Renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson died at the age of 92 on Sunday, December 26th. Among his many rich contributions to human understanding of the natural world was a proposal as simple as is bold, inspiring, and vital: to prevent mass extinction and the collapse of our biosphere, we should preserve half the surface of the planet as undeveloped or rewilded nature. In other words, we should make half the earth into a sanctuary from human interference for all the life that lives there.
For many of us who are acutely aware of our shared vulnerability on this planet, the desire for some form of sanctuary resonates even more profoundly after the past two years in which we have faced a global pandemic, worsening social and economic inequality, environmental disasters ranging from devastating hurricanes to relentless wildfires, and a seemingly unshakeable intransigence on the part of political and business elites to do anything to change these conditions. Adding to the claustrophobic weight of the world is the awareness that many of these social and ecological catastrophes are largely self-inflicted, resulting from unbridled destruction and consumption patterns that fundamentally devalue life.
Rather than a mere escape, the yearning for sanctuary could be an impetus for change. Just as Wilson’s half-earth proposal could help stave off the biodiversity crisis, embracing an ethos of the sanctuary is one way that we can begin to push back against these other destructive forces. But given our current reality, how can we even imagine what such an ethos would look like?
I was surprised to find that an answer to this question may lie in animal sanctuaries. As I describe in my new book, Saving Animals: Multispecies Ecologies of Rescue and Care, I conducted several years of ethnographic research at a range of animal sanctuaries throughout the U.S., where I saw firsthand how these unique spaces of human-animal coexistence model an approach to care and empathy that could help guide us toward a more resilient future.
To be clear, in drawing inspiration from animal sanctuaries I am not conflating the suffering of humans with other animals. Indeed, the long history of violence and exploitation of oppressed peoples around the world has frequently been facilitated precisely by their dehumanization. However, my previous experience studying this history as both a lawyer and an anthropologist has taught me that it is rooted in a value system that treats humans, animals, and the environment as raw resources for the creation of profits, leading to structures of violence and exploitation that intensify inequity across lines of indigeneity, race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and species.
While I was initially drawn to my research on animal sanctuaries out of a desire to understand what motivated people to rescue and care for animals, I quickly recognized that sanctuary work reflects an alternative value system grounded in principles of empathy, care, and mutual aid—a value system that could inform and strengthen efforts to achieve justice across all these contexts.
What do animal sanctuaries have to teach us about how to dismantle these structures of inequality? The mission of animal sanctuaries is as simple as it is difficult: to care for animals rescued from abuse and exploitation by humans and to educate people about these harms in order to end the practices that cause them. For example, sanctuaries for formerly farmed animals educate the public about the many negative impacts of animal agriculture while encouraging people to stop consuming animal products. At the same time, they provide lifelong quality care to animals who would have otherwise been slaughtered in adolescence (or only a few years later, after their egg or milk productivity was no longer profitable).
I met many chickens, cows, pigs, and sheep with injuries caused by their previous lives of confinement and neglect, or with chronic medical conditions caused by selective breeding intended to maximize their meat, egg, or milk production. At factory farms, they would most likely have been left to suffer until slaughter, because they are valued and treated only as instruments of production. But at the sanctuaries I visited, they were provided with veterinary care developed specifically to address the needs of geriatric farmed animals.
Some treatments, such as specially designed diets or limb braces, didn’t even exist until sanctuaries realized the need for them and partnered with veterinary schools to develop them. I saw caregivers strive to provide rescued animals with the best possible lives they could have within the bounds of captivity, working long hours for relatively low pay to provide the animals with preferred foods, clean shelter, and social enrichment.
The sanctuary ethos of care fosters creativity and the ability to find solutions that were once thought impossible. In a society that typically treats these animals as mere resources for human consumption, sanctuaries create spaces where animals can live as individuals entitled to their own autonomy, wellbeing, and dignity.
Such efforts need not be constrained to animals. The act of providing sanctuary—of caring for others and building structures of resilience to protect them from violence and exploitation—as a mode of political action can be implemented in a wide variety of social contexts and communities. It has the potential to contribute to and strengthen broader movements for social, economic, and ecological justice.
For example, if municipalities can pass local ordinances to be sanctuaries against xenophobic immigration policies, they can also pass ordinances and invest resources into building more robust sanctuary communities that can guarantee all members—both humans and animals—access to food, shelter, clean air and water, and medical care. The only real impediment to such change is a value system that doesn’t see human and animal rights as worth the financial cost it would take to realize them, a system that can be directly challenged by an ethos of sanctuary that values community health and wellbeing over the accumulation of capital.
Of course, we can’t bring an immediate end to systemic racist police violence, climate change, or the many injustices of the COVID-19 pandemic with local community work. But animal sanctuaries have a lesson to offer us here as well. One remarkable thing about sanctuaries is the almost impossible challenge of achieving their ultimate goal: the end of animal exploitation and abuse. In a world where trillions of animals are killed every year for food alone, sanctuaries save an infinitesimal number of animals from this fate. Yet, undaunted, they continue applying their creative ingenuity to finding novel solutions to seemingly intractable problems. In small spaces scattered throughout the larger global system of animal use, they are realizing a better world in which care, rather than exploitation, is the guiding ethos.
As I’ve now had the occasion to say to numerous classes of college students since the pandemic started, to the extent that we are going to get through this moment, it will have to be together. Sanctuaries provide a particularly promising model for how to do that. There are many aspects to the current circumstances that are beyond our control, but how we treat each other and the other beings in our orbit is not.
Elan is a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University. He has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and a JD, and his research focuses on animal rescue and care, animal farming, and food politics. His recent book, Saving Animals: Multispecies Ecologies of Rescue and Care was published in May 2021 by the University of Minnesota Press. He is also Vice President of Programs at The Phoenix Zones Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to advance the rights, health, and wellbeing of humans, animals, and the environment.