village voice
Week of April 4 - 10, 2001
The Beast and The Brightest

Norah Vincent ["You're an Animal," Higher Ed, April 3] rightly points out that a nonhuman animal in a sexual encounter with a human being would most likely be in that situation only because of what Princeton professor Peter Singer refers to in his book review-essay on bestiality as the "inexhaustible variety of human sexual desire" imposing itself on a powerless creature. As Singer does not document animals in their natural habitats seeking out sex with members of other animal species, including ours, we can only infer that bestiality is a distorted behavior within the context of human domination.

However, Vincent stresses a domination that is based on the notion that nonhuman animals as a class have "the mental and emotional capacity of a child" rather than on the characteristics of captivity: the limited options, inability to escape, physical coercion, and psychological pressure that captivity imposes on a captive individual.

Not only is it the height of arrogance to reduce the rest of creation to the level of planetary idiocy; it's absurd. Adult nonhuman animals, from gorillas to guinea fowl, negotiate complex environments every day. They form adult relationships with their peers. They raise and teach their young. They socialize, provide nurturing, and groom themselves and each other (in birds it's called preening). As functional adults, nonhuman animals perform a multiplicity of cognitive acts, including practical decision-making, that are not exhibited by human children or the mentally impaired. Nonimpaired adult animals embody such a repertoire of experiences accompanying their growth that it is nonsense to equate it with the experiential repertoire of babies and the cognitively disabled. Peter Singer's own 18th-century philosophic model, Jeremy Bentham, wrote on behalf of animals' rights that a "full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old."

Bentham did not mean to denigrate human infants, but rather to observe that, as soon as we stop to think about other animals, we must justly perceive that an enormous amount of intelligence and emotional maturity are required in their lives to carry on. Fair pleading demands that we stop "defending" other animals from ourselves by calling them "dumb." Just as human verbal language is one of the many languages of life, so our particular type of intelligence is one among many. If people feel threatened by the idea of equality beyond human primatology, that is our problem to solve. Nonhuman animals should not have to pay for our "kindness" as well as our cruelty.

Karen Davis, President
United Poultry Concerns
Machipongo, Virginia

Peter Unprincipled

Re Norah Vincent's "You're an Animal": Friends of Animals finds Peter Singer's position that it is acceptable for humans and animals to have sex with each other shocking and disgusting. Bestiality is wrong in part because the animal cannot meaningfully consent to sex with a human. In this sense, bestiality is wrong for the same reason pedophilia is wrong. Children cannot consent to sexual contact and neither can animals.

Priscilla Feral, President
Friends of Animals
Darien, Connecticut

Best Friend

Re "You're an Animal": An amorous creature I once dog-sat started to eagerly sample my nether regions as soon as I got in bed. I dissuaded him at first, but he seemed to want it badly. So I consented. It was a mutually pleasurable encounter about which I have no guilty feelings. Whether interspecies sex constitutes rape is conditional, as in any other case, on consent. I am a vegetarian, and condemn cruelty to animals.

David Dolores

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