Ecofeminism on the Wing: Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations

By Gaard, Greta | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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Ecofeminism on the Wing: Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations


Gaard, Greta, Women & Environments International Magazine


Frame Tale: Bella

Her gold-wire cage sat on the counter of the video store adjoining the pizzeria. Attached to the front of the cage, a sign read, "My name is Bella, which means `beautiful' in Italian!" Inside the cage, a small yellow-and-green canary stood alone on a plastic perch, pressing her forehead against a hanging mirror. A bell dangled from the top of the cage, a stick nest was affixed to one side, and below, two plastic dishes were attached to the bars, one with seeds, the other with a thin film of dirty water. There was no part of nature anywhere in the store: no sunlight reached the bird's cage, no fresh air, no tree branches or flowers, no breeze. Intensely drawn to comfort the little bird, I approached the cage and began talking to her, hoping that she would respond. For a long time, Bella remained immobile, her head pressed against the mirror. Then she turned, and her face held misery.

When the owner dashed over from the pizzeria to ring up my video, I asked him about Bella, and why she didn't have a companion of her own species. (It seemed confrontational to point out that she shouldn't be caged there in the first place.) He too had noticed Bella's loneliness. Evidently the man's wife was in charge of the bird, and long ago she had told him it would cost too much to have another parakeet.

All week I agonized about Bella. When I returned to rent a video the following weekend, I brought gifts: a cuttlebone for Bella's beak, and a covered bird bath that could be attached to the cage's open door, allowing her to bathe in a water dish separate from her water bowl. Already I had contacted the local animal rights organizations and found they would picket the store if I organized the event; I had contacted Seattle's animal protection agency and requested a site visit. For the moment, I just wanted to make Bella more comfortable. For the long term, I hoped to take her from the video store and place her in a better home. But to do anything for Bella, I first needed to approach her owners.

That weekend the wife co-owner was working, and she seemed delighted with my interest in Bella. She put her hand in the cage and Bella immediately hopped on it. The woman told me about her cockatiels at home, about the scorpions and snakes she had bought for her son, and through her stories let me know that she considered herself an authority on pets. She had brought Bella to the store last Thanksgiving, and as she explained it, parakeets "don't pay as much attention to humans" if they have a companion of their own species.

The woman accepted my gifts of the cuttlebone and birdbath, and charged me the usual price for my video. When I returned the video the next day, I saw the birdbath filled with fresh water, hooked against the open cage door, and Bella inside, busily chewing on the cuttlebone.

Why Do I Care? Ecofeminists Look at Oppression

While some people care about the suffering of animals, feminists who politicize their care for animals see a specific linkage between sexism and speciesism, between the oppression of women and the oppression of animals. Speciesism is defined as the oppression of one species by another, first defined by Peter Singer as "a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of the other species." 1 Feminists and ecofeminists alike have noted the ways that animal pejoratives are used to dehumanize women, pointing to the linguistic (and thus conceptual) linkage of women and animals in such derogatory terms for women as "sow," "bitch," "pussy," "chick," "cow," "beaver," "old bat," and "bird-brain." Linguistic association with animals has also been a method of demeaning Jews and people of color, as Nazi propaganda equated Jews with "vermin," and Blacks have been called "coons" or "jungle bunnies." Some ecofeminists have investigated the ways that nonhuman animals function as an exploited underclass of workers whose "jobs" end up costing them their lives, and thereby uncovered the connection between speciesism and classism.

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