What Is Speciesism (and Why Does It Matter)?

What Is Speciesism (and Why Does It Matter)?

Getty/Drake Fleege

Speciesism is a complex issue. Explore why understanding this paradigm matters, and learn new ways of building mindful relationships with the animal beings in your life.

“The deer ate my flowers!” my husband Sean reported. I couldn’t help but giggle before realizing my amusement was sexist. Sean had every right to be upset that his hard work gardening had been uprooted—literally—by our resident deer population.

My response did not help the situation: “Well, they need to eat, too, and apparently, you chose to plant something beautiful and yummy. I bet they are grateful.” Sean was not amused. So I went into animal ethicist mode: “Well, you feed the birds and chipmunks! Why are the deer different?”

A Definition of Speciesism

This encounter highlights just how speciesist human thinking can be. Popularized by Richard Ryder in the 1970s, the concept of speciesism was originally intended to point out the “widely held belief that the human species is inherently superior to other species, and so has rights or privileges that are denied to other sentient animals." Since the term’s coining, animal advocates have encouraged people to stop denying other species the same rights the human species enjoys.

In essence, speciesism is yet another thinking schema that causes us to simplify groups in ways that ignore each being’s individuality. This process is similar to the thinking that creates prejudices leading to harmful acts of misogyny, racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and any other -ism you can think of. Once we create prejudice, we unleash powerful ideas that some beings are better than others, and those that are better have a right to have power over—or at least make decisions for—those who are lesser.

The Danger of Human Superiority

By placing ourselves at the top of the great chain of being, we have placed those beneath us in human-made categories, such as prey, predator, pest, pet, or food. That’s not an exhaustive list, of course. Consider, for example, the animals some humans use for clothing, entertainment, experimentation, research, education, sport, or transportation.

These categorizations then often determine our actions toward an animal. If we call someone prey, we presume their life’s purpose is to be eaten (somehow ignoring the richness of their lives and internal experiences). Likewise, those unfortunate enough to be categorized pests will be annihilated (again without concern for their purpose or needs), and so on with each category.

Each word we humans create has a monumental impact on other beings. Conveniently, we often leave their opinions and needs out of our rationalizations.

Why Feed Birds and Not Deer?

In its broadest sense, speciesism also means that we treat different species of animals differently.

For example, in my house we provide meals for cats, but we try not to feed ants or mice. We provide plants and seeds in the yard for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks, but we avoid giving bears access to birdfeeders. And, as I described earlier, my husband tries not to feed deer, while I secretly delight in watching them munching in the wee hours.

Some people may argue that we shouldn’t be feeding animals at all, and they have a fair point. Please know that we try to cultivate plants that nearby animals naturally eat rather than putting food out in feeders.

These admissions show quite clearly whom we privilege around us. But how did we develop these preferences?

For example, why are dogs and cats companion animals loved up in homes, while cows and goats usually are not? We might think of the practicalities: A dog fits easier on a sofa with you than a cow. We might discuss the long history of how and why we domesticated animals.

We could also fiercely debate why some animals have been normalized to be products and others have not through the practice of thoughtful animal ethics. Or we could talk about the decisions humans make about what animals can be placed on “nuisance kill lists.” For example, my home state just declared that beavers, rabbits, and squirrels are nuisances, along with beavers, muskrats, opossums, weasels, and chipmunks. All can be trapped and killed in Michigan. Similar states have similar lists. My heart breaks.

Another word we seem to use increasingly is invasive. The New York Times recently ran the article “Pythons, Invasive and Hungry, Are Making Their Way North in Florida,” which explains how humans have tried to slow the “proliferation” of Burmese pythons by using paid contractors to shoot them and offering an annual hunt that has drawn participants from as far as Latvia. Animal lovers might be quick to offer, “Leave the snakes alone!” And yet, it’s more complex. More non-native snakes means more problems for native species, including wading birds, marsh rabbits, and white-tailed deer.

A Reflection: Exploring Human-Animal Relationships

Human beings make decisions every day about which beings we think should flourish and which should be removed from their habitats. When we save one, we may put others at risk. Trying to balance habitats is unfathomably complex. As spiritual people, how do we “do our own work” on this topic? Where do we even begin?

Take a few minutes to think about the animal relationships in your life:

  • What animals do I have in my life that I love?

  • Which animals are nearby but I feel in conflict with?

  • What animals am I ambivalent about?

Now, think about decisions you make that privilege one being over another. Which situations feel comfortable to you? Do any feel a little prickly? Is there anything you might like to adjust in those relationships?

Resources for Human-Animal Relationships

In the end, my husband decided to have a conversation with the deer. The next time he noticed one in the garden, he looked them in the eye and said, “You are allowed to eat everything on this property except my flowers and tomatoes. Now, please leave my flowers alone.” The jury is still out on whether this communication was effective, but no new flowers have been eaten so far. So, I have hope that communication helped. (And to help reiterate Sean’s point, I placed a remarkable number of wind-spinning reflective pinwheels in our garden!)

Sean and I remain committed to contemplative ethics in regard to our relationships with every other human and other-than-human being we meet. We acknowledge that sometimes we will place our needs above others, and we recognize our speciesism. At the same time, when conflicts arise, we seek solutions that we believe are most compassionate to all involved. This requires us to keep on learning. Here are some of my favorite go-to resources:

For more on resolving human-animal conflicts, read Radical Relationality: How Science and Spiritual Practices Can Improve Life for Our Animal Neighbors.

What Is Speciesism and Why Does It Matter

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