Presidential candidates should talk about animals

Presidential candidates should talk about animals

Julian CastroJulian CastroBiden says he would consider Castro, O'Rourke for VP, Cabinet positions Joaquin Castro follows brother in backing Warren Deval Patrick knocks lack of diversity in Democratic debate MORE may be struggling to break into the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates, but there is one arena in which he has surged far ahead of the pack.

So far, Castro is the only candidate to present a fully developed plan for animal-related issues as part of his formal campaign platform. His “Protecting Animals and Wildlife” (PAW) plan has sections devoted to wildlife, pets, animal testing, and factory farming. 

Other Democratic contenders, like Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (D-Mass.), Corey Booker (D-N.J.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders says he's concerned about lost campaign time during impeachment trial Sanders touts vote against Trump trade deal backed by primary rivals New Hampshire state lawmaker switches support from Warren to Klobuchar MORE (D-Minn.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Ex-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Parnas says he doesn't think that Joe Biden did anything wrong regarding Ukraine MORE, have strong reputations when it comes to authoring or supporting pro-animal legislation.

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The policies include protections for horses, limits on puppy mills, or making malicious animal cruelty into a federal felony, as was the case with the recently passed “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act.” But none has gone so far as to develop such a comprehensive animal policy as part of their campaign. Now is the time for them to do so. Far from being a marginal issue, our relations with animals are intertwined with every aspect of our lives 

Often, Americans think about their relationships with animals as only about the pets in their homes. But from the food we eat to the drugs we develop to the protection of our wilderness areas and climate change and even to how we wage war, animal lives touch nearly every aspect of human life.

But the political approach to these issues has been mainly through piecemeal legislation, like the debates over whether to restrict the exotic animal trade or whether circuses should be outlawed. We need federal leadership and a robust national conversation about how human and animal lives are intertwined and in need of protection.

Voters are paying attention to these issues. More than 60 percent of Americans think animals deserve legal welfare protections, with a striking nearly one-third arguing that animals should have the same rights to be free from harm and exploitation that humans do.

Support for this belief has grown in the last ten years. While backed by women more than men and Democrats more than Republicans, the view that animals should have a right to be free from exploitation has support among all demographics, indicating that animal welfare is not some niche issue relevant only to one group.

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To be sure, the question will arise: why should we care about policies towards animals when there is so much human need in the country and the world? The answer is simple: those needs and lives are intertwined. Our farming methods of intensive animal agriculture, often referred to as “factory farms,” contribute dramatically to climate change.

Psychologists and law enforcement have found links between domestic violence and violence toward animals. Meatpacking jobs are among the most dangerous in the country, and those workers, who are often immigrants, need protections. Pets help increase mental health, lower stress, and decrease social isolation, especially for the elderly. And the transmission of diseases across species, both from humans to animals and animals to humans, demands our vigilance and increased knowledge.

The example of Hurricane Katrina, where an estimated 44 percent of the 100,000 people who refused to evacuate did so because they couldn’t take their pets to a shelter with them, shows in just one way how deeply humans and animals are interconnected and the significance of that relationship. After Katrina, FEMA changed its policies to include pets, but had disaster planning protocols factored in the importance of human-animal relations in the first place, recovery efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere would have been far more effective. Such an example shows that any animal policies are always about humans too. 

As the Democratic race narrows, the debates should ask about the candidates’ vision for our relations with animals. This is not a marginal question, but one that touches on fundamental aspects of daily life affecting every segment of society.

The Democratic presidential candidates would do well to make animal welfare policies and protections part of their agenda. One recent study found that both individuals and groups who are likely to be proactive in animal welfare are also more likely than others to be active in protecting the interests of vulnerable populations too. That’s a scenario that makes sense for Democratic voters.  

For example, people who supported protections for animals also supported LGBT issues, the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, and help for low-income people. And such correlations hold even at the state level. States with reliable records of protecting animals also tended to have strong laws protecting human rights. The unstated principle seems to be those vulnerable populations should have protections, and that sense of obligation and possibility crosses species lines.

Such an expansive sense of compassion, obligation, and vision of a more just future does not mean that we lose the distinction between humans and non-human animals, but that we recognize, not only in our hearts, minds, and laws but explicitly in our political campaigns, that human and animal lives are intertwined at every turn. The conditions of that melding is a profoundly political one deserving of our attention. 

Jane Desmond is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of Displaying Death and Animating Life: Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life