This paper illuminates how volunteers and animal rescuers who assist dogs from a high-intake public shelter in the Los Angeles metropolitan area simultaneously resist the devaluation of the lives of disabled dogs while sensationalizing and fetishizing disability through their discursive and representational practices. Drawing on observations from three years of ethnographic fieldwork in an animal shelter and with animal rescues, as well as from public media volunteers and rescuers post online, I adopt an intersectional analysis that attends to inequalities of species, ability/disability, and gender in the context of contemporary American capitalism. I show how members of the animal rescue community—who are all women, almost all white, and none of whom identified themselves as disabled—reject the shelter's practice of fast-tracking some types of disabled dogs for shelter killing and assert instead the right of disabled dogs to live. At the same time, rescuers talk about and represent disabled dogs as infantile, remarkable, and in need of saviors to help them. Ultimately, rescuers' representations of disabled dogs work to expand capitalist beliefs of companion animals as lively capital by showing that disabled dogs have value as companions, in large part through an assertion of dogs as family members.
In 2019, I had a brief star turn as the narrator of a video on the animal-centered website and social media content creator The Dodo. Within a week of being posted on Facebook, the video had garnered over three million views on that one social media platform alone. In the video, still images and videos of a grey-and-white pit bull puppy move across the screen as my voice tells the viewer about what a remarkable dog the puppy is (The Dodo 2019). In the first minute of the roughly three-minute video, I recount how the puppy, Ellie, was rescued from Tijuana, Mexico, after she was found starving in a vacant lot. The viewer sees evidence of her journey to Los Angeles and of her poor physical condition: multiple pictures and video clips document how Ellie's ribs and hip bones protrude from her skin. Soon, she is prancing across a kitchen floor and eating stew from a large soup bowl. As the video proceeds, I reveal that my wife and I noticed "neurological quirks" about Ellie almost as soon as she came to us as a foster dog for a companion animal rescue organization based in Los Angeles. I share how Ellie is incontinent, although the staff at The Dodo edited out the reason for this—an untreatable spinal cord injury— along with my specification that she is fully incontinent (i.e., that she cannot control her bladder or her bowels at all). The video omits any mention of the word "incontinence," instead pointing to how Ellie "has difficulty" controlling her urine, accompanying images of her running down the street between three adult dogs. I let viewers know that Ellie is "a typical love bug pit bull," and describe her enjoyment of routine canine activities, like going for hikes and walks and being with other dogs.
Throughout, I reference the absence of a family in Ellie's life: how, at almost nine months of age, she has never had a family "of her own," and how much she deserves to be part of a family. Only a few seconds of the video contain any mention of the care work involved in being Ellie's family; during a clip of my wife bathing Ellie in our laundry room sink, The Dodo's interview with me is edited to mention briefly that her guardian will need to do a little more laundry than would be typical for other dogs because Ellie wears diapers. In the final moments of the video, I assert that Ellie is a "magical unicorn," an invocation of the popular mythical animal, while cartoon unicorns, rainbows, and pots of gold pop up on the screen around her.
This video representation of Ellie is one of thousands of online videos that rescue groups, animal shelter volunteers, animal guardians, and animal websites create and post each year that feature dogs with impairments, most often physical. In the Los Angeles area, human advocates for disabled dogs without homes try to change public and shelter attitudes about disabled dogs and to secure homes for these dogs. They work towards these goals through direct communication with prospective adopters, particularly in the shelter environment, and via social media. Advocates' willingness to work as advocates for disabled dogs reflects what Robert McRuer (2006) identifies as a need on the part of neoliberalism and postmodernity for "…subjects who are visible and spectacularly tolerant of queer/disabled existences" (2). That is, the current system of deregulated capitalism that centers competition, demands flexibility from workers and subjects, and reduces state interventions to reduce inequalities also maximizes profit when it can monetize or commodify even previously-stigmatized identities. In this context, a visible relationship with a disabled animal presents an opportunity for subjects to signal flexibility, tolerance, and open-mindedness, in turn allowing them to navigate on-going subjective crises of the current era.
This paper illuminates how volunteers and animal rescuers who assist dogs from a high-intake public shelter in southern California simultaneously resist the devaluation of the lives of disabled dogs while sensationalizing and fetishizing disability through their discursive and representational practices. The video of Ellie captures the contradictions in much of this work: the video at once asserts that Ellie is deserving of love and care, obscures the details of her disability, and lauds her as unique because of her disability. Viewers are clearly meant to feel pity for Ellie and to be attracted to her cuteness. Ellie is represented as both deserving and pitiable, and her disability is both a source of shame (in that it is never clearly identified or described in the video) and of specialness that makes her deserving of adoption.
This paper draws on observations from three years of ethnographic fieldwork in an animal shelter and with animal rescues. I show how members of the animal rescue community I study—who are all women, almost all white, and none of whom identify openly as disabled—embrace disabled dogs. They reject the shelter's practice of fast-tracking most types of disabled dogs for shelter killing and assert instead the right of disabled dogs to live. At the same time, rescuers represent disabled dogs as infantile, remarkable, and in need of saviors to help them, generally adopting what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2001) identifies as wondrous and sentimental visual rhetorics of disability. Reflecting dominant discourses of family and femininity—particularly among the white, middle-class/upper-class mainstream—the rescuers become "supermoms" to disabled dogs, and make securing a family for the dogs central to their work.
Shelter volunteers' and rescuers' representations of disabled dogs build upon capitalist framings of companion animals as commodities and show how disabled dogs have value as companions, in spite of, or even because of, their disabilities. As Rosemary-Claire Collard (2020) argues in her work on exotic companion animals, "the properties of…pets that are seen as 'useful' or as having use value—their encounterability, controllability, individuality—are not inherent in them, [but] are framed in relation to human usefulness, and are part of forming animal fetishism, or the treatment of animals as thinglike" (25). Shelter volunteers and animal rescuers work to frame disabled shelter dogs as valuable lively capital, or "living objects that generate, or have the potential to generate, value of some kind," including the value of interspecies contact and even intimacy (Collard 2020: 143). In asserting that disabled dogs are encounterable, controllable, and individual, advocates for disabled dogs challenge dominant views of these dogs (and implicitly of disabled people, as well) as less valuable or deserving and embrace disabled dogs as family members who merit the care of white affluent households. At the same time, they reify ableist/sanist, capitalist, racist, and anthropocentric discourses. There is no neat, linear argument to be made here; rather, volunteers and rescuers engage in a messy and complex web of sometimes contradictory practices, beliefs, and discourses. How animal shelter volunteers and rescuers talk about and represent disabled dogs offers the potential for both radical moves towards justice and the maintenance of existing oppressive norms.
Human structures of inequality such as race, class, gender, and dis/ability, are tied up with the inequality of species in ways that reinforce and sometimes resist inequalities among humans and between humans and companion animals (Guenther 2020, Weaver 2021). As I illuminate contradictions in how volunteers and rescuers represent disability in companion animals, this analysis also contributes to the growing scholarship that incorporates species into intersectional perspectives through the framework of interspecies intersectionality (Weaver 2021), and into the scholarship that bridges critical animal studies and disability studies (e.g., Jenkins, Montford, and Taylor 2020; MacPherson-Mayor and van Daalen-Smith 2020; Mykhalovskiy et al, 2020; Taylor 2017). While infrequently considered within the burgeoning literature on intersectionality that attends to disability (e.g., Campbell 2009; Goodley 2013), the ability/disability system, anthroparchy, and patriarchy are deeply entwined. The ability/disability system refers to "disability as a pervasive cultural system that stigmatizes certain kinds of bodily variations" (Garland-Thomson 2002: 5) while privileging others as desirable, valuable, and powerful. Anthroparchy is a social structure organized around the human conviction of our right to dominate and control what we see as the natural world, including nonhuman animals (Cudworth 2011, 2005). Patriarchy is a social system in which men and masculinity are afforded more access to power, resources, and status than are women and femininity and in which men routinely use various mechanisms of control to maintain their position of dominance as a group over women as a group (hooks 2010).
Animality is defined as that which is not human, and is closely linked to disability and race in western culture where both disabled people and people of color are constructed as less-than-human and more animal-like than abled people and white people (Kim 2015, 2017; Taylor 2017). Just as systems of racial exploitation and violence rely on claims about the inferiority and difference of non-whites relative to whites, so animality is also in significant part defined based on animals' alleged lack of abilities, such as the inability to engage in moral reasoning, or to engage in organized resistance, relative to humans in ways that excuse human exploitation of, and violence, towards animals. Animals who have specific disabilities experience an additional devaluation beyond the devaluation all non-human animals experience relative to human animals in an anthroparchy. A disabled companion animal who cannot meet all the expectations of contemporary pethood, a disabled food animal who cannot be sold at market for a high price (even though, as Gillespie 2018; Sommers and Soldatic 2020, among others, show the violence of animal agriculture causes most disabilities of farmed animals), or a free-roaming or "wild" animal who is disabled and needs care—all cannot meet human needs or expectations of animals. Since the human relationship with animals is fundamentally one of human dominance in order to extract our perceived benefits from animals, disabled animals typically have less social and economic value, often especially because they require more care than humans may believe an animal deserves.
Along with animals and other marginalized humans, women and femininity are understood to fall on the nature side of the culture-versus-nature divide that has defined western societies for centuries and rendered all but white able-bodied heterosexual men to be part of the natural and animal worlds (Adams 2010; Kheel 2004). As social categories, white cishetero women are constructed as "helpless, dependent, weak, vulnerable, and incapable" (Garland-Thomson 2002: 8) and in these ways are also like the disabled and animals.
In terms of animal advocacy, women's shared experience of violence and domination, coupled with gendered socialization that emphasizes women's contributions as caregivers, helps explain why nearly all shelter volunteers and animal rescuers are women (Guenther 2017, 2020; Gaarder 2011a, b). Caregiving labor is feminized and racialized in the United States, where it is overwhelmingly women who are responsible for providing care to children, seniors, and the disabled, and where women of color are overrepresented as (often poorly) paid caregivers. Advocating for unhoused disabled animals is likewise a gendered form of labor; in my many years of fieldwork, I only encountered women who were working to help disabled shelter animals. These women, however, have the luxury of volunteering to give care, and unsurprisingly are primarily white (and, if not white, Asian-American). The work of caring for disabled animals is often dirty, demanding, and exhausting. In many ways, it mirrors the type of care young children need, and thus falls within the purview of women's work in US society. As I discuss in greater detail below, caring for disabled animals has helped many rescuers achieve a type of hero status on social media, a status not typically shared with women engaged in the routine care of children. Caring for disabled dogs also gives these women an immense amount of control over the dogs: the women volunteers and rescuers define which animals are disabled, which are worthy of their help, how to intervene in their disabilities, if at all, and if and when to kill them. The work of rescuing disabled dogs is thus also inherently political in ways that support anthroparchy and other systems of domination (Kafer 2013).
Rescuing Disabled Dogs
I analyze the practices of two overlapping groups of people: animal rescuers and animal shelter volunteers. Animal rescuers in the Los Angeles area seek to reduce the rate of killing of companion animals in shelters and to support the rehoming of such animals by taking animals out of the region's high-kill shelters into non-profit rescue organizations, which then evaluate the animals, provide any necessary services (i.e., veterinary care, training), and adopt the animals out to new homes. Although rescuers assist different species of companion animals, in this paper I focus on rescues working with dogs only. Just over three hundred rescues held formal partner status with the shelter where I conducted fieldwork, which I call the Pacific Animal Welfare Center (PAW). However, only about a dozen rescues regularly take disabled dogs.
Animal shelter volunteers try to improve the conditions of impoundment by spending time with impounded animals at PAW, providing support to staff in necessary tasks such as feeding and cleaning kennels, and advocating for animals. Many volunteers work with rescues insofar as they evaluate animals in the shelter for rescues, foster animals or otherwise volunteer for rescues outside of the shelter, and contact rescues to ask them to rescue specific animals. Rescuers and volunteers routinely interact in person and through social media, and some individuals are both rescuers and volunteers.
I encountered rescuers and volunteers through my ethnographic fieldwork at PAW, a high-intake, high-kill shelter in metropolitan Los Angeles which took in between 17,000 and 20,000 unwanted and stray animals—primarily cats and dogs, but also other types of animals—each year during my fieldwork. I interacted with other volunteers at PAW routinely since I served as a volunteer myself, and observed and spoke with rescuers both when they came to the shelter to evaluate or rescue animals and at adoption events and other animal rescue events outside of the shelter. (I discuss methods at length elsewhere, so am keeping this brief here; see Guenther 2020). The present analysis relies on ethnographic observation and on interpretation of visual media primarily rescuers (although sometimes also volunteers) post on public social media such as YouTube and Instagram and on their own organization's websites.
My interest in unhoused disabled dogs stems from my broader research on shelter animals and my now extensive experience fostering dogs for rescue organizations. This also gives me a unique insider perspective into how rescues talk and think about disabled dogs. My wife and I have fostered dogs with temporary and permanent impairments for multiple rescue organizations, including nine dogs with mange, one born with a non-weight-bearing twisted front leg shorter than her other three legs, one with strangles, one with severe injuries to his front legs that resulted in mild permanent lameness and significant scarring, one with a spinal cord injury, three with severe fearfulness of humans, and multiple underage puppies (or puppies who were under eight weeks, who should have not been separated from their mothers and littermates, and who were not likely to survive at the shelter because they required specialized feeding or other individualized care shelters often cannot provide). Caring for these dogs typically for several months as they recovered, we developed new sets of knowledge and skills we had never needed before, gleaned from more seasoned rescuers and fosters, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and the Internet. For us, fostering arrangements were necessarily temporary; our role was to help the dogs be healthy "enough" that an adopter without the resources of the rescue and who might not be willing to manage the early (often diagnostic) stage or most severe manifestation of the disability could take over. One non-curable dog remained in our home as a permanent resident. In my role as a foster, I joined the ranks of the rescuers whose discourses about and visual representations of these dogs I analyze here, and I participated in the production of visual representations of disabled animals by providing photos and video clips to rescue groups to use in their materials.
Companion Animals as Lively Commodities
The political economy of companion animals in the contemporary United States focuses on dogs and cats (as well as other companion animals) as products whose social and economic value (just like that of humans) is determined by appearance, color, age, size, and ability. In a throwaway society in which consumers are encouraged to buy, consume, dispose, and buy again in an endless cycle, companion animals are both commodities and supports that help humans negotiate the strains of neoliberal capitalism in which corporations and the state expect workers to be flexible, mobile, and largely disposable. The contemporary preoccupation with pet love may reflect the neoliberal context, in which humans, increasingly mobile, disconnected from one another, and without a safety net, see companion animals (or "pets") as ideal love objects because they are relatively portable and can be shaped into whatever a human guardian wants them to be (Haraway 2008; Nast 2015). In an era of increased transience and aloneness, companion animals offer humans an opportunity for a love bond with a childlike being who is easier to manage and control, travel with, and dispose of than a human child (Nast 2015). Companion animals occupy a liminal and often-contested and unclear space between family member and commodity. Rosemary Claire-Collard (2020) identifies "pets" as subject to two fetishisms: the first, "a commodity fetishism that, through exchange, erases the socio-ecological relations of commodity production; and a second fetishism of the animal, an erasure of the socio-ecological relations and networks that produce living commodities as living, social beings in the first place" (18).
Humans choose companion animals from shelters, breeders, or pet stores to buy, in the process often breaking animals' social and familial bonds in pursuit of their own. As I observed time and time again, prospective adopters approach the adoption process with a list of "wants" for their future companion animal and are typically quite rigid in their commitment to that list (see especially Chapter Five of Irvine 2004 for a detailed discussion of adopters' decision-making processes in a nonprofit, low-kill humane society). This echoes consumer decision-making about other purchases. Typically, pure-bred animals and "designer" animals, including exotic cats and deliberately mixed-breed dogs like the Labrador Retriever-and-Poodle crosses known as Labradoodles, have greater value to humans, in terms of both what they cost—usually at least $1,000 and often much, much more (Paris Hilton reportedly paid $13,000 for a teacup Pomeranian; Barbara Streisand paid far more to have her Coton de Tulear cloned—stories that circulate in the Los Angeles animal rescue community as foils for the rescue movement). However, shelter animals constitute a significant proportion of companion animals in the United States, and Los Angeles has recently joined several other large US cities in banning the sale of dogs from breeders at pet stores.
The animal services industry, which has grown immensely since the 1980s, further commodifies companion animals. Spending on companion animal care has outpaced growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for decades; spending on veterinary care for companion animals, for example, grew three times faster than the GDP in the US between 1991 and 2015. Contemporary guardians to companion animals "spoil" their animals with toys, food, and paid services like dog day care and even dog yoga and increasingly provide their animals with specialized veterinary care such as orthopedic surgery and oncological treatment (Haraway 2008; Nast 2015). Large corporations like Mars, Inc., which, in owning multiple food brands such as Royal Canin, Pedigree, and Whiskas, and veterinary chains, including Banfield Pet Hospitals and Veterinary Centers of America (VCA), have stakes in various aspects of animals' lives, capitalize on humans' affection for companion animals.
In a cultural context in which companion animals are commodified family members—especially among the middle and upper classes where volunteers and rescuers hope former shelter dogs will end up—disabled dogs are among the least desirable. What kinds of canine bodies are considered disabled is socially constructed, the outcome of both veterinary and societal interpretation that itself reflects struggles over bodies and their impairment. Shelter staff (including veterinary staff) may formally designate an animal as impaired or unhealthy in some way, while volunteers and rescuers may do so informally (Tremain 2006). In the context of PAW and rescue organizations that help dogs from there, disabled dogs generally include any dog with temporary or chronic illnesses, mobility impairments (including injured or missing limbs), deafness or blindness, disfigurement (most often scarring on the face or ears), neurological or behavioral issues (such as seizures, tics, and extreme fearfulness), as well as animals who are very old and show signs of health issues that appear age-related (e.g., arthritis, vision and/or hearing loss, etc.). The definitions of disability thus include both temporary and permanent conditions, and rescuers and volunteers generally view dogs as disabled if they have a health-related issue or characteristic, whether chronic or temporary, curable, permanent, or fatal, that would make them less likely than a "healthy" or "normal" dog to be adopted by a member of the general public in the shelter setting. Their perception of how other human groups—especially shelter staff and prospective adopters—conceptualize disability shapes rescuers' and volunteers' own understandings of disability.
Reflecting the intersections of anthroparchy, ability/disability, patriarchy, and capitalism, companion animals who are understood as requiring excessive amounts of care are devalued. Disabled animals often require higher levels of routine care (i.e., administering medications, managing conditions, purchasing and negotiating mobility equipment, etc.) and may incur greater veterinary expenses. When fostering disabled animals, my caregiving labor included administering medications multiple times a day; caring for wounds, surgical sites, and infections by changing bandages, giving baths, and/or applying topical treatments multiple times a day (often to animals who resisted such care either due to pain or enthusiasm); washing countless loads of laundry—often several a day—soiled with blood, pus, mucous, urine, feces, and/or vomit; cleaning and sterilizing soiled pee pads and flooring; taking dogs on "crate rest" outside on leash to relieve themselves; consoling animals in pain; entertaining dogs bored while restricted to crates or other enclosures while recovering; cooking for dogs needing special diets; baster- or spoon-feeding dogs unable or unwilling to eat independently; traveling to and from veterinary offices and speaking with veterinary staff to try to represent the needs of fosters and ensure they received necessary care; communicating with rescue directors about an animal's progress; engaging in consistent and often highly time-consuming behavior modification techniques to try to alter the behaviors of fearful, reactive, or aggressive dogs; providing regular meals, water, and exercise; and making foster dogs feel secure by giving them opportunities for intimacy with me that they seek out, such as belly rubs, ear scratches, games, and co-sleeping. That the caregiving involved in caring for disabled dogs is devalued, feminized work may further contribute to the reluctance adopters have about adopting disabled dogs. While many guardians to companion animals are willing to care for sick and/or old dogs with whom they have already spent significant time while the dog was healthy or young and to whom they may feel they owe a debt of care because they already see that animal as like a family member, fewer want to adopt a dog who they identify as "defective" in some way because of physical or mental impairment.
Disabled dogs thus may have limited value as lively commodities, at least until rescuers restore that value to them. In fact, killing puppies born with "defects" ranging from non-conforming color to physical impairments has long been a practice among the breeders of pedigreed dogs, because breeders consider such puppies unsellable and see them as a potential threat to the bloodlines and reputation of the breeder's dogs. As Eli Clare (2017) argues, "Any person or community named defective can be targeted without question or hesitation for eradication, imprisonment, institutionalization" (23). Defectiveness—whether an injury, a disease, a behavior, an appearance—serves to justify adopters turning away from disabled dogs and to allow the public to turn away from the PAW's practice of killing disabled (and other) dogs.
Helping Disabled Dogs
There is, however, a subset of rescuers and shelter volunteers who advocate specifically for disabled dogs, seeking to find flexible adopters and to open the minds of those who would not normally consider a disabled companion animal to the possibility of adopting one. These volunteers and rescuers position disabled animals as desirable, loveable animals, through conversations with each other and others, and through photographs, written narratives, and videos they share on social media sites. They talk about and show disabled dogs as companions, as joyful and eager and sometimes messy or silly or hedonistic—just like non-disabled dogs. Volunteers and rescuers thus help frame disabled dogs as encounterable, individual, and controllable.
Simultaneously, rescuers and volunteers extend human norms and expectations around disability to disabled dogs. The dogs become objects of pity who need saving and/or sources of inspiration whose happy endings, importantly, humans created. Harlan Weaver (2021) refers to the dominant narratives in animal rescue (among adopters, rescuers, and other humans involved) as saviorist storying, through which the activities associated with dog rescue or shelter adoption involve feelings of salvation and are framed as "saving" beings in need. This storying may benefit individual dogs even as it reinscribes dominant discourses about race, class, and dis/ability.
Disability scholarship and activism often engages with questions of if and how to integrate disabled humans more fully into various aspects of social, political, and economic life, how to promote acceptance and justice for disabled people, and how to reduce preventable disabilities (Meekosha 2011). The social worlds of dog rescue involve similar struggles. Rescuers and volunteers celebrate dogs with disabilities while also encouraging practices that could reduce disability among dogs. Advocates for disabled dogs at once position them as "like" other dogs, but also as uniquely special—and requiring uniquely special human guardians to be their guardians. They lay blame for many disabilities on previous guardians whom they see as having failed to prevent disabilities from emerging, using what I elsewhere (Guenther 2020) identify as the racialized and classed myth of irresponsible owners to establish boundaries between those humans who are morally fit to care for companion animals and those who allow companion animals in their care to become disabled (e.g., permitting dogs to roam free so they are struck by cars, not vaccinating against preventable diseases, not seeking veterinary care early for potentially manageable diseases, abusing or neglecting dogs so that they become mad, etc.). Responsible owners are understood as white and financially secure (with wealthier people of color also in this group), while irresponsible owners are people of color and financially insecure. Rescuers and their supporters celebrate disabled rescue dogs as survivors: they are dogs who made it away from human guardians and/or out of shelters that were bent on their death, committed to enforcing the usual responses to disability: selective breeding, culling, "humane euthanasia."
As they engage in the work of advocating for and trying to help disabled dogs, rescuers and volunteers engage in two seemingly-contradictory projects: they challenge aspects of the commodification of animals (especially within the shelter), but also sensationalize and fetishize disability (mostly outside of the shelter). A core tension exists between resistance to commodification and the echoing of structural and ideological frameworks that render disabled animals appealing based almost solely on marketing that sensationalizes their stories and bodies. As I detail in the following sections, emphasizing companion animals as kinship relations—so as part of the private sphere of the family—becomes a key strategy for negotiating this tension. By adhering to the dominant (even zealous) commitment within the animal rescue community more broadly that companion animals are family members, advocates for disabled dogs open pathways for the decommodification of disabled companion animals, even as they simultaneously employ social scripts that emphasize the value of disabled animals, maintain the existing system of caregiving for the disabled as a private activity undertaken by women, and rely on their "saving" of disabled dogs to raise money for their organizations. Neoliberal capitalism is a complex web, and how rescuers of disabled dogs represent the dogs reflects this complexity.
Saving Disabled Dogs in the Shelter
Shelter staff at PAW generally view disabled and senior dogs as "unadoptable," or, at best, as "less likely to be adopted." In a shelter context in which around a third of impounded dogs were killed annually during the period of fieldwork, staff assess which dogs to put down based on their age, health/ability, and breed. Disabled dogs often have veterinary and personal needs that the shelter will not allocate the resources to meet, leading shelter staff to argue that keeping the animals there is inhumane. Consequently, along with pit bulls, disabled and senior animals are among the kinds of dogs most likely to be killed at the shelter; animals who were both a pit bull and disabled or senior rarely exited the shelter alive. PAW's response to disability in animals is one common ableist response to disability generally: to destroy it (Taylor 2017). The other common response, pity, tends to guide volunteers, who routinely reported how "badly" they felt for disabled dogs who ended up at the shelter. Volunteers consistently describe these animals as "helpless," "innocent," "so not deserving this [shelter experience]," and "needing a miracle [to leave the shelter alive]." They thus talk about the dogs as victims whose lives merit saving.
Shelter volunteers resist the idea that disabled animals have little or no value by trying to show shelter staff and prospective adopters and rescuers the merits and advantages of these animals. Volunteers accomplish this by getting to know the dogs and then using that knowledge to insist that the disabled animal is an individual, rather than part of a large population of animals. Individualization creates opportunities for an adopter to feel an emotional connection with a particular dog, which seems to increase the likelihood an adopter will proceed with an adoption. Volunteers also engage in this individualizing work with staff in an effort to show staff that disabled dogs are animals worth helping and should not be killed.
Volunteers tend to focus on what the disabled animals can do, rather than on what they cannot. For example, volunteer Eileen trained a large deaf dog to sit and give a paw using hand signals, and then invited several staff members to an informal "performance" of the dog's new skills in one of the play areas, both to make the dog stand out to staff and so staff could show these skills to prospective adopters. As she did so, she reminded the staff that deaf dogs can learn tricks, and that "there's really nothing a deaf dog can't do like other dogs." This approach works to normalize disability even as it continues to bring attention to the fact that the dog is disabled. It also works to establish the individuality of the dog, something that is essential to their value as a companion animal.
Another approach for advocating for disabled dogs at PAW is to appeal directly to emotions. Volunteers routinely dress up disabled small dogs (and, sometimes, large dogs, but the supplies are harder to locate in the shelter) in pajamas or infant onesies to try to make them look cute and, in some cases, to cover up visible disabilities. These infantilizing efforts render the animals vulnerable and appeal to empathy, compassion, and tenderness, emotions associated with femininity in the current gender binary dominant in the US. Volunteers also take photographs and record videos of dogs with physical disabilities that emphasize sadness and vulnerability; images of dogs with woeful expressions and their disabilities centrally visible sitting in their dim, narrow kennels are typical of this genre.
Volunteers also educate prospective adopters walking through the kennels about what would be involved in terms of time and cost in treating certain conditions, and which conditions can simply be ignored. Volunteers develop extensive knowledge about common conditions among shelter dogs, including cherry eye (a prolapse of a dog's third eyelid), sarcoptic and demodectic mange, torn anterior cruciate ligaments, bone breaks from car strikes, aural hematomas (aka cauliflower ear), and masses. While none of the volunteers I encountered were trained in veterinary medicine, they learned about veterinary health from their own experiences as guardians and fosters to dogs and from watching and learning at the shelter.
The general tenor of volunteers' educational efforts with prospective adopters was to push prospective adopters away from being afraid of the cost or other "problems" they believe are associated with disability to consider instead if they would be able to care for a disabled animal and what the rewards of that care might be. My field notes about an interaction between a senior volunteer and a middle-aged couple in front of the kennel of a dog named Alice, a pit bull mix who appeared to have a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), capture how volunteers try to convey positive messages about disabled dogs:
The prospective adopter noticed the obvious, that Alice wasn't bearing weight on one back leg. When she commented, the volunteer told the prospective adopter that she thought Alice had torn her ACL. The man in the couple then asked if that could be fixed. The volunteer replied by telling them that the surgery is very common for dogs, and that the volunteer had been through it before, twice, with her own dogs. The volunteer said it can be a few thousand dollars, and required weeks of rest afterwards. The volunteer noted that the surgery was basically always successful and that she had never heard of a dog who didn't have full use of the leg after surgery. She also added that a shelter dog would be particularly grateful for the help, and Alice for sure would love her new "pawrents" forever if they brought her home and fixed her leg.
Here, the volunteer shares information about the cost and recovery involved with curing the dog's disability, and she normalizes the surgery, making Alice's situation seem routine and readily curable. She also promotes the idea that the cost and recovery are worthwhile because the surgeries are typically successful. Further, the volunteer asserts that giving Alice the surgery will result in a closer bond between the adopters and Alice, a connection that the volunteer equates to the bond between parent and child by using the term "pawrents." The volunteer's interaction with the prospective adopters also advances the idea that their investment in surgery will result in the pay-off of a devoted and grateful canine companion. (This couple did not adopt Alice, but she was subsequently rescued by a rescue organization).
"Adopters don't want these kinds of dogs," was the message I heard again and again from volunteers and staff in reference to disabled dogs. The notable exceptions were dogs who were in the news because of abuse or neglect; one adult pit bull whose leg was amputated following a brutal injury perpetrated by his former guardian was adopted from the shelter. When appealing to rescue groups, volunteers use social media as well as direct contact with rescuers, sending them photographs and videos of the dogs in need looking sad and dejected, and taking close-ups of any visible issues, like tumors. These representations are meant to document the animals' conditions, and also to appeal emotionally to rescuers.
For dogs with permanent or long-term disabilities, and especially for mad dogs, or those who the shelter has deemed behaviorally problematic (Guenther 2020), volunteers mostly focus on reaching out to rescue groups. Dogs who the shelter labels as behaviorally problematic, either because of their behavior at the shelter or because of behavior a previous guardian reported to the shelter, are the most challenging cases for volunteers to help because rescue organizations shy away from dogs with alleged aggression, especially if they are larger dogs and most of all if they are identified as pit bulls or other "bully" breeds. Typically, PAW allows only rescue organizations and not private adopters to take these dogs out of the shelter, a restriction that makes rescues the dogs' only hope for exiting alive. To appeal to rescuers to help mad dogs at PAW, volunteers either deny the madness or seek to contextualize it. Volunteers provide evidence of how the dog in question is not actually mad, but either has been misdiagnosed (a common phenomenon in the shelter system) or is suffering from temporary madness induced by kenneling at the shelter (aka zoochosis or kennel stress) rather than a more permanent madness. These appeals almost always involve video and photographs showing the dog in question engaged in more typical behavior than what the shelter states they are capable of; in some cases, when a dog appears to be heartbroken and has entered a depressive state, a single photo of the despondent animal can be enough to generate rescue interest.
Rescue Representations of Disabled Dogs
Responding to pressure from shelter staff and volunteers, public interest expressed through social media, and/or their own desires and priorities, animal rescues ultimately select some disabled dogs to take into their rescues. Those animals who rescue organizations take in typically receive appropriate veterinary care and may reside in a facility or foster home while recovering or, for those with incurable conditions, while being evaluated so that the rescue understands the dog's needs in a permanent home. A subset of disabled animals are hospice cases who receive only palliative care until they are given what rescuers consider a good death—one with a human they know holding them (Guenther 2020). Dogs with behavioral issues may go to residential training programs for weeks or even months.
Once rescued, disabled dogs' stories become part of narratives of redemption and overcoming. The dogs are visible in the online worlds of dog rescue, including social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and The Dodo. During their time in rescue, rescuers regularly disseminate photographs and videos of disabled dogs to their supporters (who may be asked via online or email appeals to donate to the rescue) and to prospective adopters.
The pictures and videos dog rescuers put on social media and other websites are heavily curated. Even before the production and editing of images and videos, rescuers curate which dogs are rescued; that is, they choose which dogs to rescue based on a number of factors. Through my fieldwork, I observed that dogs with some types of disabilities are more likely to be rescued than others. Further, breed intersects with disability such that certain types of dogs are unlikely to be rescued, whether disabled or not. Pit bulls in particular fare poorly. At PAW, I consistently observed that dogs with more dramatic physical disabilities were most likely to garner rescue attention, such as those with large and highly visible tumors, missing limbs, or severe cases of mange. To some volunteers, these dogs seem even more likely to be rescued (but not adopted from the shelter) than healthy dogs. Reflecting the gallows humor at PAW, one shelter volunteer joked with me about how she wanted to inject healthy dogs with a temporary paralyzing agent so that they would attract the attention of rescuers; another separately suggested eye drops to render dogs temporarily blind so that rescuers would be more interested in them. Both jokes highlight the idea that rescuers are more likely to help disabled dogs than non-disabled dogs because disabled dogs have value as rescue cases that tug on people's heartstrings and bring positive attention (and potentially donations) to the rescue's work. This is one of several ways in which emotions play a role in how volunteers and rescuers think about and react to disabled dogs. Volunteers and rescuers certainly seem to have genuine compassion for disabled dogs, but also recognize that emotional narratives bring support, whether as donations, offers to foster or adopt dogs, or general social media attention.
In rescue pictures and videos, human norms and expectations around disability are extended to the dogs. Disabled dogs become objects of pity who need saving and/or sources of inspiration whose happy endings, importantly, humans create. Broadly, rescues in the Los Angeles area produce two types of videos of disabled dogs: those which present a narrative of cure and those which present a narrative of overcoming disability (Clare 2007). Cure videos all follow the same narrative arc: a dog comes into a shelter or rescue with a significant injury or illness, the rescue heroically tries to help the dog through veterinary intervention, the dog is shown in different stages of recovery—usually first while looking sad and defeated in a veterinary hospital and then appearing increasingly chipper while moving towards (re)possessing an able-bodied body—and then, in the triumphant final moments, the dog is shown happy and no longer disabled and in the care of loving humans. The cure is clearly made possible by the intervention of heroic humans, who are often visible in the film, as well.
In overcoming videos, the dogs cannot be cured. So, they are instead shown living with their disability, often using mobility devices. These videos tend to celebrate the spectacle of disabled dogs negotiating their disability (and, often, adaptive devices) and skew towards centering the dog as a hero rather than the human as a hero. In the case of mad dogs, the video narratives contextualize their madness, such as by pointing out a history of abuse, neglect, and/or isolation that presumably helps explain the dogs' current behavior. While human heroes remain ever-present, the disabled dog is the star of these videos.
A video made by a Los Angeles rescue that rescued a Chihuahua with two rear legs and no front legs is typical of overcoming videos. The rescue named the dog Miracle and began working with her using a wheelchair in place of her front legs, as well as household items to facilitate her mobility, such as resting her upper body over a roll of paper towels while eating so her head does not sink into her food bowl as she dines. In an Instagram post about the dog's first full day in the rescue, accompanying a video in which the two-legged dog hops on her back legs and seemingly stops to look at herself in a full-length mirror, the rescue wrote:
She looked in the mirror with these curious eyes and saw this beautiful nubby butterfly who was just given the chance to spread her wings and fly. And that she has. To see the way she moves now is a true metamorphosis. She's strong and beautiful. And precious. Our precious Miracle.
Here, the dog, Miracle, whose name invokes a rapturous divine event, is described as undergoing a metamorphosis as she looks at herself in a mirror and purportedly understands that she has now been rescued from undesirable previous living situations that did not give her a chance, both in a shelter and before that with people rescuers would likely assert are irresponsible guardians. The giver of Miracle's "chance to spread her wings and fly" is, of course, the rescuer, an affluent white woman. The text accompanying her photo refers to Miracle's body as a "beautiful nubby butterfly," the nubs being the scars where front legs would be on a dog with four legs. The hyperbolic metaphor of flying captures her expected enhanced mobility thanks to the rescue; walking apparently is not sufficient and, as part of the narrative of supercrips (Berger 2008; Howe 2011; Schalk 2016), the rescue describes Miracle as engaging in a truly immense feat through this metaphor; she becomes a dog who can fly. Miracle herself is portrayed using laudatory terms—most obviously in her name—and the emphasis on her being both beautiful and precious (the two adjectives which appear twice in the post) resists social scripts that more often render disabled bodies undesirable, ugly, and valueless. The language is highly gendered, emphasizing traits society values in women—particularly beauty—but often does not extend to disabled women (Garland-Thomson 1997, 2002; Malmberg 2009).
This video of Miracle would fall into the category of inspiration porn, or the representation of disabled people and animals as inspirational because of their coping with disability. Inspiration porn is problematic for several reasons, including that it positions disabled people as Other, dehumanizes them, and views disability—rather than the societal response to disability—as problematic and needing to be overcome on an individual basis (Grue 2016). Inspiration porn involving rescued dogs either represents them as supercrips who have overcome disability to achieve remarkable feats (such as a pit bull who uses a wheel chair and does parkour) or treats disabled animals as child-like and dependent through an emphasis on cuteness and vulnerability.
Examples of infantilizing that emphasizes cuteness abound on rescues' social media accounts. In Ellie's video, which I described in the opening paragraphs of this paper, she is shown wearing dog pajamas and dog diapers with childish cartoon-style patterns. Other disabled dogs are similarly depicted wearing tutus or dog pajamas with patterns like unicorns, rainbows, or rubber ducks; a puppy with a skull deformity is video recorded in ultra close-up to emphasize the pup's innocent, infantile expression; a blind dog with her eyes sewn shut is cuddled by two photogenic children who hold her in their arms like a cherished younger sibling; a geriatric pit bull with mobility issues dons a fluffy pink crown as she struggles to walk across a room to her food bowl. Through these types of representations, rescuers reinforce that these dogs have value as induvial, encounterable, controllable beings.
Each of these images of disabled dogs presents them as remarkable for their capacity to adapt to their disability, yet simultaneously helpless and requiring the support of the viewer and the rescue. The dogs are clearly meant to be seen as different from other dogs; if that message isn't conveyed in the film or photograph, the language accompanying the visual images drives it home, routinely pointing out how the dog in the video or image is a "magical unicorn," "beyond special," or "truly one-of-a-kind." The disabled dogs become a spectacle, a kind of freak show in which the freaks are meant to be loved.
While shelter volunteers tend to place more emphasis on what Catalin Brylla (2018) calls the "everydayness" of disability, or treating disability as ordinary, rescuers almost always talk about disabled dogs as extraordinary. The dogs become part of the narrative of supercrips for managing their disabilities while still being cute—so not letting their disability stand in the way of meeting their obligations as companion animals to provide humans with physical and emotional pleasures. And the rescuers who help the dogs become part of the narrative of supermoms, overcoming structural challenges to caregiving and heroically generous in their willingness to provide the time and resources necessary for the care of the dogs. Expressions of gratitude viewers put in the comments which routinely refer to rescuers as "heroes," "angels," "heaven-sent," and "incredible" on social media reinforce the hero status.
The infantilization of disabled dogs and an emphasis on the tragedy of their bodies seem to have positive financial implications for rescue organizations. Even as rescuers claim dogs are family members, which might suggest decommodification, they rely on pictures and images of them to elicit donations. According to conversations I had with the directors of multiple rescue groups, visibly disabled animals—especially puppies and small dogs—are the greatest generators of online donations. Appeals include photographs and videos of disabled animals looking acutely miserable: their skin raw from mange, their legs wrapped in bandages, their expressions forlorn. Often rescues include images of x-rays or veterinary bills to substantiate claims about the severity of the condition. Rescuers announce their intention "to give [the dog] the most beautiful second chance a dog could ever hope for. But, we can only do this with your help." This kind of messaging reinforces the idea that disabled dogs deserve care and that compassionate and generous people should help them.
Rescuers can generate hundreds or even thousands of dollars from just one Instagram or Facebook post. One rescuer told me she had received as much as $20,000 from a single social media post asking for funds for a specific disabled dog. Rescuing disabled dogs thus presents an opportunity for significant monetary gain for rescue groups, most of which are registered 501(c)(3) organizations and will use the funds for the care of a range of animals they rescue, not just the animal whose social media post generates donations. Disabled dogs can be an important source of income (and of potentially income-generating publicity) for rescue organizations. This in turn has implications for which dogs get rescued, and those who are physically appealing (e.g., puppies, small dogs) and who have especially dramatic disabilities and positive narrative arcs become those who are also most rescue-able.
How rescuers represent disabled dogs also thrusts the dogs back into the general symbols and discourses rescuers use of companion animals as child-like family members. In rescue narratives and discourses, companion animals are family members and, just as society expects that contemporary parents will not discard or euthanize their disabled child, so, too, should humans treat disabled and senior dogs with respect, care, and love. Although situating dogs as family members increases their status above other non-companion animals, the emphasis on dogs as kin also places disability in dogs firmly back into the realm of the family, where disability among humans also lies: under neoliberal capitalism, disability is readily regarded as a problem with which families must deal rather than an issue which society must address (Kafer 2013).
Rescuers are well-positioned specifically as white women to make maternal claims about companion animals because domesticity has long centered whiteness and femininity. That is, they are legitimate carriers of ideas about family, responsibility, care, and love. Using the authority financially secure white womanhood invests in them, rescuers can rewrite the stories of disabled dogs, rendering their previous connections to people and communities invisible, like in Miracle's story above, and placing them firmly in the realm of white affluent/secure family life. Given where rescued disabled dogs come from—whether the low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles or the back lots of Tijuana, like Ellie the pit bull—and how rescue organizations strictly screen adopters to restrict adoptions to renters, lower-income people, and others who have characteristics that might suggest they are irresponsible guardians, the dogs' stories are always stories of upward mobility, leaving poor communities of color to join white, secure households. This restorying of the dogs' lives in ways that eliminate their own network of connections and their own position within a system of social relations other than what their current guardian imagines for them is a key part of the process of animal fetishism (Collard 2020). In his analysis of the discourses around shelter adoption and rescue, Harlan Weaver (2021) finds that, "Saviorist storying strips so-called rescue dogs of not just their histories but also of their identities and the ways these identities are connected to specific humans. A new story becomes possible though a transition in class (and, often, connections to race) through assimilation into a new and different life pattern" (39).
Women Saving Disabled Dogs
What about the role of the human women involved in saving and representing disabled dogs, rescuers who play important parts as co-stars, narrators, producers? A few rescuers almost never appear in videos or photographs on their rescues' social media sites. More often, the women who have rescued a disabled dog appear in the videos about them, and their voices provide the narration. Still images also often include the women, particularly in so-called "freedom shots," which show the dog shortly after leaving the shelter. Reflecting the widespread use in animal rescue of the simile of public shelters as being like prisons—itself a racialized assertion (Weaver 2021)—the idea of a freedom shot is to capture the moment an animal is liberated from "doggy jail" to start their new life post-incarceration. Rescuers routinely take freedom shots outside of the shelter, showing the woman rescuer and the dog on the outside of the shelter building, or in the car, or sometimes at a near-by drive-through where the rescuer has purchased a hamburger for the dog. The images—whether still or video—typically show the dog and the rescuer physically close together, often with the rescuer hugging or holding the dog (depending on the dog's size); if video, there may be no formal narration, and instead the sounds of the dog panting and the rescuer cooing or talking to the dog in warm, gentle tones can be heard. If the dog has a visible disability, the disability will be central in the image.
Having witnessed many disabled dogs leaving the shelter, and sometimes being the person who took them out myself, I learned the importance of the "freedom shot" for rescue groups, whether of a disabled dog or not. The pictures are key plot elements in the stories of salvation rescuers craft on social media, and often support fundraising. Sometimes, a rescuer will have posted already about their intent to save a particular dog, building in elements of suspense that the dog is "red listed" or "about to be killed." The freedom shot then provides viewers with the resolution of a climax in which the dog's life is at risk until rescued from the shelter.
Importantly, in these narratives, women rescuers (and also rescue and shelter volunteers) are heroes who saved the dog. Their hero status reflects both resistance to gender norms and adherence to gendered scripts. Because heroism centers courage and risk, women are less likely to be afforded the kind of hero status that men are (Becker and Eagley, 2004; Kinsella, Richie, and Igou, 2017). The assertion of their heroism and the affirmation of their heroism by social media audiences defy gendered structures and norms that much more often make men heroes. However, when women do appear as heroes, their heroism often is exercised through caregiving, whether as a heroic medical provider or mother or teacher. So, too, women who help disabled dogs exit PAW engage in the feminized activity of caring about and for those society sees as more vulnerable and dependent.
In the contemporary climate in which social media influencers hold celebrity status, and where social media presence can translate into more money for a rescue organization, rescuers have both psychological, cultural, and financial reasons for pursuing social media celebrity. But they must use social media carefully as these women rescue heroes are not safe from criticism. Specifically, if rescuers and/or volunteers see another rescuer and/or volunteer making themselves too central in rescue narratives, she may be spoken of as a "glory hound," or someone who seeks out social recognition or even fame for doing good deeds. In their social media presence, they must be careful not to overdo it and risk being labeled as a "glory hound."
Rescuing disabled dogs also has emotional costs and benefits for the women who try to help them. Volunteers and rescuers consistently mention feelings of joy and elation—even a type of high—when they help a dog leave the shelter (see also Weaver 2021). This is reinforced when such an effort captures the attention of others, as through social media. Yet the activities of volunteers and rescuers also have significant emotional costs; dogs may be killed at the shelter before being rescued or adopted, or a veterinarian may determine that palliative care or euthanasia is the best option for a dog who a rescuer hoped could be helped. Rescuers know about the possibilities of these outcomes and take emotional risks when trying to help disabled dogs. Publicizing these emotional risks on social media—posting about the deaths of dogs, and the emotional impact of caring for disabled dogs on rescuers—further heightens the position of the rescuer as a heroic savior.
Moving Towards Multispecies Gender & Disability Justice
Reflecting on the complex intersections of species, disability, and gender in the practices, discourses, and representations shelter volunteers and animal rescuers craft around disabled dogs, I land on two final questions: (1) What are the consequences for disabled animals who are caught up in human structures of social inequalities and human social beliefs? (2) What are the consequences for gender and disability justice when able-bodied white women rescuers engage in the practices and discourses identified here? Unsurprisingly, I find problems and potentialities in the zig-zagging moves volunteers and rescuers trying to help disabled dogs make towards both challenging and reinforcing the status quo of inequalities.
The adoption and rescuing of disabled dogs is good for disabled dogs in several ways. When rescuers take dogs out of the shelter, they are providing those dogs with a near-guarantee that they will live out their natural lives as companion animals, whether in a foster home or with an adopter. There are also many positives for disabled dogs as a group, beyond those who are rescued. Shelter volunteers and animal rescuers are asserting that disabled dogs should be given an opportunity to live, an opportunity that both PAW and society more broadly are quick to deny disabled dogs. When volunteers educate prospective adopters about the needs of disabled dogs, they are engaging in an advocacy project that may lead more people to consider these dogs as companions in their own homes. In some ways, volunteers and rescuers resist the existing commodification of companion animals by trying to assert the inherent value of all companion animals, irrespective of their age, ability, or other characteristics. Thinking back to the opening of this paper where I described the video of Ellie, the pit bull with the spinal cord injury, is a reminder of how rescue representations of disabled dogs show these dogs as loveable and insist on their right to receive human love and be part of a multispecies family with humans. Further, by making the bodies of disabled dogs visible, rescuers invite viewers of their images and videos to engage with non-normative bodies and to resist corporeal standards centered on ability (Shildrick 2009), and their work can be seen as a type of microresistance (Cavar and Baril 2021). This is a calling-in that can be extended to shift human ideas about disability among humans, as well.
Yet the representational practices of rescuers and shelter volunteers also sensationalize disability, rely on dominant and problematic tropes of the tragedy of disability, reinforce the idea that disabled animals (and, implicitly, humans) need able-bodied human heroes to save them (including through cure, when possible), and celebrate the supercrip as an ideal performance of disability. These practices reinforce dominant ideologies of the ability/disability system, rendering disability problematic and celebrating those individuals who, for a range of reasons often related to type of disability and access to resources, become part of the narrative of supercrips (Silva and Howe 2012). Although dog rescuers engage in representational work of dogs, not people, their narratives track with those about disabled humans as they present the bodies of disabled dogs as different and sensational. This attention can be read as empowering or exploitative. As Dan Goodley (2013) writes, "The disabled body, then, is not only a site of oppression but (like all forms of oppression) always contradictory and therefore full of the promise of potentiality. Disabled people [and animals] occupy cripping positions of subversion, connection and reappraisal precisely because they embody Other positions to those demanded by ableist cultures" (638).
Further, in many ways, the women involved in helping disabled shelter dogs participate in gendered structures and reinforce dominant social ideas that caring for the vulnerable, such as disabled dogs, is feminized labor. They also practice and reinforce anthroparchy by maintaining human control over animals and asserting what they think is in their "best interests" without ever showing that they try to understand the dogs' interests. When rescuers use their seemingly abled bodies to help disabled dogs through the perpetuation of limited representations of disabled bodies—such as the narratives of cure and supercrips—they reinforce the ability/disability system. In mobilizing whiteness through their saviorist storying, volunteers and rescuers perpetuate racist and racialized ideas about what kinds of people are best-suited to care for disabled dogs (and all companion animals, really). The work of shelter volunteers and rescuers to help disabled dogs is thus shot through with the contradictions of contemporary structures of power that often obscure how "helping" efforts can simultaneously perpetuate inequalities of race, class, gender, and ability/disablity.
Already, the efforts of human advocates for disabled dogs gel with many of the claims made by disability rights activists, particularly their emphasis on giving disabled animals chances at life. At present, this advocacy occurs primarily for individual animals. To move towards multispecies disability justice, rescuers should further promote the rights of disabled animals as a group within PAW and other animal shelters which target these dogs for shelter killing. They could also more explicitly engage with feminist ethics of care, which centers "listening to animals, paying emotional attention, taking seriously—caring about— what they are telling us" (Donovan, 2006: 305). Feminist ethics of care also recognize and seek to challenge hierarchies and inequalities, thereby connecting individual caregiving to broader political projects such as animal rights, disability justice, and anti-racism work. If rescuers made these conceptual moves, this would likely shift how they represent disabled dogs and the relationships they have with the humans who rescue them, which in turn could also challenge the gendered, classed, and racialized scripts of animal rescue. For instance, rescues might invest more effort in helping to build up structures, like affordable housing that is friendly to companion animals and disabled people, that help companion animals and their original guardians stay together. Both dominant ideas about animality, gender, and disability need to change significantly in society for the caregiving work women rescuers do for disabled dogs to be recognized as important and valuable, and for the lives of these animals to be seen as inherently valuable. Shelter volunteers and rescuers can help to support and catalyze these changes through deeper engagement with their own practices.
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