Vegan Voice Interview With Joan Dunayer

The March-May 2005 issue of Vegan Voice features a 6 page interview with animal rights activist Joan Dunayer, who has made waves with her absolutist abolitionist view of animal rights.

This site has featured more than a dozen items about Dunayer, but before ripping into the interview, let me say that to some extent I respect Dunayer a lot more than many other animal rights activists because a) I have never seen an instance where she has advocated violence to achieve animal rights ends, and b) she is honest about what granting rights to animals ultimately entails, and is not afraid to follow her thinking consistently to the end. I much prefer that to some of these activists who say they favor animal rights but when you challenge them about pets or some other human use of animals suddenly start vacillating.

In her interview, Dunayer makes it clear where she stands — favoring a radical interpretation of rights for animals that would require massive changes in human societies. She begins by noting how she defines speciesism in her book Speciesism,

Chapter 1 opens, “Whenever you see a bird in a cage, fish in a tank, or nonhuman mammal on a chain, you’re seeing speciesism. If you believe that a bee or frog has less right to life and liberty than a chimpanzee or human, or you consider humans superior to other animals, you subscribe to speciesism. If you visit aquaprisons and zoos, attend circuses that include ‘animal acts,’ wear nonhuman skin or hair, or eat flesh, eggs, or cow-milk products, you practice speciesism.” Those examples illustrate that speciesism is both an attitude and a from of oppression.

. . .

. . . it’s speciesist to give humans greater moral consideration than nonhumans for any reason, such as humans’ generally using tools and verbal language.

Dunayer has become controversial within the animal rights movement for attacking organizations that are ultimately pro-animal rights but sometimes seek improvements in animal welfare as what they bill as a short term solution. Dunayer continues that attack in her Vegan Voice interview, citing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ campaigns against McDonald’s and Burger King in which those companies have agreed to make some changes in how their suppliers treat animals. Dunayer says,

Years ago animal rights activist commonly changed, “What do we want? Animal Rights! When do we want it? Now!” Today much activism could be expressed only with a chant like this: “What do we want? Slightly bigger cages! When do we want them? Whenever McDonald’s or some other massive abuser requires that their suppliers use them!”

Dunayer’s first book, Animal Equality, focused on changing the way people talk about animals — for example, she complains that rather than talking about “dairy farmers” we should talk about “cow enslavers” (seriously). In Vegan Voice, Dunayer argues that almost all religious speech is by definition speciesist, since human’s tend to anthropomorphize God,

Religious language that conveys a proprietary, condescending view of nonhumans also impedes animal equality. The Lord, Jesus Christ, and other language that anthropomorphizes divinity elevates humans over other animals.

Dunayer has famously asserted that even insects have rights, and in her Vegan Voice interview she takes up the cause for radial invertebrate rights,

Evidence of sentience is compelling with regard to invertebrates who have a brain and increasingly strong with regard to invertebrates who lack a brain but have a nervous system. Any creature with a nervous system should receive the benefit of the doubt. All nervous systems share many physiological characteristics. Why would beetles, oysters, or anyone else with a nervous system not be sentient?

What I can’t understand is why she doesn’t include creatures that lack a nervous system as well. True, to creatures that possess nervous systems it may be difficult to understand how such creatures could be sentient, but using Dunayer’s logic that represents nothing more than nervous system-ism. Do we really have the right to condemn such creatures to death simply because they aren’t sentient in a way that is meaningful to humans?

But, as I said at the beginning, it is Dunayer’s uncompromising adherence to what animal rights entails that makes me grudgingly admire her, though its a sign of just how difficult such consistency can be that even Dunayer occasionally would violate her own precepts. Vegan Voice asked Dunayer what rights she would bestow on animals, and she replied (emphasis added),

First of all, nonhuman personhood would end nonhuman enslavement. Nonhuman servitude to humans would cease. Humans no longer could compel other animals to labor, perform, compete, or provide any service. No more horses pulling carriages, tigers jumping through hoops, greyhounds racing, capuchin monkeys being house slaves for humans with disabilities, and so on. Nonhumans would be emancipated from property status-freed from human ownership. The law would prohibit humans from breeding, buying, or selling nonhumans for any purpose, from vivisection and food production to pet keeping and propagating endangered species.

Nonhuman captivity would be phased out. Upon emancipation, “domesticated” nonhumans living with loving, responsible human companions would stay with those humans. Liberated from exploitation and other abuse, other “domesticated” nonhumans would be fostered at sanctuaries and private homes until adopted. Nonhumans in human care would have essentially the same legal rights as children. To the fullest possible extent, “domesticated” nonhumans (including dogs and cats) would be prevented from breeding-for example, through “spaying” and “neutering.” The number of “domesticated” nonhumans would rapidly decline.

. . .

As full constitutional persons, nonhumans also would have a right to property. They would own the products of their bodies, such as milk and pearls. A honeybee colony would own the honey that it produces. A robin would own the eggs that she lays. In addition, nonhumans would own what they build, such as hives and nests. A dam built by a family of beavers would belong to those beavers and their descendants. It would be illegal for humans to take, intentionally damage, or intentionally destroy anything that nonhumans produce or create within their natural habitats. Further, nonhumans would own their natural habitats. All nonhumans living in a particular area of land or water would have a legal right to that environment, which would be considered their communal property. Land currently inhabited by nonhumans and humans could remain cohabited, but humans wouldn’t be permitted to encroach farther into nonhuman territory (for example, by building more houses on land occupied only by nonhumans). It would be illegal to intentionally destroy or dramatically alter any “undeveloped” habitat.

So unlike other activists who will flinch and vacillate when you start talking about pets or something like guide dogs for the blind, Dunayer is unwavering — they have to go. Then she takes that a step further by pretty much banning any human interference in the animal world. If a beaver dam is causing a problem, too bad. Its a shame she doesn’t say what would happen when wasps decide to build a nest on the side of my house. I’m assuming we have to live with this (after all, if we can preemptively kill the wasps, it is just a short jump to killing other animals preemptively that may pose threats, such as bears or large cats).

It is odd, though, that she wouldn’t allow humans to touch beaver dams or move into uninhabited areas, but she has no problems castrating cats and dogs who, presumably, have an interest in not being modified that way. Apparently animals only have rights to the extent that they are alienated from human beings.

Which brings us to the very odd conclusion that animal rights leads us to. Starting out from the proposition that all animals are morally equal, we come to the bizarre conclusion that human beings are nothing more than alien invaders; a species so unnatural and unlike anything else, that its members must be controlled in ways that animal rights activist’s would never contemplate doing for animals.

It is interesting, for example, that Dunayer seems to think beavers have some sort of natural right to build dams without interference wherever they want, but human beings clearly would not have the right to build skyscrapers anywhere they wanted. Dunayer presumably wouldn’t dream of restricting mobile predators such as wolves to areas which they and their descendants must never stray from, but clearly her views would classify nomadic tribes of human beings as inherently violating the rights of others.

This is what so many opponents of animal rights activists mean when we say that the animal rights philosophy elevates animals above human beings. Dunayer and others like her denigrate in human beings precisely the same behaviors that they glorify and wish to protect in animals. Both beavers and human beings make changes to their environment when they build dams for their own selfish purposes, but the beaver dam is sacrosanct, while human modification of the natural world is inherently immoral. Similarly, many species hunt and kill other species for food and fun, but the animal rights philosophy only finds this morally suspect in a single species.

Using the same analogies that Dunayer and other activists use, typically in a human setting if I say that it is okay for every human being to vote except for the Black ones, that is considered racism and discrimination. Similarly, when Dunayer and other activists maintain that it is okay for every carnivorous and omnivorous species to hunt, claim territory and other activities except for human beings, THAT is speciesism.

And, after reading Dunayer and other activists, the thread is clear that it is not so much a respect for other species which drives this ideology, but rather a loathing for homo sapiens and what it represents and has achieved. Animal rights activists are nothing more than modern day flagellants, believing that humanity’s role in the world is one of evil and sin. Only by scourging ourselves and retreating to some bizarre ascetic vision of humanity can we be redeemed.

Thankfully, we do not live in times that are conducive to this sort of self-hating religious fanaticism.


Speciesism: Interview with the Author (Joan Dunayer). Sienna Blake, Vegan Voice, March-May 2005.