Beasts of Burden: Disability and Animal Liberation Revisited

A new book by a disability and animal activist blends both movements into one

Posted Mar 12, 2017

A few months ago I was asked to write an endorsement for Sunaura Taylor's recently published book called Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. Once I began reading the manuscript I couldn't put it down, and couldn't wait for it to appear and to interview Ms. Taylor. My endorsement for this life-changing book reads:

Beasts of Burden is a deeply inspirational game-changer. In her strikingly original first book, written for a broad audience, Sunaura Taylor asks us to seriously revisit what it means to be disabled, and clearly shows how we can learn much about ourselves and other animals by reconsidering how we view and treat disabled humans and how we view and treat vulnerable nonhuman animals. As her ground-breaking messages are taken seriously and widely applied to everyday encounters, justice for all, long overdue, will prevail, as it should and must. 

The book's description reads:

A beautifully written, deeply provocative inquiry into the intersection of animal and disability liberation—and the debut of an important new social critic

How much of what we understand of ourselves as “human” depends on our physical and mental abilities—how we move (or cannot move) in and interact with the world? And how much of our definition of “human” depends on its difference from “animal”?

Drawing on her own experiences as a disabled person, a disability activist, and an animal advocate, author Sunaura Taylor persuades us to think deeply, and sometimes uncomfortably, about what divides the human from the animal, the disabled from the nondisabled—and what it might mean to break down those divisions, to claim the animal and the vulnerable in ourselves, in a process she calls “cripping animal ethics.”

Beasts of Burden suggests that issues of disability and animal justice—which have heretofore primarily been presented in opposition—are in fact deeply entangled. Fusing philosophy, memoir, science, and the radical truths these disciplines can bring—whether about factory farming, disability oppression, or our assumptions of human superiority over animals—Taylor draws attention to new worlds of experience and empathy that can open up important avenues of solidarity across species and ability. Beasts of Burden is a wonderfully engaging and elegantly written work, both philosophical and personal, by a brilliant new voice.

With permission of the publisher
Source: With permission of the publisher

I'm not alone in welcoming this incredibly important book. Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, notes, “Sunaura Taylor has written an amazing book that acts both as an intervention into widely held beliefs about disability and animals and an invitation to reimagine ourselves. Her thoroughly original, brilliant narrative transformed my imagination.” And, as I'm writing this piece, Beasts of Burden is the number 1 release on Amazon in "Disabled People Demographic Studies."

I asked Ms. Taylor if she could answer a few questions, and I was thrilled when she said she could. Here's what she wrote. 

Why did you write Beasts of Burden?

When I was in graduate school for my MFA I was making a lot of artwork that dealt with animal agriculture and factory farms. I was also increasingly becoming part of a vibrant and political disability community in the Bay Area. All of the things I was learning from these two experiences slowly became connected in my mind, and I began to see intersections and parallels everywhere between disability oppression and animal oppression--for example I learned that animals used in food production are virtually manufactured to be disabled, with bodies that have been bred to produce so much meat, milk, or eggs, that the animals are impaired and prone to illness and injury. However, when I looked for work that was linking these conversations, I found that these movements were often presented as at odds, or at least in conflict, largely because of the really troubling and ableist ways that disability has been used in some popular animal rights arguments, but also because of the ways disabled people have been dehumanized historically. I wrote this book as I felt strongly at the time, and even more so now, that the way this conversation had been framed was really unfortunate, because far from being at odds, these movements actually have an immense amount to offer each other, and in fact are really integral to each other.

Please tell readers about yourself and how this is reflected in your excellent and most-needed book.

I am a wheelchair user, a disability activist, an artist, a writer, and a mom of an almost toddler. I’ve also been a vegetarian (now longtime vegan) for animal rights and environmental reasons since I was a little kid. I decided early on in the writing process that even though I did not want to write a memoir, I did want to use my experiences as a disabled person and member of an activist disability community to help illustrate the ideas I was talking about. This felt really important, not only in order to make the book more accessible and interesting to read, but because the book deals with challenging topics, and it felt important to take those challenges on personally. So for example I reflect on numerous instances in my life when I have been negatively compared to animals, being told I walk like a monkey or eat like a dog because of my disability. In order to think through questions of violence and environmental justice, I also tell the story of the origin of my disability, which I’ve had since birth, and which was caused by US military pollution in the town I was born in. Additionally, I wanted to share a certain kind of political awakening that happened for me--going from seeing disability as a personal obstacle to overcome, to seeing disability as a social justice issue that can be a potentially liberating way of experiencing the world--but also of how I became increasingly aware of the importance of thinking about disability and animal liberation together. So the book really moves through various modes--history, theory, science--with my experiences as a disabled person weaved throughout to help ground it in real life.  

What are your main messages?

My hope is that people will come away from this book thinking about disability and animals differently--thinking about their bodies, and the bodies of other’s, differently. One of the main things I try to unpack in the book is how and why we value or devalue beings based upon what capacities they do or do not have (or that they are assumed to have or not have), so that those who are seen as lacking language, or rationality, or the ability to walk on two legs, or the ability to be physically independent, are then devalued and their marginalization becomes naturalized. In disability communities we speak of ableism, a name for the discrimination and prejudice disabled people face, and the privileging of able-bodied norms. My book is really a way of looking at ableism expansively, demonstrating that ableism oppresses everyone, including nonhuman animals. I do this by considering how capacities are used to justify exclusion, but also by delving into concepts such as dependency, which is fraught with negative connotations, and is often associated with both disabled people and domesticated animals. Perhaps the main message of this book is that we are all vulnerable animals--that we are all (human and nonhuman) dependent on each other and so need to learn to value care and interdependency.

Who is your intended audience?

In the beginning, I really imagined my audience as being people who were already invested in disability movements or animal rights issues, and I saw the project as largely targeted at intervening in the conversation that was happening between them. However, I realized early on in the writing process that there are not that many people who are versed in both disability rights analysis and arguments for animal liberation, and so one of the challenges of writing this book became trying to make it a sort of introduction to both fields, while also delving into their intersections. Doing this was challenging, but in the end I think it makes the work much stronger, and I hope it opens it up to be read by more people, regardless of their prior knowledge of either arena. I also really wanted the book to be creative in it’s delivery of ideas, and so I use a variety of methods from personal narrative, to telling stories, to more scholarly analysis, which I hope will attract different sorts of people.  

What are your current projects?

My partner and I became parents almost two years ago, which is definitely the most exciting current project in my life. I’m also moving towards the completion of a PhD. Coming from an art practice and activist background had given me the creative tools I needed and the motivation to start writing the book, but when I had a full draft, about three years into the process, I decided that to really make this book what I wanted it to be I needed to have a broader knowledge base from which to write from and better research skills. So I am currently a fourth year PhD student at NYU in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis--done with my qualifying exams and starting to embark on my dissertation.

What are your plans for future projects?

Like so many people I’ve become increasingly concerned with climate change and the horrifying rates of extinction we are seeing. My dissertation will expand on my thinking about animals and disability to consider the environment more broadly, using both an environmental justice and a critical disability perspective to engage these urgent issues. But I also don’t want to write exclusively for an academic audience, and so I’m working on integrating both art and activism into my dissertation. Whatever the medium--writing, art, activism--I know I’ll continue to make a case for the importance of animals and of disability to justice movements.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell your readers?

There may be quite a lot of people right now who feel like we don’t have the luxury to think about animals in the current political climate. However, I think at this moment in history it’s actually more important than ever to include animal issues in our struggles for justice and liberation. With climate change, and with an administration that largely denies the reality of climate change---while it simultaneously enacts policies that are terrorizing vulnerable populations---the importance of thinking about the entangled histories of human and animal oppression, and the interdependent nature of human and animal survival, is vital, and I believe, extremely urgent.

It's time for there to be justice for all

Thank you so much Sunaura. I find myself constantly going back to Beasts of Burden, and I hope this game-changing book will enjoy a broad global audience, for the issues that are discussed know no boundaries. And, as Ms. Taylor's ground-breaking messages are taken seriously and widely applied to everyday encounters, justice for all, long overdue, will prevail, as it should and must.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is

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