For Alternative Modes of Interspecies Engagement, Look to Animal Sanctuaries

Concern for the well-being of all kinds of others must be a central element of any strategy to navigate through this current planetary crisis.

ANALYZING THE POLITICAL effects of late global capitalism, political philosopher Wendy Brown describes a ubiquitous exhaustion and despair under which most people “have ceased to believe in the human capacity to craft and sustain a world that is humane, free, sustainable, and, above all, modestly under human control,” making it almost impossible to develop, “in ideas or institutions, a realizable alternative future trajectory.” Describing what she sees as the last vestiges of resistance to this despair, she writes,

Insistence that “another world is possible” runs opposite to this tide of general despair, this abandoned belief in human capacities to gestate and guide a decent and sustainable order, this capitulation to being playthings of powers that escaped from the bottle
in which humans germinated them. The Left alone persists in a belief . . . that all could live well, live free, live together.

A future in which sanctuaries are not permanent refugee camps may be an unlikely possibility, but it is also a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for achieving a radically different world not structured by violent systems of inequality. Photo by Mark Peters.

Similarly, the animal sanctuary movement persists in a belief that humans and animals could live well and free together (which does not necessarily always mean in proximity). That future remains only a vision at this point and may never be attainable under the political-economic and social conditions that still shape contemporary human-animal relations, but their efforts to reach that future are an insistence that another world is possible.

In both ideas and institutions, the animal sanctuary movement provides an alternative future trajectory for a more humane, sustainable world based on the very idea of making human control over that world and the beings in it significantly more modest (if not ending it altogether). This vision for the future is important not just for our relationships with the species we have entangled in human social relations but for all nonhuman species on the planet, particularly in the age of the Anthropocene, as the planet Earth is experiencing its sixth mass extinction (and its first as a result of human activity).

In trying to create on a small scale the world they want, sanctuaries do have to make compromises. Despite sanctuary efforts to relate to them as subjects, sanctuary animals still remain entangled in property-based relationships with humans. Despite efforts to respect their autonomy, animals must still endure constraints on their freedom. As far as these current relationships are from the ones to which sanctuary activists aspire for the future, they are valuable in the present both for the qualitative difference they do make in the lives of animals that have been saved and for the symbolic power these experiments in alternative species relations have in countering the despair that corrodes belief that a better world is possible.

If, in working through the dilemmas of care, humans and animals are co-creating a new ethical praxis of human-animal relations that is adapted to the realities of trying to live differently with other species, then — aside from maintaining hope for a better world —what implications do these new models for living with animals have for the future of animals? More specifically, can the kinds of political subjectivities some animals have accessed in sanctuary spaces continue to expand, moving beyond the zones of exception in sanctuaries to affect the vast majority of animals outside those zones of exception? The animal advocates who run sanctuaries definitely hope so, and there are positive indications of potentially broad social receptivity to rethinking human relations with animals. While animal-based industries produce and commodify more animal bodies than at any other time in human history, public attitudes about the treatment of animals may also reflect more pervasive concern for their well-being than at any other time in history.

SANCTUARIES’ EFFORTS TO WORK through the dilemmas of captive animal care and the small but significant successes that come with saving individual animals constitute tentative steps beyond the insufficient politics of consumption that characterize many contemporary responses to the Anthropocene. Slow food movements, locavorism, backyard and urban farming, hybrid and electric cars, and venture capitalist start-ups focused on creating plant-based and biotech alternatives to animal products are just some of the many ways people are attempting to contend with global environmental crises. They are to some extent unified in their effort to “reform” consumption practices as the overarching rubric informing political action on behalf of the environment. Yet there are signs as well of frustration with consumption-oriented politics that have been shown to only modestly slow the intensification of some of the myriad crises of life that characterize the Anthropocene.

Experiments in moving beyond these politics of consumption have emerged in recent decades, from land rehabilitation and rewilding projects aimed at restoring ecosystems to activist direct action against poaching of whales and other endangered animals. Rather than just softening the impact of human consumption practices, these efforts seek to actively transform human relationships with other species. Sanctuaries are one such effort. They open the door, however tentatively, to new possibilities for the planetary transformation of contemporary social relations shaped by systems of violence, exploitation, and inequality, especially between humans and other species.

Despite this hope for the future, though, sanctuaries also face a significant danger: the possibility that they will become fixed as insular, self-contained enclosures for experiments in alternative ways of cohabitating with other species, functioning indefinitely more or less as refugee camps for animals who were fortunate enough to escape circuits of animal capital but have no actual home to which to return.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are marked by perpetual humanitarian crises that have produced permanent human refugee camps around the world, spaces in which children were born and grew into adults without ever knowing a home other than their camps, and where a humanitarian logic enacts divisions between those who “save” and “care” for refugees and those who receive that care. Are sanctuaries rooted in the same humanitarian logic? This question could be applied to sanctuary cities or other spatial projects of sanctuary that we can imagine as well, and I raise it as a cautionary consideration, not as an argument against sanctuary as a form of political action. Avoiding this outcome, however, requires that sanctuaries move even further beyond the critique of the politics of consumption — hardly an unthinkable possibility for many who are deeply involved in sanctuary work and animal advocacy activism.

To effectively transform the animal industrial complex as well as other systems of exploitation and inequality, it seems that sanctuary as political action must both transcend spatial barriers and have an inclusive orientation toward the communities it serves. Indeed, a future in which sanctuaries are not permanent refugee camps may be an unlikely possibility, but it is also a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for achieving a radically different world not structured by violent systems of inequality.

While sanctuaries reflect a utopic vision for human-animal relations free of the oppression or exploitation of animals, utopias are, in the literal translation of Thomas More’s term, “no places.” Heterotopias, on the other hand, are real places that exist, as Michel Foucault argues, as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” As models of alternative modes of interspecies engagement, sanctuaries function as heterotopias, countersites to the political-economic arenas of animal use that embody an ethical critique of such use by enacting different ways of living ethically with animals. But the ultimate vision of sanctuary is to be neither “no place” nor a “counter-place” but rather the “all places” of pantopia.

The best strategies for navigating through this current planetary crisis of life are still far from clear, though many movements around the world are struggling against the destructive forces at play in the current conjuncture that have inflicted suffering and violence on the vast majority of the world’s human and animal populations, bringing many to the brink of extinction — forces that are intimately tied to, but not exclusively the consequence of, late capitalism and that are rooted in systems of inequality and violence based on race, gender, sexuality, class, and indigeneity as well as species. There are many political paths forward, some easily commensurable with each other, others in seemingly unresolvable tension and antagonism. What is clear, though, is that a concern for the well-being of all kinds of others must be a central element of those strategies.

Excerpted from Saving Animals: Multispecies Ecologies of Rescue and Care by Elan Abrell. Copyright 2021 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Minnesota Press.

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