Words and illustration by Vita Sleigh
Understanding other animals as individuals includes respecting their bodily autonomy and rights. Recently, to better understand the experience of the animals I interact with, I have been trying to imagine what it’s like to do what they do, and how they experience it. For example, I watched dogs in a busy street being stroked by passers by – what are they experiencing? Pleasure? Shock and surprise? Irritation? Violation, even? Certainly, this will be different for each individual and probably at different times, too.
It can be useful to frame their rights to what happens to animals’ bodies in terms of (human) consent. This is most often talked about in terms of asking for consent before a sexual act, but it can also be prudent to ask before any physical interaction like hugging, touching the face, or otherwise entering someone else’s personal space. This grants them ultimate control over what happens to them and their body, which not only shows basic respect but is also critically important when taking into account peoples’ histories and the possibility that they have experienced trauma which might make physical contact troubling or difficult.
Although it may not be possible to verbally ask for consent before touching other animals, we are able to read them and the messages they are giving us; in this way, once we begin to look, they are indeed communicating to us what they want to happen. We can offer our hand to smell – for many animals this is the way they greet and assess others. We also recognise for example that a dog coming towards us wagging their tail and looking up at us is a sign of them choosing to interact with us. Their choosing to stay nearby, along with visible signs of pleasure (wagging tail, relaxing) while we stroke them – if they are not on a lead – is presumably a sign that they are enjoying it. So by taking clues from them, we can grant animals more freedom and choice about their bodies. Without this, we risk a one-sided interaction which is only of benefit to the human and possibly distressing for the animal.
A context in which this idea is useful could be at Animal Saves. There is a question amongst activists who attend Slaughterhouse Vigils over touching the animals. For some people, the aim of vigils is to show love to the animals in their final moments; to say sorry for what humans have done to them, and to say goodbye. Whilst this is powerful – it is true that my own attendance at vigils are rarely without deep emotion and pain – it strikes me that the goal of showing the animals love by stroking or touching them is an approach which still centres the human experience. The sight of the traumatised beings inside the trucks backing away from activists as they stick their hands inside the slats to touch them is distressing and seems counter-productive to me. The humans seek a connection with those they fighting to protect the lives of, but forget perhaps that the pigs, cows or other poor soul inside has probably only ever known violation and cruelty at the hands of humans. Though we may know that we are kind and gentle vegans, they do not know this. It does not mean necessarily that they will want to interact with us, and nor should they be obliged to. I have been reflecting on something a fellow activist succinctly pointed out – that when activists touch or stroke the animals in the trucks, they take away the only thing left to them: their personal space.
In Brian Luke’s Brutal, he discusses the erotics value hunters find in stroking the fur and touching the antlers of the deer they have killed. Luke suggests that this thrill comes from touching a wild animal who would never allow someone close enough to touch them when alive. For them, the thrill is in the violation: not only have they succeeded in killing the animal, but now they may do something against what had been their will when alive. The hunter has gained what they sought: complete control. The parallels between forced touching of (dead) wild animals, and the patriarchal culture of violent and dominating sex are evident: both are the (erotic) enjoyment of control and violation.
To a lesser extent than those who hunt animals, nonetheless there is in all of us a socialised, patriarchal desire to be in control of other animals: children like to chase pigeons, dogs are kept on leads as a sign of a well-controlled animal and a skillful animal “owner” who keeps their animals under control is respected. We all live in a culture which maintains that animals are here for us to use and control. In all interactions with other animals, we must bear in mind that our relationships with other animals exist in this context, and as a result we have to be vigilant in ensuring that our interactions with them are mutually desired, and don’t centre us as the only participant. For example, instead of thinking “I want to stroke this cat – I love animals” we could observe them, taking enjoyment instead from being around them. I value the cats I have met who enjoy being in the same room as me, seeing what I’m up to and occasionally coming closer for attention – sharing a space with other animals is an intimacy and a connection in itself. By respecting their distance, we may interact with them on their terms – the relationship formed will based on mutual trust and will no doubt be far more rewarding.