Books Intersections

Book review of Beasts of Burden (Sunaura Taylor) – Animal Liberation Currents

Beasts of Burden, Animal and Disability Liberation, by Sunaura Taylor is a must read for anyone interested in the intersections between ableism and speciesism and disability studies and critical animal studies.

Book cover of Beasts of Burden, Sunaura Taylor [IG: Book with blue greenish cover with title and author on cover. Held up against background of purple flowers and green foliage. Top caption of book cover reads: “Sunaura Taylor will turn your world inside-out – Rebecca Solnit”. Bottom half of cover shows two silhouettes in white: on left a cow with hind legs supported by wheels, on right a person in wheelchair]

This review of Beasts of Burden was originally published on Animal Liberation Currents, a platform with news and analysis for the international animal liberation left.

Cripping Animal Ethics

Review of Sunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. New York and London: The New Press, 2017. (260 pages), by Chloë Taylor. May 12 2017. 
– Republished on Crip HumAnimal with permission –

Sunaura Taylor’s monograph, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation, is a powerful and original contribution to the philosophy of disability and animal ethics, and to social justice scholarship generally. Like Carol Adams’ Sexual Politics of Meat, Taylor’s book is a groundbreaking analysis of the interweavings of animal and human oppression. While Adams’ work, published in 1990, has frequently been criticized for inadequately attending to axes of oppression other than gender and species, no such critique can be made of Taylor’s book, which is exemplary in its intersectional scholarship. Recent works such as Sue Donaldson’s and Will Kymlicka’s Zoopolis have also put disability studies in conversation with animal ethics, demonstrating that such conversations (contra the example of Peter Singer) can be strikingly generative. Taylor’s book, however, is the first monograph entirely devoted to the interlocking of animal and disability oppression, and also indicates the shared path toward animal and disability liberation.

Taylor explains her title near the end of the book when she writes that “Disabled people… have been presented as beasts and as burdens” (208). Early chapters of the monograph thus discuss the bestialization of disabled people, and the shared logics of speciesism and ableism. Later chapters take up the issue of the purportedly burdensome nature of disability, discussing the ways that both disabled animals and disabled humans are denigrated as dependent on their communities or on humans—to be destroyed as useless in the case of disabled domesticated animals, and to be given condescending forms of care in the case of disabled humans. Against such views, Taylor insists on the creativity and value of disability—and not merely as a lesson in overcoming or inspiration—even while attending to the suffering that often attends disability, and the conditions of oppression from which it frequently arises.

Although it explores difficult topics, Beasts of Burden is a delight to read, with different chapters varying in length and genre, from brief philosophical musings and engaging stories from the author’s life, to longer arguments built on meticulous research. Whatever the genre, length or scholarly detail of the chapters, at all times this book remains grounded in the author’s lived experiences and encounters with other animals, including humans. It also always remains accessible to students and readers new to either critical disability studies or animal ethics, which makes it a very teachable work.

Taylor opens Beasts of Burden with a Prologue, titled “Chicken Truck,” in which she recalls seeing trucks crammed with chickens being driven to slaughter on the highways of Georgia as a child. From here, the Prologue moves to describe the year Taylor spent, as an MFA student in Berkeley, painting over a hundred portraits of factory-farmed chickens at a “processing plant.” As she recounts, it was while painting these portraits that Taylor first became aware of the ways that animal industries disable animals, and thus began to think about animal oppression through a disability lens. She concludes this short prologue with the provocative question: “If animal and disability oppression are entangled, might not that mean their paths of liberation are entangled as well?” (xv) The next eighteen chapters of Taylor’s book explore some of the manifold ways in which both animal and disability oppression, and animal and disability liberation, may and must be thought together.

“If animal and disability oppression are entangled, might not that mean their paths of liberation are entangled as well?”Sunaura Taylor

Chapter 1, “Strange But True,” is a short chapter in which Taylor recalls two childhood memories. The first memory is of the moment, at the age of five, when by repeatedly falling she realized what it meant to be disabled. The second memory is of the moment when, at the age of six, she realized that meat is animals. According to Taylor, the first experience was not particularly troubling, however the second experience was far more so, since it was then that she realized there was cruelty in the world. This chapter also describes Taylor’s original community of animal activists—her siblings and mother.

Chapter 2, “What is Disability?”, describes the much later period, when Taylor was twenty-one, when she actively sought out a crip community similar to her animal activist community. Chapter 2 also provides an overview of disability oppression and activism, and the ways that pathologization intersects with animalization. In concluding the chapter, Taylor argues for an intersectionalist approach to both critical disability studies and critical animal studies, one that simultaneously attends to other axes of oppression such as race, class, gender and sexuality.

Chapter 3, “Animal Crips,” is one of the most substantial chapters in the volume. It considers disabled nonhuman animals from a wide variety of angles, including: the ways that disabled pets—like disabled humans—are alternately seen as pitiable (“better off dead”), adorable, and inspirational (“super crips”); the ways that disabled animals in the wild are perceived by humans as non-viable (“survival of the fittest”) or a burden to their communities; how these assumptions about disability are troubled by the evidence that many disabled wild animals flourish and are valued by their communities; how nonhuman animals perceive disability; how animal agriculture disables animals—both purposefully (by breeding them to gain more weight or produce more milk than their bodies can bear) and through execrable living conditions that render them ill or lame; how the animal agriculture industry treats disabled and ill animals, including the spectacularly violent destruction of animals in cases of mad cow disease and avian flu; and the accommodation of disabled animals, for instance on farm sanctuaries. In this chapter, Taylor also considers what it looks like to consider animal crips through the social model of disability; is it the social constructs and social contexts of these animals’ lives (for instance, industrialized farms and the agricultural view of animals as units of production) that constitute these animals’ disabilities? Would they be disabled outside of these contexts? Finally, Taylor argues that from the perspective of the social model of disability, all nonhuman animals can be considered crips, since what it means to be “able” by human supremacist standards is to be an able-bodied human. Put otherwise, the abilities of nonhuman animals are continually judged according to species-typical human standards, and all nonhuman animals are thus oppressed by an ableism that is always already a humanism.

Chapter 4, “The Chimp Who Spoke,” considers human and nonhuman animals who communicate through sign language, with particular attention to a signing chimp named Booee. Booee’s brain was split in two for a medical experiment at the NIH when he was a baby, and he spent most of his life in scientific laboratories, where he was taught ASL by Roger Fouts. As Taylor notes, the ability to communicate through language, including the ability to hear, has been considered the primary mark of the human and intelligence since Aristotle. Consequently, not only nonhuman animals but deaf and “dumb” humans have been considered inferior due to their purported inability to speak. The ability of chimpanzees like Booee to learn signs and to communicate with humans through ASL—a language which linguists have recognized to be just as complex as spoken languages—has thus functioned to humanize them, sometimes leading to their rescue from laboratories, even while the plight of their fellow, non-signing chimps is ignored. At the same time, however, signing on the part of humans has been denigrated as “monkey-like” or “ape-like,” deaf students have been forbidden to sign, and some deaf people have felt that the ability of nonhuman primates to sign denigrates ASL. Taylor concludes the chapter by noting the contingency of our millenia-old privileging of spoken language, and the dire consequences this has had for those who communicate otherwise, human and nonhuman alike.

Chapter 5, “Ableism and Animals,” is another substantial chapter. Here, Taylor makes the compelling argument that speciesism entails ableism, and thus animal ethics must be cripped. As Taylor observes, humans have always defined themselves against the foil of other animals, as unique and superior because they alone are purportedly rational, use language, make tools, have complex emotions, make art, have culture, walk on two legs, are aware of death, laugh, cry, and so forth. While we can note that each of these claims is false—there are nonhuman animals who do or show evidence of each of these phenomena—and while we can also note that not all humans have the capacities in question, Taylor asks the more fundamental question: “isn’t it ableism to devalue animals because of what abilities they do or do not have?” (58) Likewise, Taylor argues that it is speciesism to devalue certain humans because they lack capacities that are deemed uniquely human, or because they perform certain activities in ways that are associated with other animals rather than in species-typical ways. Given the overlapping logics of speciesism and ableism, Taylor notes that the ableism that frequently characterizes animal activism is painful and ironic. Some examples of the ableism of mainstream animal activism and theory include urging people to become vegan because animal products will make them fat, sick or disabled; patronizing and false claims on the part of animal activists to be a “voice for the voiceless” (as if only those who speak human, natural languages can communicate); and, most notoriously, “marginal cases” arguments in animal ethics such as those of Peter Singer. As Taylor argues, instead of perpetuating ableism, animal ethics and activism should learn from disability activism and scholarship to value difference, even while seeing our commonalities (60).

Chapter 6, “What is an Animal?”, provides fragments of a genealogy of speciesism, examining some of the ways that science and philosophy have taxonomized animals—and understood the relationship between humans and other animals—from Aristotle to Darwin. Throughout the chapter, Taylor attends to the ways that animal taxonomies and the human-animal relationship have been informed by and reinforced speciesism, ableism, racism, and colonialism.

Chapter 7, “The Chimp Who Remembered,” returns to Booee, the signing chimp whose story Taylor began to tell in Chapter 4. Thirteen years later, Booee is still living alone in a cage in the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). At this point, Roger Fouts is reunited with the chimp, and is surprised that Booee not only remembers him, but also the nickname for Fouts that the scientist himself had forgotten. Booee also remembered that Fouts carries raisins in his pocket, signing, ME BOOEE, and GIVE ME FOOD ROGER. Thanks to a 20/20 episode on the signing chimps, Taylor recounts that Booee and eight other chimpanzees were finally rescued from the notorious LEMSIP laboratory and taken to a sanctuary.

In two short chapters, Chapter 8, “Walking Like a Monkey,” and Chapter 9, “Animal Insults,” Taylor describes the ways she was insulted as a child through comparisons to animals like Booee. Taylor was teased on the playground for walking like a monkey, and she recounts being told that she eats like a dog, has hands like a lobster, and resembles a chicken or penguin (103). Although, as a child who loved animals and especially monkeys, Taylor was confused by why it should be insulting to be compared to these animals, she knew that the comments were meant to be hurtful, and so they were. Taylor writes that her disabled friends and acquaintances can all tell similar stories of being compared to animals, and the history of freak shows is also full of “penguin girls,” “dog-faced boys,” “baboon women,” “ape women,” “bear women,” and “missing links.” The association of disability with animality has had abusive institutional effects, such as beliefs that disabled people can live in filthy, unheated spaces that are usually (and, of course, also problematically) reserved for nonhuman animals. For these reasons, it is not surprising that the typical response to animal insults is for disabled people (and other animalized groups of humans) to insist on their humanity. Although this may be an understandable and at times necessary tactic, it also reinforces a speciesist logic and does nothing to protest the oppression of animals. In contrast, Taylor acknowledges the truth of the comparisons between herself and nonhuman animals. Since she eats without utensils, for instance, she states that it is simply a fact that she eats like a dog, and yet, for Taylor, there is nothing degrading in this comparison. As she writes, her “claiming” of animality functions as “a way of challenging the violence of animalization and of speciesism—of recognizing that animal liberation is entangled with our own” (110).

In Chapter 10, “Claiming Animal,” Sunaura considers other examples of disabled humans who embraced their animality. These include disabled people who assigned themselves the names of “Monkey Girl,” “The Alligator-Skinned Man,” “Frog Man,” and “Seal Boy” in order to pursue careers and fame in freak shows. While it is undeniable that these careers relied on and perhaps reinforced both ableism and speciesism, Taylor argues that they are not simply cases of oppression and exploitation. Rather, these are situations in which disabled people expressed agency and embraced animalization in order to have economic independence within an ableist society, and used their animalized bodies not to demean themselves, but to provoke wonder and find community. Taylor situates herself within this history of disabled people claiming their animality as a means to feel connection and dignity. Rummaging through her purse with her face, for example, Taylor describes feeling connected to the other beautiful and dignified animals, such as dogs and pigs, who also root for what they want with their noses. Animality, Taylor insists, is not dehumanizing. On the contrary, humans are animals, and our animality should not be experienced as a source of shame, but as “integral to humanity” (115).

Chapter 11, “Freak of Nature,” is a brief musing in which Taylor uses the example of her own body to deconstruct the distinction between nature and culture. Taylor was born with arthrogryposis, a condition common in farm animals and also found in the wild. In fact, Taylor opens her “Animal Crips” chapter with the story of a fox with arthrogryposis who was shot by a human in an apparent “mercy killing,” although the contents of the fox’s stomach and his normal muscle mass indicate that he was thriving in the wild (23). While farm animals born with arthrogryposis are systematically killed, Taylor was given corrective surgeries that enable her to stand and take a few steps. Although in some ways she is glad that she had these operations, Taylor also describes her fascination with her “original” body. As she describes, she is curious about how she would have moved and experienced the world had she been left in her “natural” state. But was her original body natural? As Taylor goes on to note, her disability was caused by her mother drinking toxic waste from U.S. military pollution that contaminated the water in the town where Taylor was born. If we understand “nature” as that which has not been shaped by human intervention, then Taylor argues she has never had a “natural” body. Although this may seem particularly clear in cases such as her own, Taylor goes on to ponder whether it is true of all bodies today. Most obviously, humans have intervened in all animal life by changing the climate of the planet and the acidification of the oceans, such that even animals who live in the remotest arctic or on the sea floors are impacted by human activities. Beyond this, Taylor argues that we can never understand nature other than as humans construct this concept, and any understanding that we have of the “natural body” will thus be informed by social constructions of the natural.

In Chapter 12, “All Animals Are Equal (But Some Are More Equal Than Others),” Taylor recounts that, an animal liberationist from the age of six, she was an admirer of Peter Singer’s by the time she was ten. It came as a shock, therefore, to learned that he is reviled by the disability community. Indeed, as Taylor notes, it is in part because of Singer’s foundational position in the animal liberation movement, and his comments on disability, that most disability activists find it difficult to imagine disability and animal rights as anything other than antagonistic. This chapter introduces Singer’s writings on animal ethics, from his earlier works which emphasize sentience to his later writings in which he reintroduces a hierarchy of life based on cognitive ability as an indicator of “personhood,” as well as his problematic extension of this ethics to discuss cases of disability. Taylor offers a careful and nuanced engagement with Singer’s philosophy, and also recounts and reflects upon her own extended conversation with Singer. Finally, Taylor argues that we should turn to ecofeminism, or feminist animal ethics, as a body of writing that has already critiqued Singer’s views in ways that resonate with disability insights.

In Chapter 13, “Toward a New Table Fellowship,” Taylor describes participating in an evening of activities called The Feral Share, which involved an art fund-raising event, an organic meal, and a philosophical debate. Taylor was invited to debate the ethics of eating meat with Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer, cattle-rancher, and author of a book titled Righteous Porkchop. Taylor was excluded from the first part of the evening—the art fund-raising event—because it was located on an inaccessible floor of the building. She and her partner David thus spend the first forty minutes of the evening sitting alone downstairs, because the organizers had not opted for an accessible building, and architects had not had bodies like Taylor’s in mind when they designed the building. Although the event featured a debate on veganism, the dinner was not vegan, but rather entailed a choice of grass-fed beef or cheese ravioli. Taylor and her partner were prepared a separate meal of roasted vegetables—a meal that she realized was read as “isolating and different, as creating more work for the chefs, and as unfulfilling in comparison with the other dishes” (150). Taylor describes feeling “alone” not only because she was the only visibly disabled person in the room, but because she and her partner were the only people who did not have animal products on their plates. Taylor summarizes the evening by writing, “animal oppression and disability oppression are made invisible by being rendered as simply natural: steers are served for dinner and disabled people wait downstairs” (155). In a society that assumes normative bodies, minds, and eating practices, being either disabled or vegan means that one must constantly ask to be specially accommodated, which is interpreted as inconveniencing others. As an example of this view, Taylor cites Michael Pollan’s argument that we should eat meat in order to avoid requiring special accommodation from our hosts. Taylor suggests that disability theory can be useful for resisting carnism such as Pollan’s, because it is a body of work that has already demanded the right to accommodation as well as theorized how to exist as abnormal in a normalizing world.

Taylor’s critique of “humane meat” begins in Chapter 13, when she engages with Hahn Niman and Michael Polllan, and this topic is pursued in more detail in Chapter 14, “Romancing the Meat.” In this chapter, Taylor shows that the so-called humane meat movement relies on a problematic romanticization of “nature” that over-emphasizes consumption and violence over the many empathetic and symbiotic relationships that exist in the wild, while also romanticizing the old-fashioned farm and home-cooked meal. As Taylor argues, while factory farms are particularly heinous, pre-industrial farms were also cruel to animals and relied on numerous forms of intra-human power hierarchies and exploitation. The romanticization of the home-grown and home-cooked meal—and the related contempt for time-saving practices such as prepared meals and microwaves—in the writings of authors such as Pollan, is both sexist and ableist in so far as it entails a nostalgia for a time when women (or their servants and slaves) spent most of their lives in the kitchen, and assumes that all people are able to prepare their own meals. This chapter also provides a critique of another major figure in the rehabilitated image of carnism—one who is particularly problematic from the perspective of a cripped animal ethics: Temple Grandin. As Taylor discusses, Grandin has justified the slaughter of farm animals by arguing that they would never exist if humans had not bred and raised them. As Taylor demonstrates, however, it is highly problematic from a disability perspective to argue that dependency is a justification for abuse, and even slaughter, given the frequent equation of disability with dependency. Concluding her critique of the “humane meat” movement, Taylor insists that “There are better ways to be humane” (177).

Chapter 15, “Meat: A Natural Disaster,” begins with an impactful overview of the catastrophic impacts of animal agriculture on the environment, and then turns to the question of how this environmental devastation is a disability issue. As Taylor argues, the destruction of the planet and most life on earth in order to satiate our taste for flesh is a disability issue because of the ways that the toxicity of animal agriculture causes disabilities in both humans and agricultural animals, and because of the ways that environmental destruction disproportionately impacts the poor. The poor are likely to be poor because of disability (employment discrimination) or to acquire a disability because of poverty (lack of adequate health care; toxic dumping in poor countries and poor neighbourhoods). As Taylor observes, slaughterhouses and factory farms are also likely to be located in low-income communities, and hence the pollution of these industries has immediate and disabling impacts on the poor. Working in these industries (which only the poor are willing to do) is also likely to cause disabilities. Most of these work-related disabilities are repetitive strain injuries from bagging intestines, bleeding pigs, or dismembering cows, however accidents also occur regularly. For instance, slaughterhouse workers lose limbs in meat grinders and are crushed by falling carcasses (185-6). In this discussion of the interlocking of environmental, economic and disability injustices, or what could be called environmental ableism, Taylor thoughtfully navigates the difficult terrain of both embracing and desiring disability while acknowledging its harms and the ways it is frequently acquired through oppressive circumstances.

Chapter 16, “A Conflict of Needs,” begins by examining an issue on which disability activists and animal activists have often been at odds: medical experimentation on animals. Incurably Ill for Animal Research (IIFAR), for example, is a pro-animal research group of disabled people who argue that nonhuman animal lives should continue to be sacrificed to find cures for disabled and ill humans. Other disabled people, however, have taken an anti-animal research stance based on their own experiences of medical violence; having been subjects of medical experimentation themselves, some disabled humans feel empathy for nonhuman laboratory animals and wish to end their oppression. Taylor begins Chapter 16 by discussing Disabled and Incurably Ill for Alternatives to Animal Research (DIIAAR). DIIAAR was a group of disabled animal activists who urged that alternative forms of research be developed for the sake both of animals and disabled people. As DIIAAR founder Dona Spring tirelessly argued, humans as well as other animals are harmed by animal research, given the unreliable results of animal studies that do not “translate across species” (197). Although in cases such as this we may argue that nonhuman animals and disabled humans have shared interests, Taylor acknowledges that there are also situations of genuine conflict. For example, Spring developed a medical condition that prevented her body from accepting plant protein. In many other instances, Taylor notes that disabled people have a difficult enough time making sure that they are eating at all, without worrying that their food is ethically sourced (202). In still other instances, disabled people live in settings in which they cannot prepare their own meals, or require an assistant to prepare their meals for them, and may not be able to insist that these be vegan. For Taylor, cripping animal ethics means both recognizing the interconnections between animal and disability oppression, and thus that veganism is a disability rights praxis, and recognizing that not everyone can be vegan with respect to their diet—although these people may still challenge anthropocentrism in other ways (203).

Beasts of Burden is a book that deserves to be field changing for both disability studies and animal ethics, and will hopefully be the beginning of many further discussions and collaborations between these disciplines.

In Chapter 17, “Caring Across Species and Ability,” Taylor returns to her argument that to crip animal ethics we should turn to ecofeminist philosophies, which, like disability theory, have already been critical of the rationalist (and hence ableist, speciesist, and naturist) philosophy of Peter Singer. In this chapter, Taylor takes up a feminist ethics of care to further develop a cripped animal ethics. Taylor notes that while feminist philosophers have generally been enthusiastic about the notion of care, the view of care in disability studies has been considerably more critical. Within the disability studies literature, care is denounced as paternalistic and controlling. Care for the disabled has often taken place in institutions in which disabled people are forced to live, and “care-takers” have often been abusive. Taylor notes that the need for care on the part of disabled people has frequently led to their denigration in ways that resonate with the denigration of domesticated animals. Both disabled humans and domesticated animals have been viewed as “unnatural” because they could not survive on their own or in the wild (as if any of us could, able-bodied or not), and have been looked down upon as burdens to their communities or dependent on others for their wellbeing. For Temple Grandin the dependency of domesticated agricultural animals justifies their slaughter, whereas for some animal activists, the purported indignity of dependency has been used to advocate for the extinction of domesticated species. As a result of this denigrated understanding of dependency, disabled people have demanded rights rather than care—including the right to hire their own attendants (as opposed to “caretakers”), and to determine what kind of services (as opposed to “care”) they receive. Nonetheless, Taylor believes that all humans need care, and thus we should not reject care ethics altogether. Rather we need a cripped feminist animal ethics of care. Such an ethics would enable us to see that there is nothing undignified or unnatural about needing others, and thus we should seek to eradicate neither domesticated animals nor disability. On the contrary, for Taylor, the need for care, or interdependence, is the animal condition. The particular history of learned and created (inter)dependence of domesticated animals on humans does not give us a justification to kill or exploit them, for Taylor, but rather a responsibility to care for and about them in ways that are attentive to their desires.

The final chapter of Taylor’s book, Chapter 18, “The Service Dog,” tells a story of interspecies care between Taylor and her service dog Bailey—who, along with her partner David and daughter Leonora, is one of Taylor’s three “favorite animals” to whom she dedicates her book. Not long after Taylor adopted Bailey, he became disabled himself. Although, as she describes, he continues to be her service dog in many ways, Taylor and her partner have also become Bailey’s “service humans.” The relationship between Taylor and Bailey is a model for the cripped interspecies ethics that Taylor has described in her book, and she concludes this final chapter by writing that “there is a sense of 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. Two vulnerable, interdependent beings of different species learning to understand what the other needs. Awkwardly and imperfectly, we care for each other” (223).

Beasts of Burden is a book that deserves to be field changing for both disability studies and animal ethics, and will hopefully be the beginning of many further discussions and collaborations between these disciplines.

Review by Chloë Taylor. Originally published on Animal Liberation Currents.
– Republished on Crip HumAnimal with permission – 

Chloë Taylor is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Philosophy at the University of Alberta. She is the author of two books and the co-editor of two anthologies, as well as the author of numerous articles in the areas of feminist philosophy, philosophy of sexuality, food politics, and animal ethics.

2 comments on “Book review of Beasts of Burden (Sunaura Taylor) – Animal Liberation Currents

  1. Pauline Orr

    Thanks for reviewing this! This has been on my reading list for ages and this is all the more encouragement for me to finally pick it up.


  2. Pingback: Animal liberation and disability liberation | The Bruges Vegan

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