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Saving Animals: Everyday Practices of Care and Rescue in the US Animal Sanctuary Movement

By Elan L. Abrell

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This multi-sited ethnography of the US animal sanctuary movement is based on 24 months of research at a range of animal rescue facilities, including a companion animal shelter in Texas, exotic animal sanctuaries in Florida and Hawaii, and a farm animal sanctuary in New York. In the last three decades, animal welfare activists have established hundreds of sanctuaries across the United States in an attempt to save tens of thousands of animals from factory farms, roadside zoos, and other sites of contested animal treatment. These facilities function as laboratories where activists conceive and operationalize new models for ethical relationships with animals, models they hope will influence broader public debates. Building on Giorgio Agamben’s concept of homo saceras a person who lacks all rights and legal protections (1998), this dissertation argues that animals treated by humans as property or material resources can be understood as bestia sacer. Comprising an alterity that defines and makes possible the human liberal subject, bestia sacer is precisely what personhood is not. In an effort to disrupt this category by leveling conventional species hierarchies, animal sanctuary activists strive to create spaces in which humans can interact with animals as autonomous subjects with their own interests worthy of consideration and respect.

However, the realities of living with and caring for captive animals often require compromises to this aspiration. Caregivers regularly contend with difficult decisions such as how to best serve animals’ needs with limited resources and when to limit the exercise of animal agency through such practices as sterilization to prevent overpopulation or the segregation of animals deemed dangerous to humans and other animals. Remaining entangled in larger political-economic contexts of animal capital circulation and still susceptible to physical control and potentially harmful treatment by humans as a result of their legal status, animals in sanctuaries are neither fully autonomous subjects nor property. Instead, they function in their relationships with humans as improperty, living beings within a shifting spectrum between property and subjecthood. To the extent that they are able to participate in the sanctuary community as subjects with limited rights to life, sustenance, and freedom from harm, sanctuary animals operate as members of a sort of multispecies polity composed of human and animal citizens. Due to material constraints and the dilemmas of care, though, both animals and caregivers must make sacrifices for the requirements of the larger sanctuary community. As a result, human-animal interactions in sanctuaries constitute a variation of what Wendy Brown describes as “sacrificial citizenship” (2015).

To understand how these animals transform from bestia sacer to sacrificial citizens, this ethnography focuses on six main aspects of sanctuary dynamics. Chapter One, “Coming to Sanctuary,” introduces the primary research sites and describes the different ways in which animals arrive at sanctuaries and become improperty in the process. Chapter Two, “History of US Animal Activism,” situates the sanctuary movement in relation to other forms of animal advocacy by tracing the philosophical genealogy and political and social history of the contemporary animal protection movement, examining how conflicting ideologies of human-animal difference and shifting patterns in human-animal relations shaped the landscape of twentieth century animal activism. Chapter Three, "Creating and Operating Sanctuaries," examines the political economy of sanctuaries and explores how caregivers navigate the tensions that arise from using rescued animals as fundraising mechanisms while simultaneously seeking to challenge the commodification of these animals. Chapter Four, "Animal Care," analyzes animal care practices, specifically focusing on the many post-rescue dilemmas caregivers face and how their methods for addressing these dilemmas transform animals into sacrificial citizens. Chapter Five, "Animal Death,” examines one of the most complicated dilemmas of care – the fact that saving animal lives sometimes requires sacrificing animal lives – and explores the different ways that sanctuaries navigate this dilemma through practices of “necro-care,” forms of care that actively employ death in the service of fostering life, such as feeding animals that consume other animals, protecting sanctuary animals from external predators, and euthanizing ill, injured, or dangerous animals.

In conclusion, this ethnography considers the possible futures of animal sanctuaries and examines the important role they currently play in furthering the greater animal advocacy movement’s goals. The realization of sanctuaries’ visions for the future of human-animal relations will remain limited without larger transformations in social and political-economic systems of value that still treat animals as means for satisfying human needs. Despite these current limits, sanctuaries are invaluable to the broader animal advocacy movement both for the qualitative difference they make in the lives of individual animals and for the symbolic power these experiments in alternative species relations have in illustrating that different ways of living with animals are possible. Beyond their symbolic value for inspiring struggle toward a better future, sanctuaries perform the essential task of working through the difficulties and contradictions of manifesting that future – the pragmatic labor that must be done in order to achieve more radical transformations in human-animal relations.


Mason N McLary

HABRI Central

Date 2016
Pages 355
Publisher City University of New York
Location of Publication New York City, New York
Department Anthropology
Degree Philosophy
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal housing
  2. Animal roles
  3. Animal shelters
  4. Animals in culture
  5. Animal welfare
  6. Care
  7. Human-animal relationships
  8. Multispecies
  9. Pets and companion animals
  10. Physical environment
  11. properties
  12. United States of America
  13. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation
  14. Zoos