Animal lovers

With Dr Sin’s entreaties to ‘not become any more veganish’ resounding in her ears, Mrs Lomez headed to Utrecht for Minding Animals 2012. This three-day conference, opened by JM Coetzee with the latest instalment in the life of Elizabeth Costello, brought together philosophers, activists, scientists, researchers, political and cultural theorists, policymakers and lobbyists to discuss animals. Thirteen-hour days and more than 400 presentations led to a kind of euphoric exhaustion at being so completely immersed in animalia.

At Thursday evening’s panel discussion on the future of animal politics, an audience member posed the question ‘how do you feel animal right now?’ The two responses offered (out of a group of seven, including from the one woman on the panel) aligned animals with emotion (and women with emotion, an old binary that delights and horrifies in equal measure) and got all philosophical about how a human cannot know what it is to feel like an animal, another dualism that amused some but also horrified many. It was a revealing question: here was a group of supposedly empathic humans discussing policy who showed themselves to be somewhat dismissive of animals and wanting to dissociate their animal selves.

The following day’s feminism study circle got round to discussing the question of the night before and the inadequacy of the responses, which had both shied away from the bodily kinship we share with animals. Embodiment was agreed as the thing, or a thing, we share with animals, something that makes us animal.

Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez share their home with a domesticated cat. Sometimes we want him to be near us when he would prefer to be on his own, and he expresses this preference very clearly by jumping out of our arms. He communicates. When we listen, he can convey to us when he wants to be outside, when he wants to eat, to drink, to play, to sleep, when he wants our company. Often when we are sitting at the kitchen table or lying in bed, this cat will bring himself close to us and interact. Julia Driver’s keynote on Hume ended with, ‘animals let us know when they are disappointed in us’, when we have not fulfilled their expectations. We know that we have let down this cat when we arrive home late in the evening and he has been several hours hungry. When we left him overnight, he expressed his disappointment in us on our return the next day.

Mrs Lomez tries to imagine the embodiment of this cat. Often he sits at the open window, ears on the alert and nose sniffing the air, eyes on the undergrowth for signs of movement. He jumps and takes fright at noises that he cannot find the source of. When the lawn outside is being mown, he crawls under the duvet cover and lays there, eventually falling asleep. He seems to be comforted by the feeling of being enclosed – he sits under our clothes rack, surrounding himself with washing. When one of us is away, he sleeps next to the other at night, knowing that his presence is reassuring. This cat is attentive to the world in ways that we do not even know, in ways that we are trying to learn. This cat also knows fear, as we have known it too.

The most inspiring talk of the conference, Mrs Lomez thinks, was Will Kymlicka’s proposal to include domesticated animals in the polis, to grant them citizenship (see his co-authored book with Sue Donaldson, Zoopolis). Abolitionism was not workable (which Robert Garner agreed) and the movement’s approach so far of granting rights on the basis of sentience had not worked.  ‘Animals have a right to life because their lives are precious to them,’ Will said and at this the auditorium applauded. This was the clearest statement of the conference in support of animals. We had brought animals into our society, therefore our responsibility was to make them citizens. But how do we bring this idea into the broader public consciousness?

Feminist practices, in addition to discourses, could be a start. The second wave of feminism (after Mary Wollstonecraft) employed group discussions to apply feminist theory to the daily personal and public lives of women, where women would talk about their experiences and the group would then critically reflect. A similar approach could be useful in changing our relationship with animals. And political parties have already been formed (in the Netherlands and the UK) in order to represent the interests of animals in parliament; we can build on this.

On her return, Mrs Lomez felt she could not say she was more veganish, but perhaps feeling a little more animal.


Reading list:

Wild dogs, Helen Humphreys

Dog boy, Eva Hornung

Zoopolis,  Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka

Animal suffering: philosophy and culture, Elisa Aaltola

Animals, equality and democracy, Siobhan O’Sullivan

An introduction to animals and political theory, Alisdair Cochrane

My dog Tulip, JR Ackerley

Hypatia, forthcoming issue on The Animal Other

Sans l’orang-outan, Eric Chevillard

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One thought on “Animal lovers

  1. Dokmaimali says:

    Great blog – really enjoyed it :)

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