Animal Rights Disability Rights – Provocative Book by Sunauru Taylor
Animal Rights Disability Rights
In her book “Beasts of Burden,” Sunaura Taylor discusses the intersectionality of disability and animality.
Animal Rights Disability Rights
In 2004, when she was twenty-three, Sunaura Taylor Googled “arthrogryposis,” the name of a condition she has had since birth. Its Greek roots mean “hooked joints”; the arms and legs of many people who have it are shorter than usual because their joints are permanently flexed. Taylor was curious about whether animals had it, too. In the journal of the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Centre, she found a report called “Congenital Limb Deformity in a Red Fox.” It described a young fox with arthrogryposis. He had “marked flexure of the carpal and tarsal joints of all four limbs”—that is, hooked legs. He walked on the backs of his paws, which were heavily callused. In a surprised tone, the report noted that he was muscular, even a little fat: his stomach contained “the remains of two rodents and bones from a larger mammal mixed with partially digested apple, suggesting that the limb deformity did not preclude successful hunting and foraging.” All this had been discovered after he had been shot by someone walking in the woods, who noticed that he “had an abnormal gait and appeared sick.”
Taylor was taken aback by this story. The fox, she thought, had been living a perfectly good life before someone had shot it. Perhaps that someone—the report named only “a resident of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia”—had been afraid of it; maybe he’d seen it as a weird, stumbling creature and imagined the shooting as an act of mercy. Taylor’s hands are small, and she has trouble lifting them; she uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. Once, her libertarian grandmother had told her that, were it not for the help of others, Taylor would “die in the woods.” When she read about the fox, she was coming into political consciousness as a disabled person. She had been learning about what disabilities scholars call the “better-off-dead narrative”—the idea, pervasive in movies and books, that life with a disability is inherently and irredeemably tragic. In the fox, she saw herself.
Since the age of thirteen, Taylor has been a painter. A painting from 2009, “Arthrogryposis Animals,” is a self-portrait in which she stands, nude, next to two pigs and a calf; all four have crooked limbs. In another, “Self-Portrait Marching with Chickens,” she is walking in a field; the chickens around her, weighed down by their disproportionately large upper bodies, are disabled, too. The paintings are unsettling, absurd, and provocative. Without explaining themselves, they lay claim to a territory that disabled people usually try to avoid: the space where disability and animality meet.
Earlier this year, Taylor, who is now thirty-five, published a book called “Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation.” It makes explicit the ideas in her art. When she was small, Taylor writes, other children told her that she walked like a monkey and ate like a dog; by this, they meant that her disability made her like an animal and, therefore, less than human. In “Beasts of Burden,” she argues that they had everything backward. Human beings are already animals; age, disease, and accident mean that all able-bodiedness is a temporary state. Even able-bodied people can “die in the woods” alone—they, too, are dependent upon society. Disabled people should be proud to associate themselves with animals, Taylor argues, because the same ideology, ableism, oppresses both groups. If you’re cognitively or physically disabled, it’s ableism that tells you that you’re worth less than a more capable person; similarly, if you’re an animal, it’s ableism that makes eating you permissible, since you can’t do what humans do.
Taylor has been a vegetarian and animal-rights advocate since the age of six; earlier this month, we met for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant near N.Y.U., where she is now a graduate student in American studies. She has short brown hair, a broad smile, and a strong chin, and wore vaguely hippie clothes: a plain T-shirt, patterned trousers, rubber boots. Taylor is adept at using her mouth for everyday tasks, such as retrieving items from her handbag. (She paints by holding the brush in her mouth.) “I feel animal in my embodiment,” she writes, “and this feeling is one of connection, not shame.” She continues, “When I rummage through my purse with my face, sometimes getting spit on my cell phone or accidentally ingesting something unpleasant . . . I think of animals—pigs who root with their noses, birds who build nests with their beaks.”
“As I’ve gotten older, my understanding of disability has become very politicized,” she said, over faux-chicken salad, “but when I was a little kid, I had a simpler origin story that made sense of being disabled.” She was born in 1982, in Tucson, Arizona. Her father was a Ph.D. student in pharmacology, and they lived in a low-income neighborhood near the airport. “I came out the way I am, and other kids in the neighborhood started coming out similarly,” she said. “In the end, we traced it back to Hughes Aircraft, which had been burying toxic waste—mostly really mundane stuff, like airplane degreasers—in unlined pits in the ground since the Korean War.” (The airport is now a Superfund site.) “In my kid brain, I thought, This is my story, I should do something with it.” The family moved to Athens, Georgia, where her mother, an artist, “unschooled” Sunaura and her siblings—essentially, the children directed themselves, creating their own puppet shows, story cycles, and research projects. (Taylor’s sister Astra is a filmmaker and activist; they have another sister, Tara, and a brother, Alexander.) “I guess ‘liberation’ was a theme from the beginning,” Taylor said.
When she was twelve, Taylor’s other grandmother—“the Buddhist, Canadian one, not the atheist libertarian one”—took her to visit a New Age healer. “We were at a kind of hippie festival, and there was this woman who said she could cure people,” Taylor recalled. “There were tons of people there, and she came up to me, and—all of a sudden—I got so angry.” Remembering the scene, Taylor’s eyes widened. Her initial origin story, she explained—“that my body was bad”—suddenly felt false.
A few years later, she went on her first disability-rights march: a two-week, two-hundred-and-fifty-person trek from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., organized by the organization adapt. The marchers, most of whom were disabled, brought along a generator to recharge their wheelchairs at night. At first, Taylor said, it was “horrifying” to be around so many other disabled people at once. Then, one night, she was struggling to eat—there wasn’t a table—when a woman came up and said, “You can ask for help here. This isn’t a place where we value independence.” Taylor now tells two stories about her life. In one, sociopolitical story, she is a victim. Her disability is the work of “networks of power”—polluting corporations, lax regulators—that must be protested. In another, more personal story, her life is hers to define. She identifies as “crip”—a term used to capture the liberatory, countercultural aspects of life with disability. (It’s parallel to the word “queer.”) “Crip culture has made me comfortable both with the creative potential of disability and with the fact that there’s pain, there’s suffering,” she said.
Growing up, in Georgia, Taylor would often see “chicken trucks” on the highway: large, flatbed vehicles stacked with live chickens in cages. When one of these trucks sidled up to the Taylor family on the road, Sunaura and her siblings would hold their breaths, appalled, until it passed. “I was always an annoying, righteous vegetarian,” she said, laughing. “Even on that adapt march, I remember thinking, Ugh—these people want disability rights, but they’re eating meat.” In 2006, she convinced a worker at a poultry plant to let her take a photograph of a chicken truck; she spent a year making an eight-by-ten-foot painting of the truck, containing portraits of a hundred individual chickens. (After completing it, she became vegan.) She painted a watercolor in the style of a Greek frieze, “Sunnys in Chicken Cages,” in which she appears with the chickens behind bars.
Taylor began to read about the connections between animal rights and disability. She discovered that many factory-farmed animals are disabled in one way or another. In some cases, they’ve been injured through confinement; in others, their unusually shaped bodies make their lives harder. (She wondered if, in some sense, their man-made disabilities made killing them and eating them feel easier.) It seemed to her that there was an analogy between those factory farms and the environments in which many disabled people live. In “Beasts of Burden,” she writes that both farms and cities are built environments designed “to reward certain embodiments over others.” In a city, human-designed structures—curbs, stairs, doorknobs—make some kinds of bodies more difficult to have. In a similar way, Taylor argues, we build systems—of breeding, farming, slaughter, and thought—that diminish animals, then imagine their diminishment to be natural and inevitable.
Reading “Beasts of Burden,” I wondered if the book might be a case of intersectionality run amok: Did animal rights and disability rights really need to be linked? In fact, Taylor’s book responds to how other thinkers have already linked them. Taylor points out that, in the past, colonial subjects were often described as both disabled and animal-like: they were seen as shambling, hunched, and bestial, and, therefore, as “lower” on the chain of being. This authorized their exploitation. The book is also an extended argument with the philosopher Peter Singer, who bases his case for animal rights in part on the fact that some animals are more cognitively capable than the intellectually disabled people to whom we already extend our empathy. If we value the lives of infants or the mentally deficient, Singer asks, shouldn’t we value the lives of animals, too? Taylor objects to the utilitarian essence of Singer’s argument. She thinks that it’s not up to us to decide how much to value any life. “Philosophers try to make systems of argumentation, where they say a life is valuable because of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C,’ ” she told me, while we gathered our things, “but we don’t have to worry about whether other organisms on this planet have dignity. I guess I’m saying life is sacred, but not in a way that has a religious implication.” Instead, she uses the academic, politicized language of intersectional critique: Judith Butler meets St. Francis of Assisi.
Outside, we made our way downtown to Taylor’s student apartment, a few blocks away from Washington Square Park. She lives there with David Wallace, her long-term partner, a video and installation artist who is about to begin his training in nursing, and their daughter, Leonora, whom they call Badger. At the door, I met Taylor’s service dog, Bailey. He’s a rescue, and Taylor’s best guess is that he’s part dachshund, part Lhasa Apso—in any case, he is small, black, and long, with lovely eyebrows. In “Beasts of Burden,” Taylor describes how, a few years ago, Bailey developed slipped-disk disease: wiener-shaped dogs, having been bred to have long backs, often develop spinal problems. For a while, she and David carried Bailey around in a sling. He’s recovered, but he’s still slower and more delicate than other dogs. At the end of her book, Taylor writes that there is “something appropriate—beautiful actually—about being a gimped-up, dependent, inefficient, incapable human supporting and being supported by my inefficient, dependent, and gimped-up dog.”
On this day, Bailey was lithe and frisky. The apartment was small, a jumble of books, art, and toys. Above the coat rack hung a portrait of Taylor, painted by Wallace: she looked contemplative, her gaze serious. Leonora was at the table, eating broccoli. She slid out of her high chair and sat down to play beneath a mobile, made by Wallace, of paper animals: a horse, an elephant, an alligator, a dolphin, a starfish—and a dancer, arms reaching out, mixed in with all the rest.
Joshua Rothman is The New Yorker’s archive editor. He joined the magazine in 2012, and is a frequent contributor to newyorker.com, where he writes about books and ideas.
Animal Rights Disability Rights