Book review: ‘Zoopolis’ by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka

2016-06-28 16.14.07

Why always think in a human frame while claiming to work for animals’ sake?

In 2011, Sue Donaldson and her husband Will Kymlicka co-wrote “Zoopolis – A political theory of Animal rights” to describe what could be a future framework for human-animal relationships.

The authors aim to overcome what they call the impasse of the classic animal advocacy movement. There is a myriad of animal rights thinkers who the authors summarise. This gives us a good overview of the animal rights literature. Personally I haven’t read so much on the topic except from Gary Francione so it was a good catch-up.

However, the abolitionist approach led by Gary Francione remains the most representative of the current animal rights theory and can be summed up by “let them be”.

According to him, humans should not interfere in any way with animals. Wild animals should remain wild, companion and domesticated animals should cease to exist because humans should not breed and farm them neither as food nor as pets. Francione recognises the negative rights of animals not to be owned, killed, confined, tortured or separated from one’s family but no further positive obligation of care or assistance.

Our two authors acknowledge inviolable rights for animals as well. But, because human and animal realms are inevitably tied, they also claim that interactions require thought and generate duties of care, accommodation and reciprocity.

Donaldson and Kymlicka founded their political scheme on the notion of citizenship applied to sentient beings, ‘the sort of beings who are conscious of pain and pleasure’. I would say that I am absolutely not convinced by this notion of sentient beings and I see that as an anthropomorphism drift. For all the animal advocates, from Francione to Donaldson and Kymlicka, others seem to be valuable if, and only if, we can recognise in them the same psychological patterns as humans. I wonder where the boundary between sentient and non-sentient beings is and if ants and silkworms are sentient beings. The book doesn’t answer these questions, especially for insects. Personally, I don’t wear silk.

By the way, I also don’t share the view of the authors on nature. In my view, nature is living and should be seen and thought of as a partner. It is surprising to notice how the authors always refer to stones to disqualify nature from their thought. What about plants?

Anyway, Donaldson and Kymlicka designed a political model for sentient beings only. And to do so, they split animals into three categories: domesticated (those bred by humans and who are dependant of humans for their existence), wild (those who avoid humans, maintaining a separate and independent existence) and liminal animals (those who live close to humans but remain wild like squirrels and pigeons).
For the first ones, they plead for a citizenship status. Domesticated animals should be considered as co-citizens. To participate in the political decision-making of a community that is supposed to govern in the name of humans and animals, animals would be represented through a kind of dependent agency. Unlike the traditional animal rights theorists, the authors agree that animals can be bred, so in this new world farm animals are most likely to disappear but not pets.

For the wild animals, they refer to the idea of sovereignty, which prohibits direct violence, habitat loss, spill over harms (pollution for example) and also gives humans a duty to offer assistance to them when this is consistent with respect of sovereignty.

For the liminals, the authors argue for a denizen status: these animals live amongst us because they rely on human proximity to subsist but are not domesticated and so remain wild.  For them, the  citizens would be entitled to regulate the flow as the state now regulates refugees. The parallel drawn between animals and refugees is sometimes striking…for both sides. The authors present an  example of a successful campaign to reduce urban pigeon populations where pigeons are relocated around the city, citizens are educated to stop feeding them and finally their reproduction is controlled. The campaign is effective when applied to pigeons; I would not say the same in the case of applying it to refugees.

Zoopolis is an attempt to draw what could be a peaceful world between humans and animals. However, it’s unfortunate that it was not an opportunity to rethink a world out of the box. In my view, the main bias of this theory is to accommodate animals within the current human governance (citizenship, sovereignty, denizens), which is far from being perfect. I don’t believe that the world could be better if we still uphold a world organised around humans, who are the greatest drain on this planet.