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  • Service Dogs: Between Animal Studies and Disability Studies
  • Kelly Oliver

For at least the last thirty years, there has been an ongoing debate between animal studies and disability studies on the comparative status of highly intelligent animal species versus severely cognitively disabled human beings when it comes to membership in the moral community, which was spearheaded by Peter Singer’s claims that some animals should have more rights than some humans based on their intelligence and functionality (see Singer 1999, 2009; see also McMahan 2009). Eva Kittay and other disability scholars, especially feminists, have responded with outrage, along with compelling arguments. In this essay, I consider beings whose intelligence and functionality put them at the intersection of animal studies and disability studies, and embody some of the contradictions within both discourses, namely, service dogs. Obliquely engaging the Singer-Kittay debates, I suggest that both sides make questionable assumptions about humans and animals, which come to the fore when considering service dogs and their human companions.

Specifically, I focus on the notion of functionality in relation to issues of dependence and independence in order to rethink the human-animal divide in terms of what feminist philosopher Cynthia Willett calls “interspecies ethics” (2014). While endorsing Kittay’s claim that we have an ethical responsibility to that which sustains us, I challenge her feminist ethics of dependence insofar as it is limited to interdependence between humans and discounts or disavows our dependence on nonhuman animals. The feminist insistence on acknowledging the fact that women perform most of the labor of dependence [End Page 241] (child care, sick care, care for the elderly, care for the disabled) that enables independence—what Kittay calls the “labor of love”—should not be based on the disavowal of the ways in which our dependence on nonhuman animals enables our independence (Kittay 1998).

Furthermore, in both animal studies and disability studies, too often both animals and humans are discussed explicitly or implicitly in terms of their abilities or functionality wherein the goal is to become highly functional, wherein functionality is defined in terms of production, or in the case of humans, to become productive members of society. Focusing on service dogs makes clear some of the problems with reducing human or nonhuman animals to their functionality. Although it has been politically important in terms of advancing disability rights, the goal of integration is problematic insofar as it reduces people to their functionality. Following Julia Kristeva’s criticisms of the notion of integration when it comes to people with disabilities, I suggest an ethics of proximity based on interspecies companionship. Rather than a utilitarian ethics based on intelligence as the criteria for membership in the moral community, or a feminist ethics of care that acknowledges only dependency relations between human beings, or even a feminist ethics based on embodied vulnerability rather than autonomy, I propose an ethics based on interspecies interdependence, particularly emotional interdependence and companionship.

The Ambiguous Status of Service Dogs

Technically, only specifically trained dogs (and some miniature horses) that serve as physical or psychiatric—but not psychological, therapy, or emotional—support, are legally considered service animals.1 Rather than pets, companions, or even helpers, the law describes service animals as akin to tools that enable disabled people to navigate the world.2 Government reports describing the difference between pets and service dogs compare service animals to equipment like “assistive aids such as wheelchairs.”3 Recently, Martha M. Lafferty, the legal director of the Tennessee Disability Law and Advocacy Center, told reporters, “Look at the dog like it’s a wheelchair. Would you ask someone a bunch of questions about a wheelchair?” (Gonzalez 2014). Furthermore, the Justice Department requires all service dogs to be specifically trained to perform certain “tasks.” They must do something. They must perform a service such as guiding, picking up dropped keys, counterbalancing dizziness, or turning on lights. The calming or therapeutic effect of their company is not enough. The laws are clear that these animals are “tools” used for very specific tasks.4

But laws can’t prevent people from becoming emotionally attached to their service animals. And laws don’t prevent these animals from providing...


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pp. 241-258
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