Animals and Citizenship

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Can we view animals as citizens, and if so, would this help us to achieve interspecies justice and ecological renewal? Citizenship has traditionally been seen as exclusively human, but this essay explores emerging theories and practices of animal citizenship and what they can contribute to solving the political and ecological crises of contemporary societies.

Put simply, politics is about how we make decisions that govern and shape our lives together. But who is the “we?” The “we” of political community is not just a random collection of individuals on a geographic territory; it is “a norm-bound community constituted through shared practices and forms of embodied interaction.”[1] We can think of citizenship as the formal expression and organization of our membership in a political community—our status of belonging to a “we” with a common fate bound up in doing things together, within a defined jurisdiction, in light of guiding (and evolving) shared norms. Political communities can exist at local and municipal levels, sub-state levels, national and international levels. And while formal citizenship is usually about our membership in a nation or multination state, we can speak more informally of being a citizen of New York, or Europe, or the world.

Defining the “we” requires defining boundaries, or who belongs, and this raises worries. History is one long litany of unjust forms of external and internal exclusion from citizenship, and this should make us cautious when defining insiders and outsiders. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that boundaries are inherently hostile, separating friends and enemies. I belong to a family. You belong to a different family. This doesn’t make us enemies, and it doesn’t mean we can’t work together on matters of joint interest or desire. It simply means we are part of different communities of belonging when it comes to family life. Boundaries are often messy, contested, and prone to descent into chauvinism (I will advance my family, neighborhood, or country at the expense of yours!). But they are also a precondition for being able to create and shape a life together, for being a self-determining “we”—whether at the level of family, neighborhood, city, nation, or federation of states or peoples.

That’s the “we,” but there’s also the “how” of citizenship. How do we make decisions together? This is one of the key norms shaping a political community, and it is at this point that democratic citizenship enters the conversation. The democratic ethos (in contrast with autocracy or oligarchy) holds that all members of a political community should have a say in deliberations and decisions about the values and norms of that community. Everyone who has made a life in the community—and whose fundamental life plans are therefore profoundly shaped by the community’s laws—must have a voice. They all have a stake in how the values, opportunities, benefits, and burdens of communal life are defined and shared. So, returning to the opening definition of politics as being about how we make decisions that shape and govern our lives together, we can see that democratic citizenship is a particular elaboration of both how we make decisions (democratically) and who we are when making those decisions (citizens/members of a bounded state or political community).

Why have I begun this essay with a primer on democratic citizenship? I think these foundational questions about who constitutes the political community and how they make decisions together are crucial for rethinking our relationship with non-human animals and nature. The dominant strand of Western thought is built on the idea of human separation from nature, of human hierarchy over other animals, and of politics as a distinctly human activity. Animals are never considered as part of the self-determining “we” of political community. They may be viewed as objects or resources, suffering victims, ciphers and muses, causal agents, awe-inspiring wildlife, and so on—but they are not seen as political agents engaged in the project of self-rule.

Interestingly, this remains true even within recent attempts to develop a more ecological or post-humanist conception of politics. On the one hand, various theories of “green citizenship” or “ecological citizenship” argue that citizenship should be redefined to include robust responsibilities in relation to nature and animals, but they still reserve the role of citizen to humans on the assumption that only humans can be political agents who engage in collective self-determination. On the other hand, we have contemporary theories of “cosmopolitics,” associated in particular with the new materialism and actor–network theory, which argue that the idea of political agency and collective self-determination is a myth even in the human case, and that machines, plants, animals, and humans are all just nodes in causal networks that are not subject to our collective democratic will. Again, animals and their agency are denied because all intentional, self-determining political agency is placed into doubt by theories of cosmopolitics.

But what if both anthropocentric and cosmopolitical viewpoints are based on a mistake and a morally indefensible exclusion? What if animals are indeed inside politics? Outside the Western tradition, this is a familiar idea. Many Indigenous peoples have long recognized animals as belonging to the world of politics and have strived to establish right relations with animals—at the individual level, and also at the collective level through treaty relationships.

Northern Pike (Ginoozhe) by Robert W. HinesFor example, the region of Ontario where I live lies within the traditional lands of the Anishinaabeg peoples, who, according to Anishinaabeg scholars, have long engaged with the fish nations and the deer, moose, and caribou nations—and many others—as treaty peoples.[2] Humans and animals share in the “one dish,” Gdoo-naaganinaa,[3] in relations of mutual responsibility, and animal nations are competent to regulate their own internal affairs and to negotiate treaties to govern external relations between nations. Moreover, membership in the clan or nation—the key node of citizenship in Anishinaabe politics—isn’t based on blood or species, but on relations of care and responsibility. An animal in need of care (e.g., an orphaned infant) can be adopted into a human clan, just as humans in need of care can be adopted into animal nations.[4] Animals, like humans, are capable of self-determination, of consenting to their associations and relations with others. In other words, they, too, can be at the very heart of a “we” making decisions about how to live together—whether within the nation, or side by side between sovereign nations sharing the same territory.

What would it mean to renew Western political thought in a way that recognizes animals as political agents and members of political communities? In Zoopolis, Will Kymlicka and I propose a three-part framework for approaching this question in relation to wild, domesticated, and liminal animals.[5] We argue that wild animals should be recognized as forming sovereign political communities, exercising meaningful jurisdiction over the habitats they occupy and depend upon that must be protected from human invasion, colonization, and resource extraction. This does not rule out all contact and cooperation with, or assistance from, human communities. But it means that our relations must be conducted in ways that respect wild animals’ abilities to live in their territories on their own terms. Thus, our relations with wild animals will vary greatly across different ecoregions, and this will depend upon the vulnerability of the relevant animal nations and potential for mutually beneficial practices. Many wild animals avoid humans and cannot thrive in human-built and altered environments—especially those animals who depend on ecological niches vulnerable to even the smallest disturbance. Respecting their rights to self-determination and to association requires strict limits on human encroachment through the creation of protected habitats and migration corridors.

Partial, overlapping, and parallel forms of sovereignty are possible, and indeed necessary, given that ecological regions of importance to animals don’t correspond neatly with human political boundaries. For example, we could imagine forms of parallel sovereignty for the wolves, elk, mountain goats, grizzlies, and other non-human animals of the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor alongside the sovereignties of Indigenous nations and the multination states of Canada and the United States. The construction of road overpasses, safe corridors, set-asides of key habitat, and limits on human settlement and activity already occurring in this region are forerunners of the kinds of formal and binding nation-to-nation agreements or treaties that might be negotiated with, and on behalf of, animal nations. We could imagine similar kinds of parallel or overlapping sovereignty to govern relations between humans and cetaceans in the world’s oceans, or with African elephants, whose range extends across the human states of Angola, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Indeed, some researchers are exploring models of elephant nationhood.[6]

Animal Overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway

Now, let’s consider the case of domesticated animals—those who have been confined and selectively bred to meet human desires for food, labor, clothing, research, entertainment, and companionship. As these animals are liberated from human captivity and exploitation, what should happen to them? Their numbers will vastly decrease once we cease confinement and forced reproduction, but they will not disappear. Humans and domesticated animals are entwined in relations of mutual dependency. Their labor and bodies have created the wealth of our societies, which belong to them as much as to us. It’s possible, over time and with support, that some domesticated animals could withdraw from human society (“re-wild”) in ways that are safe for them and wouldn’t undermine the sovereignty of wild animal nations. However, expelling them from the societies they share with us is not something we have a right to force on domesticated animals. When a society has created an underclass, exploiting them for the benefit of favored groups, justice requires that the oppressed be included in society as full equals (if that is their choice), not expelled without any say in the matter. They have a right to citizenship—to be part of the “we”—sharing in the rights and responsibilities of belonging, having the opportunity to contribute and have a say.

What would it mean to share a society with domesticated animals on terms of equal citizenship? Domesticated animals belong to highly social species—this is what made (co)domestication possible. They are strongly oriented to social norms (striving to understand, respect, and negotiate the terms of social interaction), such as cooperation, care, reciprocity, and respect for legitimate authority. Over millennia, they have adapted to life with humans in countless ways. We can see this most easily in the case of dogs, with whom many of us have direct experience. Dogs have developed ways of communicating with humans, and vice versa (through eye contact, pointing, barking, interpreting facial expressions, learning via imitation, etc.). In my experience, many people find the idea of “citizen canine” quite plausible and appealing.[7]

Citizen Canine

The idea that farmed animals, such as cows, chickens and pigs, could be our co-citizens is greeted with much greater skepticism. In order to feel better about exploiting and killing farmed animals, humans have constructed elaborate lies about their alleged stupidity, incompetence, and minimal sentience.[8] This willful and self-serving ignorance is finally being challenged by a new generation of researchers interested in trying to understand farmed animals on their own terms, rather than simply studying how better to exploit them.[9] And there is some evidence that popular attitudes are also slowly acknowledging that these animals have rich mental and social lives.

So let us imagine a future where we come to think of the domesticated animals who share our society as our co-citizens. What will this mean for the homes, cities, workplaces, institutions, practices, and laws of our shared societies? For starters, car culture might lose precedence to more walk-friendly design (including public transportation that is safe and functional for non-humans). Buildings, grazing spaces, and mobility corridors suited to hoofed, pawed, and clawed citizens would develop. Rescue services and other essential social supports (health care, basic income, disability support, education/training, etc.) would be provided for all. Meanwhile, as the ethical and environmental catastrophe of animal agriculture makes way for a new and sustainable food system, millions of hectares of land currently used for feed production and pasturage could be reassigned. This could provide habitat buffer zones and ecological corridors for wild animals and a gradual renewal of biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency.

These are just a few the changes that would follow from recognizing domesticated animals as full members of society, entitled to the same protections and provision as others. But would this really constitute citizenship in a more-than-human society? In what sense can animals participate in decisions affecting their home life, work life, and other activities, let alone the shape and direction of society at a more general level? They can’t engage in traditional voting, so how can they have a say?

Many researchers and activists have begun exploring this question in different contexts, especially family life and the workplace. For example, researchers at the Animal-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Edinburgh are exploring ways for working dogs to participate in design of the objects and environments they interact with on a daily basis.[10] What kind of technologies can assist dogs who want to open doors, or pick up awkward objects? Or enable horses to tell us if they want to wear blankets or not?[11]

Meanwhile, at sanctuaries for formerly farmed animals, scholars are exploring ways for animals to participate in more communal design and decision-making.[12] In addition to this, democratic theorists are exploring different models for scaling up these experiments—empowering animals to participate in informal democratic fora and to be represented in formal decision procedures.[13] We have only just begun to ask how domesticated animals might want to live their lives, as well as whether this includes us, and if so, where we fit in. Can they be respected as self-determining and competent subjects within shared political communities with humans? How might they seek to transform our shared social world? Or will they, over time, vote with their feet to distance themselves from human political communities, and partially or fully re-wild?

This brings us to the need for a third broad category of human–animal political relations, focused on the many “liminal” animals who operate between the categories of domesticated and wild. They are neither domesticated nor wild animals, who avoid human settlement or fail to thrive in human-altered environments. This category includes many domesticated animals who have rewilded, like feral pigs, cats, dogs, camels, donkeys, pigeons, and others. It also includes animals who have long evolved in symbiosis with human civilization, like rats and mice. And it includes animals of countless other species (e.g., sparrows, vultures, raccoons, coyotes, monkeys) who are adapting well to living alongside industrialized human societies. Thank goodness some animals can adapt in this way because as human populations expand, affecting all corners of the Earth, wild animals who cannot adapt are disappearing at a devastating pace. As we move further into the Anthropocene, it may soon be the case that the only remaining non-domesticated animals left on the planet will be those who can adapt to at least some level of human presence and impact.

Deer Mouse in Ivy

But what is the right way to conceive of our political relations with the liminal animals who live alongside us in cities, towns, and the countryside? Humans (and domesticated animals) have important self-determination rights in these locations that must be respected. We cannot simply step away from (or drastically reduce our presence in) these areas, as we can and should do for sovereign wild animal communities. But neither can we incorporate all liminal animals into co-citizenship relations. As noted above, a political community is “a norm-bound community constituted through shared practices and forms of embodied interaction,” and citizenship formalizes this in terms of the rights and responsibilities of all citizens. This includes norms around non-violence and peaceful resolution of conflict, sharing and cooperation, toleration and contribution, and so on. There are many liminal animals who cannot participate with us in such relations. They may be predators (e.g., coyotes, cougars, bears, eagles) who can’t help but pose a danger to humans or domesticated animals. Co-existence with such animals requires respectful distance (living in parallel), not close interaction and cooperation. There are animals whose shelter and foraging practices conflict with human needs—for example, squirrels and raccoons whose nests destroy buildings, mice who eat and spoil food stores, or geese who foul recreation grounds. Again, co-existence with these animals generally requires establishing boundaries—such as by building secure structures and food storage or by reducing garbage that promotes population growth—as opposed to greater inclusion in shared practices and embodied interaction.

Nonetheless, liminal animals have as much right as we do to live self-determining lives on the territories they occupy. Indeed, in many cases, their presence (qua species) long precedes human settlement. In Zoopolis we propose a form of political “denizenship” for this group of animals. Denizenship is a framework for respecting the right to residency (e.g., not being subject to denigration, stigma, expulsion, violence); to protection from theft of the means of life (e.g., habitat, clean water, etc.); to reasonable accommodations (e.g., building codes that limit bird strikes and light pollution, travel corridors to mitigate car perils, rescue/rehab centres to mitigate human-caused harms); and, in general, to a political process that recognizes the needs of both liminal animals and humans, their potential for conflict, and the search for co-existence strategies to limit such conflicts.[14]

This does not mean that our interactions with liminal animals are restricted to bare toleration and accommodation. Reasonable accommodation provides a minimal threshold of respectful relations, not a fixed cap. The category of liminal animals is vast and changing rapidly, making it a challenge to offer useful generalizations or principles for governing our political relations. Some individual humans or communities might undertake much closer and mutually supporting relations with liminal animals. And it’s quite possible that if we established respectful terms of parallel co-existence on shared territory with liminal animals, some of them, over time, might engage with us in a process of mutual domestication, making the more imbricated relationship of citizenship both possible and desirable. Just as it should be an option for domesticated animal citizens to gradually (and safely) withdraw from co-citizenship with humans, so it should be possible for liminal animals to mutually accommodate and become embedded in closer relations with human societies.

It all comes back to the idea of respect for animals as competent agents who have the right to negotiate their own associations and to live self-determined lives at individual and communal levels. And it comes back to recognition that we are all political animals, making decisions that govern and shape our lives together, even as we constitute different sorts of “we” for political purposes. Sometimes, the shared norms, practices, and interactions of political community form a dense web of interdependence, mutual intelligibility, mutual responsibility, and shared meaning and practice. Democratic citizenship is a principled way of answering the question of how this kind of “we” can make decisions governing their shared society. Sometimes the interconnections between groups are so attenuated and distant that it makes sense to see them as separate political communities pursuing their own forms of society. Diplomacy and treaty relations offer a principled route for addressing issues of joint concern, sharing of territory, mutual assistance, and so on. And sometimes the web of relations falls somewhere in between, either because individuals/groups inevitably transition along various continua, or because differences in fundamental needs and interests mean that some individuals/groups are better suited to relations of respectful (social) distance from one another, even if they share the same land base and must carefully negotiate fair terms of co-existence.

The fundamental question for citizenship theory is to understand these dynamics of boundary-drawing and how they relate to different fora and institutions of political decision-making. The fundamental challenge of bringing animals into ideas of citizenship long reserved for humans is to recognize that animals don’t form an undifferentiated mass lying outside of human society. Some animals have always been part of a shared political community with us, even though we have treated them as a debased and exploitable caste. Others have lived in parallel societies apart from human settlement but subject to recurring human invasion, pillage, and colonization. Still others have forged a complicated relationship in the liminal zone, often subject to hatred, disgust, and violence for daring to intrude into the (alleged) human-only space of civilization. We require creative thinking across all of these dimensions to establish new relations with non-human animals on terms of justice.

While the main focus of the Zoopolis model of citizenship is to secure justice in our relations with animals, I would argue that it is also an essential, if incomplete, step toward a more comprehensive ecological ethic that addresses our relationship with all dimensions of the more-than-human world, close or distant, sentient or non-sentient, animate or inanimate. The Zoopolis model focuses in the first instance on what we owe animals, and so it needs to be supplemented by further thinking about how we relate to plants, soils, rivers, and ecosystems generally. Theories of ecological citizenship that build environmental responsibility into our understanding of good citizenship are important here. But I would emphasize again that, when linking environmental responsibilities with citizenship, we must not blindly reproduce the old human supremacist assumption that only humans are political agents capable of exercising self-rule. Indeed, it is precisely this assumption that explains why our politics is so stubbornly and violently anthropocentric. Many animals are much more vulnerable to ecological change and degradation than humans, and animals are front-line casualties of the ecological crisis. If animals were empowered to shape their relationships with us, we can be sure they would seek more ecologically responsible decisions. In that way, animal citizenship could contribute not only to justice with animals, but also be an important step toward ecological sanity.

Image credits:

Swift Fox Pups (Creative Commons Flickr)
Northern Pike (Ginoozhe) by Robert W. Hines. Courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service
Animal Overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway. Courtesy of jlongland (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Citizen Canine. Courtesy of Randy Caldwell (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Deer Mouse in Ivy. Courtesy of Brandon Keim (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


[1] T. Rollo, “Two Political Ontologies and Three Models of Silence: Voice, Signal and Action,” unpublished manuscript, https://lakeheadu.academia.edu/TobyRollo, accessed May 31, 2020, p. 5.

[2] J. Borrows, Recovering Canada: The Resurgence of Indigenous Law (Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2002); L. Simpson, “Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa: Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships,” Wicazo Sa Review 23, no. 2 (2008): 29-42; H. Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, “Changing the Treaty Question: Remedying the Right(s) Relationship,” in J. Borrows and M. Coyle, eds., The Right Relationship: Reimagining the Implementation of Historical Treaties (Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 248-76. Anishinaabeg traditions of right relations with animals are rich and varied, and I have no expertise or standing to interpret them. I mention them simply to remind political theorists working within the Western tradition that our inherited assumptions are not self-evident or universally shared, and that Indigenous peoples have long theorized and practiced alternative forms of animal politics.

[3] The Gdoo-naaganinaa treaty between the Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples encompassed the shared ecological region of the Great Lakes/Southern Ontario. For details see Simpson, “Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa,” 39.

[4] D. Lee, “Adoption Is (Not) a Dirty Word: Towards an Adoption-centric Theory of Anishinaabeg Citizenship,” First Peoples Child & Family Review 10, no. 1 (2015): 86-98.

[5] Donaldson and W. Kymlicka, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[6] For a recent discussion of elephant nationhood/sovereignty, see J. Bell Rizzolo and G. Bradshaw, “Nonhuman Animal Nations: Transforming Conservation into Wildlife Self-Determination,” Society & Animals, December 31, 2019: 1-21, https://doi.org/10.1163/15685306-00001679.

[7] J. McWilliams, “Citizen Canine, Comrade Cow: Toward a New Kind of Animal Rights,” Virginia Quarterly Review 92, no. 3 (2016): 206-214; Z. Beauchamp, “Should Dogs Be Citizens? It’s Not as Crazy as You Think,” Vox, December 16, 2014, https://www.vox.com/2014/12/16/7385269/animal-citizenship-kymlicka.

[8] B. Bastien, S. Loughnan, N. Haslam, and H.R.M. Radke, “Don’t Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Consumption,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38, no. 2 (2012): 247-56.

[9] K. Gillespie, The Cow With Ear Tag #1389 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); C. Blattner, S. Donaldson, and R. Wilcox, “Animal Agency in Community: A Political Multispecies Ethnography of VINE Sanctuary,” Politics and Animals 6 (2020): 1-22.

[10] C. Mancini, “Animal Computer Interaction,” lecture posted April 18, 2016, Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, http://www.environmentalhumanities.ed.ac.uk/lectureclaramancini/. See also M. Rosi?ska and A. Szyd?owska, “Zoepolis: Non-anthropocentric Design as an Experiment in Multi-species Care,” Nordes: Nordic Design Research 8 (2019): 1-5.

[11] C.M. Mejdell, T. Buvik, G.H.M. Jørgenson, and K.E. Bøe, “Horses Can Learn to Use Symbols to Communicate Their Preferences,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 184 (2016): 63-73.

[12] P. Jones, The Oxen at the Intersection (New York: Lantern Books, 2014); Blattner, Donaldson, and Wilcox, “Animal Agency”; S. Donaldson and W. Kymlicka, “Farmed Animal Sanctuaries: The Heart of the Movement?” Politics and Animals 1 (2015): 50-74.

[13] S. Donaldson, “Animal Agora,” Social Theory and Practice 46/4 (2020). https://doi.org/10.5840/soctheorpract202061296; E. Meijer, When Animals Speak: Towards an Interspecies Democracy (New York: NYU Press, 2019); R. Garner and S. O’Sullivan, eds., The Political Turn in Animal Ethics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

[14] For developments of the idea of political and legal status of liminal animals see D. Celermajer and A. Wallach, “The Fate of the Illegible Animal: The Case of the Australian Wild Donkey,” Animal Studies Journal 8, no. 2 (2019): 229-58; M. Deckha and E. Pritchard, “Recasting Our ‘Wild’ Neighbours: Contesting Legal Otherness in Urban-Animal Conflicts,” UBC Law Review 49, no.1 (2019): 161-202; E. Luther, “Tales of Cruelty and Belonging: In Search of an Ethic for Urban Human–Wildlife Relations,” Animal Studies Journal 2, no. 1 (2013): 35-54.

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  • Sue Donaldson

    Sue Donaldson is the author of numerous articles and books on animal rights and politics, including Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (co-authored with Will Kymlicka). She is co-convenor of the Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics (APPLE) research group at Queen's University, Kingston.

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