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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.

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Annarosa Berman

    logged in via Facebook

    Wonderfully thought-provoking article. I think I'm going to have to memorise this. :)

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  2. Cathryn Wynn-Edwards

    logged in via email @yahoo.com

    Very well said! Totally agree, too many animals are being treated and thought of as property of humans and just to add another provocative point: I feel that breeding animals purely for the sake of killing them for the pleasure of our palates is a form of slavery, too.

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  3. Stephen B

    Freelancer

    Of course it's slavery and nor is it a new comparison. When you look at the history of exploitation of humans and animals you see familiar patterns. These have been pointed out, especially in the days when it was all the more obvious with work horses and other animals filling the streets, mines and farms in their thousands. Animals are cheap labor and could be worked to death without reprisal.

    Like past human slaves, animal wouldn't be in such predicaments or strangely regarded as property if…

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  4. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    A very interesting article which is very thought provoking. However, I disagree with the idea of animals as slaves. While it is tempting to view the poor treatment of some animals as slaves they are no more slaves than the authers Jack Russel. By moving the definition to include non-human life we need to have a definition that is not ad hoc. Do we draw a distinction at those animals who have free will or are conscious. the debate is still out for if these apply to humans but they at least giving a nice starting point. Otherwise any attempt to move animal welfare along by using such an emotive term is likey to backfire into farce and for those who are extrme in their opinions, violence.

    Good article.

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  5. James Szabadics

    BSc

    I do believe that cage zoos and circus animals are not ethical and should not be tolerated in an enlightened society. Modern zoos that give animals a large range similar to their natural environment and also work to provide a psycologicaly interesting life are much better but still only ethical on the basis of educating people and using proceeds of funds to breed endangered animals that may at some point be released back into the wild in their natural environment.

    If a cow roams on a cattle…

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    1. Andrew McNicol

      PhD candidate (Media) at UNSW Australia

      In reply to James Szabadics

      "If a cow roams on a cattle station and has freedom for most of their life then is humanely killed for the table that is fine"

      But this is a very, very restricted sense of freedom. Cows on farms can't care for their own calves, choose who they reproduce with, or be free to live a long life dying peacefully of natural causes. We have to be careful not to confuse the fact that some livestock can 'roam' with the idea that they are somehow 'free'.

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  6. Mike O'Shaughnessy

    Retired

    I have a number of problems with this article.

    Firstly, the definition of 'person' seems completely arbitrary. By those criteria, many human beings including disabled adults, young children, the senile and many others after too much to drink don't qualify as persons.

    Secondly - who says that slavery only applies to persons?

    And why rattle off a few examples such as dogs and a cocky in cages without referring to the millions of chooks in cages, pigs in sheds and cattle and sheep in paddocks…

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    1. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Mike O'Shaughnessy

      I am sympathetic to many of the points you make.

      Unfortunately, your penultimate sentence is incorrect. Feral cats are a very serious problem in Australia and elsewhere, decimating birds and local wildlife.

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    2. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Byron, anyone who has “owned’ a cat knows that they are small eaters and while feral cats do predate on birds, I believe the numbers have been exaggerated. In pastoral regions, young rabbits make up the majority of their diet complemented by mice, rats (and small native mammals) but the mice and rabbit plagues in Australia lay testament to my assertion that feral cats are unjustifiably maligned.

      Feral cat predation on wildlife pales into insignificance compared to the razing of forests for croplands…

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    3. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      "Feral cats on islands are responsible for at least 14% global bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions and are the principal threat to almost 8% of critically endangered birds, mammals, and reptiles"
      From Medina, et. al."A global review of the impacts of invasive cats on island
      endangered vertebrates" in Global Change Biology 17 (2011).
      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2486.2011.02464.x/pdf

      No one says feral cats are the only, or even primary, cause of biodiversity decline, but I'm not aware of any published studies that dismiss them as "insignificant". Can you point me to any?

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    4. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Byron, I wouldn’t argue with the percentages you’ve provided on island bird kills, however, how fortunate are the avian species that humans don’t have wings just double barrel shotguns?

      In our halls of parliament we witness the Shooters and Fishers Party. An S&F MP’s bio reads thus: “The keenest of hunters, Robert has chased trophy game all over the world, yet revels in bird and small game shooting and fine rifle collecting.

      "I hunt because I like to hunt; it is part of my genetic make-up…

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  7. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    There are many times when I question the reason why we even endeavour to intellectualise on the slavery and torture of sentient non-humans. Are we so sycophantic to the “deny and delay” sadists that we must pay them the courtesies they don't deserve?

    I don’t recall anyone intellectualising over Saddam Hussein's treatment he used on his human slaves which included eye-gouging, acid baths, cutting off of ears and tongue amputations. No all we heard was moral outrage over the shocking abuse…

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  8. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    I think it is called anthropomorphism. I think cruelty is more apt, and slavery, well it has nothing to do with animals. I don't even know why I bothered to get through 3/4's of the article. Reminds me of the South Park episode where Stan (Kyle) is driven out of town and finds the Peta mob. Absolutely hilarious.

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    1. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      Matt Stevens, did you think it was "hilarious" that the "PETA mob" weren't available to rescue 800 enslaved cattle from the brutes at Charles Darwin University? I'm sure you're acquainted with ignominious details where one could describe these brutes as speciests or perhaps egoists? The "I, me, myself" slave masters who should be in the slammer, counting cockroaches.

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    2. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      All right, Peta does do some good very occaisionally. But I really do not know what you are talking about. It was a few people, yes employed by CDU, but don't conflate the issue please. I would rather see the cockroaches counting us, but we are a little bit smarter and stronger. Maybe we need nuclear war and then homo sapiens will die and cockies survive. Are you drunk Shirley?

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    3. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      @ Matt Stevens: “Are you drunk Shirley?”

      Not so drunk Matt Stevens that I wouldn’t recognise a duckshove when I see one or a tertiary institute that has set academia back a hundred years.

      Further when I am so bold to make such claims, I have already endeavoured to access the most reliable source of information available:

      1) “Animals died from malnutrition, lack of water and others were destroyed. In many cases, livestock were tick infested emaciated, thirsty, dehydrated, victims of attack…

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  9. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    While I read a lot of comments about animal welfare in the comments I still don't see an argument for changing domesticated to enslaved. If all the issues about animal welfare were resolved (plenty of food, psychologically and physically healthy environments), then would the issue of slavery still remain. This was one of the key ideas for ending human slavery. A happy slave is still a slave. And while focussing on human brutality makes the argument look clear it is all the animals, insects, and bacteria we own that would be affected by change. My daughter owns a pet insect I see no logic to be specie-ist and enslave that pet and yet set my father’s cat free.

    Let alone how I could reconcile his free roaming cat with deaths or countless native animals who were never consulted about decisions which are likely to lead to their extinction or reduced quality of life.

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  10. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Both Greek and Roman civilisations relied heavily on slaves many of whom were mistreated but others were entrusted with the notables'heirs and given a nice life-style. So slavery was not always accompanied by cruelty and great disadvantage, though to the modern sensibility it is still abhorrent. Of course for centuries children especially girl children had very few rights also - see arranged marriages, property laws , lack of votes etc.

    it is pretty hilarious that anyone would take PETA's publicity stunts as any sort of definitive event - they obviously thought of the slavery angle because they couldn't make the cruelty or mistreatment one stick -and anyway this would grab media attention better.

    This sort of fluff discredits The Conversation.

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    1. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to wilma western

      It's pretty hilarious to observe Wilma's dumbing down definition of animal slavery when an estimated six million critters are experimented on in Australian laboratories every year and with impunity. Is she implying that animals just voluntarily rock up to labs because they like to be genetically modified, blinded, dissected, poisoned, terrorised, tortured, deafened and/or eventually slaughtered?

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    2. Stephen B

      Freelancer

      In reply to wilma western

      What discredits The Conversation and any other academic forums is backward and out-of-date thinking. A few decades ago animal law was barely mentioned in academic circles, now we see rapid growth of animal rights law courses around the world because of demand and because a law faculty could not call itself progressive without them. We have also seen a rapid increase in courses on animal rights and ethics over the last few decades.

      What PETA did is a sign of the times and a portent of what is to…

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