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  • Citizen Canine, Comrade CowToward a New Kind of Animal Rights
  • James McWilliams (bio)

Dylan, a three-year-old yellow Lab, leaped from the van and made a beeline for Beth, a volunteer who was standing alone in her driveway, pressing a black blindfold to her eyes. This was their second meeting. Judging from Dylan’s demeanor (his tail wagged like a metronome) his final days as a guide-dog-in-training were happy ones. His trainer, Natalie Garza, introduced Dylan to my daughter and me, and although he bowed his head for a scratch, you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he was focused on the task at hand: leading Beth, who otherwise has normal vision, on a test walk through a suburban neighborhood in Austin, Texas.

Guiding a sighted volunteer, Garza explained, required Dylan to work harder than usual. Specifically, he had to exaggerate his signals with Beth, signals that a visually impaired person accustomed to sightless navigation might not require. Dylan, who was soon to be matched with his first visually impaired guardian, couldn’t afford to cut corners today. “These dogs save people’s lives,” Beth reminded me as Garza lowered a harness over Dylan’s head and adjusted it for comfort. He had to be on his game.

And he was. The walk was a success. The highlight (as far as Garza was concerned) came when Dylan led Beth down an uneven sidewalk that paralleled a fence behind which two dogs had erupted into a growling frenzy. For most canines, the distraction would have been unbearable. For my two dogs, it would have meant warfare. But for Dylan it was as if the commotion wasn’t happening. Not so much as an ear pricked up.

Instead, drawing on his training, Dylan did his job. He locked eyes on possible tripping hazards—mostly tree roots that had buckled the sidewalk—and asked Beth to acknowledge the obstructions before proceeding. He erred consistently on the side of caution, even halting once before a low-hanging tree limb that Beth would easily have passed under, waiting for her to touch it to acknowledge its presence. “Good boy to watch,” Beth assured Dylan, before giving him the hand signal to proceed. “Straight to the curb,” she said. Walking ahead a few yards, Dylan stopped and sat, signaling to Beth that it was time to step up. She did. “It’s easy to trust this guy,” she said, while Dylan, eyebrows now arched, glanced at Garza for a cookie.

He got several.

Neither my daughter nor I had ever witnessed such an interaction, and frankly, we were moved by it. Observing Dylan and Beth as they worked, thinking about the intimacy of their connection, not to mention what’s at stake in it, touched us in a pure and uncomplicated way, so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone finding fault with this unique interspecies relationship, one that arguably evolved to be exactly how it appeared: mutually beneficial.

But that’s why God made philosophers—especially [End Page 206] animal rights philosophers. From the outside in, the term “animal rights” connotes peace-loving vegans preaching a unified message of “no harm to animals.” In reality, animal advocates are a polemical lot fractured by internecine battles and sharp personality differences. An especially controversial wing of the movement—commonly called the abolitionists—morally objects not only to Dylan’s role as a guide dog, but to all instances of animal domestication. Cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats—even the beloved cat, dog, or hamster, according to some very serious thinkers—are beasts that humans should nurture toward extinction.

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In a nation that spends more than $60 billion a year on pets, this isn’t a popular opinion. But neither is it an idea without merit. Animal rights abolitionism begins with the premise that the human–animal relationship, no matter how seemingly mutual or beneficial, is in fact inherently exploitative. Because domesticated animals are owned, because they are classified as property, and, most important, because they’ve been...


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pp. 206-214
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