I recently spoke with a friend who is a veterinarian about the treatment of companion animals (pets), and animal protection and liberation movements. I was shocked by how similar it sounded to the treatment of children and the various children's rights movements.
In fact, even their histories are intertwined. Animal abuse was made illegal before child abuse was. And in the U.S., children's rights advocates actually relied on animal abuse laws to argue that children should also have protections against violence from adults.
There are several core reasons for the similarities in oppression and maltreatment of pets and children. One is that adult humans see both of these groups of beings as inferior, and thus undeserving of certain rights. Moreover, both children and animals have essentially been treated by the law as property throughout history. And both children and animals have been used to serve the interests of society (adult, human society), while their immediate desires and experience have largely been ignored. Of course, there are differences between children and pet animals -- and please feel free to address these in the comments section. But the focus of this post is on the similarities in how they are treated.
I have noticed a striking number of these similarities:
- Both forms of oppression are justified by paternalism (the idea that it's actually in their best interests).
- Both forms of oppression attempt to justify themselves with science which claims that children and animals are inferior beings, incapable or undeserving of exercising autonomy.
- Very little about the relationships of children-to-adults or animals-to-humans is consensual. Both sets of relations are dominated by hierarchies of power and control.
- Children's rights advocates generally either subscribe to a child "liberation" ideology (National Youth Rights Association) or a "welfare/protection" ideology (National Center for Youth Law). The same is true of advocates for animals -- between animal "welfare/protection" (like many veterinarians) and "liberation" (PETA).
- Both liberation movements face complex practical challenges. For example: How would it work to release all pets in an urban area? What would happen if children weren't forced to go to school?
- Adult humans objectify both animals and children (by labeling them as "innocent," "cute," etc.). This objectification diminishes the ability of adults to empathize with them as equally sentient beings with their own desires and experiences.
- Adult humans use children and animals to serve their own interests -- such as love objects or companionship -- even when the animals or children clearly do not desire it.
- Children and animals both have their freedom of movement restricted and are typically forced to stay in a certain house with a certain family, even against their will.
- It is legal for adult humans (parents and pet owners) to hit children and animals.
- Pet abuse and child abuse are correlated.
These comparisons are not made to say that either form of oppression is more or less serious or important than the other. I only mean to contextualize and relate various forms of oppression so that we might become more aware of how systems of oppression intersect and how patterns of oppression repeat in different ways. Moreover, perhaps the children's rights and animal rights movements may have something more to offer each other in terms of philosophical or legal arguments, as they have in the past.