Animal Writes
From 7 December 2003 Issue

Drawing New Lines: Activism and Human-Animal Boundaries
By David Cantor - [email protected]

Editor of PSYETA News
Executive Director of Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc.

My late father, an attorney who occasionally did civil-liberties legal work on a volunteer basis, told how one of his Harvard law professors said, "Your rights end where my nose begins."

Precisely where one person's rights end and another's nose begins is the subject of millions of printed pages. So is the question of where humanity should understand its rights to end and other species' noses to begin.

Writer, lecturer, and therapist Anne Katherine's book Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (1991) is about boundaries among human beings. But to illustrate the basic principle, Katherine includes this at the beginning of her book:

"Each living organism is separated from every other organism by a physical barrier. Amoebae, orange trees, frogs, leopards, bacteria, tulips, turtles, salmon - all have physical limits that delineate them as unique from other organisms. If the breach is severe enough or if the invading organism is toxic or hostile, the host organism can die. An intact physical boundary preserves life.

Boundaries bring order to our lives. As we learn to strengthen our boundaries we gain a clearer sense of ourselves and our relationship to others. Boundaries empower us to determine how we'll be treated by others. With good boundaries, we can have the wonderful assurance that comes from knowing we can and will protect ourselves from the ignorance, meanness, or thoughtlessness of others."

Animal advocacy is essentially a call for our species to pull back from its violations of other species' boundaries, to give nonhuman animals that protection "from the ignorance, meanness, or thoughtlessness of others."

In peer relationships, humans exercise choice in the setting of boundaries - we say "yes" or "no" to a topic of conversation, a wrestling match, a financial transaction, a sexual encounter. Unequal human relationships can be detrimental to those with less power. The more powerful can set boundaries unilaterally as when a parent beats or ignores a child.

Our species - with its large recent increases in population, affluence, technological impact, and occupied or exploited land, water, and air - sets the boundaries in its relationships to other species. Though we do not exercise total control over the vast animal world, we determine whether, when, where, and how billions of domestic animals will reproduce, how and how long they will live, how they will die, and what forms of suffering they will endure. Our acts and omissions mean life or death for free-roaming animals and many experiences in between, often including their species' extinction.

Our violations of other animals' boundaries are coming back to bite us, just as if someone whose boundaries we violated were seeking revenge - often paradoxically as the exploitation paradigm maintains that our species benefits by violating animals' boundaries. Animal-product consumption brings "diseases of affluence" epidemics. Factory farming leads to reductions in the quality of life due to stenches and water contamination. As toxic chemical use promotes large monoculture crops to feed to factory-farmed animals, water and soil quality are degraded.

Suburban sprawl that drives out many free-roaming animals by fragmenting forest and enlarging human habitat increases edge lands with their abundant deer-food supplies, driving complaints about "too many deer" and slaughters that often follow. Too much fuel use, including the automobile dependency sprawl entails, brings the melting of icecaps, which causes polar bears to go hungry when their weight is no longer supported beside the holes where they seize prey; this will wreak havoc on many human lives as well.

Perhaps our species will learn to respect the natural boundaries between us and nonhuman animals for the animals' sake. If animal suffering, needless animal deaths, and species extinctions are insufficient reason to give the animals a break, perhaps the species that so adores itself while dismissing the rest will consider animals' boundaries in order to save itself.

From PSYETA News, the newsletter of Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Fall 2003 (Volume 23)

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