Meet Sir Chester McFlops-a-Lot III

On Thursday, April 16, someone came into my life who unexpectedly shifted the way I move through my daily life. I thought I was just adopting a rabbit, providing a home for an abandoned bun. (I’m refraining from using the term “rescue” here, as I think it can contribute to the development of a human savior complex toward non-human animals that paints them as victims rather than agents. More in a future blog post.) But after about two weeks of living with him, I’ve come to realize that I’ve gained a teacher, a playmate, a trickster, and a companion. Obviously, this bun’s existence is valuable in and of itself, regardless of what he contributes to my life, but I think it’s important to recognize the impact that non-human animals — whom we much more often than not regard as inferior beings — can have on human lives.

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I call him Sir Chester McFlops-a-Lot III (Chester, for short), and I adopted him from a woman who had been fostering him for about a week after finding him cooped up in a small cage in a dark basement, with minimal food an water. Apparently, the owner of said basement (or, more accurately, the house attached to it…) had bought a newborn Chester from a breeder as an Easter gift for her daughter, who “got tired” of Chester after just over two years of living with him. Chester now lives in my very spacious room and loves hopping around, hiding under my bed, munching on hay and lettuce, and getting petted. He’s a super sociable bun with tons of energy, and I’m so happy that he doesn’t have to live in a basement anymore. Moral of the story: please don’t buy bunnies (or any non-human animals, for that matter) as holiday gifts. They are complex beings with their own unique life-worlds who must be regarded as infinitely more than inanimate objects on par with socks and candy, and treated as such.

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From sharing my room with Chester, I’ve been able to get out of my own head, to interrupt the obsessive thoughts that can often spiral into destructive tendencies. In providing care for another, I’ve necessarily had to think beyond myself, to disrupt the individualistic habits I’ve long cultivated of work-work-working on an uninterrupted schedule, in the presence of only me, myself, and I. I pause. I pause to sit on the ground with Chester, to clean his cage, to fill his carrot-shaped food bowl with lettuce, to pet his smooth-soft fur from head to tail as he gently grinds his teeth in silent contentedness. After a whirlwind of a day, I’m calmed immediately as I enter my room, greeted by an excited bun, eagerly nudging my heels to request pets and snuggles.

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Not only has Chester taught me how to more easily occupy a space outside of myself, he has also shown me how to communicate with him, serving as a language professor of sorts. Nipping at my heels means he wants attention; hopping in and out of his cage (which remains open all the time so that Chester can explore my room as he pleases) means he wants more food; sitting with his legs tucked underneath him means that he’s calm and content; flopping onto his back means he’s incredibly happy, and usually happens after I’ve given him pets or he’s had fun ripping up a piece of newspaper; running across my room and leaping into the air means it’s playtime; and so on.

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In a recent post, I reflected upon how animal justice activists might support the agency of the non-human beings with whom we seek to act in solidarity by truly listening to them, by learning their language. I think that living with Chester has given me good practice in this area — practice that is forever ongoing and will never be complete, simply by virtue of the fact that I’ve been socialized as a human since childhood — and trust that my internship at Madison’s own Heartland Farm Animal Sanctuary this summer will allow me to continue and expand upon this practice.

Have ya’ll developed a mode of human-animal communication between you and your companion animals? If so, how — if at all– do you think it has improved your ability to act in solidarity with non-human beings? I’d love to hear your stories, perhaps even in a future blog post here at C&C! You can submit your pieces to chickpeasandchange [at] gmail [dot] com, and check out this page for submission guidelines.

Looking for resources on how to be a great bunny companion? Visit the House Rabbit Society’s website.

In solidarity, Ali.

Recap of the 14th Annual Institute for Critical Animal Studies Conference

Hello, all! As I mentioned last Monday, I had the pleasure of spending last weekend at Binghamton University for the 14th Annual Institute for Critical Animal Studies North America Conference, along with seven of my fellow members of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) and one VARC alum. Today, I’d like to share with ya’ll some of what I found as the most compelling insights from the conference, and well as what I think needs improvement.

First, a bit of background on the awesome organization known as the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS): co-founded in 2001 and still currently headed by powerhouse intersectional activist Anthony J. Nocella II, ICAS began with the intent of defending the radical politics and activism of the Animal Liberation Front. Today, ICAS — grounded in animal liberation — promotes solidarity with all oppressed groups with an aim towards collective liberation for all beings, functioning as an academic-activist research center that seeks to foster holistic, intersectional social justice spaces, networks, scholarship, research, and education. ICAS now has chapters/offices on each continent, and has hosted conferences like the one I attended last weekend since its inception.

Completely on our college’s dime, I any my fellow VARC-ers drove a big ol’ 12-seater van three hours north, arriving on the Binghamton campus just in time for the last panel of the conference’s first day. Though I was disappointed to have missed presentations on interspecies intelligence, human exceptionalism, and the idea of parasites as companion species from earlier in the day, I excitedly attended a panel that included presentations on neoliberal green capitalism and critical perspectives on the current state of animal advocacy.

The first presentation — given by Livia Boscardin, a doctoral student in Sociology at University of Basel, Switzerland and entitled “Green Growth, Happy meat, and Resource Species: Animal Exploitation in Neoliberal Green Capitalism” — focused on the link between ethical consumption practices (“green” products, “happy” meat, and vegan consumerism, in particular) and capitalism (check out my post on Veganism & Consumerism for more details). I appreciated Livia’s framing of vegan consumerism as a co-optation and de-politicization of the radical idea of animal liberation, as well as a way to isolate the animal justice movement (more on this term later!) from understanding  the interconnectedness between all struggles for liberation, such that we continue to perpetuate violent ideologies like racism, sexism, transphobia, and ableism.

Livia Boscardin presenting (photo: Anthony Nocella).

Livia Boscardin presenting (photo: Anthony Nocella).

Also during that first panel, the aforementioned Anthony Nocella gave a presentation called “Challenging Racism & Ableism within Animal Advocacy,” in which he laid out an “eco-ability” framework that understands how ecological destruction intersects with human identity, and how discrimination against the disabled body is intimately linked with discrimination against non-human animals. As examples of ableism within animal advocacy, Anthony pointed to the “sexy vegan” image that privileges thin, able bodies, as well as oft-cited philosopher and Animal Liberation author Peter Singer’s eugenicist view that humans should be able to kill babies born with developmental disabilities because they ultimately won’t be “useful” to society. As for examples of racism within the movement, Anthony identified the prevalence of vegan Thanksgiving events that encourage folks to celebrate a “compassionate” holiday, while failing to acknowledge the day’s origins in the Native American genocide (and thus that the holiday can never be “compassionate,” even if animals are left off of the table).

After a restful evening in a nearby hotel where most of the conference attendees were staying for the weekend, our VARC cohort returned to the Binghamton Campus for our first full day of panels. I started off the morning at a panel on anti-speciesist pedagogy, which featured a presentation by Binghamton senior Trevor Reddick entitled “An Argument for Native Studies: Toward a Critical Animal and Anti-Colonial Pedagogy.” Paralleling much of the postcolonial theory in which I’ve been interested for a couple of semesters now, Trevor pointed out how colonialism — not a phenomenon of the past or of elsewhere in the world — continues to shape the way we move about and interpret the world, such that we understand ourselves, our modes of being, and our theories and inherently superior to all other peoples (including non-human animals) with whom we share the world. Trevor proposed the integration of Native Studies into educational institutions as a manner of challenging this framework under which we operate, suggesting that by familiarizing ourselves with indigenous worldviews we can begin to interact with the world in less violent ways. While I quite enjoyed Trevor’s presentation, I do wish that he had mentioned that, for this type of work to truly challenge the hierarchies of domination that exist between industrialized and indigenous cultures, those of us embedded in the former must step down from the podium and make space for those of the latter to guide human modes of being in the world, rather than voyeuristically looking at other cultures for our own benefit.

Pedagogy panel (photo: Anthony Nocella).

Pedagogy panel (photo: Anthony Nocella).

Additionally in this pedagogy panel, Binghamton Lecturer of English JL Schatz gave a talk called “Teaching Critical Animal Studies: Beyond Gradeability,” in which he introduced an interesting idea that he had just begun to practice of allocating ten percent of his students’ grades to their “internalization of course material.” At the end of the semester, JL explained that each of his students must reflect upon how well they integrated course material into their daily life, and provide a brief essay on how they rigorously engaged with the course texts so as to move beyond mere consumption of information. As examples, JL suggested that students who adopted (temporarily or permanently) vegan diets in light of their readings on speciesism, or those who called their friends out for making misogynistic jokes thanks to their texts on feminism, would receive exemplary grades in this internalization aspect of the course. I would love to hear the thoughts of any educators out there on this practice!

Later that day, after a delicious lunch generously provided by conference organizers, I checked out the “Theorizing the Biopolitics of Animal Life” panel, featuring a presentation by VARC alum and all-around awesome person Lauren O’Laughlin, who is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Lauren’s fascinating presentation — entitled “(Un)Sexing the Animal: Thinking Critically About Intersex Fish Panics” — examined how scientific discourse surrounding environmental chemicals known as endocrine disruptors (EDCs) reflect the pervasive belief that intersex bodies are unhealthy, inferior, and undesirable. Pointing to scientists who frame as an ecological catastrophe frogs who have both testes and ovaries, Lauren urged us to “articulate environmental concern in ways that do not erase queer pasts and presents.” Omg, VARC alums are the best.

Lauren and I voicing our dissent of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) (photo: Anthony Nocella).

Lauren and I voicing our dissent of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) (photo: Anthony Nocella).

We current VARC members had the immense pleasure of hanging out with Lauren all weekend (they shared a hotel room with us and rode in our van with us), and were able to gain much insight from chatting with them. One thing that really stuck with me from speaking with Lauren was their use of the term “animal justice,” as opposed to “animal rights” or “animal liberation.” Lauren, like me and many others, finds problems in a rights-based framework, and finds the animal liberation ideology to be overwhelmingly masculinist, so feels that “animal justice” most adequately reflects their work as of right now. The term jived with me, so I’ve begun to use it as well.

I took a break from the final panel and ended up having a fantastically productive, imaginative, and inspiring discussion with Anthony and Lauren about the future of VARC and radical animal work in general, before heading back to the hotel for a rousing few rounds of Hearts (my card game of choice).

On Sunday — the last day of the conference — my good friend and fellow VARC co-leader Rocky gave an impressive presetation on the masculinist rhetoric of scientific objectivity integral to discussions surrounding the deer cull  that takes place on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP) every two years (for more info check out the Poughkeepsie community-run SaveOurDeer.Webs.com), which provided a perfect conclusion to our conference adventure.

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While above I’ve reflected upon some of my highlights of the conference, the weekend did disappoint my fellow VARC members and me in a number of ways. For one thing, a number of presenters espoused implicitly racist and colonial ideologies in their presentations, such as the activist who insisted that we “educate” soup kitchen organizers to only serve vegan food to a population whose agency and bodily autonomy are already constantly infringed upon, or the white scholar who railed upon the Native activism organization Idle No More for their “speciesist” traditional practices. Additionally, many (if not most) presenters employed ableist language in their presentations, even after Anthony explicitly listed examples of such language in his presentation on the first day of the conference. Finally, even speciesist ideology made an appearance at the conference — further proving that veganism alone is not enough to challenge internalized speciesism — such as in the research that a Master’s student was about to undertake, which relied upon the assumption that one cannot engage in farming practices without viewing non-human animals as tools for human use. Despite these disappointing aspects of the conference, I’m hopeful for the future of animal justice work and critical animal studies, for most of the younger activists with whom I spoke took radically progressive, intersectional positions in their activism.

All in all, I’m very happy that I got the chance to attend the conference, and look forward to staying up-to-date on the groundbreaking work constantly happening in the realm of critical animal studies. Perhaps I’ll see some of ya’ll at next year’s conference!

In solidarity, Ali.

To Be Continued…

Hi, all! This weekend I had the immense pleasure of attending the 14th Annual Institute for Critical Animal Studies Conference at Binghamton University, along with eight fellow members of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) (including an alum!). The weekend was jam-packed, leaving me little time to even turn on my computer, much less type up a blog post on it. Rest assured, however, that next Monday I’ll provide you with a recap of the thought-provoking, challenging conference. Until then, stick around for Thursday’s regular # NewsandChews post. Have a great week!

Photo via ICAS.

Photo via ICAS.

In solidarity, Ali.

Back on Friday!

Photo via Imgarcade.

Photo via Imgarcade.

Hi, all! Since I’m currently on break from school and visiting a dear friend in Brooklyn, I’m taking a mini-hiatus from the blogosphere and will return on Friday for Vegan Chews & Progressive News (# NewsandChews).

To tide you over, though, why not check out a recent article I wrote for the Our Hen House online magazine, entitled “Celebrating the Rich Histories of Largely Vegan Cultures“?

See you later this week!

In solidarity, Ali.