Sister Species: Negotiating the intersections of animal and human injustice

An intersection in Missoula, MT was formerly called Malfunction Junction, so named for the muddle of major thoroughfares that collide there and the lengthy red lights drivers endured while each street (in some cases, each direction of each street) took its turn.

Malfunction Junction is, perhaps, an unfortunate model for our approach to the intersections of oppressions that plague us: racism, sexism, homophobia, and yes–speciesism. It’s a long wait to see the light. Or maybe it’s not an apt model, since we tend to idle in our own lane and miss those intersections entirely.

As a second wave feminist (Ms. Magazine, the ERA, that whole Sisterhood is Powerful thang) and an animal rights activist, I’ve had plenty of time to consider how exploitation of both women and animals runs side-by-side and intersects. Sometimes it smacks you upside the head. The other day I was pumping gas when in pulled a gigantic pickup truck sporting a window decal featuring the silhouette of a mudflap girl’s body with a deer’s antlered head. (If that’s too subtle, try this.) Bleh. Or, consider “Racks, the calendar,” featuring the trophy-grade body parts of two species. (Wait–make that three species. You can get the mule deer or whitetail edition!) “Every hunter will love hanging this on their wall,” reads the text.

But often, those intersections aren’t obvious, and we–each of us fighting our own good fight–haven’t always recognized that social justice issues are all connected at the hips. Does a straight feminist need to worry about gay rights? Should a Caucasion gay rights activist care about racism? Must a person of color add animal exploitation to the struggle? Why should an animal rights activist give a hoot about any human injustice? Dr. King probably said it best and most succinctly: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Because oppressions are linked, it’s not enough to be “just” a feminist or “only” an animal rights activist, and that’s the take-away message in Lisa Kemmerer’s anthology, Sister Species: Women, animals, and social justice (released summer of 2011).

Did you know that more than 60% of animal activists are women? Fourteen of them share their stories in this anthology, a book that, according to the author:

  • Exposes critical connections between social justice movements, focusing on sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and speciesism…;
  • Establishes speciesism as an important concern for all social justice activists…;
  • Elucidates why all social justice advocates ought to adopt a vegan lifestyle;
  • Encourages animal advocates to network with other social justice advocates to expose and dismantle all forms of oppression… (Kemmerer 6)

It’s not just any book in which you can hear from a woman who describes her former self as a “…vegetarian-but-not-vegan lesbian/feminist/antiracist/pro-peace/antipoverty activist who insisted that everything–racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, militarism, etc. etc.–was connected…but somehow managed to leave nonhuman animals out of the equation.” This particular essayist now rehabilitates roosters rescued from cock fighting rings.

Or how about this, from the head of investigation for Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals: “As women, we must be aware of the suffering of sows (and “dairy” cows, and “laying” hens) and refuse to support such cruel exploitation of female reproductive potential.” Here’s more: A black vegan challenges white animal rights activists to “reflect on ‘whiteness as the norm’” even as they demand self-examination from speciesists who accept animal exploitation as the norm.

We meet a Korean woman who heads up an international nonprofit working to improve farmed animals’ lives; a Native American artist who, as a child, witnessed a parakeet dying in a department store cage and subsequently became an advocate for captive birds; an animal rights attorney who says, “I look forward to the day when a nonhuman is allowed to live because laws protect nonhuman individuals for their own sakes, not because ‘it’ is an object that belongs to a human,” and more. The margins of my copy are scribbled and starred and I’d love to share a quote or three from every writer, but you’d do better to discover them for yourself.

Perhaps my favorite–if it’s possible to find favor amongst these remarkable women–is a pioneer theologian in her late 80s (see update at end). “Dominion does not mean domination….In truth, religion has not been irrelevant regarding our treatment of nonhuman animals–religion has been a leading factor in perpetuating cruelty.” When she was eighty, Elizabeth Jane Farians took it upon herself “…to bring the subject of animal ethics to the academic world of theologians.” Her account of meeting with the chair of a college theology department is priceless on many levels–for her unwavering commitment to her vision, for her persistence (it took over a year to convince him), and for her humility–he kept her waiting in the hall numerous times “…like a naughty schoolchild outside the principal’s office.”

Whether they focus on poultry or primates, poetry or protest, theatre or theology, these women–justice-seekers all–inspire and teach about self-examination and honesty in the struggle to eradicate speciesism along with the other oppressions that deny individuals of all species the full potential of their lives.

An ad for Hooters chain restaurant frequently appears in my local newspaper. In it, a scantily-clad Hooters “girl” poses coyly while holding a plate of chicken wings. As a feminist, I see blatant objectification of women (“Grab some Hooters!”). As a vegan, I see the suffering that preceded the now-disembodied wings. But having read Sister Species, I see even more. I now consciously acknowledge that those wings came from hens specifically–female beings already exploited for their eggs (in the case of “layers”) and flesh (in the case of “broilers”–indeed, genetically manipulated to grow abnormally rapidly and produce large, succulent breasts). It’s harder now to miss the intersection of oppressions in a culture whose various appetites demand young, firm flesh and large breasts in more than one species.

Kemmerer’s excellent appendix, “Factory Farming and Females” ends thus: “Whether or not we eat cows and their nursing milk, chickens and their reproductive eggs, sows, or turkeys–and their young–intimately affects the lives of other females” (184). This seems to answer the question she asked in the introduction: “How will feminists meet the challenges posed by animal advocates?” (24).

We approach Malfunction Junction every day, again and again. As activists, we can idle in our own narrow, one-way lane, waiting our turn to proceed on our righteous but single-minded mission. Zooming through, we ignore or miss intersections that, if only we could or would turn onto them, might reveal advantageous side streets–linkages that combine our routes, strengthening and hastening the flow toward justice.

UPDATE: Elizabeth Farians passed away in 2013. Find her obituary here.

This post also appears at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

“Rabbit, rabbit” or “Night of the Lepus”–it’s your choice


Soon it will be April 1st, and for those of you with superstitious or folklorish proclivities, remember to say “rabbit, rabbit!” (or “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit!”) first thing upon waking–before speaking any other words. You might even go so far as to perambulate through the house saying it in each room. This ritual is to be repeated as every new month dawns. I just recently learned of this age-old practice from my friend Tracy, who rescues rabbits and runs an education campaign endearingly called Rabbitron (website; Facebook), named after her first bunny and serving as a tribute to that worthy lagomorph.

Why say multiples of “rabbit” on the first of each month? It has to do with luck. Yankee Magazineexplains that it’s an English tradition (though why “rabbit” is a bit sketchy); Wikipedia offers a number of variations, some having to do with luck or wishes coming true or receiving a wished-for present by the end of the month (isn’t 30-31 days of good luck enough?!?). If you tend to trust NPR above most other sources, they’ve weighed in, too, and reveal which former great American president was a disciple of the practice.

As I pointed out four years ago on these very web pages (“Bad Luck for the Bunny“), many of us recall (and not so fondly or proudly) growing up back in the day as owners of rabbit-foot keychains–considered lucky talismans for humans, but for rabbits, not so much. A couple years later I explored other speciesist atrocities visited upon members of the family Leporidae in “Rabbit ranching: Pat the bunny, whack the bunny.” Atrocities like fur fashions. And meat: Watch as a rabbit factory farmer dispassionately talks about his 2000-some production units and why they live their entire lives in sterile, indoor wire cages instead of outdoors: “…all our rabbits go with the livers in them and you need to have nice clean livers.” Then there’s research. And ill-advised Easter “pets” who are quickly and cruelly abandoned or dumped off at shelters. Wild rabbits have their own set of wascally woes thanks to humans.

SS JMcArthur_RabbitSlaughter2010-8891-2

Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary-click

You’re probably aware of the Whole Foods rabbit meat controversy that’s been playing out for some time now, ever since the market chain announced a pilot program to sell rabbit meat in select regions. This has prompted petitions and protests around the country (photos) owing to the fact that rabbits are companion animals. If you abhor the thought of Fido or Fluffy on your dinner plate, why should a serving of Thumper be OK?

You can safely watch the first two minutes of this do-it-yourself video tutorial on the so-called “humane slaughter” (and subsequent butchering) of a rabbit with a captive bolt stun gun. No rabbit appears in the first couple minutes, which features a demo of the Rabbit Zinger and a non-sentient block of wood. (You’re on your own after that…I bailed when the rabbit showed up.) According to the House Rabbit Society, Whole Foods uses the Zephyr rabbit stunner with a non-penetrating captive bolt that “stuns rabbits humanely and maintains the quality of the finished product” (source). We’re offered the assurance that Whole Foods requires “99% first attempt stun accuracy” and “100% of animals unconscious before slaughter.” (For the record, rabbits aren’t covered under the Humane Slaughter Act.)

Here’s another 100% assurance: Zero rabbits will suffer if they aren’t bred for meat, fur, showing, laboratories, and as Easter novelties. Making that happen is the trick rabbit we need to pull out of our animal rights hat.

But hey, it’s all about us and our good luck, right? So don’t forget to say “rabbit, rabbit” the moment your eyes blink open on April 1st. Because if our luck ever runs out, our speciesist machinations go awry, and rabbits get the upper hand–um, paw–god help us. We could be looking at our very own Night of the Lepus…and it won’t be pretty.
Learn more:

  • Another “Night of the Lepus”video compilation
  • The story of one rabbit’s brief stint as an Easter bunny
  • Whole Foods rabbit welfare standards and processing requirements here
  • How Whole Foods’ bunnies are killed, House Rabbit Society
  • “Are rabbits pets or meat?” in The Atlantic
  • UPDATE, 9/15: “Victory: Whole Foods ends rabbit meat sales!” here

Hop on over toAnimal Blawgto comment on this post!

Fishin’, fashion, & factory farming: fowl play in the news

Today it was corndogs. Two days ago it was feathers. More often than not, something I read in the local morning paper gets my goat. It’s not that I go looking for the dark side, mind you. Whether an article deals with fun, food, or fashion, if the news-maker relies on animal exploitation, I see the backstory no matter how deftly it goes unmentioned. It’s probably like that for you, too. Animal rights folks tend to see the big picture–the one that includes the suffering and the slaughter. Sigh.

First, the corndogs. The headline advises me to “Celebrate corndogs, hoops on national day.” Turns out that National Corndog Day is “the first Saturday in March after the NCAA men’s basketball tournament kicks off.” Factory farming giant Foster Farms is a sponsor (“Foster Farms Corn Dogs are fun-tastic anytime!”). A local bar and restaurant is sponsoring a celebration–proof that if youmarket it, they will bite. The festivities include an eating contest. What a cackle it would be to show up with this undercover video shot at Foster Farms! Once the PBR starts flowing, though, it’s unlikely that anyone will much care about Foster Farms’ violations, questionable claims, or the billions of sentient lives spent and snuffed in hopeless and abject misery. Nah, they’ll be scarfing their cornbreaded, mechanically separated chicken franks and havin’ a fun-tastic blast!

Next, the feathers. “Raising hackles,” the headline trumpets in my morning print edition. “Popularity of premium fly-tying feathers causes shortage for anglers.” Understand that I live in A River Runs Through It country,where fly fishing is considered a religion. You know what I mean–tricking a fish to embed a steel hook in her mouth, ripping her from her only known universe, then pretending that you’re locked in a noble sporting match with her as she struggles in terror for her life. Yeah, that’s the spirituality I’m talkin’ about.

Turns out the best feathers for fly tying are also the ones currently popular with trendy fashion followers who like to weave them into their hair. Maybe even Fido’s hair. According to the article,

So here we are, fashionistas vs. anglers, duking it out over the sacrificial rooster at the dual altars of fashion and fishing. In their own words, first this, from a fashion blog: “…when done in moderation, its (sic) extremely cute, fun and flirty! Don’t take life so seriously :)”

And this, from the angler perspective: ” ‘For a fly-tier, those necks are really expensive,’ he said, estimating that the most in-demand capes of neck-feathers cost $60-$100. ‘That neck would last a lifetime for someone tying flies…’ ”

And the rooster who once relied on that neck?

Rooster? What rooster?

This post first appeared on animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.