On Making Farmed Animal Sanctuaries the Most Liberatory Spaces Possible

Hey, ya’ll. A conversation I recently had with a fellow radical anti-speciesist whom I deeply trust and respect got me thinking about the farmed animal sanctuary model in the context of humanitarian efforts.

Let me be very clear about what I do and do not seek to do in this post. First, I seek to demonstrate how we might think about farmed animal sanctuaries as establishing a similar structure to that of humanitarian refugee camps. With this argument, I in no way intend to conflate the very unique sufferings experienced respectively by human refugees and sanctuary residents, nor do I intend to suggest that sanctuaries represent the equivalent of humanitarian camps for other species.  I also do not wish to attack farmed animal sanctuaries or assert definitively that any sanctuary currently engages in the exploitative rhetoric and practices that I expand upon below.

My goal with this argument is to point to the oppressive logic manifest in humanitarian efforts – which must be challenged in and of itself – and to question how anti-speciesists might work to ensure that farmed animal sanctuaries do not similarly operate in ways that further exploit the individuals they aim to assist.

That said, I am not aware of every single oppressive assumption I hold thanks to my lifelong socialization in a culture of white supremacist heteropatriarchy, and very much welcome your thoughts on my presentation of this potentially divisive topic. 

In the sense that farmed animal sanctuaries endeavor to satisfy the basic needs of and provide a satisfactory home for their residents, I think that we may be able to interpret these spaces as functioning with a similar structural goal as humanitarian camps do for displaced peoples. Following this interpretation, I would also contend that sanctuaries fall under threat of perpetuating rhetoric and practices that further oppress their residents, as humanitarian camps have been proven to do.

For example, the now-profitable logic of humanitarianism — said to operate in organized efforts to alleviate suffering under an ethics of universal kindness and sympathy — depends upon the continued production of refugees in order to ensure its own functioning. Consider the vast network of organizations, professional personnel, research programs, and beyond that receive generous amounts of funding and notoriety for their supposed benevolence. How, if their economic wellbeing necessitates the existence of displaced peoples, can such entities purport to support the eradication of the underlying systems that cause forced displacement in the first place? As Weizman notes, humanitarians often become “media celebrities” (42) who use emotional refugee testimonies to “compete for money in the charitable market” (45). In this formation, the suffering of displaced peoples becomes necessary in bolstering the economic health of humanitarianism.

As I alluded to above, humanitarianism’s dependency upon the production of refugees means that the root problems — namely, war and imperialism — causing displacement go far unchecked, and that refugees lose autonomy as humanitarians speak for them and manage their lives in camps.

Farmed animal sanctuaries — namely, large-scale, nationally recognized ones with substantial donor bases — too have become potential spaces for profitable endeavors, and thus risk sacrificing the autonomy and ultimate liberation of their residents and all other farmed animals in the name of the sanctuary’s own continued functioning. As my good friend Rocky Schwartz noted in her presentation at the 2014 Students for Critical Animal Studies Conference, even though “farmed animal sanctuaries attempt to rectify [farmed animals’ loss of bodily autonomy in animal agriculture], empowering the individuals rescued by allowing them to assert control over their own bodies in a non-commodifying context,” there are:

“…some inherent limitations to the restoration of bodily autonomy within a farmed animal sanctuary framework that are not as apparent in sanctuaries of undomesticated species. Clearly, there will be instances in which an individual’s body is interacted with in a manner they are uncomfortable with, such as when the administration of medicine is necessary. Likewise, focusing specifically on the female-bodied and the unique disempowerment these individuals face: poultry cannot be spayed or neutered, so fertilized eggs with the potential to hatch are taken away from hens who wish to protect them; mammals are routinely spayed and neutered, highly invasive procedures; individuals of all farmed species continue to experience health issues due to their selective breeding that essentially render them prisoners in their own bodies.”

I’m fairly confident in my trust of sanctuary staff in their determinations of the necessity of certain medical practices or behavioral interventions (though I can’t speak from the experience of working at a sanctuary, as Rocky can). However, I do still feel it important to reckon with the fact that, in this sense, sanctuaries cannot provide their residents with full autonomy or liberation. Specifically, I wonder how much of this inability stems from individual residents’ histories of systematic exploitation, and how much stems from the sanctuary’s own striving to secure funds. Additionally, I wonder how much sanctuaries are doing — or, really, how much they can do — to address the root causes of their residents’ losses of bodily autonomy (i.e., domestication and selective breeding).

What would offering fuller autonomy to sanctuary residents look like? In contemplating this question, I’m drawn to the notion of voice. As Agier points out, “[i]n the spaces of the humanitarian apparatus, to be heard, injustice must be spoken in the language of the humanitarian vulgate, which is the only convention of speech locally audible” (2010, 42). That is, those managing the camps must relay the experiences of refugees in a manner that will elicit the greatest emotional response from potential funders, thereby positioning refugees as politically irrelevant victims rather than political agents. In response, Weizman suggests that humanitarian spaces must “be conceived in a way that supports the politics of the displaced themselves” (61).

To me, supporting the politics of sanctuary residents would mean repositioning ourselves not as the voices of other animals – those who speak for sanctuary residents — but as the amplifiers of the voices that sanctuary residents have themselves. It would mean engaging in the intensely difficult work of learning the language of sanctuary residents — and all other animals — rather than assuming that we always know what is best for them. And even that is a hugely abstract act — one which necessitates our challenging of the very heart of our internalized speciesism.

For now, I look to the leaders of the microsanctuary movement, who are challenging the notion that providing sanctuary for other animals requires hundreds of acres and thousands of dollars, and instead depends upon an attitude of respect and non-exploitation. Founded by Justin and Rosemary Van Kleeck with Triangle Chance for All, the microsanctuary movement seems to me like a prime place to look for ways to prevent farmed animal sanctuaries from becoming spaces that further the exploitation of other animals. (Check out my interview with Justin for more information on the philosophy behind microsanctuaries.)

What do ya’ll think? Am I totally off-point? I would love to get some dialogue going here because this is a topic with which I’m certainly having trouble grappling.

In solidarity, Ali.


Agier, Michel. “Between War and City: Towards an Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps.” Ethnography 3.3 (2002): 317-341. Print.

—. “Humanity as an Identity and Its Political Effects (A Note on Camps and Humanitarian Government.” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 1.1 (Fall 2010): 29-45. Print.

Catlaw, Thomas J. and Thomas M. Holland. “Regarding the Animal: On Biopolitics and the Limits of Humanism in Public Administration.” Administrative Theory & Praxis 34.1 (March 2012): 85-112. Web. ProQuest. 6 March 2015.

Schwartz, Rocky. “Restoration of Bodily Autonomy for the Female-Bodied of Domesticated Species within a Sanctuary Framework.” Vassar College. Leacock Building, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 30 March 2014. Conference Presentation.

Weizman, Eyal. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. London: Verso, 2011. Print.

York, Richard. “Book Review: Nicole Shukin Animal Capital: Rnedering Life in Biopolitical Times Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.” Organization & Environment 24.1 (March 2011): 99-101. Web. Sage Journals. 6 March 2015.


5 thoughts on “On Making Farmed Animal Sanctuaries the Most Liberatory Spaces Possible

  1. Justin Van Kleeck says:

    Wow, Alessandra, this is such an important post! Your comparison of humanitarian camps and sanctuaries is extremely helpful for framing this discussion. I wanted to add a few points:

    We have to recognize that the farmed animals are displaced from the autonomy of living free in the wild. Their wild ancestors lived in a completely different space and state-of-being; domestication has displaced farmed (and other) animals from that.

    As such, it is crucial for us to see that ending domestication (by stopping the perpetuation of domesticated species) is in itself at the heart of non-human liberation. The points you and Rocky bring up about our authoritative impacts on the sanctuary residents are very true. However, at a more fundamental level, domesticated farmed animals are trapped in their own bodies–the bodies created by selective breeding and human selfishness to the direct detriment of those so embodied. Even if we put everyone out into a forest and never interacted with them again, they would all still be bearing the burden of domestication in their flesh. Also, too, because we have bred them to rely (to some degree) on human “management,” it could be a death sentence to just let them “run free.”

    I feel confident that we can both celebrate (and more fully support!) the work being done by sanctuaries to provide high levels of care for rescued farmed animals, while also acknowledging that sanctuaries are not the ANSWER to the problem of non-human oppression. They never can or should expect to be. Instead, they can ground the argument for true and total liberation (from exploitative embodiment) in the lived experiences and individual stories of their residents.

    And there is no more powerful spur to activism, I believe, than when your action is on behalf of a friend or family member. If we are to take seriously the imperatives of ethical veganism and liberationism, we owe the farmed animals that much.

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Yes, such important points, Justin!!! Thank you so much for weighing in. It’s super necessary to emphasize the root problem of domestication, which you do a much better job of here than in my original post. 🙂

  2. Richard Hoyle says:

    The Pig Preserve, now in its 9th year of operation, is an attempt to take rescued pigs of all breeds and allow them free access to 100-acres of pristine woods, pastures and ponds located in the remote Cumberland Mountains of TN. The pigs at The Pig Preserve are encouraged to form their own social groups and living shelters are provided for each individual social group in the area they have chosen to live. Contact with humans is limited to their immediate caretakers and the occasional visitor. The pigs are fed once daily (in the evening) and are encouraged to root, graze and forage for a large part of their daily diet. The feed provided is a specially milled mixture of cracked and whole grains mixed with molasses…no chemicals or additives. The pig’s ecosystem is protected by the constant planting of new trees, including fruit and nut trees, as well as by the annual replanting of pastures that have been uprooted during the winter months. The pigs at the sanctuary range from piglets to large farm pigs weighing over 1200 pounds….and in age from a few months to over 21 years of age. We are beginning to see a substantial increase in the longevity of the farm pigs as a result of the lifestyle provided for them. The sanctuary is, of course, vegan and advocates a vegan lifestyle in everything that we do.

    We are a small operation with minimal funding. Thus we are not fancy…nor do we cater to visitors. The safety, health and privacy of the pigs to live their own lives is paramount to the sanctuary staff. Prior to creating The Pig Preserve, we ran a more traditional 17-acre pig sanctuary in Northern VA for many years. But as we came to know and understand the true nomadic nature of the pigs, we felt we could safely house pigs of all breeds in an environment that was similar to that provided by a number of the wild animal sanctuaries. So far we have been successful…although very few people know about our sanctuary or our efforts as we operate on a very frugal budget.

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