Love and Despair

Posted by Nicole Pallotta, ALDF's Animal Law Program Student Liaison on July 9, 2012

Can we realistically expect judges to render trail-blazing pro-animal decisions in the afternoon when they dined on animals’ flesh in the morning?

So asks ALDF senior attorney Matthew Liebman in an article recently published in the Animal Law Review. “Who the Judge Ate for Breakfast: On the Limits of Creativity in Animal Law and the Redeeming Power of Powerlessness” applies a legal realist and critical legal studies perspective to the question of how far litigation can take us on behalf of animals; more specifically, Matthew addresses the limits of creativity in the courtroom. Creativity is essential given the profound substantive and procedural hurdles to protecting animals through litigation; because of these obstacles, animal protection lawyers must “search for new and innovative interpretations of existing statutes and precedent to promote the interests of animals.” This strategy has worked in a number of instances, and ALDF (and the animal protection movement more broadly) has won legal victories for animals. While recognizing and lauding these successes, Matthew cautions:

We have to recognize that the success of our creativity hinges on forces beyond ourselves and beyond our control… Adjudication is not done in an academic vacuum by unbiased arbiters, but rather by human beings, by judges reared on the ideologies of a legal system, and a society, that is profoundly speciesist…Judicial interpretation is never an objective deduction of plain meaning or congressional intent, but rather the interplay of normative judgments, biases, and subjective values.

In other words, judges are products of the anthropocentric society in which they live, not omniscient robots passing value-neutral judgments from a mythical Archimedean point. Non-legal factors affect adjudication; judges have the power to selectively emphasize facts and precedents, while leaving others in the background that may have justified a contradictory position. In the context of judicial indeterminacy (a concept which is the subject of debate), interpretation is a political act and, whether consciously or unconsciously, the tendency is to make determinations that reinforce rather than challenge existing power relations.

The problem of indeterminacy is not confined to animal law, but the stakes are particularly high for our clients because, as Matthew plainly puts it, “When we lose, when our proposed interpretation of the applicable law fails to convince the judge, animals die.” To compound matters, the ideology of judicial restraint, which encourages judges to limit their own power, makes even sympathetic judges generally unlikely to consider creative legal arguments.

Matthew’s argument is not that we should do nothing. There are incremental changes that can (and have!) been won for animals through the legal system. But when it comes to changing large scale, industrial exploitation of animals through strategic impact litigation, we face profound challenges.

The second part of the article gets more personal and addresses the feelings of despair and powerlessness that can threaten to engulf us when we become aware of the overwhelming extent of animal suffering and, more importantly, our inability to stop (most of) it. Many animal advocates are familiar with the feelings of sorrow and hopelessness that accompany the realization that animals are suffering every single minute of every single day, in research labs, factory farms, puppy mills, circuses, and on and on…and on. To know we can’t stop the machinery of animal exploitation or save the countless individual animals whose lives are being extinguished as I write (or who are lingering in silent suffering) can be traumatic. I struggle with those painful feelings and try to find ways to nurture myself so that they do not calcify into depression and paralysis. This is a common psychological hazard of animal advocacy; the problem is huge, the suffering and violence (much of it routine, legal) is unfathomable.

As Matthew writes (in reference to ALDF v. Mendes, in which our lawsuit against a calf ranch for violating California’s anti-cruelty law was dismissed for lack of standing), “we see cruel confinement that is not only unethical, but also illegal, yet we cannot overcome the legal obstacles to enforcing the law.” He is careful to clarify he does not believe “we are always powerless or that we can never do anything to improve the lives of animals…But we can’t do everything, which makes feelings of powerlessness inevitable.”

The sad fact is we cannot save the vast majority of animals. What do we do with our grief as we contemplate the obstinate reality facing us? Matthew makes an interesting suggestion:

Rather than fleeing from this vulnerability, consider holding onto it for a while, taking from it the window it offers on the lived experiences of disempowered animals. This process deepens our commitment to defending animals, brings empathic serenity to situations that are beyond our power to change, and reorients our focus to more effective strategies and tactics.

The invitation to embrace, or at least acknowledge, our powerlessness is interesting. I think the tendency is to suppress, ignore, or deflect these feelings in self-defense – a perfectly understandable survival mechanism (especially for those of us “overly” sensitive types who experience a jolt of existential horror upon catching the eye of a doomed chicken, or pig, or cow crammed into a truck bound for the slaughterhouse, with no hope for rescue or escape). Another coping mechanism is a constant compulsion to do something (anything!) to fix the problem, which may lead us to “skip over the important stage of dwelling with grief and understanding the depths of the problem.” Sitting with our occasional feelings of despair not only can connect us with the lived experiences of the vulnerable animals we work so hard to protect, but can also give us an opportunity to pause, reflect, and contemplate the best course forward.

For me, one of the psychological antidotes to existential despair as it relates to animal exploitation has been to love an animal, even if just one, with all my heart and to care for that animal as if he or she were the most special, cherished being on the planet – because for me, she is. The society in which I live devalues animals, but I do not. The disjuncture between my values and dominant social norms can at times make me feel dizzy and alone, like a visitor from another planet. But in a culture that denigrates animal activists and ruthlessly exploits animals for the merest convenience, love can provide safe harbor from the disorientation of alienation. I may not be able to change the social structure or dominant ideology today, but my ideals and values can at least find positive expression through my relationships with the individual animals I love: the precious few whose lives I can directly affect, even if they are statistically insignificant… proverbial drops in the bucket. As a vegan, I resist systemic animal exploitation through my consumer choices. Through my relationship with my dog Teagan, I also resist the cultural idea (encoded in our laws) that animals are mere property, legal things, and most of all, disposable.

Thus my animal companions have served as “happiness-buffers,” shielding me in significant ways from being crushed under the weight of a hopelessness that might otherwise overwhelm my psyche. When I look into the eyes of my rescued dog, I know I am not helpless, although the scope of my agency is certainly limited. Love is affirmative resistance and can be a protective barrier against the potentially hazardous effects of traumatic knowledge. Nurturing relationships with companion animals are not our only potential happiness-buffers; I have had similar experiences volunteering at farmed animal sanctuaries and making connections with individual animals at these wonderful havens. Rescued farmed animals, by the mere fact of their existence outside the means of production, are living signifiers of an alternate reality.

I believe the article’s last section on vulnerability lays important groundwork for future conversations among animal protection activists. Although most of us in the animal movement are familiar with the problem of burnout, we do not often talk about the larger, more existential issue of despair. This is valuable area for reflection and analysis1. And while we may not all be haunted by the gloomy specter of powerlessness, more people might be than I sometimes think. Reading Matthew’s words was like seeing my own existential despair laid bare, and it made me feel marginally better to know someone else experiences this too, but keeps fighting for – and feeling with – the animals.

1 See also Taimie Bryant’s “Trauma, Law, and Advocacy for Animals” in the Journal of Animal Law and Ethics.


4 thoughts on “Love and Despair

  1. Joseph Colby says:

    Excellent essay! I felt, as you said you did when reading that other article, that I was reading my own emotions and pains. It is reassuring and comforting to know that other people suffer from the same feelings. I also agree that it is useful to try and channel all that heart break, sadness, rage, and hate towards the most effective and productive ways of helping animals.

  2. peri says:

    Very nice review Nicole. Your essay also reverberated with me, I am interested reading the article you referenced. I tried finding it on Westlaw. Do you have a link or can you tell us where to find it?

  3. Mary Ellen says:

    @peri: It’s available on LexisNexis Academic, if you have access to that. Go to Find Sources, search Animal Law under Publication Type: Law Reviews & Journals, select Animal Law from results list, click OK – Continue, then search AUTHOR(Liebman).

  4. Nicole says:

    Thank you for that info, Mary Ellen! I only know to get it by subscribing to the journal Animal Law Review or borrowing a copy (perhaps the library has it?). It is in the latest issue: vol. 18, issue 1. Definitely worth the read!

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