Speaking Up for Animals by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I hope that readers will rethink their consumer choices, monies that have long been offered at the expense of nonhuman animals–overwhelmingly female and exploited because of their female biology. We choose where our money goes, and in the process, we choose whether to boycott cruelty and support change, or melt ambiguously back into the masses.”  

This passage nearly concludes Lisa Kemmerer’s Introduction to her Speaking Up for Animals: An Anthology of Women’s Lives (Paradigm Publishers, 2012). Her book is divided into three parts: (1) Pondering what I put into my mouth, (2) Working for wildlife, (3) Potpourri: From dancing bears to undercover investigation. We find in this anthology 18 powerful stories of women animal advocates: women who have founded sanctuaries, volunteered in rescue and rehabilitation organizations, protested the inhumane treatment of animals in various industries, taken in stray or abandoned “pets,” gone vegan, and/or engaged in other forms of animal activism.

I was deeply moved by this book.

Speaking4AnimalsAll the contributors report working as animal advocates out of some combination of pity or compassion for animal suffering and outrage at the injustice of their exploitation by fellow human beings. But each does so in a way that is deeply personal and narratively powerful.

As readers, we are not simply introduced to an abstract concept of “animal cruelty,” we are told about Hilda, a still-live sheep that was literally discarded as trash on a stockyard “dead pile”–and then we learn how that shocking discovery led Lorri Houston to cofound Farm Sanctuary, the first shelter in the country for farmed animals. We read about Tua Rohd, a severely injured and “bare recognizable” gibbon who was captured from the wild in Thailand for the exotic pet trade. While recounting this story, Amy Corrigan, Director of Research and Education for the Animal Concerns Reserach and Education Society (ACRES) in Singapore, shares that she was “emotionally crushed” when this gentle creature died in her arms after only surviving a few days post-rescue.

These chapters reveal real wisdom. One contributor, scholar-activist Dana Medoro, notes the importance of being “dexterous” when advocating for animals because “it’s difficult for people to absorb the shock of the information about all of the hateful ways in which humans treat and use animals.” Many others speak freely about the anguish, guilt, and grief they regularly experience in the work they do, knowing that they cannot save them all, or even most, and that they regularly face real “Sophie’s Choices” (on which animals to save and which to leave behind).

What might be of particular interest to readers of this blog is the women who cite their religious commitments as motivating forces in their activist work:

  • Linda Elin McDaniel, an ordained United Methodist Church minister and board member of the Christian Vegetarian Association describes her turn to vegetarianism as both a blessing and an enactment of her commitments to be peaceful, just, and compassionate like Jesus.
  • For Sue Pemberton, it is her internalization of the Budddhist teachings on compassion and karma that lead her to help rehabilitate pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walruses) at The Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, California.

To be clear, the book is not simply about women “saving” animals, but in several cases of animals “rescuing” them. Lynette Shanley, the founder of two Australian organizations (one for wildcats and one for primates), writes beautifully about how her own companion animals and her activist work for others gave her the will to continue to live after several excruciating bouts of cancer. In her own words, “I never thought animals could give so much back. Animals give life meaning and hope. They can help us to face pain, and to understand that life is a gift to be cherished.”

All in all, this book is feminist in so many ways–its inclusion of diverse perspectives (religious and secular, Western and non-Western, scholarly and activist), focus on women’s experiences and “awakenings,” unashamed embrace of the moral significance of the emotions, and its intersectional analysis, to name a few of its key features.

Of course, not all feminists will appreciate it as I have. While the majority of animal advocates are women, editor Lisa Kemmerer readily acknowledges that not all feminists are persuaded by (or even know about) the connections between feminism and animal liberation. Her Introduction, in short, can be read as an attempt to make those links clear.

Those who remain unpersuaded might be shocked to read about Joelle El-Massih’s work during the Israeli/Hezbollah war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. As one of the co-founders of Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA), she and several others stayed behind to relocate 150 panicked dogs (n.b., their dog shelter was located opposite the war zone) to a pig farm. She writes “It was scary, but these dogs had already been abandoned at least once.”  While acknowledging the criticism that BETA has received for “caring for nonhuman animals while people were dying in a war zone,” she writes that her response has always been the same: “There are 6000 organizations in Lebanon for humans, and only one for nonhumans.” Food for thought.

I can think of no better way of concluding my reflections on Kemmerer’s Speaking Up for Animals than ending with a passage taken from trailblazing ecofeminist Carol J. Adams‘ Foreward:

In these pages, we find diverse experiences united in one anthology; diverse activisms represented together; women’s activism for animals, all together now. And the incredible thing is that after all they have seen, they still believe in you, the reader. When it comes to nonhumans, there are no bystanders. When it comes to the fate of nonhumans, it truly is in your hands.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two book projects–one on Asian American Christian Ethics, the other on a theological exploration of women’s lives. She is currently teaching “Animal Theology & Ethics” and serves on the American Academy of Religion’s Animals and Religion Group steering committee.

Lisa Kemmerer is a philosopher-activist dedicated to working against oppression, whether on behalf of the environment, nonhuman animals, or disempowered human beings. Her other books include In Search of Consistency: Ethics and AnimalsAnimals and World Religions; Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice; Call to Compassion: Reflections on Animal Advocacy; and Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education, Advocacy, and Sanctuary. Lisa has hiked, biked, kayaked, backpacked, and traveled widely, and is currently associate professor of philosophy and religions at Montana State University Billings.

Categories: Academy, Ethics

Tags: , , ,

13 replies

  1. Thanks so much for this post Grace. It is time to come out of the closet about our love for other than human animals and to make animals part of the world we care about. This is no easy task, for once we bring animals into the light, we must also see the tremendous cruelty to animals that is simply accepted as part of the human-dominant capitalist system. In my work trying to save wetlands for birds, I have been told I was too emotional, and I have suffered excruciating pain in my body, because “when I cut a tree, my arm will bleed” or “when a wetland is destroyed, my body is cut open.”


    • Carol, thanks for your affirming words. It’s unfortunate and wrong that “being emotional” too often gets perceived as a good reason to doubt the validity of a worthy cause. Please do keep doing the good work you are doing!


  2. Thank you Grace for this important post. I taught animal rights yesterday, showing Eating Mercifully by the Humane Society. I warned the students this was one of the “softer” documentaries on animal abuse and factory farming. They were stunned and shocked. My contention, which I shared with my students, is if you are going to eat meat, then you must be aware of the practices involved in Factory Farming. I am anxious to read this recommended text and continue the campaign. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


    • Cynthie – I’m so glad to hear that! I know that HSUS documentary; in fact, CST/CLU will be screening it this coming Tuesday on campus. You are right, the images are difficult, but totally “soft” from the perspective of what else exists (in terms of gruesome undercover videos). Thank you for having those difficult, but potentially consciousness-raising, conversations with your students!


  3. Thank you, Grace. I recently gave a sermon at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship about Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, “Eating Animals.” One of our UU principles is “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” It is difficult to face the cruelty and violence that is involved in the production of our food. I’ve taken a stand, as a vegan.


  4. I just heard someone speak on a similar topic on Voices of the Sacred Feminine and what she said that really, really made the feminism-animal exploitation connection extra clear to me was that farming animals is based on the reproductive systems of female animals–dominating, exploring, controlling, and abusing them sexually. And, I was like oooooh. I do eat meat (as of right now–moving away from it!), but I do not support or participate in factory farming–I feel like some people forget or overlook that many people raise a few animals at their own homes and these are not large, cruel operations. I have chickens (that free range and that I love and that share their eggs with me) and my dad has a couple of cows. Yes, we are still using them for our own purposes and that is exploitive in its way, but I look to nature as a guide and I don’t really find our eating of a cow more horrifying or cruel than the fox eating a chicken or the lion bringing down a gazelle. There is a certain romanticism in many writings about behavior and habits of non-human animals (not yours–just something I’ve noticed in general).


    • talkbirth – thanks so much for writing. You are right to note that those who work in animal studies or in the animal protection movement hold a diversity of views regarding “use” of animals, with some, as you noted, equating use with exploitation and others having more moderate views about humane usage. But I am glad to hear of your move away from factory farming!


  5. Grace, thank you for your post on this hugely important issue! Another good short video, without any footage from factory farms, yet still very impressive “Making the Connection” can be found here http://www.vegansociety.com/resources/making-the-connection.aspx

    Animal abuse is connected with feminism. For instance, who makes decisions to build another factory farm? Capitalists. Who makes a decision in the Majority World whether to use their filelds to grow food for their own children or to grow animal feed for animals that would be eaten in the Minority World? Patriarchal rulers of those countries.

    If feminists were given those choices, outcomes would be entirely different.

    As for me, I turned first vegetarian, and then vegan… sort of “naturally”. I had been practising Buddhist meditation for two years, and yet, I was not drawn to become a vegetarian purely based on Buddhist teachings – as there are vegan, vegetarian, and meat eating Buddhist schools. However, the decision came to me quietly and privately, I think as a result of daily meditation practice. Things in general had been becoming clearer. One of those things was that I could not keep ignoring suffering that goes into meat that I ate. After being a vegetarian for two years, the move to veganism came by the same mechanism, I think. I could no longer turn away from suffering and death of animals exploited in dairy and egg industries. Male chicks and calves are killed, as they are useless to egg and dairy production.

    I must stress that for me to arrive to these decisions and to stick to them a lot of inner strength and stability was needed. This came from meditation. Also, meditation provided me with joy, satisfaction and pleasure that sometimes some people seek in food.


    • Oxana – thank you so much for writing and for sharing your experience. Your story of transformation (to vegetarianism) and its deepening (to veganism) resonates with much of what I’ve heard from others. Once the reality of animal suffering is made present and can no longer be ignored, those of us who actively seek to be more compassionate find it difficult to consume meat any longer. I also liked your point that the radically counter-cultural life of veganism does need to be sustained not just by an exertion of will, but the inner spiritual resources of meditation.


  6. Is it wrong to cry when your pet hurts? I think not. Do non human animals go to heaven? I do not doubt this at all. Thank you, Grace, for this.
    My animals have taught more at times about love than many humans.
    I will read Lisa’s book.
    Buddhism does teach us about the interconnectivity of all sentient beings.
    I’m not vegan yet, but know of the cruelty and try to buy responsibly.


    • Dear Janice,
      Your question has just come to me as an arrow, since I am now grieving the sudden loss of one of my cats and, together with the pain, the existential angst of not knowing whether we will meet again is killing me. I have cried when any of my nonhuman companions hurt and I cry for their absence now. It is love that binds us together and love does not know of different species.
      I cannot believe that we are the only ones “chosen” to go on after we live our physical bodies, it just doesn’t make sense. Of course we are all interconnected, but Buddhism does not offer me much comfort since I want to recognize, somehow, the individual energy of those who departed, even if we all become part of something greater… I take comfort from your “Do non human animals go to heaven? I do not doubt this at all”, since I doubt of absolutely everything. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: