The Crazy Cat Lady Speaks

Since when are those who abhor torturing animals pathological? In a move that would have Charles Darwin rolling in his grave, the term “human” is itself a social construct devised to separate our subgroup of primates from the broad zoological spectrum. To call attention to the massive-scale, human-inflicted suffering of so-called nonhumans is all too often to elicit the derision even – or especially — of leftists dedicated to the elimination of exploitation and the promotion of social justice. It is not as though all leftists disdain animal activists, but it is surprising and disappointing how many do. Vegan advocates are mocked despite the immensity of evidence detailing the hellish lives of animals in captivity, the UN’s denunciation of animal agriculture as the single-most significant contributor to global warming, the FDA’s identification of a plant-based diet as key to preventing heart disease and cancer, and the direct causal relationship between meat consumption and world hunger; the U.S. alone could nourish eighty million people with the grains fed to farmed animals, while on a global scale, crops grown for humans rather than farmed animals could feed four billion.

In spite of these facts, many progressives accuse animal activists of being insensitive to the more pressing problems of racism, socio-economic exploitation and misogyny. To be sure, it is exceedingly problematic that many of the most visible proponents of veganism invoke slavery and Holocaust comparisons opportunistically, with the odious implication that racism is a problem that has already been resolved. But to dismiss animal liberation on the basis of PETA’s notoriously white, male privilege erases the fundamental intersectionality of forms of brutality. Without minimizing distinctions between racialization and animalization, the truth is that the two are complexly intertwined. Colonialism and slavery are sedimented in biological taxonomies, from Linnaeus’s mid-eighteenth-century hierarchy of flora and fauna to Madison Grant’s early twentieth-century theorization of Nordic supremacy, informed by zoological scholarship and pivotal for the architecture of biopower not only in the settler colonies of Brazil and the United States but also in Hitler’s Germany. The intersecting processes of speciation and racialization are provocatively probed in the testimonies of A. Breeze Harper’s Sistah Vegan (2010), on the “Vegans of Color” website and in theoretical interrogations including Neel Ahuja’s and Dinesh Wadiwel’s work on transspecies necropolitics in confined spaces ranging from veal crates to Guantanamo’s prison cells. Claire Jean Kim advocates a politics of mutual avowal, attending simultaneously to racism and speciesism in her examination of the Chintatown live market controversy, indigenous whaling in the Pacific northwest and Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring.

The field of inquiry known as Afropessimism delivers one of the most compelling analyses of the social construction of the “human” (white and male), an exclusionary category whose purpose is to situate others – first slaves, then indigenous peoples, prisoners, queers, Jews, so-called Muslim “terrorists,” “illegal aliens” and “lesser species” – as despicable objects to whom anything may be done, beginning with the cessation of their freedom of movement and culminating with their killability. Inspired by the work of Franz Fanon, Afropessimists argue that the foundation for what Aimé Césaire calls “thingification” is the Atlantic Crossing: the moment in the late Middle Ages when Africans were forcibly transported to the American colonies, entering the ships as Africans and descending as slaves, an ontological transformation that justified and ensured their confinement and subjection to violence without moral or legal reproof. It is this historical moment which inaugurates the world in which we now live, in which “nonhumans” are commodified, fungible things.

Lamentably, this doesn’t mean that the “animal turn” in academia — the abundance of journals, conferences, symposia and academic programs centered on the nonhuman — necessarily extends empathy to its objects of study. Far from subjects for moral consideration, nonhumans are often mere objects of figurative curiosity. Influential figures like Donna Haraway celebrate shared interspecies histories, the evolutionary intermingling of humans with animals, flattening the hierarchical, oppressive relations between them. This disavowal constitutes a sinister new form of thingification at the avant-garde of literary debate. It calls to mind the reactionary, aestheticizing perspective of Afro-Brazilian studies I examine in White Negritude (2008), crystallized by sociologist L.A. Costa Pinto’s response to the demand of black participants in the 1950 Primeiro Congresso do Negro Brasileiro (First Black Brazilian Congress) to be published in the Congress’s anthology: “I doubt that there is a biologist who, after studying, shall we say, a microbe, has seen that microbe come forth in public and write sottishly about the study in which he participated as laboratory material.” I can imagine the guffaws and disdainful snorts of Costa Pinto’s colleagues as they supported his condemnation of the bizarre proposal that black agency was anything but a misnomer; as matter, or microbe, black “objects of science” were not sociohistorical subjects whose lives mattered. Likewise, in discussions with colleagues in the contemporary arena of species and posthuman studies, I’ve articulated warnings about the imperative for praxis and witnessed the constrained looks and silences that followed.

As a scholar whose early work centered on justifications for massive-scale suffering in the context of colonialism and slavery, I long repressed what I knew about the oppression of other species. Conscientization about the exploitation of nonhumans constitutes an unveiling or “coming out,” for it is dissonant with the common sense disavowal of animal pain. Whereas concern for those barred from the privileged, historically contingent human domain elicits the equivocal association with white privilege, I began tentatively to articulate the origins of my advocacy. I had learned to care about other species from my Iranian mother, who at age fourteen swallowed her last bit of animal flesh after witnessing one too many acts of slaughter. The quotidian public butchering of lambs, goats and chickens hadn’t offered her the veil behind which the reality of slaughterhouses is hidden in the industrialized west. She had also learned a thing or two about intersecting forms of violence from her own mother, who wept to the cries of inmates being tortured in the Shah’s nearby prison cells and fed home-made yoghurt to the neighborhood stray cats and dogs to induce vomiting and, hence, eliminate the poison routinely administered by animal control. Without a doubt, my empathy has a much less predictable trajectory than fervent carnists wish to allow. Together with the disclosure of my individual animalist trajectory (from the Shah’s prisons to livestock butchering blocks), I came to understand not only the symbolic inversion constituted by ethical veganism’s association with white privilege but, moreover, white privilege’s reliance upon discourses of speciation.

Arguing for veganism and animal liberation remains a tricky proposition. When denunciations of “animal whites” fail to convince, ardent consumers of nonhuman flesh and reproductive products draw upon alternate justifications for their practices. There is only a finite amount of compassion to be extended, so it seems, and the oppression of “human” groups must be dealt with before we can attend to mere animals: first things first. Animal advocates are lampooned as overly idealistic, or fussy eaters with imaginary allergies and childish aversions, needlessly inconveniencing their hosts at social gatherings. Take the cliché of the “crazy cat lady,” whose care for abandoned animals is disparaged as a pathology rather than evidence of compassion and generosity. While some people do hoard animals – just as some treasure their fingernail clippings — this compulsion is uncommon. The derisive characterization of “animal people” as nut jobs is in bad faith. Is caring about nonhuman animal suffering a sign of poor mental health? Isn’t it true that the real pathology is enacted in experimentation laboratories, where toxic liquids are applied to cats’ pupils to test their reactions, holes drilled in their skulls to examine their neurological functioning? To dedicate oneself to alleviating animal suffering is an obsessive-compulsion, whereas the routine maiming and psychological and physical torture intrinsic to animal agriculture is purportedly a function of the natural cycle. I should add that the lives of “humanely slaughtered” animals on ostensive “happy farms” are no less wretched than in intensive confinement facilities; “Free range” chicken lots include a single small opening inaccessible to all but a very few, given how densely crammed the birds are against one another, unable to move about much less reach the opening at the end of the building; “Cage free” chickens can stretch their wings, but the doors are also very small and are not always kept open. The USDA relies exclusively upon producer testimonials to support their pretense that the animals enjoy freedom of movement.

Human guardianship of other species is mocked particularly in the case of women who care for animals, accused of failing to reproduce, transferring their maternal drive from its proper object – human children – to nonhumans in need. In mainstream circles, I too often hesitate to acknowledge the emotion evoked by the mixed-breed, medium-sized brown dog whom I rescued from a shelter twelve years ago. The truth is that my experience of the complex sociability, self-awareness and will to self-preservation of my rescued street dog, Akbar (and later, Aziz), was the catalyst for my turn to species inquiry. I had at first disavowed my relationship to my dog to evade the charge of sentimentality — a once-positive attribute that eventually came to connote lack of reason, excessive feeling and femininity, and was also deployed to undermine nineteenth-century anti-slavery campaigns — reporting that I’d become vegan on the basis of two particular scenes of underground footage in Shaun Monson’s documentary, Earthlings (2005). In the first, automobile safety crash testers strap a baboon to a platform and repeatedly propel her head-first at increasing velocity against a steel barrier until her brains are disembodied. In the second, a group of pigs huddle in a pen to evade a worker who clubs one after the other to death, muttering contemptuously as the others watch; the last, who won’t succumb to clubbing, finally receives a bullet to the head as the worker intones, “you fucker.”

Earthlings’ audio-visual evidence constituted the final push for boycotting this macabre reality, discarding the faulty justification offered by my mother, ultimately turned vegan at age seventy- eight, for our prior consumption of reproductive products (“animals aren’t killed to take their milk and eggs”). But the missing element was Akbar. Faced with the unavoidable fact that, by virtue of his species, this complex individual with whom I cohabit could be subjected to legally and ethically condoned torture and death, I could not remain complicit with the dangers to which his biotic, or zoological type, place him. Meeting Akbar’s gaze meant that I could no longer dissimulate what Jacques Derrida qualifies as the “artificial, infernal, virtually interminable survival” of the animalized: “As if, for example, instead of throwing a people into ovens and gas chambers (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organize the overproduction and exploitation of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being continually more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing ways for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic experimentation, or extermination by gas or fire.”

Derrida situates his cat’s gaze as the source of his animal turn, though his comparison of concentration camps with factory farms does not guide him to abandon his complicity with agribusiness. In furtively disclosed Facebook updates, a series of friends go a step farther, confessing that they became vegan in the instant that they clutched a companion animal and wept violently while watching underground footage of factory farming and laboratory experimentation; the audio component of the animals’ screams, some reported, was equally if not more chilling and heart-rending. Respect for sentient bios — across not only racial, ethnic, gender and class but also species lines — is only cautiously revealed in a world wherein humanity is the sole, ever-shifting gauge for protection against abjection. Clearly, acknowledging a dog as the catalyst for one’s political orientation continues to be far too risky an endeavor.

*An early version of this essay, “Akbar Stole My Heart: Coming Out As An Animalist,” appeared in E-Misférica, 10.1.

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her publications on Critical Animal Studies and the legacies of African enslavement include “Haunting Pigs, Swimming Jaguars: Mourning, Animals and Ayahuasca”(2019), “Akbar Stole My Heart: Coming Out as an Animalist” (2013), and White Negritude: Race, Writing and Brazilian Cultural Identity (2008). Her current book project, “Home Sick,” blends theory with creative nonfiction to meditate on grief, end of life, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.