Sunday, June 23, 2013

Anna L. Peterson's "Being Animal"

Anna L. Peterson teaches at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on environmental and social ethics and the relations between animal ethics and animal advocacy. Her books include Being Human: Ethics, Environment, and Our Place in the World and Everyday Ethics and Social Change: The Education of Desire.

Peterson applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Being Animal: Beasts and Boundaries in Nature Ethics, and reported the following:
Page 99 is in Chapter 5, on Domesticated Animals. I did not initially expect to spend a whole chapter on domestic animals. I first conceived of this as a book about the place of animals in environmental ethics, without thinking too much about different kinds of animals. However, I quickly realized that the dichotomy between wild and domesticated animals was crucial to environmental philosophers and, more surprisingly, to some animal ethicists as well.

The top of page 99 winds up a discussion of environmentalist exceptions to animal agriculture, especially in industrial forms, and then moves to the ecological impact of other domestic and feral animals, especially feral or free-roaming cats. Feral cats are a very hot topic in both wildlife ecology and animal welfare. Ecologists believe that the cats do enormous damage to native wildlife, especially songbirds and want lethal methods of control, while many animal welfare groups support “trap-neuter-return” (TNR) programs that attempt to reduce population growth while leaving the cats mostly alone. Here’s how I summed it up:
The debate about feral cats sheds light on larger conflicts between animal advocates and environmentalists, in part because it requires a hierarchy of value that determines whether cats or birds shall live. Perhaps even more revealing is the way in which TNR, in attempting ‘to define a place that is neither tame nor fully wild for cats in communities,’ muddies the all-important line between wildness and domesticity. It is hard to know how to value, let alone how to treat, animals that do not fit neatly into a single category.
The dilemma of feral cats crystallizes the poignant reality of domesticated animals:
The marginal status of domesticated nonhumans seems to ensure the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, domestic animals do not deserve protection as integral parts of native ecosystems because they are part of human society rather than wild nature. On the other hand, because they are not human, domestic animals are not protected within human society.
I followed with a quote from Holmes Rolston, a prominent environmental philosopher, who wrote that there is little “value destruction” when a sheep is killed because “they have been bred for this purpose.” Ouch. The “bred for this purpose” argument is almost painful to read, but many other environmental thinkers place domesticated animals in a completely different category than wild ones. What matters is not the creatures’ own capacities but their place in a larger natural or social whole.

Page 99 gets at what started me thinking about these issues: the environmentalist view of animals as parts of wholes and the way it contrasts with animal advocates’ understanding of animals as individuals. And the page also hints at some of the conclusions I eventually reached about how the “boundary” place of animals, especially domesticated ones, creates both tragedy and possibility.
Learn more about Being Animal at the Columbia University Press website.

Writers Read: Anna L. Peterson.

--Marshal Zeringue