Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka. 2011. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

(Summarized by Marie Carmen Abney, Animal Studies Graduate Program, Michigan State University)

            Zoopolis by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka presents a politically-framed view of the human-animal interaction. In this ground-breaking work Donaldson and Kymlick argue that we should bring domesticated animals, both farm and companion, into a co-citizenship relationship with humans. Wild animals should be viewed as sovereigns, entitled to their own territory and choices. Finally, Donaldson and Kymlicka present a third kind of animal, the liminal animal, made up of a mixed bag of semi-domesticated and human settlement-savvy animals who live in or near suburban and urban areas, sometimes interacting with humans, and always using the urban setting to provide them with food and shelter. For this group, Donaldson and Kymlicka reserve the denizenship status, for those beings among us but not of us. With this book Donaldson and Kymlicka are challenging both those views that do not take animals into account whatsoever when defining our political community as well as the animal rights view that argues we should live completely separately from animals. These authors want to take into account all of the complexities woven into the myriad of human-animal relationships and come up with a new framework that extends the animal rights view and expands our political community.
Donaldson and Kymlicka set the stage for their revolutionary new framework in their introductory chapter, Chapter 1, with a discussion about the animal advocacy field’s history. According to these authors, the animal advocacy field as we know it today has existed for about 180 years. The very first animal welfare group to form was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Britain in 1824. While this group originally formed to advocate for the protection of carriage horses, this group itself and the field as a whole has ballooned into an incredibly diverse field today. There are grass-roots efforts, as well as political and academic efforts. Greyhound racing bans and dog fighting busts have ramped up in recent years, as have political actions. While the period from 1940 to 1990 saw practically no successful animal-welfare related referenda, in the last 20 or so years 28 of the 41 proposed referenda have passed successfully.
Despite these great strides, Donaldson and Kymlicka challenge these successes with the claim that globally the animal welfare movement has been a failure. Since the 1960s the human population has doubled in size while the wild animal population has shrunk by a third. Along with this, the factory farm industry continues to grow. When the book was published 56 billion farm animals were being sent to slaughter annually, not including the aquatics, and this number is expected to double again by 2050. Along with these statistics, Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011, p. 2) considered arguments that so-called successes were anything but: “Some critics argue that the so-called victories of the animal advocacy movement—such as California’s Proposition 2—are in fact strategic exploitation, and at worst, they provide citizens with a way to soothe their moral anxieties, providing false reassurance that things are getting better, when in fact they are getting worse.”
Donaldson and Kymlicka do not allow the reader to despair for long. They say the overall failure of the animal advocacy field is due to a lack of agreement on the best approach to use. There are three common approaches, each with their very unique view of the issue: (1) welfarist, (2) ecologist, and (3) basic rights. Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011, p. 3) say that none of these are ideal on their own, that instead a new framework is needed for generating fundamental change, one that “connects the treatment of animals more directly to fundamental principles of liberal-democratic justice and human rights.” The new framework that they go on to present is one that is based on the animal rights framework—in the sense that it recognizes animals as having inviolable rights—but it extends the AR framework to consider not only the negative rights animals are owed (not to be killed, maimed, or tortured) but also the positive rights (to autonomy, territory, etc).

In Chapter 2, Donaldson and Kymlicka present the basics of their new framework. They emphasis the importance of considering all of the myriad of human-animal relationships. They also advocate against a total removal of animals from our world, instead they advocate for respectful, mutually-enriching, non-exploitative relationships. The main thrust of this chapter is to investigate animals’ inviolable rights. First and foremost, animals are not means to our ends, they were not put on this earth to feed us, serve us, or comfort us. Inviolable does not mean absolute though. It allows for self-defense, it recognizes the importance of the historical timeframe (at times we had to kill to survive), and it accepts the “moderate scarcity” principle which recognizes that there are limited resources and you can only recognize another’s legitimate claims to these limited resources to the point that you are not sacrificing your own. Justice, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue, is an ongoing process. “Ought” changes, as do circumstances.
This brings us to Donaldson and Kymlicka’s consideration of animals from a citizenship theory perspective. In Chapter 3, they introduce citizenship theory from a human perspective. They talk about universal rights versus citizenship rights, the situation for non-citizens and the reality of sovereignty. They focused most of their time on the term “citizen.” First, they addressed the commonly-held belief that being a citizen is mostly predicated on being politically active, something that is seen as impossible for animals. Donaldson and Kymlicka’s counter to this was that there are actually three important parts of being a citizen: (1) nationality, (2) popular sovereignty, and (3) democratic political agency. Nationality means belonging to a particular territorial state, having the right to reside in a particular area and to return to it if you leave. Popular sovereignty refers to the idea advanced by the French Revolution that the state belongs to the people. Finally, democratic political agency can refer to political activity such as voting, but it can also refer more generally to a citizen’s right to be a “co-authors” of laws. Here animals can be “co-authors” by having their interests represented in the political process.
In Chapter 4, Donaldson and Kymlicka begin applying this citizenship theory to animals. For Chapter 4 specifically, they focus on domesticated animals. For these animals, Donaldson and Kymlicka suggest co-citizenship, but they first consider why other approaches have been unsuccessful. For much of history the human-domesticated animal relationship has been an exploitative and coercive one. The definition of domestication itself (from the Encyclopaedia Britannica) hints at this exploitation: “created by human labour to meet specific requirements or whims and are adapted to the conditions of continuous care and solicitude people maintain for them” (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2011, p. 75). The authors go step-by-step through the arguments made by abolitionists and believers in the threshold approach.

Abolitionists believe that humans should no longer have relationships with domesticated animals, and because these domesticate animals rely on humans for survival this would mean extinction for them. The threshold approach is less extreme, calling for “a mutually beneficial symbiosis” between humans and animals (Donaldson & Kymlicka 2011, p. 89). This approach believes that some relationships are exploitative while others are not, there is a give and take that is inherent in a community, whether it is a human, animal, or human-animal community. In response to the abolitionist arguments, the authors say that while the original intentions of domestication (alteration for human use) and the methods used (confinement and forced breeding) are wrong, the resultant state of domestication is not wrong. Humans themselves are dependent beings throughout their lives, whether they are very young, very old, or handicapped, as well as all others who depend on support from others when we lose a loved one, our homes, or are faced with an illness or natural disaster. Besides that, and perhaps more importantly, the authors argue that relationships are natural, people do not live in a vacuum but rather as a part of the ecosystems that surround us, and as they illustrate many times throughout the book, animals themselves search out relationships with humans in a variety of ways. The problem the authors have with the threshold approach is that often the nature of the relationship is judged against non-existence. For example, is de-beaking worth it in exchange for a “long” life if the alternative is non-existence? Why would we argue in this way about animal existence when we would never do so for humans? The authors argue we would never remove a child’s vocal chords for screaming all the time, that the options are not no vocal chords or non-existence. Once born, a child is a member of the community and has rights we cannot disregard.  

For Chapter 5, Donaldson and Kymlicka leave behind the abolitionist and threshold approaches and focus on the domesticated animal as citizen. To summarize their argument in one sentence: we have brought these animals into our society and deprived them of other possible forms of existence—we therefore have an obligation to include them in our social and political arrangements. Even beyond this, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that what made these animals so ideal for domestication makes them so well suited for citizenship: agency, cooperation, and participation in mixed human-animal relationships. The authors argue that citizenship is a very active role, so what would it look like for domesticated animals to be citizens? They say first, that domesticated animals must be recognized to have a subjective good. This means they have their own preferences, interests, and desires, and they know how to show those to us. Secondly, animals must be given a chance for political participation. While they cannot vote or run for political office, they are agents of change simply by their presence. The example the authors use here is the difference between American and European rules about dogs in restaurants. While dogs are prohibited from restaurants in America because of public health and safety, just one trip to Europe will challenge this belief. In Europe dogs are allowed into most restaurants, which has not resulted in any public disease outbreaks. Simply being exposed to dogs everywhere, including restaurants, Americans may reconsider the need for everything from leash laws to “no dogs allowed” laws. Lastly, there is a need for cooperation, self-regulation, and reciprocity between humans and domestic animals. Citizenship involves several forms of self-restraint and animals have been shown in many situations to exhibit moral behaviors including empathy, trust, altruism, reciprocity, and a sense of fair play.

According to Donaldson and Kymlicka, domesticated animals are the only ones for which co-citizenship is an option. Wild animals do not want or need such an active relationship with humans as the authors outline in Chapter 6. This is also true in a different way for liminal animals, to which I will return later. In Chapter 6, the authors present the case for wild animal sovereignty, inhabiting their own nations free from direct human management and independently meeting their own needs for food, shelter, and social structure. While the traditional animal rights approach is to advocate a completely hands-off style that honors wild animals’ ability to suffer, Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011, p. 166) say that the question we need to be asking instead is “what are the appropriate sorts of relations between human and wild animal communities?” As they go on to say: “we need to be very careful in justifying interventions into wild animal communities, but this does not mean that all interventions are illegitimate” (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2011, p. 180). What they are proposing is a world in which we recognize animals’ rights to their territories, that we have no right to govern that territory, that we may be free to visit and even inhabit the territory but that we cannot “control, settle, or unilaterally reshape it according to our needs and desires” (Donaldson & Kylicka, 2011, p. 170). I would say the key take away from this chapter is that we as humans should leave nature alone in general but react in a time- and/or scale-limited fashion to reduce suffering and avert disaster.

Chapter 7 presents the case for the liminal animals the in-betweeners who are not quite wild but not quite domesticated either. Sometimes humans have encircled their territory and other times they have searched out human settlement for the increased food sources, shelter, and protection from predators. These animals often live a highly paradoxical life, while they are better adapted to life near a human settlement than truly wild animals, they are subject to a wider range of abuses and injustices. They are both invisible because of the human belief in a dichotomy between nature versus human civilization and at the same time they are decried as pests, aliens, and invaders. Donaldson and Kymlicka consider them first from a wild animal perspective and then domesticated animal perspective and conclude that liminal animals can neither be considered sovereigns or be accepted as co-citizens. In the case of sovereignty, relocating them to wild territory and letting them be is not the correct approach because “in most cases, liminal animals have no place else to live, urban areas are their home and their habitat” (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2011, p. 212). Yet, co-citizenship is also not the correct path. Co-citizenship presupposes cooperation, communication, and trust, a level of sociability and socially-meaningful interactions. Liminal animals in contrast are not domesticated, they generally don’t trust humans and avoid direct contact. As the authors say on p. 229: “they tolerate us, because we are one of the costs of living in a human environment with its attendant opportunities, but they do not seek our company or our cooperation.”

The best option for liminal animals is denizenship, to allow these animals to belong among us but not being one of us. This is a relationship that should be governed by norms of justice, but as a looser relationship than citizenship, with fewer rights and responsibilities. The human version of denizenship covers refugees, seasonal migrant workers, illegal immigrants, and isolationist communities like the Amish. With humans as with animals, denizens come to live among us because there is no other place for them, but still they are not eligible or appropriate for citizenship. There are four types of animal denizens. There are the opportunists, highly adaptive animals such as raccoons or squirrels who are able to move into new niches and alter their diets. They are able to live both in the wild or urban settings and are often seen as nuisance species or a potential threat, meaning lethal methods of management are most often used to deal with them. The second kind is the niche specialist, a much less flexible animal that evolved in response to long-standing human settlement, such as the corncrake in the UK, a bird that lives only in those farmed fields too small for industrialized practices. The third kind of animal denizen is the escaped or introduced exotic species, pets and zoo animals that are released or escape. Finally, there are the feral domesticated animals and their descendants. These animals are either dumped or escape their human homes and at some point they start to adapt to their circumstances and become truly liminal animals. All of these animals live among us and we therefore have some obligations to them, but we cannot extend full citizenship rights to them.

In just about 250 pages, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (2011, p. 1) present a new framework for the animal advocacy field, “that takes ‘the animal question’ as a central issue for how we theorize the nature of our political community, and its ideas of citizenship, justice, and human rights.” They claim that the animal advocacy movement is at an impasse because we are failing to see and understand all of the diverse human-animal relationships. In this book, Donaldson and Kymlicka use the human citizenship theory and extend it to the animal world. They propose co-citizenship for domesticated animals, those who have already build close relationships with us humans, relationships based on active participation and cooperation. For wild animals, the authors suggest sovereignty, allowing them freedom while ensuring certain rights. Finally, the authors consider an often ignored group, the liminal animals. For this group of in-betweeners, the authors suggest denizenship in an effort to recognize their participation in human existence without having necessarily built relationships with individual humans. Zoopolis connects the treatment of animals to liberal-democratic justice and human rights. It argues that animals are bearers of inviolable rights. And with all of this, it aims for respectful, mutually-enriching, non-exploitative relationships between humans and animals.