Saturday, January 18, 2014

What Adoption Discrimination Tells Us about Human/Nonhuman Intersections

Intersections of Vulnerable Identities

Sociological research on relationships between humans and companion animals has demonstrated that humans tend to project our values onto other animals. As humans, we are socialized on various social roles, those we fill ourselves, and those we expect others to fill based on their identity.  The same holds true for Nonhuman Animals that exist in human societies.  Unfortunately for dogs and cats in "shelters," these socially constructed identities create a lot of unfair stigma, which seriously impedes their life chances.


Black dogs and cats are killed in "shelters" in much larger numbers (Known as Black Dog Syndrome or Black Cat Syndrome).  A variety of reasons are thought to be at work (their expressions are harder to detect with black fur, they don't photograph as well, etc.), but some of the primary problems are stereotypes about blackness.  For dogs, we associate blackness with meanness, for cats, with evilness.
We cannot conceptualize "blackness" without addressing a long history of racialization and colonization.  That is, white supremacy has successfully worked to create negative associations with blackness and positive associations with whiteness.  Consider that humans are not literally white and black, so, as a society, we have identified certain groups as "white" or "black" and, subsequently, we have socially constructed what it means to be "white" or "black."  As with black dogs and cats, those social constructions are generally negative for "black" humans.  Social psychological research has demonstrated that these stereotypes about blackness perpetuate today, often subconsciously.  Consider, for instance, the famous doll experiment, where children (both white and African American) almost always identified the black dolls as "bad" and the white dolls as "good."  Even in popular media, writers use black and white imagery as cues for the audience regarding who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are.

From Lord of the Rings
Gandalf and Shadowfax (the "good guys") (top) and Orcs (bottom)

Another very vulnerable group of companion animals are those that are considered elderly.  When people adopt, they tend to want puppies and kittens.  When they age, they also tend to decline in "value," with many "owners" relinquishing them because they have expensive health problems or are otherwise considered a burden.

Canine ageism reflects human ageism.  In many Western and capitalist societies, one's self worth is linked to their ability to "contribute" to society and to be "productive."  Older Americans experience profound discrimination, and 4-6% of elderly persons are abused (be it physically, psychologically, or financially).  As with humans, dogs and cats who can't perform their "productive" role in the family (as "pets") or workforce (as "working animals") are highly vulnerable to violence.


Special needs companion animals, too, are significantly less likely to be adopted and are at high risk of being "euthanized."  Physical disabilities, mental disabilities, "aggression," "skiddishness," or any other trait that is considered (by a human supremacist society) to be both different and negative translates to death sentences for dogs and cats.  In a society where identity as a domesticated animal is bound inextricably to one's ability to perform a given role for humans, disability is especially dangerous.  Because Nonhuman Animals are not considered persons, but rather property, "defective" property is considered useless and will be discarded accordingly.

As with ageism, disableism is based on a capitalist work ethic that equates value with productivity.  They are often considered a "burden" on able-bodied society. They are also heavily stigmatized.  As with elderly persons, disabled persons have been institutionalized in large numbers and isolated from society.  Out of sight and out of mind.  Abuse of disabled persons is also epidemic. Disabled girls and women are much more likely to be victims of rape and sexual assault than non-disabled females.

The devaluation of disability, of course, is a social construction.  While disability is a psychical reality, how we interpret that reality will vary according to the norms and values we've been socialized with.  The cat in this video clip is clearly disabled, but she has meaningful relationships and an amazing quality of life.  Unfortunately, she was discarded by her previous "owners," likely due to her special needs.  Most disabled animals are not given the benefit of the doubt and are put on the "kill list" without a second thought.  Those in power get to decide who is disabled and how that impacts their quality of life.  Not surprisingly, in an able-bodied supremacy, the "inferiority" of disabled persons becomes common sense.


See also Mary Fantaske's lecture on disableism and speciesism.