Journal for Critical Animal Studies Editorial Executive Board



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On Our Way to the Park (Photo by Eva Meijer)
3. Stray Politics

Dog-human relations can be political in different ways. Both of the topics I discussed above have a political side to them. “Language” is usually understood as solely human and is in the philosophical tradition used as a demarcation between human and nonhuman animals (see Derrida 2008, 2009, 2011 for an analysis of this mechanism). This leads to problems such as anthropocentrism in laws, discourse and practices. Language and politics are interrelated on various levels. In political philosophy, speaking is usually considered to be a necessary condition for being a political actor. How language is defined, and by whom, is a political issue. Calling all nonhuman animals “animal” has political consequences. In many of these situations, nonhuman animals exercise political agency. In this final section I focus on some aspects of Olli’s political agency. I first discuss Olli’s agency in relation to the public image of Romanian stray dogs. I then turn to political agency more generally, on the micro and the macro level.


3.1 Being a stray dog from Romania

Following the death of a four-year-old boy, allegedly killed by stray dogs,42 in September 2013 Romania’s top court ruled in favor of killing thousands of stray dogs. A new law made it possible to euthanize dogs who had been in shelters for fourteen days, or sooner, in cases where there was not enough food to feed the dogs in the shelters. Euthanasia is often performed with coolant. Shooting, electrocuting and gassing the dogs are also forms of euthanasia. Sometimes dogs are left in cages without food and water, to starve. In some towns, capturing and killing a dog, euphemistically called “dog management” pays 200 euros per dog, while animal welfare organizations receive 25 euros for capturing and neutering dogs, although neutering dogs is the only effective way of reducing populations.43 Dogs with the ear tags of animal welfare organizations, showing they are neutered, are also captured and killed. In addition to the killings of hundreds of dogs a day by companies that work for the government, dogs are beaten to death on the streets, poisoned and burned alive44 by angry citizens.

My decision to adopt a stray dog from Romania was influenced by this political situation; in addition to offering Olli a home, I decided to use my work to create awareness about the situation. I did so by writing about, drawing and photographing Olli, as well as by writing about the situation in Romania. The work was published on my website and Olli was mentioned in interviews.45. While Olli had no say in when it came to moving to the Netherlands, he did influence my work, directly through his actions and indirectly because my perspective changed through our interaction.

Olli exercises agency in more ways. In Romania, he invented a little dance for humans in order to ask for food, attention and sympathy (I still sometimes see him do this when we meet strangers, especially with male humans). Through this behavior, he challenged stereotypes about stray dogs. Iris Young writes about the role of stereotypes in what she calls “cultural imperialism,” the situation in which the dominant group (in this case, humans) sets the standards for socially acceptable behavior. She points attention to the fact that the “other" is in the same movement singled out and rendered invisible. We see this with stray dogs. On the one hand, they are voiceless, and humans are indifferent towards them: they are part of the city but faceless, worthless. On the other hand, they are seen as dangerous, dirty and bad. Belonging to the category “stray dog” renders one invisible as an individual, and because one is invisible, it is easy to project characteristics on that person. Olli challenged this by being visible in a gentle way. Over here, the attitude towards dogs is different; humans are generally friendly. But here he also challenged stereotypes, regarding, for example, the learning abilities of older dogs and more generally, the subjecthood of animals. Because he is so friendly and open, many strangers we encounter on the street want to pet him or say something to him. I tell them he is from Romania and inform them about the situation over there.


3.2 From micro practices to macro agency

Taking other animals seriously as subjects and treating them as equals can challenge

anthropocentrism. Irvine proposes to see play between humans and cats or dogs as a site for political resistance. She argues that in play, humans and dogs or cats challenge the current construction of the human-animal divide. According to Irvine, play acknowledges nonhuman animals’ subjectivity and communication skills. It thereby challenges “human disregard for non-human life” (1) and creates interconnection between members of different species. Irvine discusses different aspects of play, such as resisting “the notion of otherness” and “trends to dominate other species.” Drawing on the work of Foucault, she sees micro-practices, common everyday practices, as spaces in which power hierarchies and conflicts are shown, and in which common views about human-animal hierarchies are challenged.

Honoring animal agency and subjecthood can indeed function as a basis for new forms of living together; it is also important to acknowledge that animals already exercise agency in many ways and thereby influence our understanding of the world around us. However, as the story of Olli shows, not everything can be fixed on the individual level. A focus on individual relationships leaves intact the frame in which animals can exercise agency, as we saw with walking on the leash and having to navigate city traffic. Donaldson and Kymlicka (2012) make a distinction between micro- and macro agency. Some authors (Haraway 2006, Hearne 2007) focus solely on animal agency in personal relationships, in which the human ultimately decides the scope of the animals’ choices. This obscures certain problems and can even legitimate violence because the larger framework of exploitation of nonhuman animals is not addressed (see for example Weisberg’s [2006] critique of Haraway). Donaldson and Kymlicka show that it is often assumed that humans have a wide scope of agency, where the macro frame of domesticated animals is “fixed by their evolutionary history and/or species nature, pre-determining a life of rigid dependence on humans and human society.” Instead, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue, humans should provide animals with options to expand their macro framework, such as being able to exit the human-animal community they are part of. In practice, this would mean that although domesticated animals have a right to be socialized into human-animal communities, they also have a right to leave, to go and live in communities with members of their own species, or spend only part of their time with humans. This would require new spatial arrangements and a very different attitude towards the preferences of nonhuman animals. Taking macro-agency into account does not mean that nonhuman animals can do whatever they want and can be completely free in what they choose. There are always constraints on the scope of agency, as there are for humans, since some dimensions of life are unalterable, where others are open to alteration.



Although I am committed to creating as much space for Olli as possible, the scope of his agency is determined by the limits of a human-centered society. This is unfortunate, because he has a strong spirit and enlarging the scope of his decision-making would enrich his life. The situation now is patronizing; Olli is forced to walk on a leash, to follow one human and so on, while he is an autonomous adult who is very happy with a warm bed, central heating, food at fixed times and cuddles, but who would also like to spend time outside, roam the streets on his own, create friendships with individuals of different species, and maybe be part of a larger group of dogs.


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