There are two news pieces which have caught my eye today. The first is this piece in the Guardian about PTSD in military dogs and the second was the new legal status in France of dogs as sentient beings (April, 2014). This is part of a broader debate about non-human animals, rights and personhood, see for example The Non Human Rights Project. I have avoided researching non-human animals for a while due to my bias here – specifically my love for our fellow living beings and my distress at the large scale, systematic abuses they are subjected to. I am frequently asked why I went vegetarian (and I’m aware that I should probably be vegan) and I’m reluctant to say. Partly as there was an unpleasant incident with an off chicken and people usually ask me while they are eating. I’m also reluctant to say as I don’t moralise over other people’s meat eating (I’d make an exception for various forms of bush meat and shark fin). The short answer is that I love non-human animals and I don’t want to eat them, particularly when their meat is the product of intensive farming and current slaughtering practices.
Recently though I have begun to dip a toe into the academic world of critical animal studies and their potential to enhance our understanding of work. Or to put it crudely – can we start to recognise non-human animals as workers and organisational actors, rather than tools? For me the route to this is feminist posthumanism, particularly the work of Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway plus also attempting to get my head around Karen Barad‘s work. This body of work encourages us to question the primacy of the human and also what we understand agency to be. Doing so allows us to break down the Cartesian dualism between the human and the animal. This appeals to me as I recognise humans as animals, with differences between us and other species as differences of scale not kind (or quantitative rather than qualitative). Importantly it allows a framework for understanding why some species secure greater rights or emotional attachment because of their supposed closeness to humans. This takes us towards consideration of biopolitics – a complicated concept, but one which can be taken to understand how all aspects of (human) life are managed or governed (From a Foucauldian perspective).
This then brings me back to the use of nonhuman animals in human warfare or police action. The piece on canine PTSD provides a number of avenues for discussion. Initially it feels laudable to consider the effect that exposure to life-threatening situations may have on nonhuman actors. Does doing so recognise that dogs (in this case) have an inner mental life – one which can be harmed or cared for? Perhaps doing so brings us towards a greater consideration of the minds of other species.
The article starts with the following passages:
‘From 2008 to 2009, Gina served a six-month tour of duty in Iraq. She was tasked with going door to door and flushing insurgents out after US marines threw flash-bang grenades in before her.
She became jittery and panicked, and was unable to perform her duties. So she was returned to the United States and a meeting was called to consult experts on the matter. While Gina’s symptoms lined up with those of post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition triggered by traumatic events, she was experiencing something the world wasn’t as familiar with: canine PTSD.’
The use of language is interesting – and deliberate – this could be the description of a human soldier’s response to military service. Gina is referred to as she (not ‘it’), she has operational roles (i.e. performs labour) which her mental health problems preventing her from discharging. Further, she is the object of care and expert medical help. Perhaps this is encouraging, if dog welfare is to become of greater concern?
An alternative reading is possible. As Peggs (2009) pointed out, an articulated concern for nonhuman animal suffering (in this case PTSD) can be used to hide a more fundamental question – namely whether it is appropriate for these non-consenting individuals to be exposed to harmful situations. Within Peggs’ (2009) study with a pro-animal testing organisation, an argument for human good is used to justify the (mis?)treatment of other species. This results in a form of identity politics called primacy identity politics, which is based on the ‘continued inequality and sustained oppression of nonhuman animals’ (p86). Thus maintaining a species hierarchy.
Nonhuman animals are increasingly the focus of interdisciplinary academic study for example, within sociology, geography, organisation studies. However, much of this work retains a focus on the human, in the human-animal nexus. Those animals closest to the human norms/ideals are awarded privileged status. I look forward to seeing more critical research on nonhuman animals, and new ways of exploring their lives which do not reproduce anthropocentric ways of thinking.
Nealon, J. (2015). Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life. Stanford University Press.
Peggs, K. (2009). A hostile world for nonhuman animals: human identification and the oppression of nonhuman animals for human good. Sociology, 43(1), 85-102.