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


Animals & Us


A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (1/4)

This semester I am following a course called Critical Animal Studies at Lund University. In this course, we discuss the topic of animals in society from a critical perspective. More straightforward: we discuss how we, human beings, massively engage in the oppression, exploitation, and domination of animals. Apart from the relevance of this course for my research and the political stances I take in my writings, this course had a very big impact on my personal life.

For these reasons I am sharing a series of four blog posts on my main takeaways of this course (let me know if you want to have the full reading list!). Moreover, we all inevitably participate in this oppression of animals and stimulate its continuation by the choices we make on a daily basis. Therefore it might be relevant for you to read along, discuss these topics together, and form your own critical stances. Let me throw in a quote by philosopher Jeremy Bentham to get started: “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” (Bentham, 1988, originally published in 1789).


One term that kept coming back throughout the course was speciesism. In one of the readings it was carefully explained like this:

“Speciesism is the view that the interests of members of the human species are more important than the interest of non-human species. Thus, humans are justified in using non-human species in ways that depreciate the interests of non-humans in favor of the interests of humans. As with racism – where the interest of one race are valued more highly than the interests of another race, and sexism – where the interests of males are valued more highly than the interests of females, in speciesism the interest of humans is more valuable than the interests of non-humans.” (Mosely, 2009, p. 2)

Mosely continues to explain how this view is very deeply rooted in the morals and values we usually consider the norm in western society. In our culture, ethical values and ideas have been largely derived from frameworks from both philosophy and religion. In religion, it is usually assumed that men are born as higher creatures (other animals are placed under man’s domination). Likewise, the woman was created from man, to serve as helpmate and companion. In philosophical traditions, speciesist views were largely based on animals’ presumed incapability of reasoning: animals cannot reason, therefore they are inferior (Aristotle), animals have instrumental, but no intrinsic value (Aquinas), animals are no members of the moral community because they are machine-like, lack the ability to speak, reason, and act autonomously (Descartes).

However, some scientists and philosophers (such as Bentham, Mill, and Singer) have challenged these assumptions, by arguing for what we all know by now: humans and animals share the ability to feel things like pain, suffering, emotions, and pleasure. Animals are sentient individuals. Following ethical logic it is therefore morally wrong to ignore suffering caused by humans, solely for habits that are unnecessary to our survival (such as meat eating, entertainment (in zoos, fighting, circuses, etc.), experimentation, and farming). Exactly… we do not need these things to survive, so how can we morally justify the suffering we cause? (for references on this topic see: Pick, 1993; Noske, 1997; Best, 2005; Burt, 2006; Marino, Bradshaw, and Malamud, 2009.

Arguments like, “we deserve better treatment because we are smarter or stronger”, quickly break down, since we still strive to prevent the unnecessary suffering of new-born children, disabled people, or the elderly. So what we are left with at the end is speciesism: we justify our arguments for causing animal suffering, solely because we classify humans, ourselves, as more important (much like the logics of slave-owners, Nazi’s, or misogynists, but more about that later).

Through intellectual reasoning and logic we come to a shocking revelation: what if we were wrong? What if the norms we have created, and widely accept, are built on mistakes? What if we are confronted with unjustified suffering everywhere, on a massive scale, and everyone is participating? If we conclude that speciesism is not justifiable, our thoughts about nearly everything in our lives will find change.


The documentary called Speciesism deals with these questions in a very elegant way. Without the need for disturbing footage, the filmmaker discusses the logic of the arguments we have used to justify the elevation of humans above all other species. I would highly recommend you to spend 90 minutes of your life watching this enjoyable and thought provoking film. As the reviews say:

“For those unfamiliar with speciesism, there may be no more enjoyable introduction to this fascinating subject than Speciesism: The Movie. For those familiar with the topic, and searching for a way to introduce friends and family to the deeper questions, this film may be the perfect solution.”

Also, please talk to me if you have watched this film and you would like to know or discuss more!

Taking a non-speciesist approach

But what does all of this exactly mean for my research and personal values? In 2011, when I started doing my research about animals, play, and technology, researcher Clara Mancini released a manifesto called Animal Computer Interaction. This has marked the starting point for a recognized and growing research field that seeks to include animals as actual participants and/or users in the technology we develop. In this widely cited document she advocates for taking a “non-speciesist approach to research” (Mancini, 2011, p. 72). Explained as giving animals and humans equal consideration, respect, and care and protecting animals from suffering (Mancini, 2011). But what does it truly mean to take a non-speciesist approach?

If we want to contribute to improve animal welfare with our research, can this be framed within a society that is already deeply entangled in animal oppression, or does this have to start from its roots? If our entire society is built on speciesist norms, how can we escape this as researchers?

The field of Animal Computer Interaction seeks to help the animal, and yet its outcomes (mine included) consist of projects that largely stimulate and support institutions that could be questioned within a non-speciesist approach. These include things like animal enabled technology in zoos that exist for human entertainment, farms that exist for consumption, the use of assistant animals for human purposes, and domestic animals that are owned by someone. These projects seem to emphasize the need for treating animals better, but aren’t we allowing ourselves to continue to rely on speciesist norms?

Our research work (as well as the personal decisions we make in daily life) can have a big impact for the animals and humans in society. But if a non-speciesist approach already starts by not bringing your laptop to work in a leather bag (yep, I felt the need to change my bag), or not participating in projects that rely on – or stimulate – animal oppression, how can we start tackling the speciesism issue at its core? And how can the field of design help with this? I hope that asking these questions could be a start in itself. So let’s use our voice to discuss these relevant issues, instead of avoiding them, as ignorance will only lead to further alienation.

Next post I will discuss how we could look at similarities with other forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, or classism) to think about our relationships with animals and inform our research.

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.



Bentham, J. (1988). The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Baird, R. M, Rosenbaum, S. E. (eds.), New York, NY: Prometheus Books.

Best, S. (2005). Genetic science, animal exploitation, and the challenge for demovracy. AI & Society, 20(1), 6-21.

Burt, J. (2006). Conflicts around Slaughter in Modernity. In the Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals, p. 210-144. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Mancini, C. (2011). Animal computer interaction: A manifesto. Interactions, 18(4), 69-73.

Marino, L., Bradshaw, G., and Malamud, R. (2009). The captivity industry: The reality of zoos and aquariums. Best Friends Magazine, March/April 2009, 24-27. Available at

Mosley, A. (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Available at

Noske, B. (1997). Domestication Under Capitalism + The Animal Industrial Complex. In Noske, B., Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, p. 11-39. Montreal, CA: Black Rose Books.

Pick, D. (1993). The Perfect Abattoir. In Pick, D., War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, p. 178-188, London, UK: Yale University Press.