If We Could Talk to the Animals

Do Our Politics Have Room for Nonhumans Too?


Photo credit: Brandon Keim

Summer 2018 | Brandon Keim,

n the city of Bethesda, Maryland, just outside the southern gates of the National Institutes of Health, is a stormwater retention pond. The term doesn’t do it justice: unlike most such ponds, which are ringed by turf grass and sustain little more than algae, the NIH’s pond was conceived by a nature-loving landscape architect. It’s a tiny, lushly vegetated sanctuary and home to a menagerie of creatures.

In the nearly two years I lived nearby, I walked around the pond daily and came to know the animals well: green herons stalking the cattails; eastern cottontails emerging onto the paths at sunset; swifts circling neighborhood chimneys before roosting for the night. Blackbirds in the reeds, catbirds in the understory of an adjacent pocket forest, mockingbirds atop fenceposts reciting oral histories. Frogs rarely seen but often heard. Field mice and Norway rats and gray squirrels. Red-shouldered hawks and the crows who harassed them. Every so often, on lucky spring twilights, a raccoon would emerge from a drainage channel, carefully guiding her children to the safety of overhanging vegetation.

Not including insects, I counted at least 54 animal species there. It was quite the biodiverse assemblage as well as beautiful and inspiring, and no doubt good for my mental well-being. One could also make an argument for the ecological services they provided, such as regulating insect pest populations and maintaining the health of air-cleaning, carbon-sequestering plants. These are the ways people usually frame nonhuman nature.

Over the past decade, however, researchers have shed light on a different frame through which we might view this scene: the lives of the animals themselves. In that time, our understanding of animal minds — not just their intelligence, but also their inner lives — has been transformed.1 Consciousness, the nonhuman existence of which was until recently a subject of spirited debate, is now recognized as ubiquitous; traits like empathy, self-awareness, and the ability to conceive of past and future, once attributed to just a few exceptionally cognitive species, are now thought to be widespread. Emotions and subjectivities have supplanted a narrow emphasis on problem-solving aspects of intelligence. Anthropomorphism is no longer a scientific taboo, and to think of other animals as sharing fundamental aspects of our own inner lives isn’t anthropocentric: it’s common sense.

And yet it’s a sensibility mostly lacking from modern environmental thought. Some older ideas remain with us — various indigenous belief systems, Thoreau’s finding in wildness “a civilization other than our own,” Aldo Leopold’s casting of humans as “plain member and citizen” of a larger community — but they get fuzzy at fine resolution and struggle for traction.2,3 Even among people who want to embrace urban nature and erase human-versus-nature dichotomies, there’s not much sense of animals as fellow members and citizens.4,5,6 In that regard, the dichotomies remain as strong as ever. And although humans have political systems for representing and adjudicating our own interests, animals are almost entirely excluded from them.

Given what we know about animals’ minds and lives, about our own impacts upon them, and about the principles of democracy and ethical consistency, it doesn’t seem fair. The sparrows bathing in the pond’s inlet stream, rabbit mothers bringing food to their children, warblers stopping by on their inter-hemispheric migrations: they have their own communities, and they’re part of our larger community. What would it mean for society to actually treat them that way?


Western intellectual tradition is replete with figures who denied the intelligence of animals. Aristotle, whose philosophical legacy overshadows his zoological scholarship, regarded them as capable only of hunger and pain. Reason, he believed, is a uniquely human capacity, and his taxonomy of the animal kingdom introduced both trait-based classification and a hierarchical structure with humans on top. These ideas dovetailed with medieval Christianity’s portrayal of humankind as created in God’s image, perched atop a divinely decreed “great chain of being” with animals arranged below in varying states of development and subservience.7 Centuries later, that disregard flowered in René Descartes, the history-shaping Enlightenment philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, who likened animals to clockwork automata. They might give the impression of agency, but no life of the mind accompanied it. “I think, therefore I am,” he pronounced. Animals, by definition, could not be.

These were not isolated sentiments — they suffused centuries of discourse. Still, many prominent intellectuals disagreed. Voltaire criticized Descartes’s reductionism, and no less a skeptic than David Hume opined that “no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men.”8 Charles Darwin, too, embraced animal intelligence. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is as important as the far better-known On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and articulated an extraordinary truth: evolution meant kinship between human and animal minds as well as bodies.9

That is not, however, how most people would come to understand evolution or think about other animals. The pendulum swung back with a vengeance on Darwin’s intellectual heirs. A brief flourishing of animal mind–embracing naturalist thought withered after the now mostly forgotten “nature fakers” controversy of the early 20th century, when President Theodore Roosevelt himself unloaded on “yellow journalists of the woods” who ascribed human sentiments to wild creatures.10 Behaviorism — the default characterization of seemingly sophisticated animal behavior as rote, thoughtless conditioning — became scientific dogma.11 Commonsense regard for animal intelligence certainly didn’t vanish, but it was marginalized, and when a few researchers started to challenge that scientific dogma in the mid-1970s, they were treated as heretics.

Photo credit: Brandon Keim / https://www.flickr.com/photos/31805863%40N00/35058597231/in/album-

Nowadays those heretics are considered visionaries. Books on animal intelligence are regular best sellers. Scientific studies of animal minds seem to yield new headlines daily: from problem-solving bees to empathic rats and grieving whales.12 These insights, and what they reveal about our own capacities as existing on an oft-overlapping spectrum with other animals, add a tremendous richness to our understanding of the world. They also cast new light on the ways people define and relate to nature as other, and how animals rarely appear as thinking, feeling beings in environmental or conservation discourse.

Those habits, says political philosopher Eva Meijer, shaped the political imagination of post-Enlightenment societies, in which public speech is central to the idea of political membership.13 Animals were perceived as voiceless; they couldn’t possibly be political beings. Yet the notion of humans as singularly linguistic has been eroded by contemporary scientific descriptions of rich animal communication systems.14 Even the humble black-capped chickadees whose calls cheered the stormwater pond’s winter quiet likely use syntax and referentiality: two properties once considered uniquely human.15 In her doctoral thesis, Meijer contends that new insights into animal communication and group decision-making merit their formal inclusion in our own political institutions.16

“We need to develop new relations,” she says. “One of the preconditions is seeing animals as subjects” — not objects — “and communities,” both among us and unto themselves.


As I came to know the pond’s animals better, I thought less about their species identifications and more about their experiences. Not just their sensations — what frogs basking on a concrete embankment perceived, the coziness of a field mouse inside his milkweed fluff–lined house — but their social lives too. I became aware of how affectionate baby squirrels were, the way purple martins burst into conversation, how the pond’s animals were rarely alone.

Often I started my mornings with a coffee beside the tiny stream that fed the pond. Shallow and gravel-bottomed, it was a perfect place for birds to bathe. Some, like catbirds, mockingbirds, and cardinals, finished their ablutions quickly, while starlings and house sparrows would splash and chatter for minutes. They reminded me of coffee-shop regulars. It was at this gathering place that my frame shifted: no longer did I regard them as living in a human space. The neighborhood was just as much theirs as my own. They weren’t just social, but had a society; the pond wasn’t just a habitat: it was their home.

Society and home are politically charged words, however. They imply interests that ought to be formally respected. That respect is not, with a few exceptions, accorded to animals, who as a rule are considered property, invisible, or both.

Domestic animals and the 9.5 billion farm animals killed each year in the United States belong to their owners; they have no rights and are protected only by a patchwork of anti-cruelty and welfare laws that carry trivial penalties and are often not enforced.17 In the case of farm animals, they barely apply. As for animals used in federally funded research, standards governing their treatment mostly prevent extreme farm-style cruelty — but those standards are weak and outdated, and in many regulatory contexts, preclude rats, mice, and birds from consideration. Even less protection exists for animals used in private research.18

Unlike pets, lab animals, and farm animals, wild animals are not supposed to be owned by individuals (even though the exotic animal trade flourishes in North America, with minimal consequences for violating laws); instead, they belong to states or countries.19 By default, they again have no rights. Members of endangered or threatened species are accorded formal value and extra protections, but most wild animals are not. Their status is neatly captured by this advisory from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife: “Those who feed deer often become protective of ‘their’ deer. They tend to lose sight of the fact that deer are wild animals managed in trust for all of Maine’s citizens.”20 Their lives belong to the state, and in turn to hunters: “It is not unusual for overly protective landowners to quit hunting deer and to actively discourage others from hunting.”

Photo credit: Brandon Keim / https://www.flickr.com/photos/31805863%40N00/35998685530/in/album-

To be fair, the department does more than manage game, and their efforts to protect threatened species and habitats deserve praise. Deer hunting is also comparatively well regulated in Maine and elsewhere, and there are restrictions on which individuals can be killed. Many other species, though, such as coyotes, porcupines, and crows, can often be killed without any restrictions at all, and while federal laws generally protect migratory birds and some resident species, many are exempt.21

Hunting is an obvious lens through which to view the status of wild animals. Another is conflict. Animals are routinely and collectively killed for minor transgressions, such as eating a farmer’s seeds or the bark of a company-owned tree, and in most cities, killing is the standard approach to nuisance wildlife.22,23 And while habitat-level protections do exist (such as wilderness designations, restrictions on shoreline development, and environmental impact regulations), they take little account of individual animal lives.24 Not far from the pond I frequented is a six-mile-long trail that decades ago was a railroad track and subsequently revegetated; when developers planned to clear it for a new rail line, the impact statement concluded that no ‘important’ populations would be harmed.25 Community groups were reduced to scouring nearby creeks for a rare crustacean that might justify a halt.26 Any sense of specific animals with homes and societies was absent.

All of which is not to say that people don’t frequently love and respect animals. We absolutely do, and that fact brings into relief the unevenness of our relationships with them: a state of affairs that could be described as an ongoing form of colonialism, sometimes beneficent and often not, predicated on animals having minimal moral value. Not zero value, but what moral philosopher Mary Midgley has called an “end of the queue” regard, in which even small inconveniences outweigh the worth of most animal lives.27


These are the political circumstances we happened to inherit, like crumbling infrastructure or neighborhoods shaped by decades-old zoning battles. The basic aim of the animal rights movement since its inception in the 1970s has been to update our laws and practices, bringing them into line with changing social values and scientifically informed insights. But in the past few years, the movement has taken a more overtly political turn, adopting a practical focus on political organizing as well as undergoing a philosophical shift from ethics to theory — from the idea of treating animals well to that of including them in our political customs and institutions.28

Before Will Kymlicka turned his scholarly attention to animals, he was one of Canada’s foremost authorities on multiculturalism and the political inclusion of marginalized people. It’s this body of thought, and in particular, citizenship theory, that formed the basis of his and Sue Donaldson’s Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, a 2011 book that’s become seminal among animal theorists.29 Much as different relationships exist among different groups — societies accord varying rights and privileges to people who are refugees, immigrants, aliens, indigenous, elderly, very young, or disabled; members of multiple nations or communities often share geographical space — so too, argue Kymlicka and Donaldson, might we reconfigure our relations with animals.

First, domestic animals, who have been intimately shaped by humans, and for whom we’re uniquely responsible, might receive full co-citizenship that accords their interests formal recognition and respect. Their situation would resemble that of young children or intellectually disabled people. Even if they’re not always capable of formal political participation, they certainly have interests that can be represented by people whom they trust and who advocate on their behalf.

Further, wild animals in wilderness areas who avoid humans and our settlements could be likened to citizens of other self-governing nations.30 As the international community has developed norms of cooperation, conflict mediation, and intervention, so might relations between human and wild communities be managed. This could be accomplished again by human representatives of animal interests and guided by the principle that wild nations should be free from invasion and exploitation. The essential value here is self-determination. If wild animal communities seem too primitive to deserve such regard, it’s worth remembering that European imperialism relied on precisely such judgments of indigenous community life.

Photo credit: Brandon Keim / https://www.flickr.com/photos/31805863%40N00/31890631255/in/album-

When migration brings members of distant wild communities into our own, such as the sandpipers whose boreal-to-tropical journeys briefly lit upon the stormwater pond’s outflow mudflat, they could be likened to nomads whose sovereignty is respected when crossing international boundaries. Migrants are not the only wild animals to be found in human settlements, of course. There are also wild residents of cities and suburbs, such as pileated woodpeckers or coyotes; animals who thrive around people, like white-tailed deer, pigeons, and house sparrows; and so-called ferals: the escapees and wild descendants of animals bred by humans.

These billions of animals are particularly interesting to Kymlicka. They “are affected every time we chop down a tree, divert a waterway, build a road or housing development, or erect a tower,” he and Donaldson write, yet “from a legal and moral perspective, they are amongst the least recognized or protected animals.”31 Conservationists and animal advocates alike mostly ignore them, perhaps because they don’t fit into our neat conception of cities as purely human spaces and wild creatures as truly belonging only where humans don’t reside.32 “The very idea of liminal animals — of wild animals living amongst us — is seen by many people as illegitimate,” even as human societies teem with them.

Zoopolis treats them not as full co-citizens (which entails an intimacy they’re clearly not seeking, and which is restricted to domestic animals) nor as members of sovereign nations (a designation that fails to encompass the entwining of human and nonhuman city life). Instead, the geese, starlings, and rabbits of that stormwater retention pond might be viewed as denizens: coresidents of the neighborhood, not qualifying for citizenship’s full benefits but still deserving consideration.


Personhood, both politically and legally, can be seen as intrinsically human: only Homo sapiens qualify, simply by virtue of species membership. Alternatively, personhood can be treated as part of a social contract: to be a person, one must fulfill duties and obligations to society.33 Or, if not explicitly contractual, personhood may proceed from being involved in a community or possessing certain cognitive capacities. Animal ethicist Angie Pepper argues that only beings who “intend to effect social change, collectively imagine alternative futures, and act-in-concert with others can properly be said to be political agents” — requirements that many species, to the best of our knowledge, do not meet.34 A multispecies conception of political agency, says Pepper, devalues the very concept.

In response, one could argue that animals certainly fulfill social obligations to one another and can be expected — indeed, already are expected — to fulfill a basic social contract with humans.35 They’re not allowed to hurt us. To raise the bar higher, and to exclude beings who don’t meet our standards of sophistication, is uncomfortably reminiscent of historical excuses for denying political representation to colonized people. The British Raj, to take an emblematic example, excluded a majority of native Indians living under colonial rule because they were deemed incapable of participating in constitutional life.36 Ditto indigenous North Americans, who could be systematically persecuted in part because they didn’t have a Western European–style system of property rights.

Again and again, the charge of political primitivity has been used as a tool of disenfranchisement and exploitation. As for fears of devaluing political agency, that’s certainly achieved by restricting personhood to humans on the basis of species membership. Such rationales are rejected by disability theorists who argue that cognitively disabled people (as well as children, the elderly, and people with dementia) deserve rights not because they happen to be human but because they have thoughts, feelings, and interests. That they’re not always capable of speaking at a city council meeting or organizing a referendum is immaterial.

A more solid objection is the pragmatic one: society simply isn’t ready to think of animals this way. Even those sympathetic to these ideas in theory might find them unrealistic in practice, or worse. People are routinely disenfranchised; established democratic ideals and institutions are under assault around the world. To worry about city councils including the perspectives of local geese might seem absurd in such dark times. “In a pretty troubled set of human communities that can’t adequately extend full ethical human citizenship to one another,” opines environmental historian Kathryn Morse, investing ethical energy in nonhumans “will strike many as folly and in itself deeply unethical.”37

Indeed it will. But it could also be argued that, particularly in the case of wild animals, the costs are frequently minimal. And worries of animal issues distracting from human injustices resemble fears invoked in other political contexts: it wasn’t long ago that many otherwise sympathetic people considered gay rights a distraction for liberals. They were not. Fairness and empathy are not zero-sum qualities.


In 2015, councilors in the Spanish town of Trigueros del Valle voted unanimously to declare the town’s domestic animals residents.38 “All residents are born equal and have the same right to existence,” read their animal bill of rights. “A resident, whether human or nonhuman, is entitled to respect.” Two years earlier, the English city of Nottingham approved a pension fund for retired police dogs, ensuring they wouldn’t be neglected after a lifetime of service.39 At the end of last year, the Illinois legislature directed judges in divorce proceedings to consider the custody of pets as they would children: in terms of well-being, not property claims.40

If applying citizenship theory to animals sounds radical at first, incidents like these (which don’t formally invoke citizenship but do embody it) underscore how in some ways, liberal societies are already moving in that direction. It is difficult to imagine meaningful citizenship for animals used in food and research — those institutions would certainly need transformation — but respecting the interests of wild animals is less complicated. Hunting, fishing, trapping, and capture violate their sovereignty; so do habitat loss and harms such as pollution, vehicle collisions, and climate change. Care is owed to individual animals harmed by humans. Animals who hurt us forfeit their freedom, but the absence of arbitrary human harm should be the default state.

The implications are more nuanced for animal denizens of cities and suburbs. As in wilderness, human activity should be mindful of them — for example, by employing bird-friendly windows, strict pesticide regulations, zoning for animal corridors, and fine-grained consideration of development impacts. Which isn’t to say that human activity should cease: rather, it might be done more thoughtfully. In constructing that new railroad line in Bethesda, for example, impact assessments could have enumerated the individual animals affected and their needs.41 Developers might then have planned to leave old hollow trees standing, avoid vole colonies, stagger construction around breeding seasons, and design the new landscape to afford even more homes than before.

Medical care should be provided for human-harmed animal denizens; depending on a community’s generosity, care could also be given to those who are simply unfortunate. That’s already happening in Washington, DC, where the city provides partial funding to a wildlife hospital that accepts injured animals free of charge.42 That funding cannot, however, be used on less-welcome species like house sparrows and starlings, and care for so-called pests is forbidden — stipulations that embody the lower-caste status presently assigned to many denizens.

The “pest” label is especially problematic.43 Presently it functions to suspend moral consideration. So-called pest control should be recast as peaceful conflict resolution: a raccoon can be removed from an attic but not killed, and families must be reunited. That’s the model of companies like AAA Gates’ Wildlife Control in Toronto, which have challenged an industry long predicated on killing urban animals. Coexistence is our obligation to denizens: the NIH pond is ringed with cattails to discourage Canada geese from nesting, but the geese are not harmed.

Photo credit: Brandon Keim / https://www.flickr.com/photos/31805863%40N00/36350629846/in/album-

Many of these ideas already overlap with what animal lovers and conservationists would like to see. It is, as Kymlicka writes, a matter of theory catching up to practice, but with a key proviso. Citizenship theory provides a rigorous conceptual scaffold and a moral imperative. Respecting sovereignty and seeking coexistence are not ad hoc generosities but values that must be codified into formal relationships — and that won’t happen unless animals are represented in political settings.

At an international level, former United Nations ambassador and International Court of Justice agent Muhamed Sacirbey recommends the appointment of an animal ambassador to the UN. It’s not enough to talk about poaching and biodiversity, as already happens; someone needs to actually speak for animals. Sacirbey envisions a post akin to the Special Rapporteurs who advise the organization on human rights issues. “We cannot involve animals in the direct conversation,” he wrote in the Huffington Post, “but nonetheless can move forward the discussion among peoples.”44

In the Netherlands, the Party for the Animals, launched in 2002, received 3.2 percent of last year’s general election vote and secured 5 House of Representative seats, 2 Senate seats, and 33 municipal council seats.45 There are now 19 such parties worldwide — and if that seems a luxurious indulgence of unusually prosperous and healthy multiparty democracies, there are simpler possibilities. Legislatures might, as suggested by animal law theorist Janneke Vink, be supplemented by animal advisory committees and animal ombudsmen who investigate related complaints.46 There could also be state-funded animal rights lawyers and, as suggested by environmental law professor David Cassuto, government animal welfare agencies.47 Every community board could have someone who speaks on behalf of local creatures. In Bethesda, they might petition the city to ensure that property managers near the pond don’t seal the chimney swifts’ roosts, use pesticide-intensive ornamental landscaping, or leave garbage dumpsters open and then address rodent problems by setting out poison baits.

An especially low-hanging target of reform is governmental wildlife agencies, which in North America are often managed with an emphasis on hunting, fishing, and trapping. As nearly eight times more Americans identify as wildlife watchers than hunters, the administration of these agencies is at best unrepresentative. They’ve also been accused of disregarding scientific findings that challenge rationales for killing predators and ignoring nonlethal solutions to wildlife conflicts. Reformers in several states have pushed for state wildlife agencies to be more representative; in California, this led to the end of bobcat trapping and coyote-killing contests.

The seeds of animal representation in our political institutions have already been planted. In a few places they’ve sprouted, and might grow in ways as yet unimagined. Observe how our democracies have evolved in a few generations’ time. Quoth the mayor of Trigueros del Valle, “The mayor must represent not just the human residents but must also be here for the others.”


During an appearance on Science Friday last year in which I talked about songbirds using syntax, how healthy predator communities may reduce tick-borne disease, and whether species might receive royalties from companies that use their likeness, host Ira Flatow asked whether I considered myself a spokesperson for animals.48 I demurred: it wasn’t a role I’d thought about, and the idea of speaking for another group whose interests are self-evident has uncomfortable connotations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which historically subjugated and exploited the communities it was supposed to represent, jumps to mind.

It’s easy to imagine how people could find ways to voice their own interests while claiming to speak for others. Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs), which are supposed to represent the interests of animals used in academic research, provide one cautionary tale: they’ve been criticized for privileging researchers’ wishes over actual animal care.49 Unlike most cases of human representation, animals cannot contest theirs.

If animals can’t object to misrepresentation, however, other people might do so for them, much as failsafes exist to contest guardians who poorly represent their charges. We might also try to better understand animal interests. Eva Meijer highlights the potential of science in this regard for analyzing the movements of a locale’s animals and learning in detail where they go and what they need. The nascent field of welfare biology even characterizes ecosystems according to the experiences of animals living there. Given that so much animal behavior is shaped by culture and social learning rather than heredity, scientists might also study how coexistence can be cultivated in denizen animal cultures.

It doesn’t need to be so complicated, though. “We should pay more attention to other animals starting from the point of view that they have a point of view,” Meijer says, “and then try to work towards a better situation.” People already have a fairly comprehensive understanding of animal well-being.50 I might not know what’s deep in the heart of migrating swallows, but I’m comfortable assuming they’d prefer we didn’t destroy their homes and eradicate their food.

Photo credit: Brandon Keim / https://www.flickr.com/photos/31805863%40N00/35189710655/in/album-

It is true that conflicts among nonhuman interests are certain to arise. The protection of larger ecological communities, for instance, can run counter to the interests of particular animals. In the pocket forest beside the stormwater retention pond, landscapers cut English ivy vines that climbed the trees, ostensibly to prevent them from becoming overburdened and toppling — yet the ivy’s fat-rich berries were winter fare for many nearby denizens. The interests of some animals may also oppose others’: given their druthers, one imagines deer wouldn’t worry about high population densities impacting urban forest understories and the birds who nest there, and would rather not have coyotes around. Coyotes might disagree.

Predation is a particularly thorny subject: How can people be expected to recognize the moral value of individual animal lives, yet accept a class of animals who kill? One answer is that predation, though painful, enriches the natural world. Its ecological interactions promote biological abundance, diversity, and resilience, which also translate into broadly higher levels of animal well-being. To systematically interfere in predation could be unjust. Another answer is that wild animal predation lies outside our purview: we’re obligated to respect their agency and sovereignty and to consider the consequences of our own actions, but not to intervene every time a beaver gets sick or a hawk spies an unsuspecting vole.

Such problems won’t always be simple to adjudicate. An inclusive political framework is not a panacea. But pluralistic and oft-competing values are exactly what liberal democratic systems were designed to handle. Perhaps an animal representative could request that ivy be cut gradually rather than in one forage-eliminating swoop. A politically inclusive approach to suburban deer could illuminate other perspectives: rather than killing them, people might instead plant deer-resistant ornamentals, make sure they can migrate when food runs low, and perhaps protect coyotes.

There’s no assurance that every conflict would be solved equitably. Some tensions may be intractable. But that’s the nature of politics. Democracy isn’t a promise that everyone will end up with what they want; it’s a system for working things out among every voice that has a right to be heard.


Conflicts would not, of course, involve only animals. Inevitably, they would involve us too: people aggrieved by new restrictions, or using animal well-being as justification to move locally unpleasant activity into someone else’s backyard. Those frustrated at the way concerns for animals have impeded broadly beneficial development — affordable housing construction slowed by concerns about endangered owls, Mojave solar farms delayed by desert tortoise protection, wind turbines stalled by bird deaths — might view a political accounting of animals with trepidation. So, too, would people whose livelihoods stand to be impacted: a farmer expected to find nonlethal ways of dealing with crop-eating birds, a clerk at a store frequented by hunters, a businessperson for whom environmental regulations are burdensome enough already.

It’s tempting for animal sympathizers to invoke the moral high ground and insist that others either adapt or find better livelihoods, but that approach is glib and callous. These concerns are valid; they need to be heard. People can and will adapt, but the process will require empathy and consideration for those affected.

This requirement is not only a matter of fairness. It’s also pragmatic. Witness the ongoing tensions over wolves in the western United States, where their arguably clumsy reintroduction inflamed rural resentments about local disenfranchisement and the imposition of urban values. Wolves pay for this conflict with their lives. It would be a terrible thing if attempts to protect animals turned people against them.

A political system that’s fair to animals can only grow out of one that’s respectful of people. It will require broad support, and it won’t happen quickly — but it is possible. Compassion should be a challenge, not an existential threat. Civil societies managed the end of unrestricted pollution and child labor just fine, and it wasn’t so long ago that many people viewed a low-carbon economy as an economic death sentence. Just as putting a price on atmosphere-warming emissions spurred new, cleaner industries, so might regard for animals push economies in more humane directions.51

Photo credit: Brandon Keim / https://www.flickr.com/photos/31805863%40N00/34344934004/in/album-

It might be good for us too. Psychological research has shown that belief in species hierarchies — the beliefs we’re almost universally socialized with — tend to overlap with support for racial and gender hierarchies as well. While it’s unknown whether there is a causal relationship between the two attitudes, so that being close-minded toward animals actually fosters intolerance toward people, it’s a plausible and intriguing thought.52 Perhaps compassion toward animals would promote fairness among humans.

Animal politics would also bring environmental thinking into step with our knowledge of animal minds. Many modern environmentalists have urged people to see nature as existing all around us rather than in discrete, distant pockets of idealized pristineness; as Emma Marris argued previously in this journal, separating humans from nature impoverishes human life.53 If we fail to engage with the inner lives of other animals — with the ethical implications of a mallard mother’s love for her ducklings, rather than her aesthetic presence or ecological service — then we’ll indeed separate ourselves from nature: not its presence, but its reality.

That is happening now, especially in the animal-rich cities and suburbs where most of us first learn about nature. What will those lessons be? That wild, nonhuman neighbors, who are thoughtful and self-aware, with memories and relationships and social lives, who are impacted in life-or-death ways by our decisions, are essentially decorative? Or that our consideration and care should encompass them too?

Political inclusion of animals would reflect the cherished fundaments of democracy. It would count everyone who has interests, not just a select few. And the more inclusive and open-minded our politics toward animals, perhaps, the more inclusive and open-minded we will be toward one another.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9

Featuring pieces by Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz,
R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block,
Julie Guthman, and more.


[1] Brandon Keim, Inside Animal Minds: What They Think, Feel, And Know (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2017).

[2] Henry David Thoreau, Winter: From the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1891).

[3] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (Oxford University Press, 1949).

[4] “There are very few places where we’re thinking about nature in the city in terms of the moral value of individual animals,” says ethicist Bill Lynn. “There tends to be more of an appreciation for animals as species, or the ecological values they provide, or as a scientific interest for education, or an aesthetic appreciation for people when they are outdoors. Thinking of animals as co-residents in our cities, as members of not just an ecological city but a more-than-human community, is just not represented.”

[5] Where such thinking does appear is in the emerging academic discipline of human–animal studies. From this field come two clarifying terms of art: more-than-human and multispecies communities, which are frames for regarding the rich webs of life in which we’re so wonderfully entangled without automatically putting Homo sapiens in the center.

[6] “Even if animals are seen as having intrinsic moral status,” write political philosophers Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson, “they are often seen as ultimately distant others or strangers, beyond the bounds of human society.” See Kymlicka and Donaldson, “Locating Animals in Political Philosophy,” Philosophy Compass 11 (2016): 692–701.

[7] Brandon Keim, “Being a Sandpiper,” Aeon (2013), https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-it-like-to-be-a-bird-the-science-of-animal-consciousness.

[8] Dale Jamieson, “Science, Knowledge, and Animal Minds,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series 98, no. 1 (1998): 79–102.

[9] “Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy, and love,” Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872; repr., New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1897): 349.

[10] Ralph H. Lutts, The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science, and Sentiment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001).

[11] The rise of animal mind–denying science in the 20th century is often understood as a response to sloppy, anecdote-based insights, such as Darwin protégé George Romanes’s secondhand just-so story of a monkey shaming a hunter by proffering her bloodied paw. Yet this seems a just-so story of its own. To make the absence of animal intelligence a default position, rather than a possibility that would be supported or weakened by further research, is risibly arbitrary and extreme. Instead of intellectual rigor, perhaps the dismissal of animal minds offered a path of least moral resistance to economic growth.

[12] Keim, Inside Animal Minds.

[13] “The view that non-human animals cannot be political actors because they cannot speak is common in both philosophical tradition and political practice,” writes Meijer. “Seeing animals as mute does not simply reflect a misunderstanding of their capacities: it is interconnected with the way humans have defined language and politics and has led to rendering animals silent as a political group.” See Eva Meijer, “Political Communication with Animals,” Humanimalia 5, no. 1 (2013).

[14] Human language is especially well suited to coining new words, and to the best of our knowledge, no other species possesses such a large vocabulary; however, these are differences of degree rather than kind.

[15] Brandon Keim, “Translating the Language of Birds,” Anthropocene, August 16, 2017, http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2017/08/translating-the-language-of-birds.

[16] Eva Meijer, “Political Animal Voices,” (PhD thesis, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, 2017), http://hdl.handle.net/11245.1/7c9cfda4-560d-4d67-94ea-7bdda29554c9.

[17] David J. Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan, “Foxes in the Hen House: Animals, Agribusiness, and the Law: A Modern American Fable,” in Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum, eds., Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): 205–33.

[18] “When Are Rats, Mice, Birds and Fish Protected by US Federal Laws?” Speaking of Research (blog), https://speakingofresearch.com/2016/05/23/when-are-rats-mice-birds-and-fish-protected-by-us-federal-laws/.

[19] Masako Melissa Hirsch and Randy Lee Loftis, “Exotic-Pet Dealer in Animal Cruelty Case Makes $15,000 Plea Deal,” Dallas Morning News, July 2014, https://www.dallasnews.com/news/news/2014/07/03/exotic-pet-dealer-in-animal-cruelty-case-makes-15000-plea-deal.

[20] Jacob Edson, “Maine Asks Residents Not to Feed Deer,” Deer & Deer Hunting, February 6, 2012, http://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/articles/deer-news/maine-asks-residents-not-to-feed-deer.

[21] With a $20 hunting license and permission from residents of a nearby apartment building, it would have been legal for me to kill every squirrel, rabbit, crow, dove, mallard, wood duck, and Canada goose who lived around the pond. For house sparrows, starlings, and pigeons, I wouldn’t have needed a license.

[22] Rob Davis, “Struggling Oregon County Spent Safety Net Money on Pro-Timber Video,” Statesman Journal, September 30, 2017, https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/2017/09/30/struggling-oregon-county-spent-safety-net-money-pro-timber-video/720621001/.

[23] John Hadidian, “Wildlife in US Cities: Managing Unwanted Animals,” Animals 5 (The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, 2015): 1092–113, http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/5/4/401.

[24] Governmentally protected areas, e.g., national and state parks and wildlife refuges, also provide habitat-level protections with varying degrees of regard for individual animal lives.

[25] Maryland Transit Administration, “Purple Line: Final Environmental Impact Statement” (2017), http://www.purplelinemd.com/en/about-the-project/studies-reports/feis-document.

[26] Katherine Shaver, “Purple Line’s Obscure Obstacle: The Endangered Hay’s Spring Amphipod,” Washington Post, November 29, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/purple-lines-obscure-obstacle-the-endangered-hays-spring-amphipod/2013/11/29/1af11834-56a3-11e3-8304-caf30787c0a9_story.html.

[27] Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter (Athens: University of Georgia Press: 1983).

[28] Kim Stallwood, “Are We Smart Enough to Know When to Take the Political Turn for Animals?” in Andrew Woodhall and Gabriel Garmendia da Trindade, eds., Ethical and Political Approaches to Nonhuman Animal Issues (Springer/Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), http://kimstallwood.com/2017/10/03/are-we-smart-enough-to-know-when-to-take-the-political-turn-for-animals/.

[29] Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[30] “Wild animals have suffered injustices that are analogous to those suffered by various human communities whose self-government and sovereign control of their territory have historically been denied,” write Kymlicka and Donaldson. Policies “subjugating so-called primitive or uncivilized people to colonial rule … were often justified by denying that the victims were worthy of being self-governing” (Zoopolis, 168).

[31] Kymlicka and Donaldson, Zoopolis, 8, 211.

[32] There are a few notable exceptions to this principle. On the conservation side, practitioners of so-called “compassionate conservation,” a new — and controversial — school of thought that emphasizes the welfare of wild animals, have talked explicitly about the well-being of individual animals in anthropogenic landscapes. See Daniel Ramp, et al., “Compassionate Conservation: A Paradigm Shift for Wildlife Management in Australasia,” in Marc Bekoff, ed., Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation (University of Chicago Press, 2013): 295–311.

[33] These are the primary objections made by judges in response to lawsuits filed on behalf of four captive chimpanzees by the Nonhuman Rights Project. The chimps, the claimants argued, had a right not to be arbitrarily imprisoned. As of now, judges have not agreed; the decisions and subsequent appellate back-and-forth are instructive as to the obstacles facing political representation for animals, which would inevitably be contested in court.

[34] Angie Pepper, “Political Agency and Nonhuman Animals,” abstract, Animal Agency: Language, Politics, Culture, May 13, 2016, https://animalagency.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/animal-agency-amsterdam-abstracts-complete.pdf.

[35] The complexity of group decision-making in animals is routinely underestimated; anyone interested should read ethologist Larissa Conradt’s review of the subject in “Group Decisions in Human and Animals: A Survey,” Philosophical Transactions B 364 (2009): 719–42. Animal community life is not just a matter of rote sociality but often reflects norms, customs, and thoughtfulness. A great many species actually make decisions democratically.

[36] Arvind Elangovan, “Constitutionalism, Political Exclusion, and Implications for Indian Constitutional History: The Case of Montagu Chelmsford Reforms (1919),” South Asian History and Culture 7, no. 3 (2016): 271–88.

[37] Kathryn Morse, personal communication.

[38] Alistair Dawber, “Human Rights for Cats and Dogs: Spanish Town Council Votes Overwhelmingly in Favour of Defining Pets as ‘Non-human Residents,’” Independent, July 22, 2015, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/human-rights-for-cats-and-dogs-spanish-town-council-votes-overwhelmingly-in-favour-of-defining-pets-10408546.html.

[39] Dan Churcher, “Police Dog Care Policy Is Criticised by Handlers,” Newark Advertiser, January 18, 2017, http://legacy.newarkadvertiser.co.uk/articles/news/Nottinghamshire-Police-dog-care-policy-is-cri.

[40] Leonor Vivanco-Prengaman, “New State Law Treats Pets More Like Children in Custody Cases,” Chicago Tribune, December 25, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-pet-custody-law-20171218-story.html.

[41] Hugh C. Finn and Nahiid S. Stephens, “The Invisible Harm: Land Clearing Is an Issue of Animal Welfare,” Wildlife Research 44, no. 5 (2017): 377–91.

[42] Rather than viewing this as an additional expense, municipalities could square the costs with the value of services provided by animals. Each wren at the pond, for example, ceaselessly grooming insects from vegetation, provides year-round gardening services; most of the oak and pine trees were planted by a forgetful squirrel; and dragonflies, frogs, swallows, swifts, and purple martins all provide welcome relief from mosquitoes.

[43] So, too, is the category of “invasive,” which, similar to “pest,” functions as a moral free pass. The nascent compassionate conservation movement has proposed an end to killing so-called invasive species to achieve conservation’s aims; instead, nonlethal solutions should be found. Often it may prove that killing was only a superficial short-term solution that made it possible to ignore more fundamental problems, as with cormorants killed to protect salmon artificially concentrated by the loss of spawning habitat.

[44] Muhamed Sacirbey, “Do Animals Need a UN Ambassador?” Huffington Post, July 4, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/ambassador-muhamed-sacirbey/do-animals-need-un-ambass_b_5558663.html.

[45] Corina Ruhe, “In the Netherlands, a Party for Animals Is Winning Voters,” Bloomberg, March 1, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-02/in-the-netherlands-a-party-for-animals-is-winning-over-voters.

[46] Janneke Vink, “The Possibilities for Animal Protection in Liberal Democracies,” abstract, Animal Agency: Language, Politics, Culture, May 13, 2016, https://animalagency.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/animal-agency-amsterdam-abstracts-complete.pdf.

[47] David N. Cassuto and Cayleigh Eckhardt, “Don’t Be Cruel (Anymore): A Look at the Animal Cruelty Regimes of the United States and Brazil with a Call for a New Animal Welfare Agency,” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 43, no. 1 (2016): 1–43.

[48] Brandon Keim, “Bird Grammar, Foxes and Ticks, and Animal Royalties,” audio recording, Science Friday, August 4, 2017, https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/bird-grammar-foxes-and-ticks-and-animal-royalties/.

[49] Part of the problem with IACUCs is that people who care deeply about animals, and are best qualified to advocate on their behalf, often find committee membership — which necessarily involves approving research that is valuable for humans but causes intense animal suffering — to be a painful ordeal.

[50] The so-called five freedoms, codified in the 1970s for farm animals, specify that they should be free from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury, or disease; from fear and distress; and to express normal behavior. To this list, which emphasizes the absence of negative experiences, can be added the presence of positive experiences, especially social interaction. See David J. Mellor, “Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving Beyond the ‘Five Freedoms’ Towards ‘A Life Worth Living,’” Animals (Basel) 6, no. 3 (2016): 21.

[51] Kendra Coulter, “Humane Jobs: A Political Economic Vision for Interspecies Solidarity and Human–Animal Wellbeing,” Politics and Animals 3 (2017): 67–77.

[52] Lucius Caviola, et al., “The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published ahead of print, March 8, 2018, doi: 10.1037/pspp0000182.

[53] Emma Marris, “Can We Love Nature and Let It Go? The Case for Interwoven Decoupling,” Breakthrough Journal, no. 7 (Summer 2017), https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-7.



Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist and author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories from the Living World. @9brandon









With the Grain
by Rachel Laudan


On Naturalness
by Alan Levinovitz


The Trouble with Ecosystem Services
by R. David Simpson


Welcome to the Narcisscene
by Mark Sagoff


Seeing the State
by Fred Block


Strawberry Fields Forever?
by Julie Guthman


Read more from Issue 9 . . .