Book Review: Zoopolis
by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka
Oxford University Press, 2011
The designers of Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s new collaboration from Oxford University Press, Zoopolis, made a confusing move by choosing Alex Colville’s whimsical, touching 1988 painting Stove for the book’s cover illustration. The picture shows a woman carefully acquainting her inquisitive dog with the house stove, perhaps to warn about the stove’s danger. It’s a cute little capture of one of the universal irrationalities that attend pet-ownership, this tendency to ‘explain’ things to animals that are utterly beyond their comprehension. I do the same thing myself, whenever my rather dim-bulb basset hound uses her enormous head to batter open the bathroom door and join me there while I’m, eh, reading Trollope. I constantly tell her to please close the door behind her, even though I know that closing doors behind her has no place in her conception of the world (which consists almost entirely of what she wants and obstacles to what she wants). Ditto Stove: the dog cannot possibly understand what a stove is and won’t understand the stove’s danger until she’s unlucky enough to be burned by it.
Better by far would have been a 19th Century painting of hounds running to chase, or herding sheep in a high dell – occupations that are, yes, created by humans but in which dogs have their own specialized roles that can’t be duplicated by humans – roles the dogs fully understand. Such a painting would align much better with Donaldson and Kymlicka’s contention that dogs – all sentient animals – are imbued with inviolable rights just like those humans have been claiming for themselves since the Enlightenment.
In our authors’ simple and elegant formulation, those inviolable rights come in three sub-sets, depending on the nature of the non-human animals involved. Wild animals are designated as members of separate, sovereign nations, entitled to protection against invasion, trafficking, enslavement – anything that curtails their right to self-determination. At the other end of the spectrum, fully domesticated animals should be seen not as property but as full-fledged members of the communities they share with humans. And the animals in the middle ground, ‘liminal’ species who aren’t domesticated but inhabit human spaces (raccoons, possums, coyotes, pigeons, hawks, etc), should be considered ‘denizens’ of those spaces – not full co-citizens like domesticated animals, but still deserving of fundamental respect (i.e. freedom from pogroms, poisonings, or random persecutions). In our authors’ view, it makes no difference that none of these animals advocate for such respect – the point here is that humans routinely extend these rights to members of their own species who likewise can’t advocate for them (infants and children, for instance, or the uneducated, or the mentally feeble, etc.), so a broader application is already ideologically warranted.
Donaldson and Kymlicka are very shrewd to avoid the fights they don’t want to have – they’re not, for instance, interested in re-fighting basic Cartesian questions about whether or not animals have feelings and self-regard (their book manages to be astonishingly free of sentimentality while still brimming with passion). And they’re fully aware of how entrenched the opposition is:
Western (and most non-Western) cultures have for centuries operated on the premise that animals are lower than humans on some cosmic moral hierarchy, and that humans therefore have the right to use animals for their purposes. This idea is found in most of the world’s religions and is embedded in many of our day-to-day rituals and practices. Overcoming the weight of this cultural inheritance is an uphill battle.
And yet, their willingness to fight that uphill battle is evident on every page of Zoopolis, where living equivalence is asserted simply and unequivocally:
If it is wrong to kill a human for her organs, even if we can save five people by doing so, so too is it wrong to kill a baboon for his organs. Killing a chipmunk or a shark is a violation of their basic inviolable right to life, just as killing a human being is.
Books like this – meticulously thought-out, very attractively reasoned, with no hint of screed – do inestimable good in their incremental way, and Zoopolis is among the best I’ve ever read, mainly because it avoids the pitfalls of extremism that would make it look untenable to the unconverted. Of course, the idea of universal inviolable rights for living creatures isn’t going to sit well with the unconverted anyway, which is the frustration of arguments like this one. Those unconverted readers are all going to be thinking the same thing: what kinds of rights adhere to creatures who lack any kind of awareness? To their credit, Donaldson and Kymlicka have little patience with the age-old question of what constitutes enough of such awareness:
Scientists are still learning how to study animal minds, and there will undoubtedly be hard cases and grey areas for a long time to come when trying to identify consciousness. However, that doesn’t change the fact that we can readily identify it in many instances. Indeed, the types of animals that are must cruelly abused are precisely those whose consciousness is least in doubt. We domesticate species like dogs and horses precisely because of their ability to interact with us. We experiment on species like monkeys and rats precisely because they share similar responses to deprivation, fear, or rewards. To invoke the difficult of determining a threshold of basic consciousness as a justification for continuing animal exploitation is dishonest.
The book’s emphasis falls at least as much on what humans should and shouldn’t do as what non-human animals can and can’t do. The point is that according to the legal and ethical rules humans already have in place, non-human animals (especially those who share our day-to-day lives) deserve more than humans have ever granted them. And they deserve such care and protection even though they themselves can’t ask for it or even understand it beyond its immediate practical superiority over the alternatives.
Come to think of it, maybe that cover painting is a wise choice after all.