Pets, Slaves, and Adoptees: Kindred Spirits?

I finished reading Adam Hine’s (2010) Duncan the Wonder Dog (Show One) today, and one of the things it does is not only to have animals to talk but actually to center the “values” of the story from the animal point of view. (I have a longer review of the book here; there are some spoilers.) In one long section, a human diary details various life problems and tangentially addresses things going on with one of the house pets, a dog named Bundle. As Bundle becomes ill, the house’s cat berates Bundle’s human “mom”, who works at a shelter for lost animals:

The poorest most pathetic humans live like gods compared to any animal. It doesn’t matter who you were with, they won’t get rounded up and burned in an oven if they walk the long way through somebody’s back yard! You wear clothes and Bundle wears a collar that you gave him to match your carpeting and all he wants is for you to be here. He’s dying and he just wants you to be here with him. Who cares about the fucking shelter! (315, emphasis in original)

The book in general goes a long way toward making unambiguous the terrible (or at best, ambiguous) plight of animals in our human culture, but I saw clearly how this attached to the issues of slavery (resegregation and mass incarceration) and adoption as well (as human trafficking).

In particular, the way that the status of house pets, adopted children, and modernized slaves intersect and diverge interests me. For example, the trafficking of pets and adopted children (both domestically and internationally) differs from how incarcerated slaves are trafficked (but not how former domestic and international slaves were trafficked). How pets and slaves were subjected to breeding regimens, while adopted children are not is another variation (though all three were subject to sexual predation). All three are subject to RAD reactions. And so on.

What are other interconnections and disconnections you find and/or have experienced about this triad?

12 thoughts on “Pets, Slaves, and Adoptees: Kindred Spirits?

  1. I would argue that most animals especially pets have it better than most humans on the planet. It creeps me out to see things in the States like specialty pet stores, hotels and spas for dogs, etc. The amount of energy that goes into feeding captive animals is pretty obscene. In New York, I’ve seen people crying over dying pigeons in front of homeless people; I’ve seen people walking their dogs demand right of way from the down-and-out on the street.

    Having said that, I remember when I started up a category of DAMN! at Mediarama called “Adoption Alternatives”. I would repost online ads and the like that advertised pets, suggesting that an animal adoption might go farther toward the “need” for someone to take care of something else. I quickly found out that the similarity in language between animal and human adoption was truly disturbing, and furthermore that the mentality behind both was absolutely the same.

    This mentality has roots in a salvationist sentiment combined with a perception of someone or something weak and/or in need, that will be silent, obeying, obsequious, needy, and dependent. You reinforce this with trade, purchase, and “ownership papers”. You lord it over the newly bought object, and the reminder of his constant allegiance is demanded. The similarities between adoption and slavery are a given, since one came out of the other. The connection to subjugation of animals is new-ish.

    I would throw out there as well that the conquest of nature (animal and plant kingdoms) and the conquest of peoples are rooted in similar frameworks, religious and political. Much has been written about this; it is a rich vein to expand on, for sure.

  2. The New York Review of Books [ link ] has in a recent issue an article entitled “What Makes Dogs Dogs”. Some choice quotes that back up the basic premise of this post:

    It’s the first time she has set eyes on her new dog, which has caused Abramson to reflect on her old dog, a grouchy West Highland terrier named Buddy: “I was madly in love and forgave Buddy all his sins,” she writes. “He also seemed to certify me as a nicer person.”

    From her puppydom onward, Abramson’s Scout displays all the seductive physical characteristics we’ve come to associate with pet dogs. She is fluffy and soft, her gaze is direct, inviting, and soulful, and her ears flop over into perfect velveteen triangles. Abramson admits to singing Scout lullabies with silly, invented lyrics, and to thinking of her dog as a little baby, to be cuddled and swathed in unbridled, joyful tenderness—habits that, as most dog lovers know (and welcome), persist in perpetuity. Neoteny—retaining juvenile features into maturity—may be the dog’s most successful evolutionary adaptation. It triggers a human’s innate caretaking impulse. As Homans notes, “cuteness can be a powerful evolutionary weapon if one wants to succeed with a species as committed to child-rearing as humans are.”

    It was not long before the genetic purity of the pedigreed dog was promoted as a bulwark against the “racial” pollution of the mongrel, and all that implied beyond the dog world.

    When humans breed dogs, we breed them for us—to suit our fancy, primarily, and sometimes to help us accomplish certain tasks.

    The fact is that dogs—at least dogs like Scout and Stella, and my dog and probably yours—come into our world for our pleasure, whatever that pleasure is. They are here at our invitation, and exist under our control. We determine what they eat and when, and how much they exercise and how, and we train them—à la Abramson’s Scout—to live according to our rules and standards. The human–canine bond is inherently unequal. Like it or not, it is a power relationship.

    Subservient. Dominated. Domesticated. The allowance of entry into the world of bourgeois humans via adoption into the Master’s house.

    • You could argue, though, that the description given for pet-“parent” relationships is the same for any baby-parent relationship.

      Babies certainly do make us seem like nicer people, at least at first glance.

      Parents do, in a matter of speaking, cater to the “pedigree” of their future child in picking a partner with particularly admirable or useful qualities to pass on to the next generation.

      Certainly, most of us do not have children because one fine day we thought “goodness! I’ll do such a wonderful job serving a small human being and expect no emotional benefit in return.” We, as a species, tend to have children because we want them (although there are significant alternatives to this concept (social or physical force, for example)). Children, therefore, also “come into our world for our pleasure.”

      They certainly “exist under our control” (well, we can try!), and we, as their caretakers, have in our jurisdiction the choices of food, exercise, housing, clothing and training/schooling. As you very rightly said, “it is a power relationship.”

      • A long time coming before I reply; sorry for that.

        I feel a little confused; I think your points dovetail quite tidily with Daniel’s, even though you seem to be offering something of a, “Yes, but …”

        Regardless, you’ve definitely pulled the themes together. I would add that adolescence then seems not a (necessary) developmental phase but an (inevitable?) reaction by the child brought about by the (neurotic) parental power-imposition in the first place. Adolescence is not simply “discovering yourself” but a kind of “speaking truth to power” (child to parent). In cultures without this delusional power-fantasy by parents, I’d expect not to find what Kiell (1964) and Mead tried to characterise as the “universal” experience of adolescence.

  3. From the great blog “Economics of Imperialism”, an entry entitled: “Cats, Dogs and People in the Imperialist World Economy” [link]:

    Here is a selection of facts to ponder, sent to me today by a friend. They indicate how it is better to be a cat or a dog in an imperialist economic power than a worker in an oppressed country.

    Just some (pet) food for thought.

  4. In the recent Reuters series on “re-homing”, comparison is made to pet announcements in terms of how children are advertised online. I also came across this page [link], which states:

    DuPage County Forest Preserve commissioners say pull-tab fliers posted at area events promoting the sale and adoption of Danada Equestrian Center horses violates their policy prohibiting such advertising on the Internet….

    Earlier this year, commissioners added a ban on online advertising to the district’s horse adoption policy in response to concerns raised by Danada volunteers.

    The volunteers were concerned that advertising on the Internet could attract the attention of so-called “kill buyers.” A kill buyer, the volunteers said, is someone who purchases horses to ship them to a slaughterhouse.

    It would seem animals actually have more protection than we do as adoptees.

    • This is not the first time. I’ve heard that manuals on horse-breaking during the Renaissance (in England) had kinder and gentler methods (not that they were kind and gentle) than much of the child-rearing advice.

  5. Commercials to adopt a pet, adopt a star, signs to adopt a highway, and pleas to adopt legislation all made my hair stand up on the back of my neck. Thank you for this post. Researching the origin of the word “adopt” led me on a path of finding horrible things about adoption, and led me to some interestingly comforting findings. I so appreciate you//adoption honesty.

  6. Quoting: In this paper, I argue that the enduring figure of the child, understood as a subhuman animal, is the foundation upon which European slavery and colonialism themselves are rooted. In the first section, I show that the colonial structures of social death and violence exacted on black (and also native) peoples are instantiations of the Hellenistic/Christian/Enlightenment subjugation of children. In the formation of the European worldview, the figure of the child features as the ontological Other for whom violence and subjugation are the natural condition. Modelling the peoples of Africa and North America after the irrational, criminal, and sub-human child made possible the institutions of slavery and settler colonialism that advanced into modernity. In the second section, I show that it was not until the late 19th century that western societies began sparing their young from the violence of childhood, usually by positioning children — white youth — as partially benefitting from the mature and therefore fully-human legacy of European civilization. Black and native peoples, on the other hand, remain globally prefigured as children. As a consequence, Black and native youth remain condemned to the status of bestial child from which white children have been partially removed.

    SL: This came through at and I thought you would find it of interest:

    • Hi Daniel:

      I thought you wrote the paper, but no? I also think you could have, even if no.

      I certainly agree wholeheartedly that the child represents the original slave (not the woman, as Gerda Lerner maintained). And in regard of sparing the white child violence, there is now that body of putatively scientific evidence that people don’t finish cognitively developing their moral brain centers, even into their twenties.

      Supposedly, this should spare criminal prosecution of children (as cognitively disabled moralists), but I doubt this plays out without reference to race, of course. But it means, in principal, that (white) children are equivalently still animals into the early twenties (if not later). This doesn’t seem like progress to me, much less a step in a desirable direction. It seems, rather, having tarred-and-feathered Africans (and non-whites) as children for so long that it is time to “widen the reach” of that slander, white supremacist culture now directs that paternalistic “childifying” gesture to (white) children in our own backyard. Just as neoliberalism finally came home to roost (from its South American atrocities) with Reagan in the 1980s.

      • Not my writing, but I am intrigued very much by the article, as it maps onto how society at large even begins to see others as politically embodied humans or not. Overlaps here with the language of animal adoption are also disturbing, but now make sense….

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s