‘White supremacy’ is to blame for non-white people abusing animals
Leftist university professor Katja Guenther has claimed that treating dogs humanely is “racist.”
According to Dr. Guenther, the Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside, kindness for dogs is rooted in “white supremacy.”
Guenther has published a book claiming that non-white people are abusing animals because of “capitalism, anthroparchy, white supremacy, and patriarchy.”
In her recent book, The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, Guenther argues that allowing dogs to sleep inside is a privilege reserved for the white and wealthy.
She adds that policies against keeping dogs chained up in backyards are intended to oppress people of color by imposing “middle-class norms of animal keeping in which companion animals are considered family and treated accordingly.”
These policies, she claims, ignore the fact that people of color “are themselves trapped in poverty, may have few options for legitimate income generation and possibly rely on their dogs for … status.”
Unfortunately, Guenther’s misguided book is gaining traction, according to Areo Magazine.
Shelter director Kristen Hassen opines that Guenther “gets it right” in concluding that “racism, classism and the caste system are at the heart of the broken animal sheltering institution.”
Arguing that laws to prevent mistreatment of dogs discriminate against “anyone in the US other than white, middle class and upper-class individuals,” Sloane Hawes, Tess Hupe, and Kevin Morris of the University of Denver Institute for Human-Animal Connection cite the book in their proposal to relax enforcement of animal protection laws—a proposal that threatens to reverse decades of hard-won progress.
Intakes Reflect Service Area Demographics, Not Racism
Guenther writes that, because of racism, the overwhelming majority of the dogs who ended up at the Baldwin Park, California shelter, where she worked as a volunteer, had belonged to poor people of Asian and Latino heritage and, to a lesser extent, black people.
But this simply reflects the demographic makeup of Baldwin Park itself.
The ethnicity of the people who surrender animals to shelters is largely a function of demographics, not of race.
Guenther deliberately rejects objective evidence of this kind, admitting that “it is not possible for me to be impartial”: “I was trained in sociology, a discipline that emphasizes impartiality and the need to systematize observations and analysis in ways that distance the researcher from the researched.
“I deliberately turn away from these tendencies and instead embrace the messy possibilities of being a researcher with complex ties to the social setting I am analyzing.”
At best, the book presents subjective feelings, anecdotes, and even guesses as compelling evidence for its conclusions—at worst, it ignores evidence to the contrary.
Guenther Stereotypes and Infantilizes People of Color
Evidence shows that dogs in inner cities are neither disproportionately dangerous nor poorly treated.
People in inner cities live with dogs for the same reasons as the suburban wealthy: they want companionship and social connection.
Guenther’s book perpetuates unsubstantiated prejudices about the inability of people of color to provide appropriate care for their animals.
And she denies their individuality by referring to all Asians, Latinos, and black people as “the collective Black.”
In Guenther’s book, moreover, white people do things; people of color have things done to them.
For example, people of color who abandon their dogs in empty apartments are victims “ensnared in the legal system,” forced to leave their animals behind “under the duress of sudden eviction or deportation or arrest.”
Guenther even claims that such people actually believe that what they are doing is for the best, because of “the constraints of their knowledge and resources, both of which are limited by the nexus of their class, status as immigrants, and ethnicity.”
When a Latino man on a bicycle drops a dog “while escaping from mall security officers … after stealing a pair of Wrangler jeans,” she explains this away as the result of his “status as marginalized.”
When a woman leaves her dog to die at the pound after she has finished breeding her and selling her puppies to buy drugs, it is the fault of her “status as a poorly educated queer woman of color.”
Guenther laments that “rescuers … critique urban Black and Latinx communities for not seeing companion animals as sufficiently part of the family and instead seeing them as resources, whether protective (as in guarding) or financial (as in breeding or possibly fighting).”
She appears to be arguing that if a person of color can turn a profit or build a reputation through animal exploitation that excuses animal suffering—even in the case of sadistic animal abuse: “From a class perspective, wealthy people are believed to be too ‘civilized’ to engage in barbaric activities like dogfighting, and it’s no coincidence that the only affluent person who has been publicly shamed for dogfighting in the U.S., Michael Vick, is Black, newly wealthy after growing up in poverty.”
Dogfighting, however, is not considered barbaric because it violates the norms of wealthy people—who, after all, have historically had their own versions of animal cruelty masquerading as entertainment, such as fox hunting and pigeon shooting. Nor is dogfighting considered uncivilized because of the skin color of the organizers—many of whom are white—but because of what it does to dogs.
At Michael Vick’s property, investigators found decomposing dogs who died by “hanging, drowning, and being slammed to death.”
Rescuers Perpetuate Compassion
While Guenther explains away mistreatment if the perpetrator happens to be a person of color, she has plenty of harsh words for those trying to save animals.
Day in and day out, rescuers and volunteers show tremendous courage and compassion when they visit their local pounds.
At many high kill shelters, they face hostile treatment from staff and endure heartbreak at seeing animals destined for lethal injection or gas chambers.
And yet they go back, again and again.
Despite acknowledging these traumas, because most of the volunteers Guenther encountered were white, she accuses them of working to “reinscribe hierarchies of power and status within the shelter” against the non-white workers and thus “maintain existing social inequalities between humans even as they seek to help animals.”
When a rescuer laments the condition of a dog “with sagging belly skin, elongated nipples, and enlarged genitalia” and expresses dismay that the former owners “confined their dog outdoors” and “used the pit bull primarily for income generation through breeding,” Guenther dismisses the criticism as “the animal practices of white rescuers.”
On the one hand, Guenther writes that people of color should not be held responsible if they mistreat animals (“including medical neglect”) because they lead precarious lives.
On the other, she criticizes rescuers for using “the animals as instruments for reproducing whiteness” when they take “the dog out of the ghetto” and give it to “the ‘right’ kind of adopters, namely those who will treat their dog as a family member and have the financial means to care for their dog at a high level for the duration of the dog’s life, for example by providing specialty-brand food, toys and beds, and extensive veterinary care should any illness or injury occur.”
Rescuers and shelters have an obligation to the vulnerable animals they serve.
They can and should focus on a potential adopter’s ability to provide for an animal’s physical and mental health, rather than on income or skin color.
Guenther suggests that rescuers and shelters are obligated to place animals in knowingly unstable situations (which she problematically equates with darker skin color) or engage in the greater harm of racist behavior.
Lack of Lifesaving Programs Explains Shelter Killings
Larger societal factors do impact shelter outcomes.
But Guenther is wrong about the causes of shelter killing and how to prevent it.
The evidence does not suggest that “everyday and sustained collisions of capitalism, anthroparchy, white supremacy and patriarchy” are to blame.
It points to more mundane causes and more practical solutions.
“Feral” cats impounded by the Los Angeles County pound system are killed because the director of that system opposes non-lethal sterilization.
Orphaned, neonatal puppies and kittens are killed because of a lack of comprehensive foster care.
And other animals are killed because of a failure to implement the services that allow shelters to achieve high placement rates.
Guenther alludes to all this when she laments that “volunteers offered a significant pool of time and skills … that would have increased the success of these programs, but [staff] declined most of their help and made it very difficult for volunteers to maintain those programs that [the county] did permit.”
Guenther Threatens to Turn Back the Clock on Animal Protection
The most dangerous thing about Guenther’s book, however, is her view that human-animal relations are “a zero-sum political struggle involving identity markers like race.”
In the early nineteenth century, cruelty to dogs was not recognized in law because they were considered property.
Likewise, harming a homeless dog was not illegal because there was no property interest at stake.
The animal did not matter.
Guenther is once again suggesting a standard that excuses harm based on the interests of those causing it.
For all her professed concern about hierarchies of privilege, Guenther’s prescription for human-animal relations could not be more inequitable, uncharitable, and unkind.
Her premise that not all animals should have the same rights and that not all humans bear the same responsibilities to those animals threatens to popularize defeatist and counterproductive dogmas of the kind that kept shelters killing animals for decades until the current generation found common sense alternatives.
If such ideas gain traction, the current moment will be remembered as a brief interlude between the ideological intransigence of two generations—both of which subordinate the rights of animals to the interests of those who harm them.