Nonhuman animals "have for so long been entangled in our categories of difference and our insatiable drive for order" (94), Sunaura Taylor writes in her brilliant book Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. The book carefully traces the particular entanglement of animality and disability, so often pitted against each other in ableist and speciesist claims to rights or subject status for either. Taylor, by contrast, focuses on the entanglement of their mechanisms of oppression: "If animal and disability oppression are entangled, might not that mean their paths of liberation are entangled as well?" (xv). She explores this question by following the threads of meat, farming, and other ways in which animals become objects of human consumption and control; the production of knowledge that orders and defines animals and humans; the use of animals to insult and dehumanize people with disabilities; the cripping of animal ethics and animal rights philosophy; the use of disability to justify animal testing; and the interdependence of humans and service animals. Beasts of Burden does all this in remarkably clear language and cultivates an embodied, personal lens on the ethical issues it raises. Drawing on Disability Studies and environmentalist and ethics literature, Taylor gives readers a sense of what it means to think with theorists and animals — and as a theorist and artist who is also a human animal.
"Part One: Epiphanies" takes readers through a series of Taylor's own epiphanies on her journey through these issues, ranging from realizing that meat was made of animals as a child, realizing that "animals are often mistreated and that there are people who protest this mistreatment because they believe it is wrong" (6), to connecting ableism as a kind of dehumanization—historically and in the present—to "the figure of the animal" (19). She argues that disability and animal justice are not just connected to each other, but that they should find their way into any intersectional understanding of liberation movements: "Unless disability and animal justice are incorporated into our other movements for liberation, ableism and anthropocentrism will be left unchallenged, available for use by systems of domination and oppression" (20). Nonhuman animals are affected by disability as disabled animals, which raise questions about how we conceptualize disability as experience, but also by ableist ideology, such as in the narratives of "mercy killing" (23). Other animals, in meat production, for example, experience conditions in which disability is systematically produced and discounted: "What does it mean to speak of a 'healthy' or 'normal' chicken, pig, or cow when they all live in environments that are profoundly disabling? Indeed, when they are all bred to be disabled?" (38). Taylor suggests that we think about these animals as "animal crips," to start "identifying nonhuman animals as subjects who have been oppressed by ableism" (43).
Following the introduction of concepts from Disability Studies in the first part, "Part Two: Cripping Animal Ethics" discusses speciesism (84) and the ways in which "ableist paradigms of language and cognitive ability" (52f.), in particular, have framed both definitions of animality and humanity. Taylor argues that "cripping animal ethics" involves learning from Disability Studies and activism about "new ways of valuing life that aren't limited by specific physical or mental capabilities" (57). This approach to ethics would be very different from an animal rights defense that "is structured around ableist assumptions about cognitive capacity coupled with a rhetorical instrumentalization of disabled people" (67). Taylor is careful to distinguish her argument that "ableism helps construct the systems that render the lives and experiences of both nonhuman animals and disabled humans as less valuable" (59) from arguments that, for example, "compare animals to intellectually disabled people" by noting that those "miss the more important point that a focus on specific human and neurotypical 'morally relevant abilities' harms both populations" (69).
In "Part Three: I am an Animal," Taylor recounts some of the animal insults and insulting animal comparisons she has encountered in reference to her body (103) and considers how to counter the ableism of such insults without having to disavow animality, how to "claim animality" since "animal liberation is entangled with our own?" (110). The key, she suggests, is in finding ways to "assert our value as human beings without either implying human superiority or denying our very own animality" (110). Reminding us "that animality is integral to humanity" (115), Taylor looks to historical examples of complex negotiations of agency and animality by freak show performers and to the work of contemporary disabled artists, envisioning an "animal turn" in disability culture that can see animals as kin (114).
In "Part Four: All Natural," Taylor takes on Peter Singer, writing that "[i]t is arguably because of Singer that animal rights and disability rights are nearly always seen as at odds" (124). Taylor engages in the philosophical repurposing, in a disability hacking, of Singer's animal rights argument in the name of her own anti-ableist animal rights position: "If Singer had left his argument in its simpler form, with the principle of equal consideration based on sentience, Animal Liberation would have been a remarkably anti-ableist book. His argument would have addressed the risks of using cognitive capacity as a yardstick of a being's value. But he didn't" (128). Taylor shows how Singer's reliance on a medical model of disability, his view of disability only as a negative, stands in the way of making the rich connections between animal and disability liberation (129). She sharply criticizes "his rhetorical use of stereotypes about disability, his assumptions about suffering, and his commitment to rationality as the only tool capable of defining personhood" (139), but also maintains that Singer is right about the need for animal liberation. Rather than finding animal liberation in pitting it against disability, Taylor sees the key to animal liberation in the value systems emerging from disability communities: "I envision them extending beyond the human, creating paths of liberation that celebrate the interdependence, agency, and community—not only of humans, but of humans, animals, and the environment" (145). She finds examples for the role of ableism in the naturalization and normalization of animal oppression in meat production: "Ableism is used to justify animal exploitation by presenting animals as incapable" (161). Taylor shows that animal oppression is not just philosophically linked to disability through the naturalization and normalization of oppression of hierarchized bodies. There are material connections between the production of animal meat and human disability as well: "Pollution is a disability issue. Industrialized agriculture, factory farms, and meatpacking plants are disability issues" (188).
Extending the argument from meat to medical uses of animals, "Part Five: Interdependence" opens with a discussion of the frequent references to disability to justify animal research. Taylor presents the 1980s activist group DIIAAR "Disabled and Incurably Ill for Alternatives to Animal Research" (DIIAAR) to show that a different story about disability activism and research can be told (194). Taylor argues that the commodification of animals for research, like that for meat production, is grounded in ableism, and articulates her call for veganism as an anti-ableist position: "When animal commodification and slaughter is justified through ableist positions, veganism becomes a radical anti-ableist position that takes seriously the ableism embedded in the way we sustain our corporeality—socially, politically, environmentally, and in what we consume" (201). Such a call for veganism, however, itself needs to be cripped, and, as in her call for "a sustainability movement that includes more bodies and more radical value systems," which includes recognizing "that efficiencies such as microwaves, fast-food restaurants, and precooked meals help disabled, elderly, and low-income individuals who are pressed for time get by" (173), Taylor is nuanced in her articulation of a "politically vegan" position. She notes that there are class, disability, cultural, and geographic differences in the ability to access vegan food and products or to avoid animal-tested medicine: "Cripping veganism means working toward the goal of animal and disability liberation while recognizing that our varying abilities enable us to work at different speeds and in different ways" (204). Including more bodies and asking hard questions of our value system characterize Taylor's approach to all the sites of human and non-human animal interdependence that she considers.
The closing chapter introduces the reader to Taylor's service dog, whose example illustrates what cripping animal ethics looks like in the interdependencies of care and daily life: "I originally wanted to get a dog in part to make my life easier, and instead I ended up with a disabled dog." When the service dog is not just a functional object, when the dog's needs can turn Taylor and her partner into "service humans," then dog and human are "[t]wo vulnerable, interdependent beings of different species learning to understand what the other one needs. Awkwardly and imperfectly, we care for each other" (223).
Beasts of Burden is written for, and deserves, many readers: It introduces and connects Disability Studies and activism, animal rights, and vegan ethics for its audience and welcomes readers from all these backgrounds. It is both accessible and nuanced, making it look effortless to combine personal memories with disability-hacking Peter Singer's philosophy. Disability is never a rhetorical trope serving an animal rights agenda and animals are never just serving a disability ethics here. Instead, Taylor is truly interested in the ethical complexities of living—awkwardly and imperfectly—with other beings in an interdependent world. I will use it in the classroom and I will use it to reflect in daily life surrounded by millions of pigs in rural Iowa. Wherever you are, whoever the animals are that surround or sustain you, this insightful book will speak to you, too.