Putting Traumatic Knowledge to Work for the Animal People of the Planet

Sister Species

Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice
Edited by Lisa Kemmerer
University of Illinois Press, 2011

Review by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

“When you put down this book, ask yourself, ‘in relationship to the other animals, what is my own story of awareness and engagement?’ ‘What does this awareness ask of me?’ ” – Carol J. Adams, Forward

“The theology chair was on the phone when I arrived, so I had to stand awkwardly in the hallway. I felt like a naughty schoolchild outside the principal’s office. I waited for quite some time. Obviously, I was not a high priority, just a nuisance. But I was an eighty-year old woman, a pioneer woman theologian of almost fifty years. I had to remind myself that I was on a new and unique mission – who I was or how I was treated did not matter – I was here to bring change for nonhuman animals.” – Elizabeth Jane Farians, “Theology and Animals,” Sister Species

Sister Species presents the experiences of fourteen women activists who are working on behalf of nonhuman animals and a more just and compassionate world. Representing a diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities and social identities, they tell their gripping stories. The key ideas in this collection, of empathy, silence, trauma, and voice, arise from each author’s personal struggle to become conscious, strong, expressive and morally effective in a world dominated by “normal” violence, ethical blindness (both unwitting and willful) and abounding cruelties. The contributors are people who have put their traumatic knowledge to work for the animal people of the planet, our sister species.

For one contributor, guilty knowledge of what her university job entailed facilitated a genetic predisposition to the cancer that killed her grandmother, aunt, and mother. Canadian-based farmed animal cruelty investigator, Twyla Francois, writes: “During this brush with death, I examined my life and pondered where I’d taken a wrong turn. I realized that after fighting through my teen years, I had ultimately succumbed to society’s demands. I turned to books like Reviving Ophelia, which examines how prepubescent women, before they have been manipulated, are their true selves.”

Much in Sister Species is enraging and crushingly sad. In “Freeing Feathered Spirits,” professional artist and animal activist, Linda Fisher, describes how seeing a parakeet suffering and dying in a department store as a child led her to dedicate much of her life to educating people about the plight of captive parrots. Her activism began when she summoned the courage to tell the store clerk that this little bird was sick and needed help. The clerk ignored her and she started to cry, still pleading, when two security guards grabbed her and forced her out of the store and told her to “Stay out!” “I thought I’d broken the law, that I had committed some terrible crime,” she writes. Fisher, who is part Ojibway and Cherokee, describes her conflicted emotions at Native American functions, where “leather goods, feathers, and trinkets made of nonhuman animals’ bodies” surround her. Her story of Lily, an Eclectus parrot caged in a feed store with other exotic birds, is excruciating, but instead of giving up, Fisher paints a large canvas, which she calls “A Blessing for Lily.”

My own outlook on animal activism and the realities that animals and their advocates face (expressed in my story “From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights” in Sister Species) has much in common with the views set forth by contributors Allison Lance and Tara Sophia Bahna-James. Lance, whose essay “A Magical Talisman” evokes her gut-wrenching work with Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, sums up her opinions forged by the unspeakable atrocities she’s witnessed toward nonhuman animals on both sea and land by disparate cultures: “People often ask, ‘Do you think there is hope?’ I find this a very strange question, very anthropomorphic – hope for whom?” The words that follow are like a torrent of waves during shipwreck.

In “The Art of Truth-Telling,” Bahna-James explains that animal advocates need to “step into that uncomfortable place where we acknowledge that the scope of the problem is unfathomable, but the individual act still has meaning. Animals need us to be courageous and curious and to accept the possibility of failure. And they need us to not let things we cannot do stop us from doing what we can.”

If you desire to be a stronger, more confident advocate and to feel less alone, despairing, and frustrated in pursuit of justice for animals, if you care about what animals are going through and about animals themselves, including dragonflies and hornets and the community of life on earth: Sister Species is for you.

Contributors are Carol J. Adams, Tara Sophia Bahna-James, Karen Davis, Elizabeth Jane Farians, Hope Ferdowsian, Linda Fisher, Twyla Francois, Christine Garcia, A. Breeze Harper, Sangamithra Iyer, Pattrice Jones, Lisa Kemmerer, Allison Lance, Ingrid Newkirk, Lauren Ornelas, and Miyun Park.