On the Liberation of All Sentient Things

On the eve of Thanksgiving in 2014, I was in Ferguson, Missouri, in the middle of a highway among hundreds of people, as a phalanx of riot police approached. Some people sat down and locked arms, in a show of nonviolent resistance. As the police closed the distance, they began to discharge large cans of mace on the protestors, which caused many of us to disperse. But many remained firm—shielding themselves and each other from the noxious spray with their clothing. I watched as the other protestors, in a demonstration of extreme self-sacrifice, allowed themselves to be beaten by nightsticks and kicked by the encroaching police. People writhed on the ground in pain from the pepper spray, and some were literally dragged away behind the police line, completely incapacitated. This was only one moment, among countless others like it, that I witnessed or participated in during my time in Ferguson and St. Louis following the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson.

Upon returning home from this harrowing, transformative experience, I knew that I could never return to my life of complacency and privilege. As a white male, I grew up completely insulated from what the people of Ferguson were subject to on a daily basis, that being, forms of de facto segregation and racial oppression that many activists and intellectuals see only as comparable to apartheid in Palestine. Nor could I return to discussing these increasingly palpable matters of inequality solely in a classroom setting. I felt that I could not purport to speak on matters of racial and ethnic conflict without researching it firsthand, and grounding my knowledge in lived experience rather than abstract theory. In short, I am concerned with the liberation of all sentient things, and have decided to dedicate my life to this pursuit, academically and otherwise.

In the two years since the Ferguson uprising, I have been an activist and organizer with One Struggle KC, a faction of the Black Lives Matter movement in Kansas City, Missouri, which is also a hyper segregated metropolitan area. I was one of the few white members of that organization, working primarily with black women and queer black women. During the same time, I was employed by Stand Up KC as an organizer for the Fight for $15 campaign, which is the international movement fighting for higher wages and unionization rights for low-wage workers. Thus, I found myself deeply embedded in what are arguably the two most prominent social movements in America today. If not for all these experiences, if not for all those along the way who helped educate me and develop my analysis of ideologies and social change, I would not be where I am today.

And, where I am today is 9300 feet above sea level, in a secluded part of the  Rocky Mountains, living amongst 31 wolves. Right now, I can hear all of them howling in unison–and it is without a doubt the most beautiful thing I have ever heard in my entire life. I have always loved animals; I have been a lifelong dog owner, and have housed a menagerie of reptiles, amphibians, and rodents in my youth (which my wonderful parents begrudgingly allowed). There has always been, I feel, a deeply profound kinship between humans and nonhuman animals that is nothing short of sublime. You may have felt this ineffable feeling of unity or connectedness when you have bonded with a member of a different species–secure in the knowledge that although this animal cannot speak in a human tongue, it can communicate with you very, very clearly, and that it is often more attuned to your mental and emotional state than most people. I have felt this kinship with animals as long as I can remember. It is this bond that has consistently reminded me, even on my worst days, that as I trudge through the monotony of existence, and struggle to find meaning or hope in this bleak, absurd world, that there truly is a glorious effulgence of life everywhere–as long as you know how to look for it.

I suppose it is worth noting that I haven’t turned feral or been adopted by a wild wolf pack, although I wouldn’t completely object to that notion. To be more specific, I live and work at Mission: Wolf, a remote sanctuary in the Southern Rocky Mountains for wolves, wolf-dogs, horses, and last but not least, humans. I am currently the Education Coordinator here, and plan to be until approximately the Fall of 2017. The sanctuary is run entirely by volunteer labor; in exchange for the work we do, we are provided with food, housing, and some other benefits. It is an intentional community with only seven permanent residents at this time. I can honestly admit that I am happier and healthier than I have been in years.

Like many of the volunteers who come out here, my family and friends were somewhat incredulous when I told them of my intention to give up most of my worldly possessions and go live in a Tipi with a bunch of hippies and wolves. I admit, at first it might seem a little crazy and brash to the “average” person. Of course, it’s not crazy at all when you really think about it. The decision to live simply, sustainably, and in continuity with Nature is one of the most sensible, grounded, mature decisions I’ve ever made.

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Yes, I really do live in a Tipi!

But still, I would not have made this radical life change if not for my involvement in social movements and exposure to the completely arbitrary suffering of other people. A materialist conception of history has taught me that there is no logical explanation for the rampant inequality in this world other than the avarice of the few at the expense of the many. While I grew up middle-class, never wanting for anything, had an excellent education and support system, another human being lives in abject poverty and squalor, with no prospects of fulfilling their human potential. There is no real reason why these roles should not be reversed. The current conditions of my life are, at least in part, due to the considerable financial, social, and cultural advantages bestowed upon me by the utter randomness of the universe. I have no illusions that my ability to come and live at a wildlife sanctuary wasn’t subsidized by such advantages. Coincidentally, Mission: Wolf is largely a racially and ethnically homogenous place, but I digress.

I am an extremely empathetic person. Social injustice and the oppression of marginalized groups has always affected me, to the point that I knew I had to use my privilege and do my part to fight against this oppression in all its forms. As I continue to educate myself on these issues, I have come to the realization that the arguments for the equal rights and liberation of people of color, women, and LGBT peoples, can and should be extended to nonhuman animals. I believe that Australian philosopher Peter Singer summarizes the argument quite well. It is worth quoting him at length:

“When in the 1850s the call for women’s rights was raised in the United States, a remarkable black feminist named Sojourner Truth made the same point in more robust terms at a feminist convention: “They talk about this thing in the head; what do they call it? [“Intellect,” whispered someone nearby.] That’s it. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?”

It is on this basis that the case against racism and the case against sexism must both ultimately rest; and it is in accordance with this principle that the attitude that we may call “speciesism,” by analogy with racism, must also be condemned. Speciesism—the word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term—is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species. It should be obvious that the fundamental objections to racism and sexism made by Thomas Jefferson and Sojourner Truth apply equally to speciesism. If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purpose?

Many philosophers and other writers have proposed the principle of equal consideration of interests, in some form or other, as a basic moral principle; but not many of them have recognized that this principle applies to members of other species as well as to our own.” 

-Peter Singer,  Animal Liberation

It is just this realization, put so succinctly by Singer, that has led me to become a vegetarian, and that has also given me the resolve to come to Mission: Wolf. I have been fascinated with wolves ever since I read Jack London’s White Fang when I was eight years old. But as I grew up and began to study wolves more intensively, I came to learn that the wolf is one of the most unfairly maligned and hated creatures in human history. Like the Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, Canis Lupus is a victim of colonialism. Settlers of European descent have purposefully driven this misunderstood creature to the brink of extinction. There were federal and state bounty programs that incentivized the killing of wolves as recently as the 1950s. If not for the passage of the Endangered Species act in 1973, there likely wouldn’t be any wild wolves left. Considering this fact, it is ironic that Mission: Wolf, along with most other wolf sanctuaries, have come into existence because people continually want to own these animals as pets. People want to own wolves  primarily because they believe the wolf is their “spirit animal” or “totem animal”, and by owning it as a pet they will somehow commune with nature or do the animal a service. Then, when these wild animals mature and become more unruly and expensive to care for, the owners almost inevitably give it up to a dog shelter where it is usually euthanized, or they simply let it go and then it is picked up by animal control or shot and killed on sight. Most wolves who live in captivity don’t live to see their second birthday. There is a desperate need to help educate the public about these animals, to let it be known that they are not to be kept as pets, and that they are a crucial, keystone species to our environment.

Thus, I now add to my ever-growing list of causes, animal rights. And no, one cannot have “too many causes”. While I believe that activist burnout is a real thing, and something that I have experienced, it doesn’t mean that you cannot be aware of and advocate for multiple causes. In fact, it is vital to do so, because all oppressions are obviously linked. The same reactionary forces that cause stark racial and economic inequality are the same ones that rape our Mother Earth and destroy her creatures in the name of profit and “growth” or “progress”.

Ultimately, I intend to return to graduate school to pursue a degree in sociocultural anthropology, likely continuing my work within social movements, ethnography, and political subjectivity. In the meantime though, I intend to do all I can for the animals here at Mission: Wolf and wolves everywhere. For not only do we have an ethical imperative to further animal rights, we have much to learn about what it truly means to be human from nonhuman animals. No one is free until everyone is free–and that includes members of other species. .

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” 

-Jeremy Bentham on animals and sentience, Utilitarian Philosopher

In solidarity,

-Austin-

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