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Can an animal be a slave?

Is the confinement of animals for human purposes akin to slavery? Are some animals slaves? Slavery is an evocative concept. Treating someone as a slave is one of the worst things you can do to them. Using…

We take animals' liberty every day, but is calling them slaves accurate? Rev Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos ClintJCL/Flickr

Is the confinement of animals for human purposes akin to slavery? Are some animals slaves?

Slavery is an evocative concept. Treating someone as a slave is one of the worst things you can do to them. Using the term “slavery” brings with it considerable rhetorical force. It’s attention grabbing. It’s an expression that is likely to resonate with people, irrespective of whether they agree with the underlying political point being made.

Given its emotive force, it’s not surprising that a publicity-savvy group like PETA would try to draw attention to the plight of animals in captivity by drawing parallels with human slavery. They last week went to court, accusing Sea World of enslaving orcas used in one of its shows. The judge dismissed the case, ruling that PETA’s invoking of the term “slavery” was at odds with its “historical and contemporaneous” usage.

One could side with the judge in the Sea World case and say that PETA was being a little sneaky in trying to make a political point by trading on an ambiguity around the meaning of the term “slave”. In this view, when someone compares captive animals to slaves, they are misapplying the term slave: this is a term that ought to be reserved for persons only. But what do they mean by “person”?

A person is an individual, most likely a human being, who possesses a sophisticated psychology above a threshold level of complexity marked by specific capacities, such as an ability to reflect upon one’s thinking and life choices, to make judgments on the basis of evidence, to understand concepts such as right and wrong, life and death, and so on.

A person can be held morally responsible for their actions. The basic idea is that persons are authors of their own lives in a way that non-persons, like animals, are not.

For proponents of this view, slavery is an evil because it amounts to taking over the authorship of a life, and animals cannot be slaves because they lack the necessary psychological capacities to self-consciously direct their lives.

But, setting aside disputes about the scope of personhood capacities in the natural world, should the meaning of slavery be restricted to persons only? Is there anything wrong with applying the term slavery to animals in order register one’s opposition to how they are being treated or to draw attention to their plight?

I used to live in a country town not far from Sydney. On most evenings my wife and I would enjoy a stroll around the neighbourhood, breathing the fresh country air and enjoying the beautiful surrounds. On occasion we would pass the house of a Jack Russell breeder who kept bitches in small wire enclosures in his garage. We know this because very occasionally the door to the garage would be open.

Now it makes sense to me to say, in response to what I saw, that “the dogs are being kept as slaves”. It also makes sense to me to say that keeping animals in this way, ostensibly for their reproductive use, is akin to slavery or a form of slavery.

Similarly, not far from where I live now, a cockatoo is kept in a cage not much bigger than its body. We often hear this cockatoo screeching as we walk past. I personally find the sight of birds in cages distressing. My view is that there is something ignoble in the desire to look upon a caged creature that is built for flying through the sky as if it were a living figurine. I think the world would be a better place if people could express their fascination or love for animals without confining them.

Now, in light of my disapproval of caged birds, I think it makes sense for me say to that the cockatoo should be “set free”. People know perfectly well what I mean when I say this.

But, again, some might take issue with my use of the term “set free”. They may point out that when someone says a bird should be “set free” this is very different to saying that a slave should be “set free”. When a bird is set free it’s no longer subject to physical or bodily constraint; whereas for a slave, “set free” means no longer having your life directed by another’s lights.

I recall seeing a harrowing news feature about a female orangutan kept for sex by villagers in Indonesia. An NGO had made many attempts to rescue the creature, but had been shot at by the villagers who considered the ape their property. Again, isn’t this a case when it seems appropriate to say that the animal is being treated as a slave, in this case a sex slave?

If I was to talk about confining animals with my friends or colleagues, and in the process use terms like “slavery” or “freedom”, I’m guessing that the conversation would be perfectly intelligible, possibly even thought-provoking. It is very unlikely to come to an abrupt end because of some kind of conceptual confusion. What better evidence for correct application of a term can you have then successful communication between people?

Some might say that what’s wrong about using the terms “animal” and “slavery” in the same sentence is that it downplays the seriousness of slavery. But not all that is wrong about slavery needs to apply to the keeping of animals in order for us to think that the term can be meaningfully applied across the species barrier.

After all, slaves are the legal property of their owners; animals are legal property. Slaves are subject to the absolute authority of their owners; so are animals. Slave owners command obedience; obedience is a concept readily applied by owners to their animals. Slaves are kept in bondage; many orcas, Jack Russells, cockatoos and oranutans are confined 24/7.

Perhaps then we should view PETA’s strategy not so much as sneaky but as signalling how our views about the evil of slavery may no longer be so “person-centric”, and how we can discuss hitherto unquestioned instances of keeping animals in a new and engaging way.