Sacrificing Animals on the Altar of Critical Race Theory
Harlan Weaver’s “Bad Dog” is a work of staggering inhumanity
Harlan Weaver, a professor of gender studies at Kansas State University, wants animal “shelters” to kill more dogs. He denounces the No Kill movement as “bullshit” even though it saves millions of animals annually.¹
He blames racism for the prosecution of Michael Vick and considers him and other animal abusers “victims,” even though Vick drowned dogs, electrocuted dogs, hanged dogs, shot dogs, and beat dogs to death. He criticizes the kind, caring, stable types of homes the surviving Vick dogs were placed in because, in his view, they promoted “a white-supremacist ideal of family formations.” He argues that we should not prosecute dogfighters like Vick, but instead abolish capitalism and with it, undo the “masculinities” and “white cis heteropatiarchy” that enable the culture of dogfighting.²
He says that promoting the use of technology, like wheelchairs, to allow disabled animals to run again “erases” disabled people and does “violence to nonnormative bodies.”³
He argues that rescuing dogs and finding them homes is worse than leaving them on the street because family homes with “picket fences” are “rather terrible” and promote “settler-colonial and racist dynamics of land allocation.”⁴
He defends backyard breeders, including those who sell puppies to supplement drug dealing income. He argues that opposition to it is driven not by a concern for the welfare of dogs or their deaths in pounds, but by an anti-LGBT agenda because backyard breeding represents “queer affiliations.”⁵
He condemns holiday adoption campaigns that help find 1.2 million animals a year homes because they promote a “narrative centered on the family,” rather than “queer as in fuck you.”⁶
He says people care about dogs because they are suffering “alienation resulting from modern forms of capitalism.” He argues that compassion is a zero-sum political struggle over identities like race and those who work to protect dogs do so at the expense of people of color.⁷
And, not content with sacrificing dogs, he also promotes the killing of other animals, including the harpooning of whales and clubbing of baby seals.⁸
Such extraordinary claims — indeed, such extraordinary calls for violence against animals — demand extraordinary supporting evidence, but Weaver’s book falls spectacularly short. It is based on a relatively brief stint walking dogs as a volunteer at the municipal animal shelter in Berkeley, California; past discussions he had “that were not recorded and are reconstructed to the best of my ability;” and what he calls, “reflections — musings on my own actions, relatings, and thinkings.”
Where there is no evidence — even “evidence” as questionable as self-“musings” — Weaver posits what he terms an “imagining.” Anticipating criticism of an “academic treatise” that is based on imaginary scenarios, Weaver insists that verifiable, objective evidence is “racist” and that such evidence isn’t necessary as there are — channeling Kellyanne Conway — “alternative modes of building understanding.”
There are not. Belief in the absence of evidence — belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary — is not “theory.” As such, Weaver’s embrace of “critical race theory” is a misnomer. It is not even hypothesis. It is supernatural piety, akin to alchemy or astrology — received wisdom where evidence, analysis, rigor, and falsification have no place.⁹
Seeking to capitalize on the great love people have for animals, it is also premised on a lie. Breathing new life into the old adage that “you can't judge a book by its cover,” this self-professed critic of capitalism is nonetheless a master of bait and switch and false advertising. Using a misleading subtitle, back cover blurb, and sympathetic image of a pit bull, “Bad Dog” is cleverly, though disingenuously, cloaked as a pro-animal book about the undeservingly bad reputation ascribed to pit bulls and the need to promote “multispecies justice.” Instead, Weaver attributes the basest of motives and demeans the noblest of human intentions to those trying to protect animals, while defending the killing of dogs, promoting the killing of dogs, and rationalizing their abuse.
The most basic rights which every human being cherishes and without which no other rights can be guaranteed — the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are not, as they should be, ground zero in the struggle to promote “justice” for dogs and other animals, but rather principles which Weaver vehemently opposes.
“Bad Dog” is not just a failure of evidence, for Weaver does not aspire to any. It is not just a failure of vision, peddling, as it does, more dystopia than utopia. It is a failure of the most fundamental morality.
And to what end?
To serve Harlan Weaver.
To allow him to stand out from a crowded field of academics and consultants preaching ideologies that are having their moment, even though they undermine moral and social progress by fostering the very racist outcomes they hypocritically claim to oppose. Weaver’s stab at professional notoriety also comes at the expense of the welfare, rights, and lives of animals who have no voice of their own and cannot defend themselves.
Were Weaver’s worldview to come to fruition, it would not only undermine the entire foundation of animal protection and make future progress impossible, it would eviscerate the gains of the last two centuries. In the early and mid 1800s, cruelty to animals was not recognized in law because animals were considered mere property. Killing one’s dog was not illegal because a person was deemed to have the right to do what he wanted with his “property.” Likewise, killing a homeless dog was not illegal because no one “owned” him and therefore no property interest was harmed. The welfare of the animal did not matter in either scenario.
That changed after painstaking effort by our forebears who dedicated their lives to making animals a subject of moral concern and therefore worthy of legal protection. In 1866, after finally getting New York to pass an anti-cruelty statute, for example, Henry Bergh put a copy of the new law in his pocket, and took to the streets that very night — and every night thereafter for the remainder of his life. The annals of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals describe the first such encounter,
The driver of a cart laden with coal is whipping his horse. Passersby on the New York City street stop to gawk not so much at the weak, emaciated equine, but at the tall man, elegant in top hat and spats, who is explaining to the driver that it is now against the law to beat one’s animal.
It would become a familiar sight. “Day after day,” he wrote,
I am in slaughterhouses; or lying in wait at midnight with a squad of police near some dog pit; through the filthy markets and about the rotten docks; out into the crowded and dangerous streets; lifting a fallen horse to his feet, or perhaps sending the driver before a magistrate, penetrating dark and unwholesome buildings where I inspect collars and saddles for raw flesh; then lecturing in public schools to children, and again to adult Societies. Thus my whole life is spent.
For the last 150 years and continuing to this very day, many others have likewise spent their lives in this service; tenaciously working to win hearts and minds, fighting entrenched interests that profit on exploitation and killing, and overcoming what seemed to be intractable odds in order to abolish cruel practices and pass needed laws on the basis of a simple idea with immense repercussions: animals matter.
These advocates have diligently, slowly, over centuries, helped weave the ideals of animal protection into our jurisprudence, the American psyche, and the fabric of American life. And though the work remains unfinished, they have helped protect countless individuals of every conceivable species: from the tiniest slithering creature on land to the largest mammals who roam the sea.
And yet, on the flimsiest of bases — profanity-laden self-musings, conversations with anonymous people, and alternative modes of understanding — Weaver not only scorns and derides these individuals and their contributions, he demands that we undo their hard-won progress by calling for return of a standard that excuses killing based on the interests of those causing it. For all his claims and professed concerns regarding hierarchies of privilege, Weaver’s prescription for human-animal relations could not be more inequitable, abusive, and dangerous.
Sadly, he is not alone. Weaver is joined by other academics peddling “critical race theory” such as Kevin Morris, who calls for leaving dogs on chains; Andrew Rowan, who encourages animal protection officers to ignore dogfighting; Katja Guenther, who defends sadistic animal abusers; and those who advocate human “pansexual” relations with animals — defending the rape of dogs. What they offer is not animal protection; it is the movement’s extinction.
To prevent it, these “theories” must be consigned to what Weaver and his colleagues are so desperately trying to avoid and willing to sacrifice millions of animals to prevent: academic obscurity. Indeed, we should go further; for like all harmful, parasitic ideologies masquerading as social and hard sciences — such as eugenics, polygenism, and phrenology — what they deserve is nothing less than academic oblivion.
1. Weaver wants animal “shelters” to kill more dogs. Citing a pound worker who kills dogs at the pound and rejects “the judgment of everybody and everybody’s telling you that you’re doing something wrong... When you in your heart know that you just saved that dog’s life by ending his life...,” Weaver deems No Kill to be a “bullshit” “fantasy.”
Not only can one’s feelings “in your heart” be factually wrong, especially given the difficulty of getting someone to understand or accept something when their salary depends upon not understanding, it is a logical absurdity to claim you save a dog’s life by killing him.
Weaver credits his opposition to a private Facebook group which he says, “has been critical to my thinking regarding the no-kill movement.” The group does not permit anyone to join if they do not share the anti-No Kill ethic and does not even permit debate on the topic. Specifically, there is no “second guessing or criticizing outcomes including euthanasia decisions.” How does one get a critical understanding if critical discussion is not allowed?
Not surprisingly, Weaver gets it tragically wrong when parroting the false claim that a No Kill orientation requires limiting admission, while an “open admission” facility cannot be No Kill. Such an outdated view cannot be reconciled with the fact that millions of Americans now live in cities and towns that are served by municipal shelters that have dramatically reduced and even eliminated the killing of healthy and treatable animals in their shelters, with placement rates as high as 99%.
It cannot be reconciled with the 90% drop in the pound killing of U.S. dogs and cats. Despite a doubling of the number of animal companions, the number of dogs and cats killed has gone from roughly 16 million to as low as one million thanks to No Kill programs and services. It has been called “the single biggest success of the modern animal protection movement.”
And it cannot be reconciled with the experiences of the very shelter Weaver volunteered with and which he claims could not save more dogs because, “‘open intake’ and ‘open admission’ refer to shelters that do practice euthanasia, are generally funded by cities and counties, and are therefore legally mandated to take in all of the animals that come to their dogs (as was the case with my fieldwork site).” Today, Weaver’s former “fieldwork site” boasts a 95% placement rate for dogs. In short, something can’t be impossible if it has already been achieved.
Weaver’s ignorance about basic sheltering concepts is also evidenced by his misinformed criticism of rescuers who tend to adopt animals scheduled to be killed, and often on their last day, rather than those dogs with no identified kill date. Weaver claims that the reason they do so is because pulling a dog with no scheduled kill day is “not as good of a story” and it is the desire for a good story which “harms more dogs than it saves.”
Rescuers pull dogs on their last day because they would otherwise be killed. In this way, the dog who faces imminent death can be put in a foster home, while those still being given time in pounds can stay in their kennels. Hopefully, those dogs will be adopted directly from the shelter or if they are later scheduled for imminent killing, the first dog has been adopted, freeing up the foster home or allowing additional foster homes to be found. The end result is that a larger number of dogs are saved. It has nothing to do with what Weaver dismisses as “savorist storyings,” it’s just math.
2. Weaver argues that animal abusers are victims and should not be prosecuted. At Michael Vick’s property, investigators found decomposing dogs, pieces of plywood flooring covered in blood, spent bullet casings, and clothing with blood stains. They found dogs who died by “hanging, drowning, and being slammed to death.” As one of the rescuers wrote,
Jumper cables were clipped onto the ears of underperforming dogs, then, just like with a car, the cables were connected to the terminals of car batteries before lifting and tossing the shamed dogs into the water. Most of Vick’s dogs were small – 40lbs or so – so tossing them in would’ve been fast and easy work for thick athlete arms. We don’t know how many suffered this premeditated murder, but the damage to the pool walls tells a story. It seems that while they were scrambling to escape, they scratched and clawed at the pool liner and bit at the dented aluminum sides… This death did not come quickly.
And yet, Weaver blames the Vick prosecution on “his gender and race,” rather than Vick’s abject, and illegal, cruelty, ignoring that others, including many white people, have likewise been held accountable for harming animals. Weaver also says that the rescue and types of placement of the surviving dogs was racist as “they were effectively segregated from Blackness by being placed into domestic spaces presumed to be ‘good’ and, therefore, tacitly white.” To Weaver, these homes promote, “a white-supremacist ideal of family formations.”
As such, Weaver condemns the “narratives of dogfighting busts, where images of skeletal dogs lying on patches of dirt and chained to overturned steel drums, contrast with glossy-coated canines in the loving arms of mostly white family members.” In fact, Weaver argues that, “dogfighters as well as those people likely to be charged with cruelty to and neglect of animals are symptoms of, and really victims of, the cultural work of racial capitalism, a white cis ableist heteropatriarchy that valorizes ‘toxic masculinities,’ and ongoing colonialism” (emphasis added).
He argues against prosecuting dogfighters and incarcerating them so they can no longer harm dogs and says we should instead focus on “dismantling racial capitalism” which would undo the “masculinities” and “white cis heteropatiarchy” that enable the culture of dogfighting.
3. Weaver pathologizes noble impulses. Weaver calls photographs of disabled animals in wheelchairs “salacious and almost pornographic exceptionalizations of disabled bodies.” To Weaver, every disabled animal granted greater mobility and thus an enhanced quality of life because of a wheelchair or other device undermines or “erases” disabled people “because these interventions involve reshaping bodies to fit into hostile worlds, rather than pushing those worlds themselves to reshape and, at the least, do less violence to nonnormative bodies.”
Weaver takes noble impulses — the desire to improve and save the lives of animals — and pathologizes them: demonizing rescuers, demeaning the movement to end the systematic killing of animals in pounds, even self-abasing for feeling good after volunteering at “a low-cost or free veterinary clinic that catered to all comers, but was focused mostly on houseless humans and their pets.”
Weaver writes that he “noted afterwards a heady, almost addictive feeling from having helped humans and dogs, a feeling that even my own critical thinking regarding my whiteness and class status did not seem to dim. The saviorist storylines of shelter and rescue make a powerful opiate that obscured the harms of neoliberalism and related structural violences.”
4. Weaver argues that rescue promotes racism. Weaver condemns the contrast between the “before” photos of skinny dogs living on the street with the “after” photos of those same dogs, happy and healthy in their adoptive homes. Weaver argues that these dogs were better off on the street because the lives of dogs in homes is “rather terrible” and leads to “normative violences.” He argues that trying to find them such homes is akin to promoting the “settler-colonial and racist dynamics of land allocation and understandings of family and home.”
Weaver argues that we should instead provide street dogs free medical care and other services, claiming that doing so would be “revolutionary.” While providing free medical care and other services for houseless pets (and houseless people) is worth doing, it is not mutually exclusive with finding them homes. Nor is it revolutionary. In the 1990s, I oversaw a program in San Francisco that provided free veterinary care for the pets of houseless people. The No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, has been promoting community dog sterilization and follow-up care for years, given its success in other countries and some U.S. cities. And the State of California allocated $5,000,000 in last year’s budget to provide veterinary care for the pets of houseless people.
5. Weaver defends backyard breeding. By contrast to homes where dogs are considered companions, Weaver argues that drug dealers who supplement their income by backyard breeding can offer a more fulfilling alternative. Using the story of one such dealer, Weaver claims that so many people were coming to the house to buy drugs that the puppies had plenty of attention and were therefore well-socialized. Denying that opposition to backyard breeding is being driven by concern for the welfare of dogs or their deaths in pounds, Weaver opines, without evidence, that it is really driven by an anti-LGBT agenda: “backyard operations demarcate queer affiliations, in terms of senisible connectivity outside the realm of so-called ‘proper’ relatings; the unsanctioned sex they showcase embodies connectivities that defy the staid proprieties of white-normative settler-colonialist domestic spaces wherein the ‘family home’ is definitively separate from the kennel.”
6. Weaver criticizes campaigns that save millions of animals. Weaver also criticizes as anti-LGBT, Home 4 the Holidays, a pet adoption drive to place animals in homes between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The campaign was launched in response to traditional shelter dogma that did not allow adoptions during the holidays, under the mistaken belief that “a dog adopted in December would be returned to the shelter in January,” effectively consigning over one million animals to death.
Starting with just a handful of shelters, the success of Home 4 the Holidays, including evidence that the number of adoption returns remained constant regardless of the time of year, led to an institutional shift in thinking and attracted an increasing number of converts. In 2020, the campaign reported over 4,000 participating shelters and 1,232,540 animals adopted.
Instead of seeing the campaign as a lifesaving alternative for millions of animals, Weaver condemns it as “a temporal and Christian narrative centered on the family…” as well as “straight, even though there was clearly something a bit odd going on in terms of sex and biology in that manger. And even when straight folks are not at the center of the story, the ideology at work is more ‘gay as in happy’ than ‘queer as in fuck you.’” Weaver objects to using gay and lesbian couples in adoption ads, calling it “more of an appropriation than an honoring of queer struggles and lives.”
7. Weaver suggests that compassion is zero-sum. Aside from calling for more violence towards animals, one of the more dangerous claims made by Weaver is the false notion that caring about dogs and working to protect them somehow detracts or “erases” people at the margins of society. Dogs, he says, are seen “as objects of affection necessitated by the alienation resulting from modern forms of capitalism, a production through which emerges a racial politics that valorizes the lives and needs of ‘pets’ over those of marginalized humans.”
And while Weaver says that one need not choose between marginalized humans and non-human animals, he does exactly that throughout the book. At one point, he laments “dog rescue organizations filling planes with Chihuahuas from the southernmost U.S. states to move them to more northern areas where they are more likely to be adopted,” comparing it to the lack of resources “allocated to the residents of Flint,” Michigan. This is not only a facile comparison (allowing those dogs to die does nothing to improve the water quality for the people of Flint), but it offers a misanthropic view of humanity which suggests that compassion and empathy are in limited supply and must be doled out in a miserly fashion rather than felt as need demands.
There is not a victory in the moral enlightenment of humanity in which some people who did not share the newer, more encompassing ethic did not lament the amount of attention that was paid to that issue because they regarded it as less important than others. In its day, prejudice is often seen as a virtue. But it is exactly the attitude that animal suffering is somehow less important that enables their neglect, abuse, and killing.
If Weaver does not want the plight of animals at the hands of humans to dominate public concern and attention, then he should wish for a world where such outcomes are no longer permitted. Bemoaning expressions of empathy and compassion for animals is entirely counterproductive to the cause not just of animals, moreover, but of people. Love, however it manifests itself, should always be welcomed as it can only make our world a kinder, gentler place filled with people who are intolerant of cruelty and violence.
8. In addition to dogs, Weaver promotes the killing of other animals. Tragically, it is not just dogs and those who have dedicated themselves to saving them who are in Weaver’s crosshairs. Weaver writes that, “Indigenous people continue to be targeted through animals, with traditional whale- and seal-hunting practices vital to native lifeways and cosmologies under fire from organizations like Greenpeace…” Trying to stop the killing of whales or the clubbing to death of baby seals, he writes, leads to the “erasure of Indigenous cosmologies and ways of knowing across the globe.” No evidence is presented for this proposition and none can be because these ancient beliefs have always been a patchwork collection of regional and even local mythologies that changed over time.
Moreover, humans are not “native” to anywhere but the African continent. Calling those who want to kill whales in Seattle’s Puget Sound or who want to kill seals in Nova Scotia “native” or “indigenous” is not only factually inaccurate, it is laden with a morality that is undeserved. It wrongly suggests that anything they do is, by definition, the moral high ground because they are the ones doing it, even when animals are horrifically brutalized.
A history of oppression to animals, moreover, does not justify it going forward. Indeed, the last two centuries of human history have witnessed widespread rejection of many abusive practices in terms of our relationships with each other, including racism, sexism, and other discrimination. When it comes to animals, neither people nor animals need likewise be prisoners to an unjust and misguided past.
While cultural rituals may be important, as one commentator noted, “Culture and tradition exist in every society, not just ‘indigenous’ ones. All our societies evolve as a matter of necessity and this means customs that are cruel and unacceptable may be among those to go.” It is not racist to want to end harm to animals. We must adapt, so that our fellow earthlings don’t die.
9. In order to lend the book more weight than it deserves, Weaver’s lack of evidence is obscured by his use of jargonistic language. As such, walking a dog is deemed “formal fieldwork,” while conversations with people that are “resconstructed” years later are called “interviews conducted with interlocutors” (which roughly translated means “talking with talkers”).
Although the names given are fictitious and therefore unverifiable, moreover, Weaver continuously notes that these “interlocutors” are either latino, black, gay, queer, or undergoing hormonal therapy to change from one to another. While not relevant to the veracity of a claim made about animals, this is how a pound worker in her 20s takes on such outsized credibility. Because she happens to be “biracial” and because we are told her “birthday wishes usually involve requests to send money to refugees in locations such as Darfur,” we are expected to accept her self-serving pronouncements about killing dogs and her conclusion that “I don’t think they all need to be saved.”