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Book Review: “Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights” by Sue Donaldson & Will Kymlicka

By Piper Hoffman — June 18, 2012

I want to hug this book.

I don’t usually have mushy feelings towards tomes on political theory, but Zoopolis: A Political Theory on Animal Rights (Oxford University Press, 2011) undertakes a project dear to my heart, one that could have important repercussions in the animal advocacy movement: to “develop a new moral framework, one that connects the treatment of animals more directly to fundamental principles of liberal-democratic justice and human rights.” In other words, if it’s good enough for humans, it’s good enough for non-human animals, and if you wouldn’t do it to a human, don’t even try doing it to an animal. (The book compares humans’ wars on animals like urban rats to “ethnic cleansing” – words are not minced here.)


Authors Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka back up their call for significant improvements in humans’ treatment of non-human animals with more than the intuition that justice requires it. They have developed a coherent doctrine based on citizenship theory that divides animals into three categories: domesticated animals (primarily companion animals and animals raised for food); wild animals; and liminal animals (pigeons, squirrels, and others who “have adapted to life amongst humans, without being under the direct care of humans”). For each of these categories, Zoopolis applies a different form of human-state relations: domesticated animals should be citizens, wild animals should have sovereignty, and liminal animals should be treated as denizens.

Domesticated Animals as Citizens

To illustrate how domesticated animals could be citizens, the authors refer frequently to the disability rights movement, which argues that people who may not be capable of fulfilling responsibilities like voting can still be citizens, in part through the agency of others who know them and their interests intimately. Humans with similar relationships to animals “have a responsibility to try to understand what animals are able to communicate to us about their needs and preferences, and to facilitate their realization of their own life projects.” They are also obliged to teach animals the responsibilities that allow them to live as members of a society, like not attacking strangers, and acceptable toileting habits.

As citizens, domesticated animals would lead dramatically different lives than they do now. They would have a “prima facie right to share [the community’s] public spaces,” which for companion animals could include access to restaurants and food stores and the right to walk without a leash (as appropriate given the personality and safety of the individual in question). Harming a citizen animal, whether deliberately or negligently, would be a criminal act.

Humans would be entitled to “use” animals only “under conditions that are consistent with their agency and their membership status.” For instance, sheep who have been bred not to shed their coats in the summer must be shorn for their own health and comfort, which produces wool without necessarily exploiting the sheep. This wool, Zoopolis argues, humans may use, because “everyone’s interests could still count equally, and everyone’s rights could still be protected.”

Cows’ milk, on the other hand, would be difficult to produce without violating the cows’ interests in feeding their calves and jeopardizing their health through forced excessive lactation. Zoopolis postulates that it might be possible to produce small amounts of dairy for human use in non-exploitative ways; though it urges that such a project must be undertaken with caution, it seems to endorse breaking up bovine families by adopting calves out to other people. I part ways with the authors here. In fact, I believe their position is inconsistent with their theme that on the whole, we should not subject non-human animals to treatment that would shock us if applied to humans. The notion of milking people and taking their babies is certainly shocking enough to raise serious questions about whether taking cows’ milk (and selling it, as the authors contemplate) is consistent with their agency and membership status as citizens. It also would preserve the categorization of some animals as food sources rather than moving public opinion towards endorsing citizenship.

The authors of Zoopolis do not necessarily advocate spay/neuter efforts because such efforts do not take “seriously the legitimate interests of domesticated animals” by forcing them “not to reproduce.” As always, they compare the treatment of animals to that of humans and conclude that similar interventions in humans’ reproduction “would be considered outrageous.” Instead of imposing our own will on domesticated animals, they write, we must “experiment and learn about what animals would do if given greater control over their lives.” If “autonomous control over their sexual and reproductive lives is possible for such animals, then we should seek to restore it.” If, however, “domesticated animals are unable to exercise meaningful agency” – for instance, if they grow their populations far beyond what the community and ecosystem can maintain, or cannot care for their offspring – humans should provide “paternalistic protection.”

Zoopolis’s authors are fuzzy on how citizen animals’ political rights could be ensured. They propose some legal and political models, but in the end they sensibly conclude that “the only reliable way of ensuring that the interests of…non-human species are taken into account is to change attitudes amongst the general human electorate.”

Wild Animals as Sovereign

Wild animals require sovereignty, Zoopolis argues, to protect them from the varied and severe harms humans perpetrate against them, including destroying their habitats and hunting them. The authors contend that wild animals are competent for sovereignty because they have “the ability to respond to the challenges that a community faces, and to provide a social context in which…individual members can grow and flourish.” Wild species’ ability to regulate their own population numbers within an ecosystem exemplifies this kind of competence.

As members of a sovereign community, wild animals gain a “secure space” to protect their autonomy and, with it, their opportunity to flourish. Sovereignty “is a form of protection against external threats of annihilation, exploitation, or assimilation.”

Questions about boundaries and spillover effects of human activities (like pollution) would have to be resolved with reference to the wild animals’ sovereignty, rather than treating their habitats as “empty” or “undeveloped.” For example, when building highways that cross wild animal habitats, authorities would have to include safe passages for wild animals to protect their right to travel within their sovereign territory; alternatively or in addition, they could relocate highways “away from large wildlife populations,” lower speed limits, and/or “redesign cars” to reduce the number of animals killed by automobile traffic. Recognizing sovereign animal territory means at least “an end to expansion of human settlement,” and possibly retreat from “territorial zones in which we could negotiate a new relationship with wild animals,” such as zones currently used as livestock pasture.

Sovereignty does not mean that no human intervention within wildlife habitats is permissible: the relevant question would be whether the intervention upholds the sovereign animals’ “value of self-determination.” For instance, “selective logging [that] increases light and air circulation in a closed forest environment in a way that enriches the ecosystem and benefits the animals living there” would be permissible, as would aiding individual wild animals in need (like a fox caught in a leg-hold trap) and providing vaccinations against a dangerous disease. Still, “in general, a hands-off principle towards wild animals is a sound one.”

Liminal Animals as Denizens

As denizens, liminal animals would be understood to have a right to live among us rather than being viewed as pests encroaching upon human territory, subject to “mass extermination campaigns.” Zoopolis notes that “In most cases, liminal animals have no place else to live; urban areas are their home and their habitat.” Therefore, we must recognize that they have certain rights within our shared habitat, albeit not rights as robust as those of citizens.

The authors use an extended analysis of human migration as the foundation for a framework for animal denizenship that rests on three principles: secure residency, fair terms of reciprocity, and anti-stigma safeguards.

Secure residency means that liminal animals’ right to stay in human habitats “increases over time, and as opportunities to reside elsewhere diminish” because, for instance, their habitat has been destroyed, or they are no longer able to survive in the wild.

Fair reciprocity requires us to engage only in “wary and minimal interaction” with liminal animals, but also imposes “important positive obligations” towards them: humans “must take into account their interests in our decisions about how to design our cities and buildings, and how to regulate our activities.” For example, building codes would have to change to reduce the chances of birds flying into structures, and pesticides would have to be regulated to protect liminal animals because they “often have a much lower tolerance than humans” for these poisons. In exchange, humans would have rights to control the use of space shared with liminal animals through interventions from erecting fences to birth control vaccines. “The ideal solution” to a conflict over shared space “will be one in which the animal is not made worse off by an accommodation, although this might not always be achievable.”

Anti-stigma measures are necessary to change people’s perceptions of liminal animals from alien pests to denizens. To cement that change, it “would be important that legal protections for denizens do not just exist on paper, but are backed up by full and equal protection of the law.”

Zoopolis emphasizes its divergence from traditional animal rights theory (which it calls “ART”), as embodied by the writings of Tom Regan, Gary Francione (to be sure, these two theorists disagree with each other on many points), and others. The authors suggest that ART may advocate the extinction of domesticated animal species; ignore liminal animals; and encourage people to leave wild animals alone, which is too simplistic an approach to populations that we inevitably affect in myriad and usually lethal ways (and occasionally in positive ways, such as habitat restoration). They offer their own citizenship theory as a more comprehensive and compassionate alternative.

This book is not light reading. It helps to have an interest in political theory or philosophy and some familiarity with animal rights and citizenship theories, but these are not vital to understanding the authors’ clearly articulated arguments. It is a novel and accessible (though long) contribution to the literature about the proper relationship between human and non-human animals that is sure to generate new conversations, new ideas, and, potentially, new policies that are more beneficial for everyone.


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