Animal Rights 2003 Conference Keynote Speech
By Jim Mason
I want to talk to you about two themes: Domestication (the negative) and Kinship (the positive) and then close with some talk about an enlarged vision of our movement and its mission.
What Karen Davis (founder, United Poultry Concerns) has told you about, what has been done to chickens’ bodies, is the result of a long relationship with animals — that is, slavery. We use the word “the domestication process” … that’s the word you probably heard in high school or college biology — the domestication of animals. Well, that’s a euphemism for what, really, was the subjugation of animals. We took several species out of the wild — cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys. These animals all had a life in the “wild” (nature) and they still have their “wild” counterparts (with the sole exception of cattle, who were finally wiped out by extermination campaigns in Europe in 1627).
When I talk to the average person about this, their eyes glaze over and their jaws drop. They never think, they never seem to connect, that turkeys … there are wild turkeys and domestic turkeys and they are one and the same. They are the same species. One is has been manipulated by us. Well, if you go down the list of domestic animals, starting with sheep and goats — the first to be domesticated about 8,000 BC in a place that’s been in the news a lot lately: Iraq. Sheep and goats were domesticated in northern Iraq, where the Kurds live. In fact, their ancestors may have been the domesticators — or the first enslavers of sheep and goats. And then cattle, camels, horses, pigs, chickens…
This is a relationship with animals that we created. And the word for it is slavery. And a lot of people take offense when I use that word, like it’s a misuse of a word that is offensive to humans, as is the word “holocaust” sometimes. We have used these words for human oppression and some people take offense when we use them for animal oppression. Well, in fact, slavery as we know it — human slavery — probably began with animal slavery. The very same people in the very same place in the world at about the same time, they invented human slavery had already enslaved animals. Some scholars — and this is not just my own animal rights-obsessed thinking — some anthopologists think that animal slavery, what we call domestication, may very well have been the model for human slavery. And the first humans to be enslaved were women, females — girls and women. In the wars between the early city states in the ancient world just before history begins in ancient Sumeria (now Iraq), when one of these powerful city states conquered another, generally what they did was they either castrated or blinded or killed or mutilated the men because they could be a security threat and they enslaved the women and children. And the women were enslaved primarily for sexual services. They were sex slaves, called concubines, maidservants, temple prostitutes, and things like that.
Anyway, some of the relationships we’ve had with animals over this long history of domestication have been very beneficial to us. We’ve had horses to ride and use in warfare, and we’ve had all these animals to do our work for us, pulll plows in the field, and of course to provide meat, milk, and eggs. That’s been the essence of our relationship all this time. And in the process of it, of course we altered those animals’ bodies to suit us and our needs. And this is what Karen Davis has told you about chickens and turkeys. Dogs have probably been the single most manipulated species; there are over 350 maybe 400 “breeds” of dogs. And what does that mean? What is a “breed”? A breed is basically a misshapen dog. The dog’s ancestor is the wolf. Now with DNA science, experts say that the dog’s DNA and genetic programming is exactly the same as the wolf. Our dogs are basically misshapen wolves. They say if we allowed some members of each of the breeds to mingle and interbreed, within a few generations we’d have a dog that looks like the wild dogs of India and Asia, which look a lot like the original ancestor, the ancestral canid/wolf. But what we’ve done over the years in this process of domestication is just to reshape these bodies and some behaviors just to suit us. Much of it to produce some kind of “look” that we like. Either they are very big or they’re very little, or they have a short muzzle… One of the reasons why people created dogs with a short muzzle is so they would look like human babies. People manipulated dog’s sex lives and mating choices to create dogs with round heads to make them look cuter with that “baby face”. But of course this makes them have breathing problems, and chewing problems, and eye problems.
So these are some of the things we done to animals. This is the negative side of our relationship with animals. Now let me get to the positive side. I want to talk about animality. As we come out of this nonsense, this slavery of animals — and all the attitudes that go with it. For more on these, see my book, An Unnatural Order. There’s a chapter that I want everyone to read: Chapter Three, “The Most Moving Things in the World,” about the importance of animals. Now this is a very obscure idea, fairly difficult to grasp given the ideas about animals that we have inherited. It’s a relationship with animals that’s hard for us to comprehend today because our attitudes toward animals — even though we’re animal rights people — almost all of us have been brought up in this animal exploitative culture — what I call a dominionist culture, the culture of the slavers. In this culture, we’ve learned attitudes about animals that are really… that make the slave system work, that make the human supremacy work, that make us comfortable with the killing and the confinement and the taking over of aniimals’ lives. So it’s hard to break through those ideas about animals even though you’re all animal rights people and mostly vegan.
But animals are very important to us, and we’ve lost the most important relationship that we’ve ever had with animals because of slavery. The ideas of the slaver, the needs of the slaver, have obliterated more positive attitudes about animals: ideas of kinship, of belonging to the life in the world, ideas of being a part of the web of life on earth. Animals gave us a sense of continuity… continuity with other life. And that’s been mangled. As we have mangled the bodies of animals under slavery, we have mangled our own attitudes about them and with that, mangled our ideas about all of the living world and our place in it.
So that poor souls that we are… You know, we used to believe that animals had souls. In fact, you know the word “animal” comes from Latin, anima, the word for spirit, it means soul. For the longest part of our evolution, we believed that everything in the world had souls. And then, when we enslaved them, we eliminated the idea that animals have souls and we took possession of the concept of soul exclusively for ourselves. We’re the only beings who have souls. Nothing else has a soul. This is the extent to which we have mangled and really defiled our longest and our most natural and our most comfortable and our most beneficial attitudes about animals. So if you’re wondering why the world is going to hell at a rapid rate, it’s in part because we’re so disconnected with other life on this planet. And we’re so alienated from other life. And we have some of these extremist religious groups that are talking about “the rapture” when the earth is destroyed and the chosen few are sucked up into paradise. This means that the life on this planet means nothing to them. In fact, they regard it as beneath their human supremacist dignity to even engage life here (except for the body parts of animals on their plates). They can’t wait for the next life, which will be…. Heaven is devoid of animals, in this worldview. Animals have no souls. That’s the way I was brought up. I remember asking our preacher once when I was a little kid if I’d see my beloved dog when I died and went to heaven, and he got a very long face and shook his head and said, no you’ll never see any of the animals, there aren’t any animals in heaven. They have no souls. Well, imagine that. What kind of paradise is that? Anyway that’s what we’ve done to the planet and that’s why we’re so screwed up and we’re only a daily basis destroying life on this planet to basically further our own lives. The exploitation of all species for the benefit of one — us. Very bad idea. Evil idea.
Q. …children’s attitudes and identification with animals
A. We “brainwash” them of this and instill our culture’s alienating, human-supremacist ideas. So another generation grows up and carries on the same bad habits. Maybe especially boys, who are taught to be tough and to suppress their empathy — for animals and everyone else.
Q. …pets and animal “ownership” vs. slavery.
A. Too many homeless animals out there now. Now a dilemma for animal rights, and we have to make some compromises. Dogs probably chose to live with us at first. Little did they know then how we would take over their lives entirely. Perhaps cats, too, who came to villages to prey on rodents attracted by our graneries. Not the same process with farmed animals. Some talk of the need to install basic lessons on pet care in the schools. … more info on pet animal behavior.
Q. …Bible belt, fundamentalists, question of animal souls — how to respond to these people
A. If animals have no souls, then this is the only life they have so we have an obligation to protect there lives here. We have heaven (maybe). And: not long ago it was believed theat women had no souls. It was just another excuse to oppress, made it acceptable. Shift away from question of soul; shift to “God’s creation” and the creation story, and Noah and the Ark. Find the pro-animal stuff in the Bible and feed it to them. In fact, see Genesis, early verses: God made us vegetarians. Paradise was vegetarian. Is heaven supposed to be like Eden before the Fall? If so, we’ll be vegetarians in heaven.