Karen Davis, PhD|
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
12325 Seaside Road PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405
Letters to the Editor
The New Republic
1220 19th Street NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036
One way of looking at Peter Berkowitz versus Peter Singer on the
subject of bestiality is to see two metaphysical elitists battling it
out (Peter Berkowitz, "Puppy Love," TNR Online, March 8, 2001).
Singer's antispeciesist philosophy ranks human and nonhuman animals
according to a hierarchy of cognitive entitlement to "personhood"
similar to the old-fashioned view of the world as a Great Chain of
Being with human beings on top and everyone else way down below, as
when Singer ranks our closest relatives, the nonhuman primates, with
"intellectually disabled human beings" (Rethinking Life and Death,
183). His is an All Animals are Equal, But Some Animals are More
Equal Than Others philosophy, even as it calls for "an impartial
concern for . . . all sentient beings" (A Darwinian Left, 63).
Peter Singer's equivocal treatment of bestiality, Peter
Berkowitz slightingly concedes that "nonhuman animals have their
needs too," but he couples this patronizing concession with a
damaging image of nonhuman animals as "vicious predators" and
inferiors, to have sex with whom offends "our status and dignity as
I look forward to seeing what Midas Dekkers' book, Dearest Pet: On
Bestiality, has to say about sexual relations between human and
nonhuman animals; however, it seems most likely that the majority of
instances if not all of them do not reflect the desire of other
species to fornicate with humans, but rather what Singer refers to in
his review of Dekkers as the "inexhaustible variety of human sexual
desire," coupled with the self-regarding disrespect for the rest of
life that diminishes our dignity as human beings. Berkowitz's
invocation of human "longings of the soul" where sex is concerned has
to contend with much contrary evidence. The teenager who in William
Bradford's book, Plymouth Plantation (Ch. 32), confessed to having
sex with mares, goats, sheep, calves and turkeys according to a
custom "long used in old England" and men who through history have
"taken" their wives, servants, slaves, girl friends and others, when
and how they saw fit, show another side of the story. But we need not
look to the past.
Berkowitz says that for Peter Singer, "the only consideration we need
bear in mind in using animals to satisfy our sexual desire is whether
we are causing cruelty." He says this as if to say that cruelty (or
at least cruelty to animals, like animals themselves in his view)
amounts to little more than a pesky footnote in the ethical account
of humanity. He seems far more aggrieved by the idea that other
creatures have a dignity that links us to them than by the cruelty we
impose on them without a shred of compassion or restraint, which is
exactly how hens are treated by the egg industry in the case that
Singer cites to show how deeply woven into the fabric of human life
human obscenity really is. In making his case, Berkowitz says Singer
"informs us, sex with hens, though pleasurable, is to be avoided
because it often proves fatal to the bird. But aren't there other
issues involved?" There are, Mr. Berkowitz, but first, let us
contemplate this particular issue, before moving on.
Rather than breeze by the concrete situation that Singer offers for
illustration, let us imagine how a hen feels having a man's penis
pushing inside her, and what it must be like for her to be grabbed by
a hand that is nearly as big as her entire body is, having her head
cut off by that hand, and then, as she is dying this horrible death,
having her killer rape her. When we expand our vision beyond this
bizarre horror to include details of the Big Picture at the
institutionalized level of our treatment of nonhuman animals, the
core of which is our invasion of their sexual privacy and
manipulation of their sex and reproductive lives, we begin to see
bestiality more clearly.
Peter Singer's essay is disturbing. As disturbing as anything are his
insistence that nonhuman animals have sought to have sexual
encounters with humans and the glee that seems to accompany this
information. The examples he gives, of domestic dogs rubbing their
genitals against the legs of humans and a male orangutan seizing a
female researcher, presumably for sex (he let her go), come from
situations in which the animals in question are in a form of human
imposed captivity. What, we ask, is a sexually mature male dog
deprived of a normal sex life with a member of his own species
supposed to do with his sex drive? (This is not a plea for dogs'
unprotected sexual freedom, given the predicament of "pet
overpopulation" we've created for them.)
The idea that nonhuman animals have a generic penchant for sex with
humans creates yet another opportunity for us to absolve ourselves of
responsibility for our mistreatment of animals and to blame them for
their predicament with us. The idea is also supremely egotistical.
What examples are there of animals in nature choosing to have sex
with members of other species? Is it not interesting how we impute
"choice" to nonhuman animals when we want to justify our abuse and
denigration of them while normally denying them a capacity for
autonomy otherwise? The rhetoric of exploitation is always the same.
Rapists from animal agriculture to the circus declare in a jargon
especially developed for the purpose, These Animals Want To Be
Treated This Way. What will it take to make us utterly ashamed of
such lies and the behavior they perpetuate?
Karen Davis, PhD, President
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
March 25, 2001
Karen Davis is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns,
a national nonprofit animal advocacy organization that addresses the
treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens,
Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry,
"Thinking Like a Chicken: Farm Animals and the Feminine Connection"
(in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations), and
(forthcoming), More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual,
and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001).
United Poultry Concerns. March 25, 2001
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(UPC Letter to The New Republic re: Bestiality/Peter Singer )