Defending Animals: Finding Hope on the Front Lines of Animal Protection | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Defending Animals: Finding Hope on the Front Lines of Animal Protection

Defending Animals: Finding Hope on the Front Lines of Animal Protection
by Kendra Coulter

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2023
272 pp., illus., 3 b/w. Paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0262048286.

Reviewed by: 
Gregory F. Tague
December 2023

Defending Animals by Kendra Coulter is a thoughtful, informative discussion about protecting animals from cruelty. The book is useful for courses across areas of animal studies since it touches on species domestic, liminal, and wild. Regarding ethical implications, Coulter examines the relationships between animals and humans with insights about how to mitigate violence. The overriding inquiry asks how we can profess humanity if we don’t care for animals. As surmised by Immanual Kant in his Metaphysics of Morals, the inhumane treatment of animals is an expression of character that can lead to harms against humans; for Coulter, this idea is especially true regarding injuries to women and marginalized people. Considering our dubious conquest of earth, animals of all species are integrated into people’s homes, communities, or forest borderlines, so from Coulter’s perspective it is ethical to protect them as they are linked to our social sensibilities. As her field work and academic study attest, global cultural differences are reflected in how people treat animals. She cautions about overly simplistic portraits of all players in a complex international picture, but what she finds is an ethical link between people and animals in their care or proximity.

Many localities and countries don’t have full-time teams dedicated to the protection of animals. A hodgepodge system exists where gaps are filled by law enforcement. As Coulter notes, there’s a difference between homing stray cats and controlling a potentially lethal forest animal in a densely populated area. There are also complicated scenarios that arise when an animal welfare investigator responds to an abuse complaint. Much needs to be taken into consideration with attention to the legal rights of people and the care of their animals. Cruelty officers face daunting obstacles, and often there’s little legal recourse to help the animals suffering abuse.

The field of animal care workers is dominated by women on high alert when responding to calls since they’re often threatened with physical harm, Coulter explains. Perhaps that’s the link Kant saw: one who harms animals is prone to hurt another person, and more often than not abusers are men. Coulter recounts stories of horrible animal mistreatment that, in the words of one worker, “rock your soul.” Animal investigators suffer from depression and secondary stress. Yet these first responders are motivated to help animals and often their impoverished or ill human companions. Much of this work is done by private organizations but should be handled by government agencies with ample legal and enforcement resources, Coulter suggests. She admits that public sector funding can become a contentious political issue.

As an example of a nonprofit working with a municipality, Coulter offers the ASPCA in N.Y.C. that partners with and trains thousands of city police officers as first responders with a special unit dedicated to animal cruelty. This relationship has been effective, as has connecting the ASPCA to city veterinarians, social workers, and animal law attorneys. These partnerships enable each branch to function in its area of expertise without placing a burden on the ASPCA. Sometimes there’s a legal case of animal cruelty, and sometimes not; that’s where the knowledge of divisions working together is beneficial for all with sensitivity to the economic, psychological, or social components of a case. In addition to training, all animal cruelty investigators need special equipment, and she says nonprofits in some places (N.Y.C. and Calgary) “subsidize” the work of police departments. Coulter reiterates, as research shows, that instances of animal cruelty are mostly by men who then abuse women. Ultimately, she intimates, animal abuse is an issue about “community safety.”

Coulter focuses less on graphic details of abuse and more on causes, consequences, investigations, and protection. She describes how academics and others formed a coalition to explore the “violence link” that crosses many social sectors with the hope of establishing remedies. This model shows skeptics in law enforcement and social services that animal abuse is connected to a range of other ills in society. For example, she notes how the U.S. FBI designates cruelty to animals as “crime against society” and not merely as an injury to property. Though, legally, animals are considered property. Still, because of organizational changes and funding cuts, police animal cruelty units are among the first eliminated. Coulter makes a strong case for dedicated animal cruelty squads among law enforcement working in tandem with animal nonprofits. She goes even further, suggesting that in addition to those on the front line, like police and veterinarians, we could train school teachers, college students, clinical social workers, etc. about early signs of animal cruelty. This type of cultural evolution as preventative and not interventional is worthwhile. In terms of domestic abuse, she notes how all women’s shelters should accommodate companion animals as victims.

Coulter goes on to consider animals and the elderly, the homeless and companion animals, and those with low income who care for animals. As she says, the solution to these related problems should be a humane “one welfare” strategy that is advantageous to all segments of society, not least of all the animals with whom we share space. Here, she explores organizations that help impoverished people care for their animal companions, pay for licensing fees, food, and vet care. As she says, it’s not just about services but empathy and equity. This poses a challenge in places where there is already economic and racial injustice. Fining people and impounding their pets is sometimes unfair, and punishment should be a last resort. Instead, some places, like Los Angeles, California, are trying to improve the life quality of homeless people and their animal companions by permitting pets into shelters where an array of services are available. Indeed, Coulter indicates how having a dog can serve as motivation for one to seek housing, and research shows that homeless people care for their animal companions, she says.

Some of the worst forms of animal cruelty, Coulter notes, involve dog or rooster fighting, often part of organized crime and always involving men, rarely women. Animal care investigators are not equipped to handle these gang-related law enforcement cases. This type of animal abuse creates a safety issue not just for animals but for the men involved and even segments of the public. Once rescued, fighting dogs require intense rehabilitation, if recovery is even possible. In extreme cases of abuse, veterinary forensic science, as in a human crime scene investigation, is used to identify and apprehend perpetrators. Needless to say, veterinarians and others in the field focused on extreme cases, as well as those who euthanize animals frequently or kill them in slaughterhouses, suffer from mental health issues. Though slow to evolve, veterinarian forensics is an important component in determining animal cruelty not infrequently linked to human violence. From here, Coulter has a long discussion about the legal, ethical, and social complexities of animal cruelty punishment; how victims of abuse are often themselves abusers; how the system can treat one group more unfairly than others; and how incarceration does not necessarily lead to reform.

Coulter devotes several chapters to wildlife and acknowledges that human infrastructure not only limits existing wild animal habitats but also diminishes what remains. Conservation efforts protect lands and animals, but some have criticized these efforts for faulting indigenous people who rely on subsistence hunting. On the other hand, impoverished people in the Global South have engaged in a black-market trade of endangered species, other wildlife, or their body parts. Worse, animal traffickers, poachers, and smugglers rely on large and well-financed syndicates, she notes, suggesting that perpetrators across all levels need to be identified and prosecuted. Beyond law enforcement issues, education about biodiversity welfare is key. Coulter believes conservation strategies that economically empower local people will produce the best results for defending animals.

Veterinary care for injured wild animals is often difficult to obtain and administer, Coulter admits. For wildlife rescuers and rehabilitators, wild animals injured by cars, air traffic, suburban development, or careless people receive no government-sponsored attention. Coulter’s focus is on human-wildlife interactions and encounters, for example birds who are injured by slamming into tall buildings. In this example, we have fauna that share our space. Wildlife is not defenseless but has not evolved to navigate our urban terrain. This leads to a discussion of animals in captivity. Confinement, often in poor conditions and for entertainment, is a sad reflection of human priorities for profit over protection. A large part of the problem is that laws about legal/illegal wild animal possession are loose and sometimes unenforced. More than a prosecution issue captivity poses an ethical question about why animals can be taken from their habitats and kept in someone’s home. Next, Coulter examines animals in zoos but especially those massive numbers, from mice to dogs and primates, housed in university, medical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic laboratories worldwide.

Coulter devotes a separate chapter to horses as a special class of animals somewhere between the margins of legal use/abuse. Horses are laborers, companions, law enforcement or war adjuncts, entertainers, human food, etc. as they have been for many centuries. Still, horses drive animal cruelty debates, whether wild equines in the Western U.S. pitted against ranchers or those used to trot tourists around Central Park, N.Y.C. Furthermore, in the Global South and elsewhere, like India, Equid labor is essential for daily living, but the horses, mules, and donkeys suffer “physically and emotionally” she reports. Coulter suggests that in poor countries with low levels of education and opportunity it’s difficult to strike a balance between human and animal needs. This leads Coulter into a discussion of animal agriculture, and she recites for those uninitiated the horrible fates that await cows, calves, chickens, male chicks, sheep, pigs, turkeys, etc. This is to say nothing about fish or fur farms. Much animal agribusiness is often subsidized by the government, whereas little appropriations are allocated for manufacturers of plant-based foods. Nine billion chickens are “produced” each year in the U.S.A. alone. The Union of Concerned Scientists claims that twice the area of New Jersey in the U.S. is used simply to grow chicken feed. Farming without killing is possible, whether one shifts to fruits, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, alternative energy, etc., depending on the climate. Better yet, lands could be sold to the government or a nonprofit organization with the express purpose of rewilding.

Let’s put much of this into perspective. According to Our World in Data, over 60 percent of the world’s biomass is livestock or pets with only four percent of wild animal biomass remaining. Humans account for 34 percent of earth’s biomass. Nonetheless, Coulter ends on a positive note about how animal protection is growing via laws and cultural changes showing that violence against other species reflects harms to humans, especially marginalized people, women, and minorities. Defending Animals, along with the resources it cites, is an important starting point for people willing to join the fight for animal protection.