We are all animals.
—Karen Morin (2018, 146)
We are all animals. On one level, this claim points us towards an understanding, uncontested from the vantage point of science and other naturalistic approaches to life, of what we are as humans. Like all other life forms on our planet, our own species has evolved, through time and space, into the beings that we find ourselves to be today.
On another level, though, this claim hails us into an array of pressing insights that are, indeed, contested—by the capitalist logics, forms, institutions, practices, and relationships all around us that together are the objects of inquiry of Karen M. Morin’s Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals. It’s the first phrase in the book’s title that is especially useful here. “Carceral space” refers to the interlocking systems that work to objectify, control, surveil, exploit, imprison, and kill nonhuman and human animals. By insisting that we are all animals, Carceral Space refutes the central premise of “animalization” that serves as the rationale for the violence and exploitation across these systems. As Morin explains,
The day-to-day embodied experience of captivity and incarceration, of being identified with a number, a tattoo, a brand, and other forms of bodily modification; the emotional and psychological strain of knowing the approach of death or of the testing apparatus or whip, are all interwoven into the day-to-day carceral spaces of the prison, the lab, the farm. (2018, 15)
As a book that brings carceral geography together with animal studies, Carceral Space is also a concrete examination of the processes and practices by which “animalization” occurs. From zoos, laboratories, and slaughterhouses to prisons and death row, each chapter brings us into the spatial, operational, embodied, and relational dynamics by which nonhuman and human animals alike are turned into objects or commodities or so-called “criminals.”
And so, on a third level, by reminding us that “we are all animals,” Morin draws us into the interlocking processes across differing carceral systems and spaces. Each chapter demonstrates, powerfully, the ways in which “animalization” secures the legal (and quasi- and extra-legal) exploitation of humans and nonhuman animals. What emerges from this set of transdisciplinary analyses is a deeply compelling non-anthropocentric ethics and politics. In contrast with projects that seek to reform rather than abolish carceral institutions, this book is in conversation with abolitionist projects from across political science, critical race theory, criminology, philosophy, and geography. The problem of what counts as “human” or as “animal” is itself a pressing question throughout the book. Morin’s key thesis, that these distinctions are made through encounters with carceral spaces, holds tremendous ethical and existential significance, raising the questions: who (whether human or nonhuman animal) enjoys the protections that secure their value and worthiness? And who falls inside the category of “animal”?
Each participant in this symposium engages with these questions directly, extending the book’s central thesis in a range of transdisciplinary directions. The first response, by Chloë Taylor, takes the form of an elegy for a beloved kitty, an animal who tried his best to navigate a world organized around “pets” and “pet owners” in dissident ways. By taking up Morin’s call for justice for incarcerated humans and captive animals via a first-person narrative, Taylor insists upon the quotidian and unavoidable significance of the book’s argument for each of us, in our own daily lives and relations.
This attentiveness to the affective valence of the book is made even more explicit in Jennifer Turner’s contribution. Turner reflects on the subjective and phenomenal experience of reading the book. In this analysis, the brutality and viscerality of the chapters’ descriptions yield the kind of sympathies that are essential for abolitionist and anti-carceral work. As Morin points out, in response, Turner’s own work in carceral geography is enormously helpful, especially in terms of foregrounding the “micro-mobilities” of bodies in carceral spaces.
Carol Wayne White brings an additional set of methods and questions into the conversation, inviting us to think about the interplay between materialist and naturalist presumptions in carceral and anti-carceral thinking. More specifically, White draws attention to the racialization of “nature” itself, in the form of systems of classification and hierarchy that sustain the exceptionalism of carceral spaces. Religious naturalism, on White’s intervention, becomes a rich resource for redressing and refuting such exceptionalist logics and practices. The stakes of such analysis are tremendous, given what we learn from Morin’s book—namely, that human and nonhuman captivity and disposability take place within many regimes of violence, including the prison, medical, and agricultural industrial complexes.
As a way to summon responsiveness to such devastating violence, as Nekeisha Alayna Alexis puts it, the book invites “all anti-incarceration agitators to reexamine the systems they struggle against and to consider collaborations they may not have before.” Such agitation holds existential import, implicating each of us in the task of “mapping the menace found in bricks and bars, patterns of thought and orders of operations.” Alexis’s contribution exemplifies what such mapping might look like, as it queries the structure of the book (its outline, the order in which specific sites of inquiry are laid out) as well as some of its key formal aspects (the role of metaphor and analogy, in particular). Taking up these queries, Morin’s response in turn demonstrates the pluralistic ethos that seems so essential to these kinds of projects. As a whole, this symposium asks each of us to reflect on the attachments and solidarities that might yield anti-carceral actions and commitments.
On Morin’s (2018) Call for a ‘Trans-Species Carceral Geography’
A (Rightly) Uncomfortable Encounter with Prisoners and Animals
As I was reading the last chapter of Karen Morin’s (2018) Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals, I also came across a news event that caused some debate and resonated deeply with my encounter of this book. The event I refer to was the decision by the Royal Air Force to replace a gravestone honoring a black Labrador who came to be the chief mascot for No. 617 Squadron during World War Two. The dog was hit by a car in 1943 and was sadly missed as the “drinking buddy” to the squadron who became known as the Dam Busters after the Operation Chastise attack on German dams carried out on May 16–17, 1943, using a purpose-built “bouncing bomb.” The squadron’s fame is long-lasting and the activities of the operation are recounted in various popular culture representations including a film, radio broadcast, and even a beer advert. Attentive to the fame of the 617, the RAF took the decision to replace the dog’s gravestone, which was located at the RAF Scampton base, because the name of the animal was a racial slur (which will not be repeated here). The RAF “did not want to give prominence to an offensive term that went against its ethos” (BBC, 2020b). The action is one of many similar instances of the removal of statues and monuments as part of the recent activities linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, in the three days since the story broke, more than 3,300 people have signed a petition calling for the name of the dog to be put back. Critics have called the removal of the name a “disgraceful” attempt to “rewrite history” (BBC, 2020a). Much public concern has been leveled at what might appear to be action to erase parts of the past, but comments have also considered the role of agency around the animal itself, in its (lack of) ability to pick its own name, and, of course, to be a racist. One comment summarized: “This is a monument to a dog. The dog didn’t pick its name” (Metro 2020). However, supporters of the grave replacement are concerned that the public could be “distracted by a pejorative name of his pet dog” and will remember the owner Guy Gibson for racism rather than his heroic actions during World War Two (BBC 2020a). Seemingly, it is not the dog’s memory that may be besmirched, but rather that of the human owner and thereby the RAF by association. And so, it is this consideration that piqued my interest in relation to the themes I encountered in Morin’s work. First and foremost, through her call “for a trans-species carceral geography” linking animal and human lives, the story of the 617 Labrador highlights the interrelationships between human and nonhuman animals and, indeed, the complexity, contingency, and contestation of such forged connections.
In Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals, Morin “offers insights into how and why the sites and spaces of human carcerality . . . share key features with sites of captivity and confinement of non-human animals” (143). Morin dedicates chapters to sites of execution and slaughter; sites of research testing; and sites of commodified labor and where bodies are exploited for entertainment purposes. In all of this, Morin highlights the “carceral logics”—of animalization, racialization, and criminalization—deployed with vulnerable populations. Morin draws, for example, parallels between prisoners in their final moments on death row and the nonhuman animals (such as pigs or cows) being processed for meat; and to zoo animals in their cages in similar situations to supermax prisoners in their confined, highly surveilled quarters. In particular, Morin critiques the contemporary prison system—in the United States especially—as a neoliberal structure, deeply embedded within racialized narratives. Influenced by the work of the likes of Jamie Peck and Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, this monograph problematizes the “carceral logics” that work to warehouse poor, urban, young, black bodies in particular. In the haunting narratives of the use of (predominantly black) prisoners for laboratory testing, the socially-constructed worthlessness of certain lives is critiqued here. The exploitation of these bodies parallels the experiences and de-valuing of black bodies in medical science (such as world-changing impact of the cancer cells taken unbeknownst to black woman Henrietta Lacks through to the disproportionate willingness of black men to participate in medical testing on account of their economic situation) resulting in many prisoners being additionally “sentenced to science as well” as incarceration (66). As Morin notes, the particular devaluing of black bodies has ultimately “created a unique association of Blackness with animality” (81) and with such persistent notions of racism within the criminal justice system, the animalization of prisoner bodies is ingrained in everyday society. Further, for Morin, the social construction of carceral identities reiterates the human-animal relationships that are central to the functioning of contemporary, neoliberal lives. For example, in my reading of this text, I was struck by the similarity in how, in their disproportionate incarceration, young, black men are rendered meaningless through their “grouping” together as an indistinct demographic whose situation and exploitation can generate substantial income, much like the “billions of sea creatures who are counted not per animal but by weight (by the ton)” (39). Reducing fish to kilos removes their propensity to benefit from power by numbers. In just the same way, prisoners are grouped together—a homogenous mass of those who are pretrial, unconvicted, sentenced and unsentenced, and those held as migrant detainees—and are obfuscated from public consciousness. Accordingly, this animalization of human bodies is violent and political and should be unpacked and avoided.
However, the narratives that the reader encounters in this volume are, at their core, animalistic. The discussion feels “brutish” in some places (if we are to take one such dictionary definition of the term). The events recounted—from cattle being shot by iron bolts to the burning skin of men whose flesh becomes a site for research testing—are all lurid, basal, and guttural in their description. Morin’s words are animalistic in that they do not try to hide or control their basic feelings or the core physicality of their offerings. In reading them, we are forced into empathetic reaction that disperses any distinction across species and repels us to our (simply mammal) core. In the discursive nature of this book, the animals seem to become more humanized—we must think of them as akin to ourselves (that they experience boredom, pain, isolation, fear, etc.). It is emotion and embodiment that connects us. And so, animalistic is, arguably, not always a negative association (“beast-like” or “needing, restraint,” “dangerous, brutal, coarse, cruel” to use its dictionary definitions). This book generates reactions that contradict the notion of bestial. Accordingly, then, the humanization of animals demands that we rethink the situations of those beings that we de-humanize, namely here, prisoners. Taking her lead from Donna Haraway’s (2008) ideas of “relational ethics,” Morin appeals for a sense of “shared suffering” where the reader can draw useful stimulus—even, if I might interpret this correctly, a call to arms for the petitions against the acts of violence that are described in this text. This notion of “shared suffering” is where I found much interest in the consideration around the animalization of humans; and, indeed, the humanization of animals.
That said, Morin’s work does not seek simply play out a simple comparison. These sites of political violence and suffering are not the same for humans and nonhuman animals. As Morin recognizes, linking human and animal “can sink us into intractable and unhelpful comparisons or . . . can offer opportunities for productive dialogue” (147). Most notably, although Morin dedicates a chapter to the role of animal bodies in industrialized labor such as battery hens—and there could be an easy labeling of such action as the “enslavement” of nonhuman animals’ bodies—this particular humanizing of these particular bodies brings inherent tensions. As Morin explains, “The metaphor of animal enslavement—that animals are the ‘new slaves’—is to many a problematical co-optation and appropriation of a term and concept that belongs to human (racial) slavery and cannot be separated from the transatlantic human slave trade. . . . There is a problematical slippery slope when applying the slavery-abolition dyad to other historical, geographical, or social contexts, if for no better reason that human/Black slavery is not over.” Chiming with the important work of the likes of Kathryn Yusoff (2018) which centralizes the role of Black lives in contemporary societal systems, Morin cautions the reader to applying such terminology that may equate to sentiment that could lead to dangerous politics of “All lives matter.”
Notwithstanding the complexity and contextual variability of the underscoring comparisons between human and nonhuman animal lives, Morin’s work is a vivid analysis of these parallels, which makes for a compelling read. I would highlight hiding, invisibility, and silence as both cornerstone narratives and the first of two thematic offerings that I here outline in Morin’s work. The book interrogates how the relative invisibility of operations—whether this is the locking up of poor, urban youth or the dissecting of animal carcasses into (literally) bite-size chunks—that renders the inhumanity of these systems persistent. Morin pinpoints the success of many lobbying campaigns to reform, for example the zoo industry, to the ability of animal rights activists to make visible the conditions that animals are housed within. In the book, Morin questions whether the same level of transparency could equate to a similar level of change in the prison system. When the question was raised, I immediately pondered the changing visibility of systems of crime and punishment throughout history and I was pleased to see Morin remind readers that, in the nineteenth century, human executions were further perpetuated by the decision to move them behind the walls of the prison to ensure that the deaths of individuals no longer functioned as a “spectacle of suffering.” Bringing the raw reality of prison life to the forefront of public imagination could well be productive in counteracting the “pains of imprisonment” because, as Morin questions, “Who could stand the sight” of such realities? (Merritt and Hurley 2014; quoted in Morin 2018: 53). Would we stand the sights in our current world and be forced to take more affirmative action against these atrocities? Given Morin goes on to exemplify practices such as slaughterhouse tourism and that of euthanizing and dissecting redundant animals in Scandinavian zoos, it seems that there will ever remain a relative fascination with the macabre. Much work in the discipline of penal tourism (see Wilson et al.  for a variety of case study examples) would seem to agree that there is a particular appeal to the consumption of sites of suffering for entertainment purposes.
It was through my reading of the significance of visibility that I also considered a second, prevalent theme throughout this book. That is the role of mobilities in the rendering docile of both human and non-animal bodies. The wholesale mobility of entire populations is also intrinsic to the invisibility and hiding of these practices. As Morin notes, slaughterhouses just like prisons in their traditional manifestations, tend to be located on the peripheries of society and, accordingly, the carceral subjects within them are re-“moved” from the sightlines of civilized society. From the palpably distressing narratives of death row prisoners (waiting, packing “back and forth, back and forth, 3 ½ steps” (37) to the minutiae of the assembly line in the slaughterhouse of “unload[ing] and herd[ing] . . . and holding” (39), micro-mobilities underscore the way in which bodies are disciplined in space. As Morin explains, “mass killing requires routine, mechanical, repetitive and ‘programmed’ procedures and tasks” (45), most usually in the forms of an “array of chutes, pens, ramps and technological equipment intended to efficiently and quickly move animals for processing; in addition to the stun gun . . . are mobile shackle lines, electric prods, hoists, and mechanical restraining pens” (45) and all of these are mirrored in the practices that stifle even the most micro-mobilities of prisoners (Peters and Turner 2015), such as handcuffs, shackles, bars, locks, and so forth. Yet, in Morin’s accounts, we see how mobilities may also be powerful commodities for resistance in carceral space—the fish wriggling in its net to writhe free from its captors. However, the alarmingly visual account of the use of the “captive bolt stun gun”—used to deliver a fatal blow to the bodies of animals confined within a cage in the slaughterhouse—paints a powerful picture. Here, it is movement—direction, speed, or friction (all part of Creswell’s  constituent parts of mobility) in the form of misalignment or mechanical force—that renders the fired bolt ineffective in knocking the mammal completely unconscious, where the same end will befall it, albeit with more pain and suffering. The fish may wriggle all it wants but it is unlikely to escape the net. We see similarities in frictions caused in logistical carceral networks—such as the delay in communication around stay of execution—that merely prolong the suffering (or “detriment” after Moran et al. ) of the carceral subject but rarely offers a different outcome.
In sum, Karen Morin’s book makes powerful and, to be frank, uneasy reading. As well it should. It is a book about power, life, its treatment and worth. It is a book about identity and exclusion, belonging and transgression. Where the real unease comes from is in the latter, where the reader must question their own societal transgressions in terms of their complicity in the processes herein. Likely attributed to the content and delivery of Morin’s writing, I felt an enormous sense of guilt around the nonhuman animals that this book contained. My choice of diet is something that I can—and, after reading this book, probably should—reconsider. It is an everyday politics that I have some power to control. However, there is perhaps an inherent powerlessness in reading this book. Although I am a prison scholar and hope that my own knowledge and engagement with the prison system gives voice and visibility to it, it is easy to feel how the warehousing of the prison system is abstract from my own power and agency. Critically, the prison system, like the use of animals for the various purposes outlined in this text, is arguably enshrined in and integral to the functioning of society. Whilst not as seemingly simple as the choice of items I place into my shopping cart, there is much room for maneuver in, at the very least, our own everyday voicing of these violent politics. Morin’s work forces us to think uncomfortable thoughts in the hope that we can take further steps towards reconsidering the comfort of others—humans and nonhuman animals alike.
BBC. 2020a. “Dambusters Dog: Headstone Racist Name Removal ‘Disgraceful.’” BBC, July 17. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-53446494.
BBC. 2020b. “Dambusters Dog: Headstone Replaced to Remove Racist Name.” BBC, July 16. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-53436447.
Cresswell, T. 2006. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. London: Routledge.
Haraway, D. J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Moran, D., et al. 2018. “Conceptualizing the Carceral in Carceral Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 42.5: 666–86.
Peters, K., nd J. Turner. 2015. “Between Crime and Colony: Interrogating (Im)Mobilities Aboard the Convict Ship.” Social & Cultural Geography 16.7: 844–62.
Slater, Jack. 2020. “What Was the Dambusters Dog as Headstone Replaced to Remove Racist Name?” Metro, July 17, 2020. https://metro.co.uk/2020/07/17/what-was-dambusters-dog-headstone-replaced-remove-racist-name-13002869/.
Wilson, J. Z., et al., eds. 2017. The Palgrave Handbook of Prison Tourism. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Yusoff, K. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
The Process of Animalization, Human Exceptionalism, and the Racialization of Myriad Nature
A Response from Religious Naturalism
Karen Morin’s Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals (CSPA) is a landmark study—indeed, forceful, brilliant, and compelling—in its development of a “trans-species” carceral geography (2). While enlightening and conceptually stimulating, CSPA is also a difficult book to read and ingest as one follows Morin’s analysis of specific spaces of captivity, confinement, and enclosure experienced by both more-than-human and human subjects in the United States (6). She makes crucial connections among such industrial sites and institutions as the prison, slaughterhouse, research lab, zoo, and farm, revealing their entangled spatial, structural, operational, and embodied carceral activities and procedures. In doing so, Morin expands the conceptual space within the “carceral” is defined and provides a richer, nuanced understanding of the “carceral turn” in her field of geography (11).
Morin’s major aim in examining these specific sites is to uncover “the epistemic violence that pervades contemporary industrial America, yet is normalized and ‘neutralized’ in countless ways in everyday life” (2). In describing this ethos of violence, Morin draws attention to a trans-carceral milieu in which “the logics of capitalist exploitation and profit” is intimately conjoined with “industrial norms of efficiency, control, and mass production” (18). In Morin’s rendering, any façade of innocence these sites would seek to maintain is illusory, as are public perceptions of them as value-free business practices, important educational and social institutions, and hallowed cultural traditions. Rather, the carceral logics operating in these sites illuminate their ghastly contribution to a national narrative that many individuals embrace unwittingly: select lives and groups are necessarily targeted, violated, and destined to live (and often die) in deeply troubling modes of precarity so that many others can enjoy material and social well-being (16; 18).
I imagine a number of readers will appreciate, as I certainly do, Morin’s stunning critique of the tripartite institutionalization of violence in the contemporary United States (e.g., capital, science, and law and order) that requires such precarious states of living and dying (13). I also treasure Morin’s considerable acuity as a reader and interpreter of texts and as a synthetic and capacious thinker in developing her “trans-species” discourse. In this essay, I comment briefly on the value of Morin’s study for humanistic scholars like myself who are thinking creatively about the materiality of life (e.g., the new materialism). In my reading, CSPA enriches some of our ongoing efforts to reconstruct the category of the human, and to consider what ethical implications, if any, may arise from such conceptualizations. One such effort I introduce is religious naturalism, which is a capacious, ecological worldview that shifts humans’ attention back to ourselves as natural processes inextricably connected to other life forms and material processes. As a critical intervention in modern humanistic thought in the West, religious naturalism invites humans to conceive and enact new forms of relationality with each other and with the more-than-human worlds that are an integral part of our existence here.
In what follows, I highlight specific themes in Morin’s carceral discourse that converge with my work in religious naturalism. Given the brevity of this essay, my discussion will not be universal in scope or applicability. Rather, I aim to introduce religious naturalism as one specific orientation—and certainly one of several important vectors—for exploring further some of the conceptual themes that Morin features in her “trans-species” carceral geography.
Part I: Processes of Animalization and Human Exceptionalism
In CSPA, Morin posits a basic premise that is developed on many levels throughout the study: “Fundamental to how and why certain prisoners and certain animals can be exploited, objectified, or made killable within the prison, the farm, the research lab, and the zoo are the social constructions of the human-nonhuman divide—the ‘carceral logics’ and social meanings that attach to various bodies and populations” (7; see also 76–77). In establishing and exploiting this arbitrary line of demarcation, carceral spaces reinforce understandings and perceptions of the ontological status and identity of sentient beings through the process of animalization, which “subjugates both certain humans and certain nonhumans into hierarchies of worthiness and value” (7, 15). As Morin notes, the animalization process “is rooted in deeply uneven hierarchies of power that provides certain groups with rights and resources and denies them to others” (34). With such observations, Morin raises an important question: Which humans and nonhumans have the force of legal, political, cultural, or other protections due to their special “human” qualities and which fall outside of those protections as “animal” (7)?
With such percipient observations and questions, Morin highlights a key conceptual issue within the carceral condition that religious naturalism also seeks to addresses within a wider humanistic context: problematic and persistent forms of human exceptionalism that lurk in our philosophical, social, and political discourses. As one response, religious naturalism champions a communal ontology grounded in the observational conviction that nature is ultimate. As one model of new materialism, this religious worldview does not posit any ontologically distinct and superior realm (God, soul, heaven) to ground, explain, or give meaning to this world. Rather, attention is focused on the events and processes of this world to provide what degree of explanation and meaning are possible to this life. As suggested by Wesley Wildman, a shared conviction among religious naturalists is the ceaseless, explicit focus on myriad nature in “its beauty, terror, scale, stochasticity, emergent complexity, and evolutionary development” (Wildman 20014, 41).
For my purposes, religious naturalism’s theoretical appeal lies in its support of a basic conception of humans as natural processes intrinsically connected to other natural processes. The advances of the sciences, through both physics and biology, have served to demonstrate not only how closely linked human animals are with nature, but that we are simply one branch of a seemingly endless natural cosmos (White 2018, 161). Bearing in mind these insights, I share Loyal Rue’s contention that humans are “ultimately the manifestations of many interlocking systems—atomic, molecular, biochemical, anatomical, ecological—apart from which human existence is incomprehensible” (Rue 2005, 25). As by-products of other natural processes and intimate participants with them, humans are material beings through and through. Consider, for example, Michael W. Fox’s compelling account that “our bodies contain the mineral elements of primordial rocks; our very cells share the same historically evolved components as those of grasses and trees; our brains contain the basic neural core of reptile, bird, and fellow mammal” (Fox 1978, 227). As I have argued elsewhere, one viable conception of the human is an emergent, interconnected, composite life force amid spectacular biotic diversity (White 2016, 34).
While celebrating human animals as emergent life forms, however, I warn against a particular reading of this claim that concludes human animals are the triumphant summit of natural development. Rather, my position is best described by recent insights in ecological studies: “Organisms of various types, including human beings, are inextricably bound together in a web of mutual interdependence for their continual flourishing and survival as they make common if varied use of the energy of the sun” (Crosby 2013, 16). Within each web, each species of animal has a niche for which it is more or less adapted, and has attributes that others lack. This ecological bent challenges those who would use evolutionary history as the basis for deciding who is better than whom. Equally important, these ecological perspectives lead us to interpret evolution in a much more expansive sense, shorn of the distortions of conventional anthropocentric orientations. Rather than construct evolution as the metanarrative of an increasing capacity of human nature to manipulate other forms of nature, we now emphasize the successive emergence of new forms of opportunity, or the continual diversification of new modes of being. Within this theoretical context, all members of an ecosystem are equally important, comprising it as a functional whole.
Religious naturalism encourages us to think against the grain of ontological and epistemic exceptionalisms that have set humans over and against other forms of animal life, and human culture, society, and economy over and against the ecological systems upon which they depend (Hogue 2018, 8–13). Accordingly, we resist the arbitrary human-animal distinctions that “subjugate both certain humans and certain non-humans into hierarchies of worthiness and value, distinction that are highly calculated to reinforce human superiority” (Morin 2018, 77). Additionally, the carceral condition that Morin describes in her study can be viewed as part of a colonizing legacy that depends on the dominant cultural fantasy of human exceptionalism, which anchors humans on one side of the Great Divide, away from all other species. This premise assumes that the human alone is not a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies. Religious naturalism emphatically rejects this phantasm, which has lent theoretical support to popular myths of the self-made individual in the United States. It also encourages us to join with Donna Haraway in appreciating our intricate entanglement with other material processes:
I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. (Haraway 2008, 3–4)
Haraway’s point underscores my conviction as a religious naturalist that our embeddedness with myriad nature invigorates a fuller sense of our expansive humanity as already, always entangled becoming.
Part II. Carceral Logics, Racialization of Nature, and Religious Naturalism
Morin’s argument is also compelling in its assessment of the processes of racialization, criminalization, and animalization that reinforce one another in certain carceral domains. As she observes in chapter 3, the construction of racial differences is foundational to much of the “criminal as animal” rhetoric, as evinced by animalistic representations of Black and other minoritized men in various settings. As well, her discussion of “blackness” as a material representation and symbolic marker of ontological significance is provocatively suggestive. As she observes: the “overdetermination of the black body as criminal feeds a powerful carceral logic and animalization process that creates and reifies the human-animal distinction” (80). While thinking about race and animals in this manner may be fraught and problematic to some, I agree with Morin’s point that such analysis is necessary “precisely because of the way that racialized people have been and continue to be animalized in carceral spaces” (80). I go even further and argue that Morin’s carceral work helps underscore the materialist spin of white supremacy upon myriad nature, or what I call the racialization of nature, or a specific ontic ordering and classifying material reality.
Its operational presence in an influential Euro-American narrative is well known by now, but it is still helpful to summarize some of its historical expressions, such as the “scientific” studies of race in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were intimately connected with perceptions of morality, intelligence, and civilization. Depicted as commonsense, empirically-driven truths, these perspectives contributed to a Euro-American construction of whiteness as a normative category for establishing a group’s humanity. With varying degrees of emphases, these perspectives also proposed a gradation from civilization to barbarism, reinforcing the singular role of the Europeans as a civilizing force—a colonizing belief that transferred to American shores. For example, the emphasis upon the “animal” character of African-descended peoples that was reinforced by Enlightenment scientific studies became part of a longstanding form of anti-black rhetoric in American culture, as projected images of African Americans as apes, monkeys, or gorillas justified the institution of slavery and miscegenation laws in the United States.
In another context, American colonists extended a European binary construction (nature-culture) into a unique American narrative of civilization overcoming wilderness. The white Puritan colonists measured “progress” and “civilization” in terms of how far a people could distance themselves from nature (Spiegel 1997, 16). They battled wild country not only for personal survival, but also in the name of nation, race, and God, as civilizing the New World meant enlightening darkness, ordering chaos, and changing evil into good (Nash 1967, 27). Within the context of these imperialist and colonial expansions, certain animals (apes in general, and gorillas in particular) came to be seen as powerful personifications of wilderness that must be fought and conquered by civilized Westerners (Corbey 2011, 28). Finally, as Paul Outka suggests, many of these historical accounts and past perspectives offer insight into a wider ecological context where “whites viewed black people as part of the natural world, and then proceeded to treat them with the same mixture of contempt, false reverence, and real exploitation that also marks American environmental history” (Outka 2008, 3).
While denouncing the notions of black degradation and inferiority that continue to structure and advance the racialization of nature in the twentieth century, religious naturalism does more. It questions the alarmist reaction of those who believe the “more-than-human” turn in our critical discourses necessarily implies giving less attentive to the unique forms of injustice, violence, and human suffering that Morin’s carceral study exposes. With its robust view of an entangled humanity, religious naturalism accentuates the materialist implications of our ethical commitments to the well-being and flourishing of life in general, inclusive of its “human” and “more-than-human” varieties. In such a context, advocacy for the dignity and value of black lives as “racialized” nature is inextricably connected to the struggles for myriad nature.
In the final chapter, Morin broaches the viability of “trans-species” ethical valuing, considering the possibility of “a non-anthropocentric ethics” that seeks justice “for incarcerated humans and captive animals” (Morin 2018, 144). As her discussion suggests, there are complex conceptual issues and difficult methodological challenges involved in such a task. With its appreciable awareness of how deeply embedded human animals are with myriad nature, religious naturalism may just be one theoretical framework to consider. I think one step toward decolonizing myriad nature, toward making it less vulnerable, is in honoring nature’s sentience, which is an essential part of being alive, experiencing others, being affected by others, and experiencing well-being. Thinking about the inescapable, brute facticity of sentient beings’ capacity to suffer—admittedly, not in identical ways, as Morin’s discussion suggests (12, 14, 21–24)—highlights the empirical fact of our constitutive relationality. In other words, what I think religious naturalism might add to these conversations is a feasible conceptual framework for resisting what Michael Hogue (à la Whitehead) identifies as the bifurcation of nature: “the alleged ontological opposition between the workings of nature and the thinking of human minds, oppositions reflected in and reinforced by the substance-quality structure of logic and the subject-predicate structure of language” (Hogue 2018, 77–78).
With the notion of “structural relationality” as a basis for advancing the type of robust ethical vision Morin inspires in CSPA, a religious naturalist upholds the conviction that we are part of an interacting, evolving, and genetically-related community of beings bound together inseparably in space and time. As such, “each of us is profoundly implicated in the functioning and fate of every other being on the planet, and ultimately, perhaps, throughout the universe” (Raymo 2005, 98). In this context, religious naturalists posit moral and political values as emergent, provisional, and negotiated rather than antecedent, absolute, and imposed; we also continually revise, correct, and even forfeit older perspectives as newer forms of knowledge become available.
Corbey, Raymond H. A. 2011. The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crosby, Donald. 2013. The Thou of Nature. New York: State University of New York Press.
Fox, Michael W. 1978. “What Future for Man and Earth? Toward a Biospiritual Ethic.” In On the Fifth Day: Animal Rights and Human Ethics, edited by Richard Knowles Morris and Michael W. Fox. Washington, DC: Acropolis.
Goodenough, Ursula. 2000. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nash, Roderick. 2014. The Wilderness and the American Mind. 5th ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Outka, Paul. 2008. Race and Nature: From Transcendence to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Raymo, Chet. 2008. When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin.
Rue, Loyal. 2005. Religion Is Not about God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature and What to Do When They Fail. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Spiegel, Marjorie. 1997. The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York: Mirror/IDEA.
White, Carol Wayne. 2016. Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism. New York: Fordham University Press.
———. 2018. “African American Religious Naturalism and the Question of the Human.” In Handbook of Religious Naturalism, edited by Donald Crosby and Jerome Stone, 156–68. New York: Routledge.
Wildman, Wesley. 2014. “Religious Naturalism: What It Can Be, and What It Need Not Be.” Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences 1.1: 36–58.
Where the Animals Are
Engaging Carceral Space with Karen M. Morin
The nexus of mass incarceration in U.S. prisons and mass exploitation of nonhuman animals today presents a ‘critical moment in history’ (Thomas and Shields 2012, 4). These processes are connected, and the purpose of this book is to develop a framework to position and interpret some key points of connection across these human and nonhuman ‘carceral spaces.’” (5)
. . . even though popular culture is fraught with prisoner-animal metaphors, the lack of species construction analysis in current prison studies is surprising.” (81)
The book Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals is an incredible feat.
Here, Dr. Karen M. Morin sets out to chart precisely and convincingly how an institution to confine humans structures its logics of violence and domination against those bound within it. This task of mapping the menace found in bricks and bars, patterns of thought and orders of operations is massive enough in itself, even when restricted to one setting. However, Morin simultaneously analyzes how the logics of that setting—the prison—are conjoined with the logics pervading institutions that confine nonhuman animals.
This is, some might say, a wild undertaking given the ground that must be covered when discussing these logics in just one of these arenas, and how complicated it is to narrate their function across varied spaces, especially in a linear written form. As a fellow animal studies scholar who understands the dicey nature of practicing interspecies intersectionality and who had the pleasure of exploring these issues alongside Dr. Morin,1 I feel honored to engage the results of all her work. Yet, Morin dives into demonstrating how carceral logics defy the “human vs. animal” barrier—and indeed how such thinking, tactics and terror originate from the same soil. In so doing, she invites all anti-incarceration agitators to reexamine the systems they struggle against and to consider collaborations they may not have before.
Identifying the Terrain
In her introductory chapter, Morin begins at the point of definition. What is carceral space? How do we recognize its contours, textures, outcomes? Using the work of carceral geographer Dominique Moran, she identifies three common characteristics of this particular type of confinement:
- There must be the experience of detriment. The space “must inflict suffering, harm or punishment . . . regardless of the intent.”
- The inhabitants must be there against their will. They are in the space as subjects of “an agenic imposition of detriment via confinement.”
- The detriment and captivity takes place within particular areas. These spaces can be “material, virtual or imagined” (12).2
To this list, Morin adds that “within carceral spaces the bodies of the incarcerated are subjected as well to routine processes of ‘animalization’ while their status as property or ‘person’ is on-goingly negotiated” (12). By naming this tendency to associate certain humans with a distorted, negative view of nonhuman animals, namely, racialized persons and others socially coded as subhuman, she lays the groundwork for understanding how prisoners become so easily and legally “exploitable, disposable, killable” (104). Furthermore, she builds on the work of animal studies scholars like Maneesha Deckha (114), Claire Jean Kim (76), Syl Ko, and many others to demonstrate how this oppressive framework ultimately rests on “animalizing” other animals. It is because of a supremacist worldview that also codes other complex creatures—cows, elephants, lions, etc.—as acceptable targets of abuse and annihilation that animalized humans receive the same treatment. Or, said in short, it is no exaggeration that prisoners are treated “like animals”: they actually are.
Using the anchoring example of the prison, Morin demonstrates that “the carceral far surpasses spaces of human incapacitation to encompass the slaughterhouse, the research lab, the farm, and the zoo, and conceptually extends to the trans-carceral spaces and practices beyond those institutions proper” (10). Specifically she analyzes prison design, the techniques used inside them, the industrial complex governing them, and the consequences for prisoners as a blueprint to reveal the carceral nature of spaces that hold and violate other animals.
One of many examples she offers is the choreography leading up to and during the execution of death row inmates. The person who straps down the left leg of a prisoner is separate from the person who straps down the right leg, who is separate from the person in a different room who injects the lethal cocktail, and so forth. Similarly, the knocker on a slaughterhouse floor is not the same person as the person who removes the skin of the dead cows, who is not the same person as the one who dismembers the animals into their now sellable parts. In both systems, the extreme division of labor, rooms, and access inhibits a single witness, testimony, or experience of the full extent of the controlled brutality. This pattern also allows assailants to disassociate from the violence they directly and indirectly inflict.
Incarceration Is Cross-Species
Morin’s approach of bringing the prison into conversation with these other spaces enables her to speak multi-directionally to advocates for incarcerated humans and nonhumans, even as she illuminates the peculiar tragedies of each site. On one hand, researchers, academics, and philosophers who study and work to reform or abolish prisons do not often factor into their analysis spaces of detriment and captivity for other animals. This gap conveys the sense that what happens in human carceral spaces is a higher priority relative to other animal confinement. It also conveys the sense that prisons are terrible because humans are the ones harmed, not because the logics behind them are disastrous in and of themselves. The perspective that what happens in prisons is wrong because it happens to people inadvertently reinforces the idea that other beings should experience violence because they are animals after all. This may explain in part how it is so uncommon for prison abolitionists to participate in animal liberation or anti-vivisection protests, or why an anti-prison conference is just as likely as any other gathering to serve factory-farmed animal carcasses with a side of female reproductive matter (milk and eggs) at mealtimes.
But Morin’s challenge is not only for those involved in prison work. The anti-vivisection protestor is also unlikely to attend the prison abolition march and the mainstream vegan organization is also unlikely to ask if its office supplies were made by prison labor. While ethicists, activists, and others in the animal rights, advocacy, and liberationist schools are keenly aware that slaughterhouses, factory farms, zoos, and medical labs are oppressive, and may even speak about breaking cages and treating animals like prisoners, the majority fail to see how beyond metaphor this observation is and how much dismantling is actually required. If human carceral spaces come up at all in their analysis, it is often by way of comparing elephants’ or rabbits’ suffering to the suffering of Black, Brown, and/or poor people. In this narrative, gassing piglets becomes “just like” gassing Jews in the Holocaust and breeding cows becomes “just like” raping enslaved African women on plantations. These parallels offend and fall short because they center on the supposed sameness of the victims rather than of the logics that produce victims. This is a misstep that Morin painstakingly tries to avoid, a point I return to later.
On the other side of the coin, placing animal carceral spaces in conversation with prisons also allows Morin to highlight the injustice of prisons. If it is the case that animals who are fundamentally innocent can become incarcerated then “carcerality clearly exceeds categories of criminality” (11, emphasis mine). Said differently, if an animal who breaks no law and commits no socially recognizable, egregious harm can end up in a cage, suffer violence, be treated as disposable, and be killed prematurely, then surely it is conceivable how humans—and especially Black and other nonhumanized humans—could end up in similar predicaments. This argument would stand on wobbly feet, except that Morin provides the historical, racial, and legal analysis to show this perspective is not hyperbole. By working through this argument with detail, she creates reasonable doubt that people who become prisoners clearly deserve to be prisoners because of the fact of being prisoners. Removing the presumption of guilt for incarcerated bodies raises the question: if rehabilitation for wrongdoing is not the driving factor for holding others captive, then what is (75)?
Imagining a Few Detours
Although I enthusiastically support Morin’s thesis and conclusions, I did have lingering questions about the book structure and felt curious how some of her arguments would build and communicate differently using another flow. For example, the writings on animality, and on Blackness, criminality, and other animals come near the end of the chapter on “the prison as/and laboratory: sites of trans-species bio-testing.” Yet, I felt this background might better support the connections she makes if they were earlier in the chapter or earlier in the book. I had a similar thought about the discussion on property and legal geographies in chapter 4. Would a fuller account on the meaning of property and commodity be useful before describing the labor of prisoners and other animals?
I also wondered how the book’s organization helps or constrains Morin in her work to make careful parallels between prisons and other systems. At the outset, she notes that “the politics and ethics of making comparisons between racialized and classed human animals and that of nonhuman animals in respective carceral spaces can be problematic and fraught” (15). With this in mind, she arranges each chapter by examining prisons and the harms committed there, then examining a specific animal space and their respective harms, then lifting up the corresponding logics between each space. Consequently, there are moments when comparing each location side-by-side and detailing the trauma experienced by the human and nonhuman captives in the same chapter edges Morin close to the kinds of comparisons that conflict with her aim. The parallel that demonstrates this most for me her comments on purpose breeding.
When discussing medical testing on prisoners and other animals, Morin notes that rabbits, mice, and other creatures are deliberately “brought into existence solely to be used as material” for research (73). She then links this practice to the ways in which “the PIC [prison industrial complex] of today relies on a host of social, judicial, and economic policies to ensure criminalization of Black bodies that are—effectively—‘purpose-bred’ for prison” (75). For me, the tenuousness of this reasoning was immediately visible in her use of quotes around purpose-bred. Comparing humans impregnating mice for testing to social systems that produce Black prisoners feels like a turn to metaphor that is not only different from the other parallels she draws, but also feels like a stretch—in a way I feel strongly but am struggling to explain. Said differently, giving the PIC the same totalizing power as a medical technician overlooks the autonomy and sexuality of Black humans who co-create and give birth to our children. A more apt parallel may be between the lab and plantation slavery. However, the two scenarios do not seem aligned for comparison.
Throughout the text, Morin addresses the possibility readers might misinterpret her parallels with statements that can reflect self-awareness on one hand or sound like disclaimers on the other. Near the start of chapter 2 she writes, “It is not my intention to somehow prove that these sites of assembly line killing produce ‘the same’ embodied responses in their human and nonhuman sufferers or that any type of grief is more consequential than another” (33). Similarly, in her chapter on the supermax prisons and zoos, she starts, “While I acknowledge the risks involved in making comparisons, and appreciate that great care must be taken in doing so, in my discussion I note a number of parallels to be drawn” (120). On one hand, it is reasonable to repeat these statements in each chapter as someone may read one and not others. Indeed, each chapter feels like it could easily be a book of its own. On the other, these reminders almost attract more scrutiny to and, I imagine for some, skepticism about the comparison. This may especially be the case when the carceral logics behind the comparison are not outlined until after the comparison is made.
Consequently, I found myself imagining how alternative layouts that weaved her argument across the whole book, instead of through the sum of several distinct but related chapters, might have lessened the need for those qualifiers. To put it concretely, how would the book read differently if the text started by examining prisons and their key logics then moved to distinct chapters on how those logics manifested in factory farms, in zoos, in slaughterhouses, and in labs? Please note, as someone who did not put in the sweat, tears, and labor that went into this project, I am keenly aware of and feel sensitive about making such an inquiry. But I am genuinely interested in what if any other strategies Morin considered for constructing her narrative and what felt good about this approach relative to other possibilities.
Even with these tensions, Morin makes a rich, rigorous, and densely researched case that human and nonhuman animal carceral spaces are “enmeshed and maintained together” (2). I am deeply grateful for Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals and her clear desire to make a real impact in the ways her colleagues see and do things. Identifying the profound similarities in the logics and consequences of carceral institutions calls those seeking justice, freedom, well-being, dignity, and peace for prisoners and other animals to consider where else and to who else they need to pay attention. I am eager to see what new energy and analysis her scholarship enlivens in others.
In 2015, Dr. Karen Morin, myself, and twelve other scholars across a variety of disciplines gathered for a forteen-day Race and Animals Summer Institute at Wesleyan University. One of our major ongoing conversations was how best to discuss the intersection of White supremacy/racism, the intersection of speciesism/species, and their combined devastating impacts on Black, Indigenous, and other non-White individuals and communities.↩
As a slight aside, I found this defining work helpful for addressing a question in my own liberationist practice. Having adopted cats for companions and wondered about the ethics of doing so, the nuance of confinement plus detriment clarified why adoption into a home or rescue for a sanctuary is not carceral space.↩
6.30.21 | Chloë Taylor
Reflections on Karen Morin’s Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals
One day my graduate students and I were discussing Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince with a group of incarcerated men and women at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, a medium security prison outside of Edmonton. We were discussing Saint-Exupery’s animalizing language of “taming” to describe the creation of ties of friendship and love. I told them about my cat Antoine, whom I had named after the author of The Little Prince, who had recently died by drowning. “How does a cat drown?” one of them asked, and I could not say. I had taken Antoine to live with my parents in Mexico, because in Canada he was perpetually being arrested by Animal Control, as frequently as every two weeks. I had hoped that by taking him to a small town in Mexico he could live freely, but three weeks after I moved him, unseen by anyone, he fell into a human-made pond and, unable to get out, he died. His body was found eleven days later.
As we talked about cats and foxes and roses and human friends and lovers, a flock of birds landed in the prison quad outside the window of the classroom. One of the incarcerated students said, “They like it here. They choose to be here.” The idea that the prison was a place that a wild animal might freely choose to be—that there must be some beauty or desirability to the space, from a bird’s-eye view—was comforting. Another one of the incarcerated students quickly added, however, “but they can leave.”
In her important book Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals, Karen Morin compares and contrasts carceral spaces in which human and nonhuman animals are kept captive, and the types of experiences that prisoners have in these domains. Reading Morin’s book, we see how US prison execution chambers and slaughterhouses are both similar and different, how solitary confinement cells and zoo cages are both comparable and incomparable, and how both human and other-than-human prisoners have been subjected to medical experimentation. Morin’s book demonstrates that humans in correctional centres and animals in zoos have some of the same experiences of oppression: social ties to the outside world are cut off, bodies are managed through extreme structures of disciplinary power, and prisoners’ status as persons versus property is “continually negotiated” (12–13). The comparisons—and the limits to the comparisons—go both ways: not only is the zoo (like—and unlike) a prison, but the prison is in many ways (like—and unlike) a zoo. One carceral space that Morin’s book does not discuss, but might have, is so-called animal shelters, however an even more recent book, Katja Guenther’s The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals (2020), has done this complementary work, citing Morin’s scholarship and that of other animal and carceral geographers such as Kathryn Gillespie.
Morin’s book, like other critical prison studies scholarship (L. Guenther 2013; Struthers Montford 2016; Gillespie 2018), makes it abundantly clear that incarcerated people are animalized. This is most obvious in the practice of caging, however we can also think of the ways in which delinquency is so often taken as an essence of incarcerated people, who are considered bound to reoffend and treated as such. The animalization of incarcerated people clearly has much to do with the racialization of prisoners, and the associations between Blackness and animality (Boisseron 2018; Bennett 2020; Ko 2019; Kim 2015) and Indigeneity and animality (Belcourt 2015; Kim 2015; Robinson 2014; Robinson 2013). What is less immediately obvious, however, are the ways that nonhuman animals are criminalized. Yet there is a long history of criminalizing animals (Evans 2013), and this practice continues today. As Morin explains in Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals, throughout the Middle Ages humans put nonhuman animals on trial and punished them—often executing them—when they were found guilty of crimes such as murder and mischief. Below are some historical images of one such trial and execution, this one involving a pig.
While today we find this history of medieval animal trials quaint and absurd, and consider ourselves to be more enlightened, in fact Morin shows that little has fundamentally changed. Animals who are considered to be what Foucault would call “dangerous individuals” (Tarver 2013) are, like their human counterparts (but with even less due process), apprehended, incarcerated, sometimes tried and often executed. In a book chapter I wrote in 2013, I discussed a case of a case that had occurred recently in Canada, in which
Newspaper reports covering the incident had titles such as “Bear Euthanized on Suspicion of Eating Murderer’s Remains” (Canadian Press, 2012). The justification was that the bear had “lost its [sic] fear of humans” (Canadian Press, 2012), however it is strange to think that a bear ought to fear not only humans, but already dead humans. What is interesting in the current context, however, is the criminalizing language used to describe the bear, who, according to the longstanding Western notion of a Great Chain of Being, had violated not civil law, but a law of nature, according to which lower beings, such as plants and animals, should not eat higher beings, such as humans or angels.
The ongoing criminalization of animals is also apparent in the case of dogs who have bitten humans. A recent headline in another British Columbia case that again demonstrates such criminalization of animals reads, “Death-row dog loses fight for life as Supreme Court of Canada rejects owner’s bid to appeal” (Schmunk 2020). In this heartbreaking case, a dog named Punky bit a woman when startled at an off-leash park, was seized by Animal Control, deemed dangerous by a judge, and ordered to be destroyed. Punky was an Australian cattle hound whose human, having known her since she was a seven-week-old puppy, described her as “shy and reactive.” She could certainly have been trained to not bite, but instead she spent half of her life alone in a cage while her case was battled in the courts before, all struggles having been lost, she was executed at the age of four.
Other dogs are assumed to be dangerous and executed by the state pre-emptively, based on their breed even if they have no individual history of biting. As scholars such as Erin Tarver and Katja Guenther have compellingly shown, such cases are not based in empirical facts about breeds but are rather deeply racialized (Tarver 2014; K. Guenther 2020). Particular breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls, are considered “dangerous” since they are associated with criminalized and similarly stigmatized humans, and Black and Brown men in particular. The racism of the criminal punishment system does not limit itself to humans, therefore, but extends to the animals who are associated with racialized humans and are themselves raced. Although we see the criminalization of nonhuman animals most blatantly in the case of wild animals and dogs, it is not limited to them, and indeed cats are far more systematically executed by Animal Control than dogs (Guenther 2020).
Six years ago I took one such criminalized cat home to foster from an animal rescue—the cat who would later drown in Mexico. I named him Antoine. Antoine’s left eye had been punctured in a cat fight shortly before I met him and a vet had sewn shut his inner eyelid; he was now blind in that eye. This is the first photo I ever took of Antoine, and you can see that his left eye is different from the right, seeing eye.
I quickly discovered that Antoine was not happy staying inside. He had lived as an outdoor cat on an Indigenous reserve in Saskatchewan before ending up at the animal rescue in Edmonton, and he could not settle into being inside all the time. Indeed, he wailed endlessly if I tried to keep him indoors, and literally bounced off the walls. When he was outside, however, he would wander widely, strolling down a main drag of the city and enter buildings intrepidly, having no fear of humans and no respect for supposedly private property. A graduate student’s husband managed a ski store near me, and one day she phoned to tell me that Antoine was at the store. On another occasion a homeless man shouting “leave that cat alone!” alerted me to the fact that a hissing and snarling Antoine was in a third floor window of the apartment building next door, and a man was trying to push him out the window with a broom. More friendly neighbours sent me photos of Antoine relaxing in their living room.
When I went for walks in the neighbourhood, Antoine would escort me like a dog, greeting actual dogs who were on walks with their humans. These humans would exclaim, “Is that your cat? He loves my dog Rudy [in the example photographed below]. He comes in our house all the time. We thought he was a stray!”
Demonstrating himself to be both an LGBTQ ally and a lover of the arts, Antoine attended both Pride and the Fringe festival when they took place in our neighbourhood, and since I had recently put a new collar on him, I received many phone calls on each occasion: “Your cat is at Pride!” “Your cat is at the Fringe!” Sometimes people took him home and then called me, and I would have to go to collect him. Often he got his collar off, however, and people he encountered would worry that his punctured eye was a recent injury and take him to the vet, who would turn him over to Animal Control. In other cases people simply called Animal Control when they saw Antoine in their yards. This is one of the photos of Antoine that was posted on the Animal Control website.
Thus began a period during which I was often making the long trek outside of the city to the Animal Control headquarters, which was a long drive if I could get a friend to give me a ride, or three buses or an expensive taxi each way if I could not. Here are photos of a friend, Randi, giving us a ride home from Animal Control.
Once at Animal Control I would be made to wait an hour or longer for an Animal Control officer to reprimand me. Reading The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, I have learned that this use of time to punish apparently negligent “pet owners” is standard tactic of Animal Control officers (K. Guenther 2020, ch. 8). When I was eventually seen by an officer, I would be told that Antoine needed to be kept inside or at least in the yard. Antoine would be described by the Animal Control officer in criminalizing language: he was said to have been “apprehended” while “at large,” and I would be told whether the humans who had called Animal Control had “pressed charges.” If they had pressed charges, I would not only have had to pay a fee for Antoine’s stay at Animal Control and his unnecessary veterinary examination, but also a fine. I asked what “charges” could be pressed against a cat, and was told that Antoine had been “trespassing” on other people’s property.
Due to Antoine’s recidivism, and my thus extensive encounters with Animal Control officers, I learned that these officials can work for the police, health, or parks departments depending on the county or city, but in the city where Antoine and I lived they are part of the police. Animal Control officers enforce laws concerning animals, whether pets, strays, ferals, or wild animals. Although to some extent it is the human associated with the animal who is treated as the lawbreaking agent (for instance it was I who had to pay the fees and fines), in a far more urgent sense it remains the nonhuman animal who is punished, just as in medieval courts. It is the cat or dog who is incarcerated, and who is put to death if a human does not show up and post bail. Sometimes an animal is executed even if a human does claim them, as when a dog is deemed dangerous, or an Animal Control officer does an inspection of the animal’s home and judges it unacceptable (K. Guenther 2020, chapter 3). Some animals will be kept for weeks or longer at Animal Control until an officer has (or makes) the time to go inspect the animal’s home, and all this time the animal lives in a cage and their human must pay the cost of their incarceration (K. Guenther 2020, ch. 3, ch. 8).
In my case, I was lucky—or, rather, benefited from white and middle-class privilege—and my home was never inspected. As Katja Guenther demonstrates, pet owners become more suspect, and are less likely to get their animals back, if they are people of colour, men, and/or poor (ch. 3). A single man, particularly if he is Black or Brown or poor, is likely to undergo a bureaucratic nightmare and accrue prohibitive expenses, or have his animal killed, while a white middle-class family who collects their lost dog will be quickly and happily reunited and allowed to go on their way. If my home had been inspected, Animal Control would have found that I had more than the six cats that is the legal limit according to the city bylaws, and they would not have returned Antoine to me. They would then have been free to kill him if they considered him unadoptable, or “feral.” As it was, I was free to leave Antoine at Animal Control to die, to not pay the costs of his incarceration, or to never retrieve him at all. If I wanted Antoine back, I had to submit to being financially punished for not keeping him indoors, but it was he who most paid the price for the prevalent attitude in Canada and the United States that free animals do not belong in cities, and every animal in an urban space ought to be registered, microchipped, leashed, and caged.
Although there are thus many situations in which nonhuman animals are arrested, tried, and executed today as in the Middle Ages, it is nonetheless true that most animals who are incarcerated are not so obviously criminalized. Indeed, the vast majority of domesticated animals, those in factory farms, zoos, and laboratory cages, have never been charged with any wrongdoing. These animals are born into situations of incarceration and are soon executed without even the pretense of fault or a trial. Although this might initially seem like a difference between the situation of most incarcerated nonhuman animals and the majority of incarcerated humans, Morin’s book explores some of the ways in which the situation is more complicated. Like animals who are born into situations of incarceration, many humans are virtually born into prisons; they are born into racialized zones, ghettoes, reserves, societies and school districts in which their path or “pipeline” (Heitzeg 2016; Kim and Losen 2012) to prison is nearly inevitable (Alexander 2012).
Like other critical animal studies scholars doing pathbreaking intersectional work, a reoccurring question with which Morin grapples throughout Carceral Space is whether it is problematic to compare human and other-than-human prisoners, when the groups of humans in question are still struggling to have their humanity recognized. Does it help incarcerated people to compare prisons to zoos, animal shelters, laboratories, and factory farms? Is it important to the liberation struggles of racialized and poor people, mad and disabled people, queer and trans people—to the people who most often end up in prisons—for us to understand the ways that they are currently animalized, and that their oppression interlocks with that of other species? In response to these questions, Morin’s book compellingly reinforces the critical animal studies argument that it is through animalization and dehumanization that we oppress, and justify the oppression of, human beings, and this strategy of dehumanization only works because of preexisting and unquestioned humanism (see also Bennett 2020; Ko 2019; Boisseron 2018; Kim 2015; L. Guenther 2013). Put otherwise, if we were not speciesist, comparing a human to an animal, or treating a human like an animal, would not spell oppression. If we were to eradicate speciesism, the logic of intrahuman domination as we know it would dissolve as well. Thus showing the ways that humans are oppressed through animalization is an effective tool of liberation, but only if we simultaneously contest the speciesism that is implicit in these acts of animalization. This is work that Morin’s book accomplishes in an exemplary manner.
Alexander, Michelle. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.
Belcourt, Billy-Ray. 2015. “Animal Bodies, Colonial Subjects: (Re)Locating Animality in Decolonial Thought.” Societies 5.1: 1–11.
Bennett, Joshua. 2020. Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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