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Home arrow Environment arrow Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals


Zipporah Weisberg

Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) is a fast-growing practice across North America. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA), the two main forms of AAI, incorporate animals into a variety of programs designed to promote the healing, recovery, and wellbeing of vulnerable people. AAT is defined as “goal- directed intervention” and typically involves bringing animals into therapeutic contexts to help clients achieve specific emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical goals. AAA, on the other hand, is “non-goal directed” and often consists of bringing animals into longterm care facilities such as nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, and psychiatric facilities to visit and socialize with residents (Evans and Gray 2012, 601).

Research indicates that the presence of animals in therapeutic contexts is highly beneficial for both the care workers and the clients (Johnson 2011; Fine 2010; Morrison 2007). Animals can help build rapport and trust between people, reduce loneliness, anxiety, and depression, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, inspire physical activity in the elderly, motivate children to achieve learning goals, and help people with autism spectrum disorders develop social functioning skills (Baun and Johnson 2010; Evans and Gray 2012; Johnson 2011; Grandin, Fine, and Bowers 2010). The participation of animals in therapy is also known to reduce physical pain and speed up recovery times for patients who have undergone surgeries and other invasive medical procedures (Chandler 2011, 211-12, as cited in DeMello 2012).

Unfortunately, the animals involved in AAI are not always treated with the same respect and care they offer their human counterparts. In fact, they are often victims of exploitation. Tzachi Zamir identifies six forms of exploitation animals are at risk for in AAI: “limitations of freedom” (e.g., confinement and a strict, relentless daily work regimen); curtailing of “life determination” (e.g., deciding for animal how their lives will unfold and the activities they will be engaged in); coercive training (e.g., obedience and submission training); “social disconnection” (e.g., breaking up natural social groups among animals to employ the services of one member, resulting in its subsequent isolation); “injury” (e.g., rough handling by care worker or client); and “instrumental- ization” (i.e., being treated as tools for human use and benefit) (2006, 181-82).

One of the reasons AAI is often exploitative is that there are no universal standards of practice, no universal selection procedures for animal participants, and no “systematic or empirical evaluation of the potential risks to animals imposed by current practices” (Serpell et al. 2010, 481). In 1996, the Delta Society (now published Animal-Assisted Therapy: Standards of Practice, but as standards and not regulations, the contents are not binding (and it is not even clear if this self-published handbook is still in use and if so, how widely). Each organization that runs or supports AAI ultimately determines its own standards of practice and defines its own selection processes. If they do follow the Delta Society’s standards, the focus is primarily on “broad criteria, such as reliability, predictability, controllability, and suitability” of animals and whether or not they pose a risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases.

Less concern, however, is shown for whether or not the animals themselves wish to participate (Fredrickson-MacNamara and Butler 2010, 113-14). Although in the past decade the focus has shifted from risk prevention and reduction to the relationships among animals, “handlers,” and environment, the animals’ needs and perspectives are still underrepresented (Fredrickson-MacNamara and Butler 2010, 115-16). To be sure, organizations that support AAI, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (2016), have produced a set of comprehensive guidelines for implementing Wellness Programs, as they call them, without harming animals. They cover substantial ground and in significant depth and detail. Among other things, they suggest that “animals across the spectrum [of] AAI services [should be] 1) healthy (in part to reduce the bidirectional risk of zoonotics transmission); 2) behaviorally appropriate for the program, and 3) protected from being harmed by the program.” They also indicate that “all factors including species, age, breed, temperament, and any risk factors that could jeopardize an animal’s health and welfare should be considered.” They further insist that dogs and cats under six months of age should not be involved in AAI and that the program should “be flexible and tailored to fit the changing needs of individual animals as they age and as a result of participation in AAI programs.” They even suggest, rather progressively, that animals who take part in AAI should be given “vacations.” Additionally, AVMA recommends monitoring animals’ wellness by making sure that their vaccinations are up to date, and suggests that wellness programs should be flexible enough to accommodate the changing needs of animals as they age or as a result of participation in AAI. These and many of the other guidelines AVMA has proposed are significant, salient, and indeed vital. If upheld, AVMA’s guidelines would very likely make a positive difference to the lives of animals enjoined to participate in AAI.

However, despite their relative breadth and depth, these guidelines ultimately fall short of ensuring that animals involved in AAI will not be mistreated, or even that they are appropriate candidates in the first place. This is in large part because, for all their apparent detail, they are still in effect quite vague, given the vast variety of species potentially recruited to AAI and the diversity of practices they may be expected to engage in, not to mention the potential violations to which they are subject, the latter of which get almost no mention in the guidelines. Finally, as guidelines, rather than legally binding entitlements, rights, or regulations, these measures are only optional and therefore potentially ineffectual.

To transform AAI into an ethical practice that mutually benefits its human and nonhuman animal participants, sets of guidelines and piecemeal reforms are insufficient. These measures, though potentially beneficial, do not target the root causes of exploitation, one of which is the instrumentalization of animals for AAI. I suggest here that for AAI to become truly non-exploitative, it must be embedded within a broader protective political framework in which all animals are recognized as active members of interspecies communities. In this chapter, I argue that Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s animal citizenship model (2011) provides just such a framework.

Despite my strong reservations about adopting a specifically liberal conception of citizenship, or citizenship theory more generally, for that matter, there are a number of key features of Donaldson and Kymlicka’s proposal that are especially pertinent to the development of non-exploitative AAI and are well worth exploring here. To be sure, I am not arguing that to transform AAI into a healthy practice, the adoption of citizenship theory is necessarily required. Structural transformation within and beyond the context of AAI can occur in many ways, and indeed may even preclude the adoption of a citizenship model, liberal or otherwise. However, it is my view that an experimental foray into how AAI might unfold under the rubric of Donaldson and Kymlicka’s novel interspecies citizenship theory is useful: 1) as a way of imagining how citizenship theory may manifest itself in practice, and 2) as a way of imagining how AAI might benefit from the seismic shift in human-animal relationality that interspecies citizenship would likely entail.

Citizenship promises animals the fundamental right to express their subjective good and agency in all matters that affect their lives, including whether or not they are comfortable working with humans in therapeutic environments. From this crucial entitlement stems a series of concrete positive rights and “relational duties” that nonhuman animal citizens would be owed under the animal citizenship model, including a personal identity outside their work, non-coercive training methods, duties of protection, medical care, rights of residency and mobility, and institutional, financial, and social support. Citizenship theory also indirectly offers criteria by which to ascertain which animals are and are not appropriate for AAI, with dogs emerging as the most suitable.

I explore here the possibility that if AAI were embedded within the larger political framework of citizenship that Donaldson and Kymlicka propose, animals participating in AAI would, at least in theory, be guaranteed comprehensive protections and entitlements that are not likely to fall under the remit of superficial and precarious reforms. I begin by demonstrating why, both within and outside the context of citizenship theory, dogs are the best candidates for non-exploitative AAI, before moving on to discuss in detail how the key citizenship entitlements and rights outlined above would protect dogs who participate in AAI from exploitation and promote their flourishing.

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