Service-Animal Liberation

Debates about the propriety of where animals belong reveal how we apprehend human suffering in isolation

Early last year, in a desolate concourse of Newark Liberty International Airport, a peacock named Dexter was denied a boarding pass for his flight to Los Angeles. Dexter’s ticket had been purchased some weeks prior by his human companion, a New York–based performance artist known as Ventiko, who claimed that, technically, the peacock satisfied all of the criteria for an in-flight service animal. United Airlines happened to disagree, and the now infamous, somewhat deceptive photo of the service peacock paints the airline’s choice as the only rational one. In the photo, depth of field makes Dexter appear to dwarf the ticket kiosks and passengers just behind him, his long, iridescent tail extending dangerously into the paths of passing wheelie bags. Subsequent articles about the incident by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC  seemed to perceive this enlarged image of Dexter as showing his actual dimensions, his massiveness speaking to the pernicious social problem of the “service animal” in general. Sounding the rallying cry for the opposition, the Times’s David Leonhardt titled his piece “It’s Time to End the Scam of Flying Pets,” writing that Ventiko and Dexter had, albeit unwittingly, “struck a blow for sanity.” That the grounded pet in question happened to be a bird was an irony lost on most of the New York Times’s eminently sane readers.

In the opening pages of The Companion Species Manifesto, her examination of the millennia-old interactions between humans and canines, the philosopher Donna Haraway outlines the central questions of her project, asking, “How might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously?” For the nearly 70 percent of Americans who live with some species of animal, the “significant otherness” to which Haraway refers should be instantly recognizable, as fine a description as you’re likely to find of our profound—and perennially fraught—relationship with animals. Haraway’s work suggests that how we treat animals reveals essential truths about our own humanity, its awesome potential and destructive contradictions, the ethical and political implications extending well beyond the pets in our homes and the food on our plates. Building on centuries of philosophical discourse, Haraway suggests that human liberation ultimately lies in the respectful treatment of the entities historically considered nonhuman and subhuman, from the millions of Africans ferried over in slave ships then to the tens of thousands of immigrant children living in detainment centers now. For Haraway, building a more humane society depends on radically expanding the limited definition of who and what is considered human.

A direct line of influence can be drawn from Haraway’s short text to Aristotle’s History of Animals, from the fourth century BCE, which also sought to combine zoology and philosophy in order to articulate an ethical framework for human-animal coexistence, a language to talk about the creatures who so frustratingly—and constructively—lack its faculties. Thousands of years of inquiry have done little to resolve competing discourses of animal subjugation and liberation, the dialectics of pet and master, predator and prey, food and friend. Even if the rise of the service animal acts as some kind of inflection point for this discourse, the conversation will always be lopsided, incomplete; barring a wild evolutionary leap or technological advancement, humans will never definitely know whether animals prefer working with ICE or St. Jude Children’s Hospital. As Thomas Nagel wrote in his seminal 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” even basic human presumptions about the animal experience crumble under the feeblest scrutiny, the ontological gulf too wide to cross.

Mainstream debates over service animals are in keeping with these more esoteric philosophical traditions, though their divisiveness and tenor echo a number of outlying skirmishes in the present culture wars, the polarized arguments over personhood, citizenship, and what constitutes humane treatment from legal and moral perspectives. But whereas a good portion of those proximate arguments can be either filtered away, compartmentalized, or outright ignored—the dissenting voices muted or unfollowed, the prevalence of cages for humans and animals overlooked—the undeniable physical presence of a German shepherd on a cross-country flight is harder to dismiss. The exponential growth in service-animal popularity has also lent this somewhat peripheral issue an unexpected amount of attention, as service dogs, cats, turkeys, monkeys, snakes, and, in a few select cases, miniature ponies find their way into workplaces, classrooms, restaurants, and countless other public spaces previously considered off-limits to animals. In 2017, a single airline, Delta, hosted over 250,000 service animals on its flights, more than a twofold increase from 2015. The swiftness of this shift has left administrators across public and private industries struggling to establish a coherent set of rules to govern interests that transcend species, language, body, and mind. Is a miniature guide horse more deserving of an airplane ticket than an anxiety peacock? Your time might be better spent researching the color of sound.

If the intractability of an issue could be measured, the strangeness of its resultant bedfellows might serve as a solid metric—divisive arguments tend to redraw battle lines in curious, occasionally disheartening ways. Whether the topic at hand was transgender bathroom use or a municipal ban on plastic straws, the pursuit of corroboration has led fascists to forge allegiances with radical feminists, disability advocates to partner with climate-change deniers; in the relevant example, service-animal truthers and pet abolitionists can now agree that animals don’t belong on airplanes. Like many of these contemporaneous controversies, the service-animal “problem” is worsened by its doubling as an ideological air horn, an efficient, reflexive way for opinion-havers across the political spectrum to proudly announce which of their beliefs are least liable to change. Paradoxically, the dilemma of a peacock on an airplane becomes both deeply political and apolitical, an opportunity for intense disagreement and an unexpected, increasingly rare site of consensus. Anarcho-socialists and neo-Nazis may not agree on much, but they may find common ground when it concerns the right not to have your face ripped off by a chocolate-lab mix before your flight to San Diego. And while it may seem discouraging that two ruthlessly opposed political factions would so easily set aside their differences, this consensus speaks to the singular power of the presence of animals to disrupt the status quo and forge unexpected bonds. The dog of thy enemy is still a dog.

The ethical import of having one’s face eaten should be pretty straightforward, black here, white there, but even this extreme instance of service-animal overreach has its shades of grey. Should the fact that the face-consuming pupper belonged to an active service member change how we interpret the event? Who is to blame for the passenger’s eaten face, if guilt can indeed be assigned? Is it the marine whose post-traumatic stress disorder necessitated a service animal? Or the airline staff and flight attendants who permitted the dog onboard? Or the architects of war whose foreign policy traumatized the marine in the first place? The shallowest assessment of the service-animal issue reveals it as part of a larger, fluid assemblage of issues, drawing together problems large and small, decisions meaningless and catastrophic, from the military-industrial complex to individual dietary choices to climate change. As Bruno Latour argues in We Have Never Been Modern, the defining fallacy of modernity rests on the assumption that human endeavor has divorced itself from nature, when, in fact, the two have never been more interdependent. Until recently, the populations and permissions of humanity’s most “modern” spaces, our airports, hospitals, and universities, reflected this same destructive fallacy. That these spaces are transforming to accommodate other species has given rise to no shortage of inconvenience, confusion, disagreement, and dog bites. At the same time, this spatial transformation may also be one of the few citable instances of ethical progress for humans as a species.

From animal Instagram accounts to cat cafés to pet-friendly screenings of Isle of Dogs, certain corners of our physical and digital spaces have rightfully changed to acknowledge the crucial role that animals have always played in human matters, making it harder to forget how our commercial and ethical choices have huge impacts on the lives of animals. Unfortunately, many of these positive developments are market-driven responses to harmful economic and social trends: the rising rents that the working class cannot afford; the student-loan debts that college graduates cannot repay; rising fascism; shrinking bee populations; mass shootings; looming climate catastrophe; the whole growing enormity of human suffering that the simple presence of an animal can, blessedly, in one fell swoop, erase. It’s fitting that the airport, the setting for so much dehumanization, corporate profiteering, and people generally being treated like animals, has become the main battleground for the service animal debate. Where could anyone possibly need their service peacock more?

Letting Dexter the peacock on his flight to Los Angeles wouldn’t have converted large swathes of the population into animal-rights advocates, or contributed to the fight against climate change—if anything, the jet fuel wasted by his plane would have implicated Dexter in the destruction of the environment. Instead, the escalating presence of service animals should serve as a reminder that this planet doesn’t solely exist to promote the interests and comforts of the human species. There are few stretches of the universe as sterile and disheartening as the ticketing concourse at Newark Liberty International Airport, and, as humans, we should reflect on why the appearance of a beautiful animal among all that ugliness isn’t considered a cause for celebration. As Dexter the peacock’s Instagram attests, the bird did eventually reach Los Angeles, after a lengthy road trip with his human companion and some of her friends. The drive would have brought them past the entire catalog of American landscapes, from the bleakest Turnpike refineries to the most golden Midwest cornfields, from the frigid Northeast winter to the perpetual summer of the California coast. No human can begin to imagine what Dexter felt or thought about these sights, whether they registered to him as attractive or repulsive, natural or artificial, worthy or unworthy of the space they occupied. Perhaps he saw everything, human and otherwise, as a simple and infinite extension of himself, the question of his rightful place within it not a question at all.