The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Amy D’Unger
April 5, 2006 11:26am
Amy D'Unger with friend
Life at the Margins: Humans and Animals in a Disposable Society
by Amy D’Unger, Atlanta, Georgia
Driving past the landfill, I can see what we Americans throw away. Spoiled food, piles of diapers, newspapers, and out-of-date electronics form a landscape of waste and excess. Americans are a wealthy lot, throwing away more than many other countries produce and consume. As a culture, we consider the word “disposable” to be a positive quality—anything that must be cleaned, protected, and tended to becomes a burden in a society where time is of the essence. In this age of disposable convenience, many overlook the fact that it is not only mass-produced goods that have become disposable; humans and other animals are often viewed in the same way.
As I drive past the landfill, I notice the other buildings that dot the common landscape: a county jail and an animal control facility. The refuse of society—in all its forms—has been tucked quietly onto this shared piece of land. Of course it’s logical that facilities run by the county (a landfill, animal shelter, and correctional facility) should share the same parcel of land. It’s just a practical use of space, correct? Or perhaps it is something more. Perhaps this shared space is symbolic of what (and whom) we view to be disposable: household trash, unwanted animals, and people living at the margins of legality and society.
As someone who is both a sociologist by training and the co-director of an animal rescue organization, I see the ramifications of living in a “disposable society” on a daily basis. In the metro area in which I live, almost 100,000 dogs and cats are euthanized each year, simply because they are not wanted. Victims of overpopulation, there is nowhere to put them. There are not enough interested adopters for all of the dogs and cats to find homes, and many of the animals are not the coveted “purebreds” that are highly desired by the consumer public. The dogs and cats are surplus, and become as disposable as the leftover food we throw away. Juxtapose this against the vast consumer spending power of pet owners in the United States. While almost $35 billion dollars are spent each year in the US on companion animal care and upkeep, nationally, almost nine million dogs and cats are killed because they are unwanted.
As someone who studies the intersections between race, class, gender, and crime, I see not just animals, but also humans living at the margins of society, struggling with poverty, racism, sexism, violence, mental illness, and substance abuse. With no substantial network of social service programs to deal with their multitude of problems, prisons and jails become their holding pens. Like surplus animals whose lives end at the county animal control facility, we have a population of humans in the United States who have been deemed “surplus” as well. In many places, it is the human residents of jails—the inmates—who care for the animal residents of shelters and pounds, often until the animals are euthanized. The wealthiest country on the planet, we have one of the highest rates of imprisonment of any nation and are the only country in the Western world that continues to use the death penalty. It seems that disposing of those who are damaged, unwanted, or excess becomes acceptable, regardless of what is being thrown away.
The suffering experienced by animals and people living in a “disposable society” is often inextricably linked. In fact, the treatment of companion animals often reflects the treatment of various human groups in society. The fact that the jail, landfill, and animal control facility are all located on the same parcel of land may be more than just convenience or coincidence. The exploitation of animals and the justification of their mistreatment closely resembles human oppression: living chained outside, constantly reproducing, facing exposure to disease due to inadequate or no medical attention, malnourishment, exposure to dangers of human social environments (e.g., traffic, chemical hazards), and abuse from people. These indignities faced by unwanted animals are analogous to conditions faced by the people who live in similar areas—inadequate health care, lack of access to reproductive services and care, malnutrition, hazardous wastes, and exposure to abuse and violence. All areas are affected by this problem: inner cities, rural areas, and suburbs. However, areas where socioeconomic disadvantage and poverty are rampant experience the bulk of the problem—where people in the community are marginalized, so too are the animals of that community.
And the link between unwanted animals and unwanted humans is deeper than just their common “disposability.” Researchers have long known that individuals who are neglectful or abusive of animals are also more likely to perpetrate violence against humans, but it is only in the last decade that the strength of this pathway has been uncovered. Whether it is in the form of neglect, deliberate abuse, or dog/cockfighting, aggression against animals is often indicative of larger problems of violence against humans.
Companion animals are often caught up in the “cycle of violence” that can haunt families. Violence can be witnessed by children and, through the learning process, passed on through generations. In the cycle of escalating aggression often found in domestic violence, animals can also end up the victims. Many women who have been victims of domestic violence report a hesitance to leave the abusive relationship, for fear the abuser will injure or kill a companion animal.
The abuse of children in the US is a disturbing fact, to say the least. Census data demonstrate that approximately fifty percent of pet owners also are parents of children under the age of eighteen, meaning that investigations of child abuse should also be attune to the possibility of concurrent animal abuse, and vice-versa. However, it is even more disturbing when it is discovered that children are not only abused, but are also perpetrators of animal abuse themselves. Children who abuse animals often start on a small scale with insects or small rodents, working their way up to companion animals (both strays and their own), and then sometimes moving on to abuse other children. Those doing research on violent adult criminals—particularly those with extreme patterns of violence such as serial killers or serial rapists—often find a history of animal abuse that started when the individual was a child and was “only” harming insects or rodents. Psychologists, sociologists, and human services workers agree that such behaviors should not be taken lightly, as they can be indicative of violent, predatory actions in the future.
In American society, the links between humans and animals who are considered surplus or disposable are tightly wound. That both are treated as the flotsam and jetsam of our culture—inconvenient, messy, and easily disposed of in landfills, shelters, or jails—should come as no surprise. The conditions faced by many animals resemble those faced by marginalized people because such oppression is deeply grounded in the organization and belief systems of society. Sociologists have long argued that racism, sexism, classism, and the like have historical and social structural causes that are rooted largely in unjust social arrangements—arrangements that significantly shape human consciousness and that are reflected in individual behaviors. Such arrangements affect the social conditions in which animals live as well. That is, conditions faced by animals are directly related to conditions such as urban deterioration and economically distressed communities. Such areas tend to have relatively high rates of animal abuse and homelessness. Thus, the conditions that animals face are a symptom of larger social problems.
Driving by a landfill, most Americans grimace at the unpleasant smell or the visual blight inflicted on the landscape. We wish it could be a little further away, a little more out of our field of vision, and most certainly not in our own neighborhood. The same is said of the other “refuse” that dots our communities—homeless humans and animals. What is so often overlooked is the tie that binds all of us together: city dweller, suburbanite, prisoner, and even the stray dog or cat. We live in a society where people and animals have come to be viewed as disposable, and where “disposable” no longer holds a negative connotation. For those who dwell at the margins, being at the mercy of a culture of disposability becomes a way of life.