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Critical Race Theory Advocate Wants You to Believe that People who Abuse Animals are “Victims,” Too
If someone intentionally starves an animal, uses a dog for fighting or bait, or beats an animal to death, should that person be arrested? And if they are prosecuted and convicted, should there be legal safeguards put in place to protect potential future victims, such as incarceration, bans on acquiring more animals, animal abuser registries, and allowing the police to search for and seize any animals they find?
Or should we instead cut police budgets in half, release half the prison population (including animal abusers), pledge not to prosecute any animal neglect cases, and engage in roleplaying, where someone pretends to be the animal and explains to the perpetrator why being covered in gasoline and lit on fire hurts?
To most people, the questions appear rhetorical; the answers, obvious. If someone knowingly and intentionally harms an animal, they deserve incarceration, and animals deserve protection — the kind the legal system can enforce. It seems so clear as to be unworthy of comment. But in “What Comes After Defund? Lessons from Police and Prison Abolition for the Animal Movement,” published in the Animal Law Review, Michael Swistara calls for defunding the police, closing prisons, abolishing new police academies, not prosecuting neglect, and ending the arrest and incarceration of animal abusers. In the parlance of Critical Race Theory (CRT), he wants to upend the “carceral state” because those jailed for animal cruelty are also “victims.” Instead, he wants to impose what he calls “love with accountability.”
An argument built on logical fallacies
Swistara claims that “the current punitive approach to dealing with harms to animals is inefficient, insufficient, and unnecessarily cruel.” Instead of jail for those who commit neglect — which he believes (unconvincingly) is always unintentional and a result of poverty, mental illness, or race — he calls for educational approaches, writing that “District Attorney offices should pledge to cease all criminal charges brought against animal owners for hoarding or neglect.” He says society needs to divest itself “from police” and instead invest “in community resources, such as pet ownership programs, harm prevention intervention, and restorative justice initiatives.”
I agree that in some cases, punitive approaches can be counterproductive, such as in enforcing licensing laws, pet limit laws, leash laws, and similar animal control ordinances that tend to be poor proxies for animal protection and often are not about protection at all. This is an argument I made over a decade ago in my 2008 book Redemption and have made elsewhere since. For example, studies show that people living in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty are “more likely to befriend stray or feral animals of unknown origin by occasionally feeding them or briefly letting them into their homes” and “consider to be unproblematic community pets or tolerate as just part of the neighborhood landscape.” In contrast to how residents view these animals, “animal control officers see them as nuisances to be disposed of, even though local residents have not filed a complaint with the department and consider them to be shared community pets.” This not only sets up residents in an antagonistic relationship with animal services to the detriment of animals, but it results in higher rates of killing because of the prohibitively high reclaim and citation fees charged by regressive pounds.
But animal cruelty laws do protect animals. And they do so by setting out minimum standards of care and proscribing conduct that falls below it. They criminalize animal mistreatment, not poverty, and contrary to Swistara’s claims, they are not mutually exclusive with the “carrot.” Of course, there are times that education and subsidized services will achieve the desired outcome better than citations or incarceration, such as providing free fencing to get dogs off chains and quality food to get cats and dogs needed nutrition. We want behaviors to change in cases of neglect, through education and services if possible and when appropriate, but through prosecution if necessary because the welfare of animals is of consequence. Any argument to the contrary not only offers a false “either-or” choice but throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. (The same is true for Swistara’s call to expand childhood intervention and anti-poverty programs to prevent anti-social behavior. These are not, as he pretends, mutually exclusive with punishment for abuse when it occurs.)
In cases of abuse (dogfighting, starvation, killing), however, what Swistara sees as evidence of regressive practices is evidence of progress: an increasing understanding that animals matter. Those measures include making animal abuse a felony, vertical prosecution teams, providing victim advocates for animals in courtrooms, prohibiting contact with animals during probation/parole, and animal abuser registries.
Instead, he laments “a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to animal cruelty,” blaming it for the rise in “the number of states with felony animal cruelty statutes… from four to forty-five. There are now felony animal cruelty laws on the books in all fifty states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, as well as at the federal level.” In his estimation, arrest, and incarceration for felony-level abuse — which means torture and killing — lacks “compassion” for the abusers. He also deems them “racist.”
“Justice,” he says, “can never truly be achieved if it comes at the expense of another’s liberty,” which is not only a sophomoric sentiment but demonstrably false. Protecting victims may require it. Worse, it is inconsistently applied. There is no concern in CRT circles about the alleged mismatch between “justice” and lack of “liberty” regarding the arrest, prosecution, and punishment of George Floyd’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, and there shouldn’t be. They deserve to be in prison. For anti-prison CRT proponents, such claims selectively apply when someone kills a dog or cat.
Those aren’t the only false choices Swistara offers. Another reason he argues against criminal enforcement of anti-cruelty laws is that they “exempt most forms of harm to animals,” such as the abuse perpetrated on animals raised and killed for food. From the moment they are born to the moment their necks are slit, the vast majority of these animals will experience lives of unremitting torment. They will know neither contentment, respite, safety, happiness, or kindness. Instead, they will live a short life characterized by inescapable discomfort, social deprivation, the thwarting of every natural instinct, and constant stress, all punctuated by moments of pain, terror, and eventually, an untimely and brutal death. Indeed, the exploitation, abuse, and killing of animals for food is the single greatest source of suffering on the planet, yet it is legal.
The obvious answer is to prohibit that conduct. Societal change, both normative and legal, almost always involves tackling evils one at a time. Swistara, however, would have us do the opposite: decriminalize the abuse of companion animals. That means “we would simply permit all manner of animal cruelty, on the theory that there is no principled distinction between what we currently permit and what we currently prohibit.” Not only would any progress for animals be impossible, but we’d also have to undo the progress we’ve already made.
Swistara is once again unmoved, arguing that “If an individual inflicts intentional harm on an animal and is locked away for a few years, all this accomplishes is further suffering.” He ignores how doing so protects animals from further abuse and, given the documented link between abuse of animals and people, potentially protects humans, too, especially in the context of intimate partner violence.
For example, new laws in several states allow the court to appoint a “victim advocate” — usually an attorney or law student under the direction of an attorney — to represent the animal in cruelty cases. “The animal advocates are an official party to the case. They can do investigative work prosecutors often don’t have time for, such as interviewing veterinarians and other witnesses. They also make arguments, write briefs and make recommendations to the judge.”
The need for such laws is acute. Before Connecticut passed its advocate law, 80% of cruelty cases were dismissed or not prosecuted. The rate of actual conviction was even worse. Of the 3,723 reported cruelty cases before passage, only 19 resulted in a conviction — ½ of 1%. That means 99.5% of people charged with cruelty faced little to no legal consequences. Indeed, Connecticut’s “Desmond’s Law” is named for a dog killed by someone who did not receive jail time. “Brutally beaten, strangled and starved — Desmond’s owner admitted it, but was only sentenced to a 4-month rehabilitation program.” He’s not alone. “Cats and dogs in Connecticut have been scalded with hot liquid, kicked to death, left shivering outside in the bitter cold, and killed as revenge following romantic break-ups.” The perpetrators remained unpunished.
Not anymore. “Both advocates and activists report stiffer penalties since the law’s enactment.” A Harvard Law Review article further found that it has led to “voluntary forfeiture of animals, restitution for rescue organizations, agreements to avoid future contact with animals, and agreements to seek counseling.”
In criticizing these badly-needed laws, CRT advocates and groups like the National Animal Control Association (NACA), an industry trade group representing animal shelter staff, which also oppose them — albeit for other reasons — put animals at risk of being returned to their abusers. They also help increase the likelihood of acquiring more animals who are susceptible to abuse.
Although Swistara claims he is not proposing “firing cops and closing prisons,” but “eliminating the reasons people think they need cops and prisons in the first place” by redefining away terms like “harm” and “crime,” this is not honest. First and foremost, it is a distinction without a difference. By opposing police enforcement, conviction, incarceration, animal abuser registries, and prohibitions against having custody of animals in the future, he is arguing for firing cops and closing prisons. But more to the point, he calls for law enforcement budgets to be cut in half, half of all prisoners to be released, the number of prisons to be cut in half, and police academies to be shuttered. Included in the release of prisoners would presumably be all animal abusers. And that, he says, is just a start. Finally, redefining a crime does not make the conduct go away, any more than the fact that abuse in factory farms is not illegal means it doesn’t happen, and the animals don’t suffer. They most certainly do.
All the world’s a stage and animals are merely props
What does Swistara propose as an alternative post-abuse? An approach he calls “love with accountability.” Aside from financial restitution, community service to animals, and “the perpetrator of the harm distancing themselves from a neighborhood, social circle, or job that enabled the harm to occur,” he proposes community-enforced roleplaying. The problems with such an approach should be immediately apparent.
First, since Swistara claims that many of these crimes result from poverty, it is not clear how the perpetrator is supposed to make “financial restitution,” quit their job, or move out of the neighborhood without spiraling further into poverty and thus putting more animals at risk. More importantly, it is not clear how this is supposed to protect animals in the location where the perpetrator moves or when the harm is not responsive to education or caused by a lack of resources.
Second, where are they supposed to volunteer — an animal shelter? Although Swistara admits this might not always be the correct approach, he does propose that they do so in the “service of animals.” It would be akin to someone who battered their spouse volunteering at a domestic violence shelter or a convicted pedophile volunteering at an orphanage. It is unthinkable. And beyond that, it is obscene, the equivalent of putting more animals at risk of being victimized.
Third, in contrast to incarceration, bans on future contact with animals, and search and seizure provisions, he wants abusers to participate in “a transformative or restorative justice model” that focuses on “responding to harm [to animals] without furthering cycles of trauma or violence.” Stripping away the flowery language, what does this look like? He wants someone to pretend to be the animal and explain to the abuser why the abuse was harmful.
Swistara is not so delusional that he doesn’t admit that “Restorative and transformative justice are not panaceas and will not work in every circumstance.” Still, he asks us to suspend disbelief when he claims that such roleplaying “can lead to safer outcomes for animals.”
CRT fever dreams
Sadly, he is not alone. This is my eighth article about the emergence of CRT in the humane movement and the threat it poses to animals. In those articles, I responded to books and journal articles where CRT advocates have, among other claims:
Defended dogfighters like Michael Vick, arguing that they should not be prosecuted because they are “victims” of “white cis heteropatriarchy” that enables “toxic masculinities”;
Criticized placing dogs who survived dogfighting in caring, family homes because “they were effectively segregated from Blackness”;
Called for permitting dogs to be left on chains 24/7 if they live with people of color;
Called for more animals to be killed in pounds or left on the streets instead of rescued and placed in family homes so as not to promote “settler-colonial and racist dynamics of land allocation”;
Defended backyard breeding as “queer affiliations,” even in cases where selling puppies is intended to supplement drug dealing income;
Criticized the use of technology, like wheelchairs, to allow disabled animals to run again, claiming it “erases” disabled people and does “violence to nonnormative bodies”;
Defended the harpooning of whales and clubbing of seals because of “native cosmologies”; and,
Advocated for humans to have “pansexual” relations with animals — the rape of dogs, horses, and others — in the name of “queer” ethics.
Underlying many of these claims are the racist beliefs that viewing animals as worthy of moral consideration independent of their utility to humans or treating them as family members by letting them sleep in the house, providing them medical care, and showing them affection are “middle class,” and “white” values, while people of color treat animals “as resources, whether protective (as in guarding) or financial (as in breeding or possibly fighting).” Although CRT advocates pretend to stand up for social justice, their views not only set back civil rights, they propose that we return to a 19th-century view of animals as having no recognized interests of their own.
In the wake of the protests that erupted over the killing of George Floyd, organizations across the country have looked for ways to express solidarity with the cause of civil rights, and animal welfare groups are no exception. But as I have cautioned time and again, we should not confuse the racist tropes and cruel policies peddled by some with the cause of animal protection (or human dignity). CRT not only threatens to undermine decades of progress for animals and humans alike, but it also threatens future progress.
Before the emergence of CRT, I would have never imagined in my 30-plus years fighting for the rights of animals that I would be writing articles opposing the normalization of bestiality, animal abuse, dogfighting, and other crimes because it would have been inconceivable that: 1. Academics would make those arguments; and, 2. Shelter directors and those running “animal protection” organizations would take them seriously. But they are being published, and they are finding fertile ground.
In a recent paper, for example, CRT proponents call for “removing adoption requirements,” which they view as part of “the White dominant culture.” These proponents ignore that rescuers and shelters have a moral and institutional obligation to the vulnerable animals they serve to ensure those animals are not placed in harm’s way; which can and should be done using standards that don’t focus on a potential adopter’s skin color or size of their bank account but on their ability to provide for an animal’s physical and mental health. Ignoring this obvious point, the authors suggest that rescuers and shelters are obligated to place animals into knowingly unstable situations (which they incorrectly equate with skin color) or engage in what they deem to be racist behavior. Those tasked with caring for animals are damned either way. And yet some sheltering officials — like those on the board of NACA — are listening, embracing both the claims and conclusions.
This trend is reversing decades of hard-won progress to enshrine the protection of animals into law and custom, such as an end to the cruel chaining of dogs. While our laws demand that an animal kept as a companion receive the basic requirements of sustenance and shelter, there is no effort to guarantee that an animal receives love and attention. No U.S. state has an animal cruelty statute that acknowledges emotional neglect or suffering, despite growing recognition that the absence of attention and affection harms social animals like dogs. As a result, many municipalities are moving in that direction by banning the perpetual chaining of dogs. In addition to physical injury, a chained dog suffers social isolation and frustration of being unable to act out even the most basic behaviors. After a few weeks, a perpetually chained dog will begin to show temperament disorders. Over time, he is likely to become aggressive. If he stays chained for months or years, he is at risk of mental illness.
With little evidence — indeed, despite copious evidence to the contrary — CRT advocates are calling for an end to the enforcement of such laws, claiming that compliance is “largely unobtainable for anyone in the U.S. other than white, middle and upper-class individuals.” Once again, NACA officials are listening.
They shouldn’t be. Doing so not only requires the suspension of common sense definitions of racism and animal welfare but a strained belief that the authors of these books and journal articles actually believe what they have written. I don’t think they do, which makes the fact that they publish them even more craven.
That is because their claims — like the notion that placing dogfighting victims into stable, loving homes should not occur because it “segregates” the dogs “from Blackness” or that using wheelchairs to give disabled animals mobility “does violence” to or “erases” disabled people — are absurd on their face. They are lazy fever dreams cooked up in competitive academic environments where both the imperative to publish and the stifling of dissent has encouraged ever more outrageous claims at the expense of good faith discussions that would promote and preserve gains for the objects of their so-called “advocacy.” In a word, they are the very thing they most condemn in others: privileged.
Having inherited a society where legal and societal norms allow them to prosper in relative safety to the point that they take those norms for granted, these inheritors of privilege can casually and cruelly call for the elimination of animal protection laws because doing so presents the possibility of personal reward at no personal risk. High in their ivory tower, they expect no repercussions to themselves if these laws are eliminated, but the return on calling for such an outrageous precedent may hold the key to notoriety among other equally narcissistic CRT academics. To Swistara, Katja Gunther, Harlan Weaver, and other CRT proponents whose cruel and dangerous writings I have condemned, animals are nothing more than pawns in a field that is having its moment despite abandoning all pretensions to truth or objectivity. It’s not about animals, people of color, or building a better future. It’s about them, their identities, and their careers.
Swistara’s “theories,” like those of these others, must be consigned to what CRT proponents are so desperately trying to avoid and willing to sacrifice millions of animals to prevent: academic obscurity. Indeed, we should go further; for like all harmful, parasitic ideologies masquerading as science — such as eugenics, polygenism, and phrenology — what they deserve is nothing less than academic oblivion. Progress in animal welfare and civil rights — in short, efforts to “form a more perfect union” — depend on it.
A note to readers:
As an individual committed to the American experiment of guaranteeing each citizen their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and after a lifetime’s effort spent trying to expand those rights to non-humans — it is incumbent on me to speak out against the dangers CRT poses to our cause. But I want to make it clear that while CRT is the province of the extreme left, people should not dismiss my concerns as laying sympathy with the extreme right. The price of defeating CRT and overcoming its risks should not be — and does not have to be — right-wing authoritarianism. Indeed, I fear the anti-democratic currents that have captured the Right much more than I fear the CRT politics that appeal to the Left. That is because I believe that democracy and its institutions, including the First Amendment and rule of law, are adequate to defeat CRT, essential to promote human flourishing, and a prerequisite to extending those norms and legal protections to non-humans.
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