Artist Sunaura Taylor has long grappled with the intersections between the disability rights and animal liberation movements. Her newest book, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (The New Press, 2017), is an in-depth examination of the various meanings of ability, their social contexts and constructions – and the overlap between disability and animal rights. The book is an insightful and nuanced analysis of disability issues. Beasts of Burden is also deeply personal in nature and uncompromising in its defence of total liberation.
The following are 2 brief excerpts from her book, along with several of her works of art.
Disabled and ill animals bring up historical associations of disability with the fear of contamination. The downed, sick — or even potentially sick — animal becomes the symbol of what is unhealthy, dirty, and dangerous about industrialized animal farming. Ableism operates in such cases to create psychological and emotional distance from disability through inciting fear of contagion. Separating out downed animals, like the mass killings of animals exposed to a contagious illness, creates the idea that safety, health, and even compassion are a priority on factory farms, despite the obvious reality that the industry itself is clearly the creator and perpetuator of these problems. Disabled, ill, and otherwise nonambulatory animals are hardly the reason that industrial animal agriculture is dangerous and harmful. Countless investigative reports and studies have exposed just how cruel, toxic, and terrible these industries are, not just for animals, but for the environment, workers, and human health overall. This is not to say that the viruses born of factory farms are not a serious public health concern—they are—but rather that the slaughter of millions of animals is not the solution—the solution is to shut down these concentrated animal operations.
It seems impossible to consider the disability that farmed animals experience as separate from their environments. The mother pig is made utterly immobile not by physical difference or disease but by the metal bars of her gestation crate. The hen suffers from pain, but whether that pain is due to a broken leg, overcrowding, complete darkness, or the death of her cagemate is impossible to know. The dairy cow is euthanized not because she cannot walk but because she has become a symbol of contamination. Such animals’ environments clearly disable them even more than their physical and psychological disabilities do – a fact that supports the social model of disability. Trying to pinpoint disability and disease in these environments is no less challenging than trying to ascertain what does and does not qualify as disability among human beings. What does it mean to speak of a “healthy” or “normal” chicken, pig, or cow when they all live in environments that are profoundly disabling? Indeed, when they are all bred to be disabled? The Belgian Blue is a breed of beef cattle bred for “double muscling” for more and leaner meat. They are so huge that they have a hard time walking, and the females must have caesarians, as vaginal births are impossible. Even so – called heritage breeds are often bred for characteristics that in human beings would no doubt be labeled disabilities or abnormalities; consider the Tennessee fainting goat, which “keels over when startled” and which Slow Food USA says “sounds more like a sideshow act than the centerpiece of a barbecue.”
The issue of breeding itself raises all sorts of complex questions about normalcy, naturalness, and the boundaries between disability and enhancement. These animals are simultaneously disabled and hyperabled – made disabled by the very enhancements that make them especially profitable to industries and desirable to consumers. Disabling animals is not incidental to animal industries. It is essential for the work they do and the profit they create. Of the tens of billions of animals that are killed every year for human use, many are manufactured to be disabled, bred to be machine – like producers of meat, milk, and eggs. And we haven’t even looked at other animal industries. According to HSUS, the animals who are subjected to lives in fur farms (foxes, minks, chinchillas, and numerous other species) “are inbred for specific colors . . . causing severe abnormalities – deafness, crippling of limbs, deformed sex organs, screw necks, anemia, sterility, and nervous system disorders.” Animals in research labs, circuses, and zoos also experience a variety of conditions and problems that are due largely to captivity, poor care, abuse, or breeding. Circus elephants are prone to severe arthritis because they are forced to stand, often chained, in cramped cages and boxcars with little opportunity to exercise. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reports that “foot disorders and arthritis are the leading reasons for euthanasia in captive elephants.”
Huge numbers of animals from factory farms and zoos to research labs and circuses show signs of mental illness, post- traumatic stress disorder, depression, and madness, such as repetitive hair plucking, self- mutilation, biting the bars of their cages, pacing, regurgitation and reingestion (repeatedly vomiting and eating it), and repetitive head bobbing. Autistic writer and primatologist Dawn Prince- Hughes describes seeing her own symptoms of exclusion and marginalization in the animals she watched and studied at the zoo: “I would see this kind of behavior with gorillas in captivity. They had nervous tics similar, if not identical, to mine: hair plucking, picking at scabs, scratching, rocking, chewing on themselves, and other repetitive and self- stimulating behaviors. One gorilla spun in tight, fast circles. Another bobbed her head up and down.” Such behavior is so common in captive animals that there is actually a diagnosis for it, zoochosis – psychosis caused by confinement. In fact animals in zoos are regularly put on antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals. In her book Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, science historian Laurel Braitman exposes the widespread use of pharmaceuticals to help animals cope with captivity in zoos, aquariums, and research labs. Not surprisingly, zoos try to keep this information secret, with zookeepers often required to sign nondisclosure agreements. After all, as Braitman writes, “finding out that the gorillas, badgers, giraffes, belugas, or wallabies on the other side of the glass are taking Valium, Prozac, or antipsychotics to deal with their lives as display animals is not exactly heartwarming news.” What we do know is that the animal pharmaceutical industry in the United States is booming (it brought in nearly $6 billion in 2010).
All of this raises profound ethical concerns about the ways nonhuman animals are treated – or, more aptly, mistreated – by human beings. It is hard even to begin to consider what disability means in these instances because of how inseparable it is from captivity, abuse, neglect, breeding, and, yes, suffering. What does disability mean for a hen in an environment where her every movement and desire is neglected? What does a physical limitation or difference mean when you are given no opportunity to move in your body, to explore it, because your environment is already limiting everything about you? Perhaps, as with many disabled human beings, these animals’ physical or mental impairments are the least of their worries.
The full name of my medical diagnosis is arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. According to the medical field, arthrogryposis is relatively rare, occurring in one out of every three thousand births, but this statistic does not include the many goats, dogs, cows, rats, toads, and foxes who are born with arthrogryposis every day. In cows the condition has its own name, curly calf, and is found often enough on factory farms to have been the subject of the cover article of Beef magazine’s December 2008 issue. Cows with curly calf are “destroyed” as a matter of course to prevent further loss of profits to the farms they are born on. As a human born in the twentieth century I was spared such a fate, and instead I was given surgeries and physical therapy as an infant to enhance the range of motion in my feet and legs.
For the most part I look back on these medical interventions as helpful. Yet I often wonder what different motions and abilities I would possess if my body had been kept the way it was. What would living in that body have been like? Sometimes these reveries veer toward the sentimental— fantasies of an original body I no longer know. But I also find myself wondering how I would have gotten by if I had not had surgeries that allow me to briefly stand. How would I have adapted if I were that much “more disabled”? My “naturally” occurring disabled body, compared to my medically altered body, is a point of fascination for me. Yes, it’s probably a bit narcissistic, but it has also been a visceral opportunity for me to explore my own ableism and internalized oppression. I am attached to the body I have now: my feet that I can stand on but can never flex; my legs that hold me up, bipedal, but only briefly and with a posture “like a monkey.” Would I have learned how to be within that other body as well? Would I have been attached to it—to the way it would maneuver through space and experience the world? Perhaps my own ableism runs so deep that I have projected it onto the “more disabled” body I had as an infant before medical intervention. I am also drawn to consider these two bodies of mine because they raise questions about nature and what we think is natural. Without these surgeries would my body have been any more natural than it was with them? And what does natural mean anyway? Where or what is my natural body? At what point—if ever— did I have one?
My disability was caused by U.S. military pollution in the town where I was born. Everything about my story is typical: the military and its industries secretly dumping toxic chemicals in unlined pits in the ground for decades; the poor, largely nonwhite neighborhoods that were affected; and the fact that the pollution was directly poisoning the lands of the Tohono O’Odham Nation. My body was formed with the help of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, airplane degreasers—the mundane detritus of militarization. It is hard for me to imagine my “natural” body—I never had a “natural” body to imagine. Because my mother unknowingly drank toxic waste from the faucet in our kitchen, as a fetus I was already being altered by society, by culture, by “man-made” products. Does this make me altogether unnatural? I realize I am cavorting dangerously close to the cliché of the disabled person wistfully imagining her able- bodied self before or without disability. But what I am actually trying to find is a state of nature—a body without human intervention. I see my own body as inseparable from human intervention— but what body isn’t? In a time when honeybees are disappearing and polar bears are drowning due to humans’ impact on the environment, it’s easy to appreciate how whole ecosystems are affected by human society. More to my point, however, is the reality that we can never see nature through lenses that are not our own; we can never separate something called “nature” from our human perceptions of it. Even my perception that my imagined pre- surgery body would be more challenging than the one I live in post- surgery is entangled in deeply held assumptions about how a body should naturally look, move, and be in space. But what is this “nature” on which my judgments have been based? And how have I defined it? The idea of a “state of nature,” a nature before or without human culture, is a powerful one. It has informed our philosophical theories, our political systems, and our opinions about which bodies we deem livable and capable of pleasure, and which we deem exploitable, consumable, and edible. But is this thing we call nature actually justifying these judgments and distinctions, or are we?
Copyright © 2016 by Sunaura Taylor. Reprinted with permission of The New Press.