Animals & Agency


A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (3/4)

Last two blog posts I discussed the term speciesism and the intersectionalities between speciesism and other forms of oppression. In this post, I will discuss a concept that I find inspiring in speculating about future scenarios with animals: the concept of animal agency.

The Problem of Backwards Ethics

We could describe our increasing body of knowledge about the lives of animals in two different ways. Either, animals are a lot more like humans, or humans are a lot more like animals than we have dared to think in the past. It seems like the more research towards the complexity of animals we carry out, the more we start seeing that all animals are sentient, they experience emotions, they suffer, and they like to live an enjoyable life.

The heritage of a Cartesian way of thinking, in which the animal was by definition excluded from the realm of ethics and protection (Gibson, 1967), has left us with a society in which the norm allows us to make animals suffer to the most horrific extends. Our animal welfare protection ethics and laws are built on the idea that animals are readily available for our use and we are allowed to make them suffer if we can justify our reasons for doing so (such as for food production, scientific experiments, clothing, etc.). Even though we obtain more and more insights in the capabilities for all animals to feel pain and enjoyment, every species first has to prove their capabilities and suffering to us, in order to then be granted ‘better’ treatment; or to be granted a mere extra daily hour of natural light in their cage. To me this seems like a backwards way of reasoning in which we try to undo some of the damage we have caused, without going to the actual root of the suffering.

Animal Agency

This has left me thinking, what if, instead of basing my ethics on species-specific hypotheses about animal capabilities and supposed intelligence, I could actually try to provide the animal with the agency to dictate her own life? What if I personally ask the animal what she likes? In this setting, I aim to provide the animal with a space to act independently, to influence her life, and to respond to her environment autonomously.

Throughout history, the concept of animal agency has often been ignored, because animals were not seen as independent agents. But even today, we often talk about animals as voiceless: “we have to speak for the animal, because they cannot speak for themselves”, we disregard the animal’s own capability to act. The animal is presented as a static character that can be used, displayed, abused, and exploited by humans (Hribal, 2007). But, if we actually look at the animal and observe her actions, it becomes clear that animals are actually very good at telling and showing us what they like, we just have to listen.

When we write or speak about animals, they are usually not seen as agents. We do not talk about the cow as a worker, the zoo elephant as prisoner, and the escaped lama as resistor. This passive portrayal is not only a disservice to the animals that we wrote about in the past, but also forms obstacles to the relationships we want to establish with animals in the present (Hribal, 2007). Hribal writes:

Donkeys have ignored commands. Mules have dragged their hooves, Oxen have refused to work. Horses have broken equipment, Chickens have pecked people’s hands. Cows have kicked farmers’ teeth out. Pigs have escaped their pens, Dogs have pilfered extra food. Sheep have jumped over fences.” (Hribal, 2007, pp. 103)

These are all very clear acts of resistance that have, in some cases, led to better treatment (such as in the form of animal rights), however in most cases it led to more punishment: higher fences, less motion, crude devices, clipping wings, blinding eyes, and physical abuse (Hribal, 2007). Yet, animals did not just continue their labour, they also continued to resist this labour and fought against their exploitation in any way that they deem possible (Hribal, 2007). And even though we are conditioned to ignore their resistance, they will continue to tell us that they suffer. They will continue to try and tell us that they do not accept the way we abuse them. And we do not need to wait for more ‘scientific discoveries’ to understand that they are suffering, we can just look any animal in her eyes and we will know.

Agency and Design

So, what if we could start over again on a more equal ontological footing? Starting in my own research project, not only by trying to avoid animal suffering, but also by exploring the alternatives that they propose themselves. What if we could acknowledge the fact that animals have agency and we could ask each and every individual animal what she actually likes to do?

In putting this proposal in a broader societal context, it can help us to think about a future beyond anthropocentrism and beyond the oppression of animals. The field of Critical Animal Studies is focused on emphasizing highly relevant and necessary histories, theories, and issues in our current society regarding animal exploitation, oppression, killing, use, entertainment, and domestication. In this, theorists, practitioners, and activists advocate for a non-speciesist approach, which means that we wish to abandon the view that the interests of human species are more important than the interests of animal species (as with racism, sexism, or classism, where the interests of another race, gender, or class, are considered more valuable than another) (Mosely, 2009). However, since we have not paid so much attention to the agency of animals throughout history, how would we be able to understand what the interests of animal species actually are?

We have obtained lots of useful insights in animals’ lives through observational research towards animal behaviour by carrying out ethnographic studies and biological, evolutionary, and ecology research. But these types of studies have a focus on understanding the animal’s behaviour and history. I suggest that we could complement our understanding of animal agency and interests with design based research. This type of research allows us to ask question, speculate about a future together, and experiment with different modes of mutual understanding between humans and animals. The process of design and shared agency allows us to get to know the animal and identify with their struggles. I think that this could be a significant and powerful force in eliciting social change.

In the following, and final blog post in this series I will discuss how playful design could be a helpful field of designing for acknowledging and listening to animal agency.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our camping trip last summer on a Dutch island called Terschelling, where we met some beautiful animals.


Gibson, A., B. (1967). The Philosophy of Descartes. London, UK: Russell&Russell Pub.

Hribal, J. (2007). Animals, agency, and class: Writing the history of animals from below. Human Ecology Review, 14(1), pp. 101-­‐112. Retrieved, March 23, 2016 from

Mosley, Albert (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Retrieved, March 23, 2016 from


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