What if animal rights theory went to the dogs?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2000:
Beyond Animal Rights:
A Feminist Caring Ethic for the
Treatment of Animals
Edited by Josephine Donovan
and Carol J. Adams
Continuum Publishing Co. (370 Lexington
Ave., New York, NY 10017), 1996.
26 pages, paperback. $18.95.
The World’s Toughest Adventure Race
by John Balzar
Henry Holt & Co.
(115 W. 18th St., New York, NY 10011),
1999. 304 pages, hardcover, $25.00.
Many of the authors included in Beyond Animal
Rights might doubt there is any resemblance between their outlook
toward animals and that of the participants in the Yukon
Quest, the annual 1,023-mile dog sled race between
Whitehorse and Fairbanks.
The Yukon Quest is held in colder weather, during a
darker month, intersecting less often with civilization, than the
better known 1,150-mile Iditarod. It may be less difficult to
win only because the prize money and media notice are less,
attracting fewer of the top professional teams.
The Beyond Animal Rights authors are mostly vegetarians,
academics, and often tediously intellectual. Some
seem to do little but quote others, with endless footnotes.
Philosophy professor and horse enthusiast Rita Manning
appears to be the only one to spend much time outdoors.
The Yukon Quest participants by contrast fish, hunt,
and many trap. Some may be barely literate. More than just a
few, including the women, are drawn by the macho image of
the Quest, which has never been won by a woman.
Some Yukon Quest fans, though not the mushers,
even sneer at the Iditarod as a “sissy race,” because from 1986
into the mid-1990s it was dominated by four-time winner Susan
Butcher, one-time winner Libby Riddle, and Dee Dee
Jonrowe, who had nine top-10 finishes in 15 tries.
The women Iditarod contenders helped to introduce a
new ethic of gentler dog care and greater accountability––
sometimes at their own expense. Butcher, a vet tech, lost her
chance at a record fifth victory when she waited out a storm
rather than put her dogs at risk. Streaking past to win was Rick
Swenson, who did not lose a dog until his 20th Iditarod, and
has not lost any dogs since.
Losses of 20 to 30 dogs per Iditarod were the norm in
the 1970s, when the race was young, the field was far smaller,
and even winning teams spent twice as long on the trail. These
days the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest each lose under 1% of
the 300-500 dogs who start each event.
Yet despite the dramatic drop in dog losses––which
result in part from increased speed, reducing exposure to the
elements––most and probably all of the Beyond Animal Rights
authors would agree with the prevailing animal rights view that
mushing is inherently exploitive, abusive, and unacceptable.
Yukon Alone author John Balzar, on the other hand,
is persuaded by experience that the Yukon Quest and the
Iditarod are not cruel. As a “fellow traveler,” in both animal
rights and mushing circles, Balzar discusses animal rights with
most of the central figures in his first-hand account of the 1998
Yukon Quest, and finds many of them are at least sympathetic
to the point of adopting quirky behavioral inconsistencies.
Yukon Quest cofounder Joe May, for example, was
a trapper who had misgivings about the cruelty of his trade.
He gave up trapping any species but marten, known for preying
upon other species caught in traps, whose pelts fetch a relatively
high price. “Then he was invited to a local sled dog race,
and his trapline dogs––surprise––won,” Balzar recounts. “May
thought, ‘I can make a living this way and don’t have to kill
Competitor Jimmy Hendrick outspokenly opposes
wolf-snaring. “I just don’t think one living being should do that
to another,” Hendrick says.
“So now the rednecks are after him,” recounts
Balzar. A neighbor is suspected of deliberately snaring the
Hendrick family pet.
Trapper Wayne Hall, contrary to local norms, brings
his dog indoors to sleep at his feet. Hall too compromises with
his conscience by trapping only marten.
“He will not trap foxes or wolves,” Balzar writes.
“He cannot bear the idea. He can barely stand trapping at all.
If he could gather and sell mushrooms from under the snowpack,
I believe he would gladly trade his traps for a shovel.”
Another trapper Balzar meets feeds and values ravens
as his only friends.
“Dog mushing may not be cruel,” Balzar offers, “but
how about trapping animals for fur? Answer: it’s cruel. But so
is industrial livestock production. I have drawn my own lines.
I eat meat, although less than I used to. I would never wear fur
for decoration. But I have a ruff of raccoon fur on my parka…I
wear a hat of beaver fur because it’s warm, and the woman
who sold it to me feeds her family off the trapline.
“My own moral position is entirely indefensible, of
course. Like millions of others, I hire my killers and don’t
watch. That puts me on a lower plane, I’m afraid,” than the
trappers he interviews. “And [puts Balzar] many rungs down
from my friends at the humane society, with their vegan diets
and canvas shoes. Odd, isn’t it: these two kinds of people
have more in common, and are less willing to recognize it,
than they do with the remainder of us in the squishy middle.
The trapper and the vegan both live in constant awareness of
animals and their suffering.”
What this has to do with AR
Like Balzar, I see no cruelty inherent in dog sledding
and sled racing. I have never done either, but I have run thousands
of miles cross-country in Quebec winters, challenging
blizzards in mountain footraces of up to 50 miles in length. I
have also run with a half-husky who never tired of running,
even under the worst conditions. Those who have never been
athletes may never understand what drives either human or
canine to charge against a 40-mile-an-hour headwind in a
whiteout in the middle of nowhere at 30 degrees below zero,
but those who have done it would not trade the experience.
Unlike Balzar, I am a lifelong vegetarian. From having
also found and removed countless illegal traplines on my
crosscountry training runs, 1977-1989, I have as much direct
experience of trapping as most trappers, and seriously doubt
from it that most trappers––who travel by car and snow
machine––give animal suffering any thought at all.
But dog sledders are different, because they have to
be. A team of 16 huskies is a formidable pack, easily capable
of eating a musher who fails to command their respect. As all
the dogs must be unhooked and fed every two to four hours
during a race in order to keep their strength up, they get plenty
of opportunity. Whether or not a musher is capable of
empathizing with any other being, he or she must understand
and bond with the team.
Beyond Animal Rights explores the inherent contradiction
between recognizing the rights of animals and making
impositions upon animals which may include sterilizing them
and keeping them confined, or asking them to push on past the
normal limits of athletic endurance.
The Beyond Animal Rights authors make no reference
to mushing. Instead, they discuss abstractly their belief that
“the discourse of rights and interests” led since the 1970s by
male philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan has failed to
appropriately address the practical issues involved in what In A
Different Voice author Carol Gilligan in 1982 called women’s
“conception of morality…concerned with the activity of care,
responsibility, and relationships.”
Beyond Animal Rights editor Josephine Donovan
finds especially off-the-point Regan’s several essays asserting
that the case for animal rights is a matter of application of reason
alone, exclusive of emotional considerations.
Concludes the Beyond Animal Rights i n t r o d u c t i o n ,
“In a recent article, legal scholar Robin West pointed out that
‘a community and judiciary that relies on nurturant, caring,
loving, empathic values rather than exclusively on the rule of
reason will not melt into a murky quagmire, or sharpen into the
dreaded specter of totalitarianism.”
That can be debated. Yet endless discussions of
whether to save a human or a dog (who is probably the best
swimmer in the scenario) if a boat sinks go nowhere, because
they depend upon extending logic to extreme situations, and
have little to do with daily life.
Declares Brian Luke, “Animal exploitation thrives
not because people fail to care [about animals] but because they
do care,” either deliberately deadening their response to animal
suffering so as to go on eating meat, hunting, trapping, or
whatever, or inappropriately responding through self-identification
with the animal: for instance, by allowing pets to go
unaltered and roam at large; or by abandoning an animal they
cannot keep to “give the animal a chance,” instead of delivering
the animal to a shelter and possible death.
“An ethic of care would be silent about the abstract
right to life, whether positive or negative, though it could shed
light on particular cases,” declares Rita Manning.
What Manning means is that euthanasia, for instance,
should be considered in terms of quality of life, not just the
right to life––and that is exactly how most people involved in
sheltering, on either the conventional or no-kill side of the
fence, have come to think about it. The no-kill movement took
off in the early 1990s not because of animal rights theorizing,
done mostly by men, but rather because women got tired of listening
to men talk and set out to encourage hands-on work that
would actually prevent here-and-now animal suffering.
For every male no-kill pioneer like Richard
Avanzino, who led San Francisco to no-kill, there were and
are five women like ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim
Bartlett, Alley Cat Allies founders Louise Holton and Becky
Robinson, Spay/USA founder Esther Mechler, and Doing
Things For Animals founder Lynda Foro; and behind them all
were the historical examples of North Shore Animal League
founder Elisabeth Lewyt, who borrowed her late husband’s
business acumen to introduce high-volume adoption, and their
late friend Alice Herrington, who as founder of Friends of
Animals made the first effort to popularize sterilization surgery.
“If the animal welfare movement was mine to lead,”
opines Balzar, placing similar emphasis on the here-and-now
over theory, “I would not turn my back on mushers––I’d enlist
them as allies. As a group, they live closer to dogs and depend
more profoundly on dogs than any pet owners I know. I would
continue to keep a wary eye on competitive mushing to prevent
any backsliding, and I’d denounce those who would train dogs
by fear, or those who would cull puppies looking for only the
strongest. And, again, I’d enlist mushers as allies.”
If mushers could be persuaded to carry the message
about pet overpopulation to Alaska, more dog-killing could be
prevented in a typical week than the sum of all the casualties in
all 43 runnings of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.
What if a humane organization sponsored a top musher
with a neutered team of ex-shelter dogs in the Iditarod or
Yukon Quest? Some former strays have already distinguished
themselves in both races; such a team could even become a
contender. Contending or not, however, it would spread the
word in the north farther and faster than anything else ever has.
When the opportunity exists to make allies, especially
among prominent role models within the hunting, fishing,
and trapping culture of the Far North, why allow abstractions
based on “rights” theory to interfere with what can be done to
benefit dogs by building on the commonality of caring?
In time, cultivating broader concern for dogs in the
Far North should lead to openings for advancing concern for
other species––just as occurred in the Lower 48 and elsewhere,
as the humane movement grew from the early focus on human
orphans, horses, and dogs to the present broad concern about
all cruelty. Here, meanwhile, is an opportunity to start; and if
we learn from past experience, expanding the cause in the Far
North should not take nearly so long.