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RA and non-human animals

Edie is one of the most important connections in my life, even though she’s an oversized, overbred Chihuahua I bought for £300 from an unscrupulous elderly lady in Glenrothes. I care for her, look after her physical and emotional needs; we also have shared hobbies, shared space, and I value our history together. She also exercises something of a veto power over other parts of my life; my responsibility to care for her means I can’t leave her alone for more than a few hours, for example.

Edie and I have a complex relationship that feels more like friendship with aspects of one-sided physical and mental caregiving than anything else. If Edie were human I’d consider her an “anchor” (in both the alternative-relationship and the pejorative sense….).  She’s not human, though, and therefore I often find myself in the position of having to justify why I’m prioritizing her needs over something that a human would prefer me to do.

Although when we think about RA we tend to default to thinking about adult humans, there’s scope within an RA philosophy to accommodate the relationships we have with non-human animals without adding any new conceptual apparatus. This is a huge benefit because it lets us push back against anthropocentrism and speciesism, two forces that cause a great deal of suffering in the world.

Relationship anarchy doesn’t have to extend only to humans, it can apply to any relationship. RA without anthropocentrism would mean that the following principles would apply equally to our connections with nonhuman animals.

Principle 1: No presumption of veto power

One of the most appealing parts of RA for me is that no one type of relationship automatically assumes priority over any other. It’s up to me to determine my priorities, how I spend my time and resources and the requests I make on the time and resources of others.

Explicit negotiation and communication about why we’re making the choices we make, and what our choices say about the values we hold is always preferable to inferences based on heteronormative, monogamist models. We can also add anthropocentric models to this—instead of assuming that human relationships will always get priority over non-humans, RA means making these decisions explicit too. RA means considering every relationship as holding its own value—just like relationship anarchists don’t automatically assume a romantic connection will take priority over a friendship, or a family connection will be more highly valued than a co-worker, we shouldn’t assume that a human-nonhuman relationship should be less valuable just because it isn’t human-human.

Principle 2: Consent

Giving those we love the space to assert their own boundaries, and respecting those boundaries, is a part of RA philosophy for humans and should be for animals too. I try to center consent in the way I relate to Edie and other animals, especially when I’m working with dogs in shelters, who have often been through many traumatic experiences and are still subjected to invasions of their space and body on a daily basis.

It’s easy to impose ourselves on animals we’ve bred to be compliant, but we should value them as capable of making their own choices and respect the substance of the choices they make. This is associated with better welfare for them, as any competent dog behaviorist will tell you.

Obviously we can’t ask animals what they want, and we sometimes have to do what’s best for them despite their protests. Consent for animals means being a competent observer of behavior. It means, for example, recognizing when touch is wanted versus when it’s being tolerated. It also means accepting a “no” even when it’s not what I want to hear. If there are things we have to do to an animal that frighten it, we should take the least invasive, minimally aversive route possible, and if we can, we should use behavior modification to condition the animal to be less afraid and more willing to engage with us.

Thinking about consent for animals means we have to consider them as individuals, which is also a key part of RA thinking. Our relationships may change depending on who we’re relating to; one romantic connection may feel nothing like another, and celebrating that individuality is part of what makes RA important in my life.

Principle 3: No presumption of hierarchy

Relationship anarchy doesn’t proscribe all hierarchies or power structures, it only requires that these be made explicit and accessible to everyone who is affected by them. Presuming that I should always care more about what a human in my life wants or needs, rather than what would be best for Edie is an example of an unspoken hierarchy. As an RA practitioner, I should be able to explain and justify my priorities in the short- and long-term without reference to escalators or assumptions.

Expanding further

The relationships we have with the nonhuman animals in our lives do mirror the ones we have with humans, so it’s not surprising that RA can include them. I think, however, that RA also has the tools to allow us to think about how we relate to non-animals. I love the Mt. Sutro Open Space Preserve. I have a deep and abiding respect for Haworth Moor, in Yorkshire.

These feelings of attachment to places, developed over long periods of spending time there, are no less real than the feelings I have about my dog, or the humans in my life. I could imagine choosing to stay near a place I loved, even at the cost of losing someone I cared about.

By only requiring that these relationships be thought through and made explicit, RA can accommodate my feelings about places, and objects, and maybe even gods, too (although gods feel like they’re conceptually irreconcilable with any commitment to personal autonomy and especially to RA—they seem to me to be the prime example of a demand to be prioritized).

Perhaps taking an expanded, holistic picture of the feelings we have for the places, people, and animals that are important in our lives will allow us to feel like small pieces of an immense network of loves, obligations, creativity, and responsibility. Thinking this way could also help us remember that we humans don’t sit on a platform looking down on the rest of life on Earth—that kind of presumption of hierarchy is as mistaken as any other we work against as relationship anarchists. True liberation has to include animals too, and RA thinking can help us realize the deep wrongs and harms society is doing to animals.

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