Distraction Free Reading

The Allowable Limit of Disability

In February 2022 a court in Norway banned the further breeding and selling of British Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Beyond Norway, the ban has sparked conversation amongst UK and American breeders. The reason for this ban is the high rates of disability that affect the dogs; the official language is that the individuals are ‘disease guaranteed’. As a person whose work often overlaps with critical disability studies, I found myself obsessing about these news pieces. These dogs were banned because they were considered too disabled, this court was putting a limit on how disabled these dogs were allowed to be. My conclusion, after stewing on this for 6 months, is that disability is the limit of commodification and vice versa, commodification is the limit of disability.

A white british bulldog looking at the camera in the backyard of a house

A “disease guaranteed” British bulldog, photo from Unsplashed by Josue Michel

First, it is important to understand that these dogs are a commodity. And as a commodity, they have always been disabled. These breeds have been around for over 200 years, and the traits that define these breeds were originally deformities; For British bulldogs, it is the smushed face, and skin wrinkles. For spaniels, it is the domed skull and the bug eyes. But they were deformities that were marketable, and the issues attached to these were manageable, in the care of responsible educated owners. However, these breeds have become increasingly popular in recent years, as celebrity pets and are more commonly used in advertising. Part of what led to this ruling is a recent rise in over- and in-breeding which has led to an escalation in the ‘disease guarantee’; more individuals have painful conditions- skin, eye, skeletal, or breathing issues, and these are often occurring in much younger dogs.

Significantly, the word disability is never used by researchers or journalists. The phrasing used is – disease guarantee, disease burden, or conditions. If these conditions were framed as disabilities the breeds wouldn’t be marketable. Yet the similarities between how these conditions are discussed and how disability is discussed are striking. One of the interviewees in NPR’s coverage of the issue, an animal rights activist, said “We say that dogs are our best friend, but we aren’t the bulldog’s best friend. At all. If we were the bulldog’s best friend we wouldn’t want it to have all of these conditions. You would want it to have a better life”(Sommer 2022). This mirrors the way that disability is discussed, by mainstream medical and legal institutions,  especially when projected into the future. Compare this to disability activists Eli Clare’s description “…the medical-industrial complex focuses not on specific diseases and disorders but rather on the people who have these conditions. This kind of eradication is often intent on changing the future by manipulating the present. I think about disability-selective abortion.” (Clare 2017). Be it a discussion of prostheses, dongles, or selective abortion, technology, especially medical technologies, seeks a disability-free future, which is often glossed as a better life (Jackson, Haagaard, Williams 2022).

News of the ban was hailed as a “victory for our dogs” and for animal rights groups (Beattie 2022). The news pieces that reported on this use violent imagery to describe the issues that these dogs face; a veterinarian used phrases like “I treat dying British Bulldogs that can’t breathe – you can stop their suffering”, “imagine breathing with a plastic bag over your head” “their brains are essentially being squished”  (Sulway 2022). This emphasis on suffering is what stood out to me. Because people with disabilities can tell you that suffering is determined by those in power. Suffering is a theoretical and moral idea that refers not only to the physical pain, or environmental condition of the non/human population in question, but suffering does ideological and legal work.

Suffering, its alleviation, spectacle, and prevention are intimately connected with how western societies and intellectual traditions configure who is and is not, a person (Ticktin 2017, 2015); “cruelty and pain” being the worst fate that members of a liberal modern democracy can imagine (Parish 2008). Personhood is the “privileged” state of having legal rights. For instance, refugees can enter into personhood by having their suffering medically certified (Fassin 2005). As in the case of these breeds, non-humans access these rights because experts speak for them, specifically in legal and medical contexts (Ticktin 2015). This win for animal rights is couched in preventing the suffering of future generations. But framing it like this is an acrobatic feat as it jumps through hoops to not hold the humans who commoditized and profit from these dogs accountable for their current suffering. Consider this quote from a veterinary geneticist “I don’t think it is the breeders themselves. They aren’t trying to breed unhealthy dogs. It’s the breed themselves that are unhealthy. And there isn’t much that they can do about it within the context of the purebred breed”(Sommer 2022). A dog whose breeding has been tightly controlled by humans is considered too inbred to be healthy, and whose pups are regularly delivered via C-section because it is difficult and dangerous for them to give birth naturally, but somehow it is “the breed themselves that are unhealthy”.

My argument here is that it is important to decouple physical pain from the idea of suffering; These dogs are in pain, and the process of commoditization, at the hands of humans, has led to their pain and suffering. But a rights-based campaign, which a legal case is, is often based on upholding hegemonic systems. Take the work of anthropologist  Miriam Ticktin, for example, her work looks at how humanitarian efforts work with innocent humans and nonhumans, and how this obsession with the innocent victim gives rights while avoiding explicit political solutions or goals. (Ticktin 2015). Ticktin points out “…the medical or legal framing of suffering or injury does not leave room for us to see the workings of capitalism or the drive for profit as the causes of suffering, even as they are inseparable from medical and legal practice.”(Ticktin 2015). This current ban, framed as a legal based issue, does exactly this.  Rua Williams, a critical disability scholar, has a paper which explicitly looks at “the connections and conflicts between two UN documents, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Their article has shown us that rights-based thinking is problematic when it comes to framing disability; “How do we protect and uphold disabled people as natural manifestations of human diversity while simultaneously enforcing their right to integration into systems of capitalist production that may be inherently at odds with their bodily and mental integrity?”  (Williams 2019). Or as Sunaura Taylor, a disability scholar, activist, and artist frames it, hegemonic systems are built to disable both animals and humans and then naturalize this disablement (Taylor 2016).

Insofar as this legal ban is supposed to prevent the further exploitation of these dogs, it is a good thing. But of course, the violence hidden in this “victory” is what will happen to these dogs, now legally freed from exploitative breeding practices, who are no longer a commodity?  When animals, that are owned because of their market value no longer have market value, they are generally killed. Interestingly the threat identified by the news articles is the fear that the ban will drive “the breeding of these dogs underground, and further fuel the crisis of illegally bred and imported dogs.” (Jewers 2022) suggesting that the exploitation will only get worse. The best-case scenario is that these dogs will be spayed or neutered and bought by families that have the resources to care for them. But what will happen when their “disease guarantee” manifests?

What else is there?

There are 2 foundational questions that I take from Critical disability studies, that follow me into any media that I consume: What would it mean to value disability now? Rather than seeking to erase it from the future. And Why are able-bodied people afraid to become disabled? Why are disabled people afraid to become more disabled (Kafer 2013)? My initial knee-jerk reaction on reading these news pieces was: What would it mean to value these dogs as they are? These questions cannot be separated from the imagining of alternative realities, futures, and possibilities that is at the heart of disability activist work and scholarship. This imagination brings disability into alignment with queer and critical race studies, questions the underpinnings of the violent structures we live within, and imagines other ways of being- individually, communally, and bodily. This imagination questions the reification of humanity; from insisting on human and non-human intimacies (Chen 2012), and animate and inanimate kinship (Kafer 2019).

What would a disability-informed, a disability valued, intervention look like in this case? Rather than a rights-based one? What would a disability-informed ruling that held exploitation accountable produce? What other frameworks can we imagine for the justice of commoditization? I can’t answer these questions, and these questions aren’t creative enough, they are created within hegemonic logics. But to start: Instead of emphasizing the suffering, what futures can be imagined for these dogs? The imagination to value both animals and humans with disabilities is radical and necessary; because the status quo is a level of …imaginable, often ignored, and naturalized violence.


References

Beattie, Jilly. 2022. “First Legal Ban on Breeding Bulldogs and Cavaliers Announced.” BelfastLive. February 1, 2022. https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/belfast-news/first-legal-ban-breeding-bulldogs-22943414.

Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Duke University Press.

Fassin, Didier And Estelle D’halluin. 2005. “The Truth from the Body Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum Seekers.” American Anthropologist 107 (4): 597–608.

Jackson, Liz, Alex Haagaard, and Rua Williams. 2022. “Disability Dongle.” Platypus. April 19, 2022. https://blog.castac.org/2022/04/disability-dongle/.

Jewers, Chris. 2022. “Norway BANS British Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels: Court Rules Selective Breeding Is Cruel and Has Resulted in ‘Man-Made Health Problems’ for the Animals.” Mail Online. February 2, 2022. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10468391/Norway-BANS-breeding-British-bulldogs-Cavalier-King-Charles-Spaniels.html.

Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist, Queer, Crip. University of Indiana Press.

———. 2019. “Crip Kin, Manifesting.” Catalyst: Feminism Theory Technoscience 5 (1): 1–37.

Parish, Steven M. 2008. Subjectivity and Suffering in American Culture: Possible Selves. PDF. 2008th ed. Culture, Mind, and Society. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sommer, Lauren. 2022. “Is Breeding Bulldogs Cruel? Animal Groups Debate How to Make Them Healthier.” NPR, March 15, 2022.

Sulway, Verity. 2022. “‘I Treat Dying British Bulldogs That Can’t Breathe – You Can Stop Their Suffering’.” Mirror. February 9, 2022. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/i-treat-dying-british-bulldogs-26173700.

Taylor, Sunaura. 2016. Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. The New Press.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2015. “Non-Human Suffering: A Humanitarian Project – Academia.edu.” In The Clinic and The Courtroom, edited by Ian Harper And Akshay Khanna eds. Tobias Kelly, Pp. 49–71. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2017. “A World without Innocence.” American Ethnologist 44 (4): 577–90.

Williams, Rua. 2019. “Metaeugenics and Metaresistence: From Manufacturing the ‘Includeable Body’ to Walking Away from the Broom Closet.” Canadian Journal of Children’s Rights 6 (1): 60–77.

 

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