Book Review: Beasts of Burden - Animal and Disability Liberation
Updated: Feb 26
Why, one might ask, are we focusing on animal objectification and not human objectification? I think the question misses the fact that oppressions are not mutually exclusive: they are entangled and interlocking...
In the tradition of other classic books over demonstrating the many intersections between issues like racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and speciesism that are too often considered either 'human' or 'animal' when in reality, they are frequently both (see, for example, Carol J. Adams' landmark Sexual Politics of Meat and Aph and Syl Ko's Aphro-ism) comes this latest from activist, writer and artist Sunaura Taylor. Her revolutionary book, Beasts of Burden, focuses on the connections between animal rights and ableism.
A brief backstory: Taylor was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, the result of the U.S. Military burying toxic waste in her low-income neighbourhood. One day, she googled 'arthrogryposis' and found a report from a Canadian wildlife centre about a fox with the same condition. He had been shot and killed by an area resident because he 'had an abnormal gait and appeared sick.' The killing was either intended as an act of mercy or out of concern that the fox might be diseased, but the autopsy afterwards discovered that he had normal muscle mass and his stomach was full. Researchers concluded that 'the limb deformity did not preclude successful hunting and foraging.' This was a fox who had adapted to his disability and was doing very well before he was killed.
Taylor noted in the fox's death two of the most prominent societal responses to human disability: either destruction or pity. The fox had been killed because of ableist beliefs that disabled and chronically ill people are often very familiar with, specifically, the 'better off dead' narrative.
Taylor argues that speciesism relies on ableist beliefs. For example, an extremely common argument given against veganism is that non-human animals lack the intelligence to suffer or that their pain is so different from ours that exploiting them is acceptable. (Note: I'll stick to writing simply 'animals' instead of 'non-human animals' for the remainder of this post.) Ask somebody whether it would be justifiable to hurt an infant or a person with a severe mental disability for the same reasons and their opinions (usually!) change, revealing speciesist beliefs. Activists refer to this tactic as 'name the trait'--what trait in animals which supposedly justifies their objectification doesn't also exist in some humans? I should mention that while Taylor recognises the value of this argument, she also finds it potentially problematic as some people might use it against both animals and disabled humans, who already face daily stigma concerning their value and worth, as well as what they did 'wrong' to end up with a health condition. Unfortunately even our fellow vegans shame us sometimes.
Taylor also points out that who we count as 'animal' and 'human' has constantly shifted throughout history. Our species' desperation to separate ourselves from 'lesser' forms of life has been intimately connected to bigotry against both groups.
The book describes dozens of examples of how this has been used to justify oppression. For example, Black people were thought to be a 'missing link' between apes and white people and were treated as such, held in slavery, kept in zoos and experimented on (it was believed that they felt less pain than white people, a belief which is still widespread today). Both women and animals were long thought to be unable to reason--this was a quality that was thought to be solely the domain of white men. And deaf children and those who were hard-of-hearing were once forced to attempt to learn spoken language and forbidden from signing. Spoken language was considered another crucial division between human and animal and though sign language has existed for centuries, it was thought to be primitive and a feature of 'tribes low in the scale of development'. (Being non-white, these tribes were also considered non-human.) In fact, it caused philosophical and scientific conflicts when we recognised that some non-human primates could learn basic sign language, simultaneously elevating the status of apes whilst also reinforcing the speciesist, ableist belief that sign language was 'so simple that a monkey could do it'.
Mental illness has been repeatedly weaponised against animals and their defenders as well. In the 19th century, male doctors diagnosed activists opposed to vivisection--most of whom were women--with a form of hysteria called 'zoophil-psychosis', an unnatural concern for the well-being of animals. We see manufactured mental illnesses used to justify slavery in the United States, too. Runaway slaves weren't angry and oppressed: they were simply experiencing 'drapetomania', which was said to be caused by slaveholders treating slaves too well, instead of 'whipping the devil out of them.'
Disabled people and animals are both objectified for the benefit of others. Taylor tells of how, in the 1980s, when anti-vivisection activism became mainstream news, the industry exploited chronically ill and disabled people to defend the 'necessity' of vivisection and to paint activists as opposed to scientific progress. (The reality, of course, is the exact opposite: vivisection is 19th century science and we have far more reliable options now.) But many disabled people fought back, like activist Dona Spring of the organisation Disabled and Incurably Ill for Alternatives to Animal Research (DIIAAR), who stated, 'Since I myself have a disability and do use medications that have been tested on animals, I felt a responsibility to research whether or not this was really necessary to test these products on animals, because the thought of it was so horrid to me...There is something so contradictory about people wanting to relieve the suffering of people at such a horrid expense of the suffering of animals.' Spring died in 2008 and DIIAAR is no longer in operation, but many of us today will still proudly say, 'Not in my name!'
Taylor also describes the many ways the animal agriculture industry causes disabilities in animals and humans. Some of these are intentional, such as breeding animals whose bodies have been intentionally deformed so as to be maximally useful to human beings. Think of broiler chickens, bred to grow such enormous breasts that they frequently die before being sent to slaughter at six weeks. They die either of heart attacks or from starvation when their legs break beneath their massive weight and they can no longer get to food or water. Or think of dairy cows, bred to give ten times more milk than they would naturally, causing painful conditions like mastitis. The majority of farmed animals are also kept in filthy, cramped conditions for their whole lives, preventing proper mental and physical exercise--so even if they aren't born into disability, they are very likely to develop it anyway.
Another way animal agriculture causes disability is via the rampant abuse of slaughterhouse workers, the vast majority of whom are immigrants or refugees, underprivileged, desperate for any form of income despite the significant physical and mental risk that comes with working one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Many slaughterhouse employees are temporarily or permanently injured and disabled or even killed, either from accidents or as a result of repetitive stress injuries. Others end up suffering from PTSD. As Virgil Butler, former slaughterhouse worker turned labour and animal rights activist stated, 'If you stayed there very long, you were going to get hurt. It was never an issue of if, but when.' Their employers consider workers as disposable as the animals, however, punishing or sacking them for missing work even when ill or seriously injured, refusing to supply proper safety gear, and demanding such constant, high-speed kill rates that even toilet breaks are penalised. (Some slaughterhouse workers resort to adult diapers as a result.)
There is also the issue of disability and illness resulting from pollution, which animal agriculture causes in spades; people living near animal farms and slaughterhouses have significantly higher rates of asthma and report constant irritation to their ears, noses and throats, as well as depression, fatigue and anger. Many of these people are already underprivileged by virtue of poverty, disability and more--which is exactly why animal exploitation industries frequently choose to settle in these areas. Building solidarity, Taylor argues, is a way forward--demonstrating that animal agriculture is a ruthless machine that places profit over the well-being of animals, humans and the environment.
Veganism is an embodied act of resistence to objectification and exploitation across difference--a corporeal way of enacting one's political and ethical beliefs daily.
I am really only skimming the surface of this fascinating book, which covers multiple topics I haven't even mentioned and is full of useful, factual information about how better to help animals. And Taylor reminds us throughout that while animals need our help, they are not helpless--they are active participants in their own liberation. I recommend Beasts of Burden to anybody who wants a better understanding of how to advance the animal rights movement. It is an excellent primer on how to step away from the mainstream concept of veganism as a diet or a 'lifestyle choice', instead presenting it as a social justice movement necessary for the liberation of all.
Rothman, Joshua, Are Disability Rights and Animal Rights Connected?, The New Yorker, 5 June 2017
Randall, Caelyn, Where Disability Rights and Animal Rights Meet: A Conversation with Sunaura Taylor (Interview), Edge Effects, 12 October 2019
Animal & Disability Liberation with Sunaura Taylor (VIDEO), CripHumanimal, 4 June 2020