement of accomplices who do not experience the same oppression as nonhuman animals, it is imperative that we acknowledge our complicity in the suffering we reject and the ways we benefit from exploitation of animal others regardless of our attempts to minimize our involvement in it. This complicity may sound like a failure of animal liberationists, but the real failure is not acknowledging this complex reality, and therefore rendering ourselves unable to respond to and reflect it in our activism and scholarship. Circling back to Loretta Ross’ work, she recounts her and others’ early work of determining “whether reproductive justice was a sturdy enough concept to propel a growing movement of women of color activists from all parts of society and issues to fight for reproductive dignity.” The same process of inquiry should be undertaken considering the framework and concepts that critical animal studies puts forward. Does CAS offer a sturdy enough framework for propelling the animal liberation movement?

If CAS hasn’t, ultimately, been entirely good for animals and is not upholding the abolitionist foundations of its theory, how can we operate outside of and in addition to this framework as scholar-activists? There is a clear decolonial, anti-racist praxis being developed by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) animal activists and scholars, such as Julia Feliz, Margaret Robinson, Aph Ko, and Christopher Sebastian. Incorporating a consistent anti-oppression framework will put CAS into partnership with anti-racist, decolonial, disability justice efforts and theory.

However, CAS cannot simply be removed from its connection to, and embrace of, parts of the vegan and animal liberation movements that have invoked racist and colonial ideas and perpetuated harmful ideologies. We are not suggesting that CAS simply jumps onto the movements that BIPOC activists have built over centuries of resistance. Rather, CAS should follow the lead of scholar-activists in the field who are looking to hold CAS accountable in a transformative way. For CAS to be truly transformative, the field must examine what efforts it is putting into its accomplice work: asking the questions, doing the reflection work, and taking action to center the voices of BIPOC, queer and trans folks, disabled people, and other historically marginalized peoples who have always been doing total liberation work.

Moe is a transgender white settler living on the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Huron-Wendat, and Neutral peoples. Please support the Land Defenders of 1492 Land Back Lane in their resistance against the encroachment of Six Nations land by developers. You can help by donating to their legal fund or learning more by visiting the 1492 Land Back Lane Facebook page.

by Jason Putsche Photography

Z. Zane McNeill is an activist-scholar whose co-edited collection “Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression” was recently released by Sanctuary Publishers. Their second anthology, “Y’all Means Alls: The Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia,” is forthcoming from PM Press.

Banner image via Wikimedia.

2 comments on “Has the Growth of Critical Animal Studies Been Good for Animals?

  1. Nicolas Thomas

    So glad to read your objective article. While I support a lot of what CAS is promoting, I’m also picking up a layer of unreality in its message and aims. In order to eat plant food, we’ll have to fence off our plant fields from the animals we’ve given back to nature. But I’m going to be saddened to see (eg) the cow herds being chased and torn to pieces by the culling woolf pack. And what is allowed to cull the wolves if they become too numerous? Having grown up on a small (non industrial) farm, I can see that our domesticated animals had happier lives than this back-to-nature scenario would give them — living in constant fear all the time. While we certainly should minimize all suffering in this world, all we can, the expectation that all suffering can and must be eliminated is surely unrealistic.
    If you can link me to better plans coming out of CAS, I’d be very grateful to you.
    Once again, thank you for your objective review.


  2. Noah Bernes

    I don’t think that’s the point of CAS at all. The point is not to tell you what to think, or what to do, it is simply to tell you to think. To think critically about the boundaries of transition between human and animal and to imagine the human-animal manifold with Foucault’s four coordinates: make live, make die, let live, let die.

    So you could look at how the transition points and boundaries between human and animal effect the licensing of these coordinates. I.e. human medical establishments for 1 childbirth vs 2:animal breeding vs 3 chicken egg harvesting, I.e. (mostly) 1 let live, 2 make live, and 3 let live-make die.

    So I just did something useful with basic CAS theory.

    Like any critical theory, you wouldn’t expect to form praxis (practical answers to your questions) without studying it and practicing activism. Which can be on any scale. These conversations are activism, imo.


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