To avoid being ambushed by a waiting predator, prairie dogs have developed a complicated system of “warning calls.” They “describe humans in detail, including the color of their T-shirts and hair, the speed at which they are approaching, and objects they might be carrying,” writes Dutch philosopher Eva Meijer in her new book When Animals Speak: Toward An Interspecies Democracy. They distinguish between predators coming from the sky and land, and the meanings of these calls depend on the order of the sounds. They also have a “jump-yip,” not well understood by humans: “a kind of wave that involves throwing their hands up in the air and jumping backward while yelling ‘yip,’ which is thought to probably be an expression of joy and enthusiasm; they do this when predators such as snakes leave their territory.”
Lots of animals depend on alarm calls to survive, and while these were once assumed to be knee-jerk responses to danger, Meijer writes, they’ve often been found to be highly complex and generative. Still, an overriding assumption across the sciences — that animals don’t really speak like you or I do — militates against seeing creativity in their languages. Sources will often claim that human language is special and unparalleled, while animals only have some ill-defined thing called “animal communication systems,” assumed to be simple and driven by instinct. And so many experiments have been devoted to locking animals up and giving them English lessons, only to find that (surprise!) they can’t use human language like humans do. (I’d like to see humans try to learn, for example, elephant infrasound.)
Research on animal minds depends on us: We can choose to think more deeply about what it means to think, speak, know, and love. Or, if we want to seal humans off outside biology and evolutionary history, we can define these concepts as narrowly as possible. Animal behaviorists have begun to move beyond the idea that animals should be measured against a human yardstick. Primatologist Frans de Waal’s influential book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) argued that comparing humans to the countless ways other species have evolved to navigate their worlds is “a pointless exercise.”
When Animals Speak is among many recent books that argue for including animals in democracy. Meijer’s point is not merely that animals speak — we already knew that — but that they speak, act, and even resist politically. After all, if we can accept animals as creative individuals who can see and interpret and respond to the world, then we should also be able to see their efforts to change their circumstances as political acts. Animals’ political agency should drive our interaction with them and, ultimately, their liberation.
“Thinking in terms of animal resistance means that activists don’t have to try to prove that animals are capable of suffering or that their situations are unjust, because the animals are telling us themselves.
Mostly, Meijer writes, Western post-Enlightenment philosophy has ignored non-human animals or treated them as foils to humans. She defines the philosophical concept of “epistemic violence,” or how power relations shape knowledge, the lens through which we understand ourselves and the world. Our knowledge systems separate animality from humanity. When I was studying linguistics in college, it always seemed strange that the field presupposes that only humans have language, even though linguists only study human language and have little understanding of animal language at all. That they still find it important to say we’re not like those other animals is an instantiation of exactly the epistemic violence Meijer is talking about. The claim that animals lack reason and language forecloses their right to have a voice in the violence done to them; our laws and politics write them out of the conversation.
To include animals in our politics, Meijer argues, it’s not enough just to philosophize about what’s best for them by ourselves; we have to understand animals as subjects of their own stories. Animals held captive enact resistance all the time, though it’s not usually recognized as such by humans who don’t see them as political actors. Orangutans persistently figure out how to open locks and help each other escape zoo enclosures (Frans de Waal calls them “notorious escape artists”). Circus elephants attack their abusive trainers. Farm animals escape on the way to slaughter. Camels used by the U.S. military in the 1850s (this really happened) refused to cooperate.
These acts aren’t random or instinctual: “Human animals and other animal species are all driven by physiological and emotional responses to abuse, and these responses influence cognitive processes,” Meijer writes. “Different species have different ways of expressing themselves and their anger,” which invites us to rethink the meaning of resistance. Thinking in terms of animal resistance means that activists don’t have to try to prove that animals are capable of suffering or that their situations are unjust, because the animals are telling us themselves.
That might sound obvious, but the importance of this insight shouldn’t be overlooked. Have you ever noticed how those who profit from the torture and killing of animals always claim that they are actually just doing what’s best for them? Slicing chickens’ beaks off is actually good for them, factory farming apologists assert, because the conditions they’re forced to live in are so agonizing that they would otherwise bite each other. “This is a commonplace victimizer psychology,” writes Karen Davis in Critical Theory and Animal Liberation. “If you want to hurt someone and maintain a clean conscience about it, chances are you will invoke arguments along one or more of these lines: the slave/animal doesn’t feel, doesn’t know, doesn’t care, is complicit, or isn’t even there…There is a long tradition of thought in which nonhuman animals are represented as not only benefiting from their victimization but as gratefully assisting in their own destruction.” Abusers will always lie and self-justify.
The way out of this, Meijer suggests, is to be attuned to animals’ own expressions of resistance and distress: “Through resisting, non-human animals show us their standpoints,” Meijer writes. “Their acts can help us to better understand what they want and imagine new ways of living with them.”
“While we can begin to experiment with political participation and new forms of living with other animals on a small scale, most of the non-human animals alive today are being held captive and will be killed by humans for human benefit.”
Meijer develops her ideas through a series of vivid case studies: Greylag geese, who were previously invited to nest near Amsterdam’s airport, in recent years have been killed en masse by the Dutch government because of fears that they threaten flight safety (the actual risk they pose is vanishingly small, she writes). Over the span of a few decades, the geese went from being viewed as protected wildlife to urban pests, neither of which acknowledged them as individuals who deserve a say in decisions made about them. But their resistance has already shaped the conversation about their removal — they fight back against their killers, and one in ten manage to escape, all of which has been widely reported and decried by the public. The killings haven’t successfully reduced their numbers because the area simply repopulates with new geese. Even when they know a place is hostile to them, they make decisions about whether to stay or leave.
Politicians who decide whether the geese live or die often know nothing about them and never have to face them. “Both humans and geese are capable of learning new things throughout their whole life…we can and should be able to do better than this,” Meijer writes. “Landscape design and architecture can contribute to processes of negotiating space with the geese…We need to develop new political experiments in which decisions that concern the lives of geese are informed by actual interaction with geese, and communicated back to them in ways that they can understand.”
My image of farm animals tends to be one of powerless victims, but When Animals Speak pushed me to think about how we can see them as participants in their own liberation: In rare cases, and in spite of lifelong abuse and injury, they manage to escape and find new lives on farm sanctuaries.
It’s hard to read Meijer’s writing without feeling overwhelmingly sad: for the horrors we inflict on animals, and for the reality that no matter how far the scientific community has come since the idea that animals are stimulus-response machines, industrialized violence against animals is only getting worse. Globally, factory farming is on the rise. No doubt Meijer feels this too. While her vision of what animals are capable of is ambitious and mind-expanding, her expectations for what animal activists can do with this knowledge are, understandably, narrow. “These are dark times for most other animals,” she writes. “While we can begin to experiment with political participation and new forms of living with other animals on a small scale, most of the non-human animals alive today are being held captive and will be killed by humans for human benefit. For the experiments that I have suggested to make sense, non-human animals need rights.”
Here, I would have liked to see When Animals Speak engage more with the theory of carnism, or the ideology that entrenches eating animals as inevitable and normal. Farm animals are at the center of the catastrophe we have created for animals — Meijer knows this — but the book offers few practical starting points for using animal agency in anti-factory farming work. Meijer rightly argues that it’s unhelpful to talk about “animals” as a mass, homogenous category, an insight that should be used to think through how different kinds of animals can benefit from her ideas. Carnism, a term first proposed by Melanie Joy, is what dictates orders our relationship with farm animals (as opposed to pets, wildlife, and urban animals). How does carnism intersect with the epistemic violence Meijer explains so well, and how can we use animal agency to disrupt it?
The billions of farm animals alive today live with chronic pain and severe disabilities because animal agriculture has attempted to make them into lifeless units of production. My image of farm animals tends to be one of powerless victims, but When Animals Speak pushed me to think about how we can see them as participants in their own liberation: In rare cases, and in spite of lifelong abuse and injury, they manage to escape and find new lives on farm sanctuaries. Their will to survive is the surest expression of animal agency there is, and a constant refutation of the carnist lie that slaughtering animals is not violence. Rather than imagine people as their saviors — though farm animals inevitably depend on help from human allies — we should center their stories of defiance, survival, and freedom.