The dehumanising effect of animal personhood

Coolidge Painting
Image Source: Wiki - Dogs Playing Poker
In the past few weeks there has been one animal related story that has dominated the press and the Internet and one that has just trickled a long quietly.

In case you missed it; the first story is about Mary Bale or “Evil Cat Woman” as she is known all over the Internet. She gained this name due to CCTV footage that records her placing a cat in a wheelie bin. It is an act of senseless cruelty that deserves condemnation. Mary Bale received more than condemnation and ended up being placed in protective custody.

The second story involves musician Morrissey, who in response to China’s mistreatment of animals stated,

Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies (source: The Guardian)

There is some furore in the papers regarding this racist statement but Morrissey is not in protective custody.

The message that seems to be coming out of these stories is that any violent, malicious, or offensive action is justified if the intended victim has violated the rights of an animal.

This really does not sit well with me but I think at the root of all of this is the fact that we live in a society that seems comfortable with the idea of assigning personhood to animals even it results in our dehumanisation; and I witnessed this first hand last weekend.


It is no secret that I am not a fan of dogs. I don’t hate dogs. I do however have a healthy fear of dogs, especially big dogs. I am not scared of all dogs; in fact once I spend time in the company of a particular dog I find that I can get on quite well with that dog. This makes sense to me because all animals are different; some are friendly, some are not. I have had a hard time explaining this distinction to certain dog lovers and dog owners who seem aghast that I will not join them in their public display of affection for a dog whose owner’s name they do not know.

Oh but he looks so cute”; they say, as they proceed to ruffle the fur of this stranger’ pet. This is often followed by many questions about why I do not like dogs. I must have had some traumatic experience to explain my irrational fear of an animal that has the capability to maul a person to death.

Yes as a young child in Kenya, while walking home from school, I was chased by a pack of dogs and the owner stood there and watched. But…even before the dogs chased me, I remember seeing them, feeling very scared and then running for my life. So it wasn’t the dog chasing incident that made me scared of dogs, all it did was prove me right that some dogs are vicious and it is far easier to avoid them all then to risk life or limb trying to work out which ones are not.

Last Weekend
I was at a pub that is a favourite for dog owners and I endured my regular grilling on why I am not a dog lover. I then asked a few questions of my own such as why would anyone take a dog to a bar? The discussion went on for a while until we reached the point that I always dread. The part where someone will argue that owning a dog is no different to being a parent and that children and pets are not only the same thing but interchangeable.

A parent is NOT the same as a pet owner.
I cannot understand how anyone can argue that dog and baby equals the same thing. In my mind babies and by extension human beings are not the same as animals and I often use a simple test.

If I had one plate of food before me and I had a hungry dog and a hungry child I would feed the child. If I had to save a drowning man or a drowning dog, I would save the drowning man.

Why? Because human beings are not comparable to animals.

I am not condoning the abuse of animals. I am also not arguing that every person who cares for an animal will take to attacking the likes of Mary Bale. What I do recognise however is a connection between how easy it is for Morrissey to dehumanise an entire nation and how easy it is for an individual to dehumanise a baby all in the name of animal personhood.


  1. Gabby says

    Your arguments regarding the distinctions between humans and other animals (because human beings are a species of primates – so, animals) solely revolve around your own actions.  You could say the same about nationalities.  Many strong Kenyan patriot might say “If I had to save a drowning man from Kenya and a drowning man from Uganda, I would save the man from Kenya.”  Sure, what a great argument.  Therefore, people from Kenya must be better than those from Uganda.  Do you see how this is a pointless argument.  What you would do in this situation is not relavant to identifying whether or not personhood should be attributed to animals.

    Here’s a better line of argument:

    Almost all animals have brains, central nervous systems, and pain receptors.  If they can feel pain and struggle to survive, clearly they deserve the right to life.  What right do we have, as human beings, to denounce animals as soulless creatures that only exist for the purposes of our consumption?

    To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. The more helpless the creature, the more that it is entitled to protection by man from the cruelty of man. –Mahatma Gandhi 

    Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul -Pythagoras

    The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different. -Hippocrates

    The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them, that’s the essence of inhumanity. – George Bernard Shaw

    All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. -Buddha

    It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull senses. – Mark Twain

    There is not an animal on the earth, nor a flying creature on two tings, but they are people like unto you. – The Koran

    The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men. -Emile Zola 

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