Animal-Beings/Animal-Things: The Problems of Binary Thinking in Animal Activism

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» Animal-Beings/Animal-Things: The Problems of Binary Thinking in Animal Activism

RAC member, Dr Catherine Oliver, discusses animal binaries and speciesism in this adaptation of her book chapter in Vegan Geographies: Spaces Beyond Violence, Ethics Beyond Speciesism

Between 2016 and 2017, I was working on the British Library’s PhD placement scheme in the uncatalogued archives of animal activist Richard D Ryder. Ryder is best known in animal circles for coining the term ‘speciesism’ in 1970, marking what he believed was the beginning of a new era and renewed interest in an evolving relationship between humans and animals. While I was working in the archives, I became troubled by the ways animals were constructed not only in the mainstream but also in non-vegan animal advocacy, as either ‘beings’ or ‘things’. Animal-Beings are sentient, capable of feeling pain, although often rely on human beneficence; while Animal-Things were instrumental, there only to serve human interests. While it might seem that activists look to animals as beings and that elsewhere animals become things, the binary separation was not quite as simple as that.

Richard D Ryder

Ryder, in a 1998 interview, told of how he had grown up assuming animals were “like him”, reflected in his earliest memory of seeing a dead blackbird on the street that ignited a moment of recognition. Ryder talks of his mixed and inconsistent feelings towards animals, which inevitably turned him towards the animal rights cause. Ryder’s story of the word speciesism begins in a bath in his Dorset estate. He first published this idea in the leaflet Speciesism and circulated this around Oxford in 1970. Oxford was an important place for Ryder and for the academic history of the animal rights movement, with Oxford University serving as an intellectual hub for animal rights philosophy. In 1971, along with Ros and Stan Godlovitch, and John Harris, whom Ryder was introduced to by novelist Brigid Brophy, he began what was later referred to as the Oxford Group. The group was a collective of postgraduate students, largely philosophers, who acted and spoke against the use of animals and later included Peter Singer, whose book Animal Liberation is heralded as a key text of animal rights philosophy.

While Ryder is most known for his coining of ‘speciesism’, he also has an extensive body of work looking at animal pain and developing a theory of animal rights based on this, inspired by his experiences of laboratory testing on animals in his early career as a psychologist. In his archive, there were pamphlets, writings, zines, documents and correspondence spanning over fifty years of his career and work. However, what there was little of in this archive, like almost all others, was the presence of animals themselves. Therefore, working historically can often mean that animals’ experiences are read through human interpretation and therefore imbued with (anthropocentric) bias. In Ryder’s archive, three stories in particular highlighted this tension between ‘being’ and ‘thing’.

The Little Brown Dog

In 1902, Lizzie Lind-af-Hageby and Leisa Schartau, Swedish-British feminist activists, enrolled in a medical course at the London School of Medicine for Women at UCL. They were not, however, medical students in the sense that we might expect. Rather, they became among the earliest undercover exposers of animal abuses in the name of ‘science’. In The Shambles of Science (2012), the story of the Brown Dog is told. The women first met the little brown terrier in December 1902, when Professor William Bayliss undertook the first vivisection on the dog, cutting open his abdomen to demonstrate a medical procedure on his pancreatic duct. Two months later, in the activists’ next encounter with the dog, Bayliss’s assistant cut open the terrier again to inspect the previous wound, before clamping shut his abdomen and handing the dog over so Bayliss could cut open his throat and attach electrodes to his salivary glands. Bayliss stimulated these nerves over the next hour, and Lind-af-Hageby and Schartau watched as the dog was inadequately anaesthetised, struggling, his body cut open, clamped and tied down to a wooden board, his mouth muzzled. The brown dog was then handed over to future Nobel Laureate Henry Dale, a student at the time, who removed his pancreas and finally killed him with a knife through the heart.

This is a story that tested Britain at the time as a “nation of animal lover.”. The case went to trial. Three years later, a memorial was erected at a park in Battersea, inscribed, “Men and women of England, how long shall these things be?”, infuriating medical students against anti-vivisectionist activists. This statue became the site, representationally but also physically, of the question of whose bodies matter.

The Stop the Export of Live Animals (SELFA) Campaign

The SELFA campaign was, and still is, a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) campaign focused on the transport of live animals between the UK and Europe, whose end goal was for food-animals to be slaughtered before transport so as to reduce their suffering (Ryder Papers). The transportation of these animals was subject already to some laws regarding the space afforded per animal, rest breaks, food and water, but the RSPCA was suspicious this was not happening and as such trailed the drivers of the lorries transporting food-animals (see also Saunders, 2002, pp. 42–43). In its most recent statement on the SELFA campaign, the RSPCA calls for the European Commission to cap transport of live animals at eight hours (RSPCA, 2017), which it claims will end exports from the UK. In the 2017 campaign, it calls upon a “country of animal lovers” to end the suffering of animals on their way to slaughter

Food-animals and the ‘food’ that they become can help to tell human stories of being-together and of who we are, through the rituals and traditions of eating. To reject this can be to reject the norms of a society. Animal-Things within societal manifestations represent and tell stories of the cultures and societies within which we live, but they also reflect and mirror society’s stories. The wrongs done to animals will outlast and tell the story of our societies, cultures and politics –through the memorialisation and critique of the past.


Animals struggle to resist the meanings ascribed to them by their human interlocutors. One of the pivotal moments in Ryder’s biography was the circulation of the Speciesism leaflet around Oxford. There are several copies of this leaflet in Ryder’s archive, but each time my hands found it or I return to look at it, the image contained shocked me. A tiny chimpanzee, curled over, seemingly weak, emaciated and covered in scabs from injections of syphilis during experiments. I recognise pain, I empathise and his distress breaks through the archive with a sudden kick of pain. In their image, that historical distance was breached; yet they remained both ‘thing’ and ‘being, occupying a powerful space between the two.

This moment was not in the present; rather, the chimpanzee exists beyond the archive, and it is through the archive itself that they can reach into and affect the present by creating empathy with an animal who is like the human. In the case of this exceptional animal, the problem is not that they are being situated in relation to the human, but rather that this animal must become a symbol of a wider ethics for them to matter. The anthropocentrism that permeates constructions of the animal and of animal rights is underpinned by the logic that to engage those who do not care with a speciesist discourse in which they conceivably can care, the human must be maintained as the most valuable. What we must move towards instead is an understanding of the interdependency between human and animal.

Beyond the Binary

Working in the archives, it seemed to me as if this determination to hold onto binary ideas of animals as ‘Being’ or ‘Thing’ in activism and society more broadly was producing inconsistencies and inadequacy in advocating for them. By reducing animals to ‘bodies’ or numbers, their existence as real, complex and multiple creatures is erased. As such, it becomes difficult to meaningfully work with animals who are being used as symbols for a wider politics and ethics, rather than recognising their individuality. This was particularly pronounced in the archives, where animals can only speak to us through human interpretation. Nonetheless, their images and stories can still move and affect the present and the future when engaged with carefully and with respect.

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