Skip to content

When is Abuse Abuse?

I’ve been haphazardly working my way through the alphabet, discussing words that have particular meaning to people interested in animal rights. I’ve addressed The C-Word, The F-Word, The S-Word, and the past weekend has brought inordinate discussion of The A-Word: Abuse.

Let’s deconstruct the use and abuse of abuse:

  • Abuse is defined as: maltreatment; using wrongly or improperly; and treating in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way.
  • In no dictionary (so far) have I seen abuse defined in terms of culture (The C-Word). In other words,  whether an action is abusive doesn’t depend on where you’re from. Bullfighting should be considered abuse no matter where you live.
  • Ah, but there’s the rub. Sometimes, abuse is trumped by culture, which of course is irrational and harmful, not to mention ridiculous. In such cases, we don’t consider the abuse abuse, as it’s done in the name of culture, so either it’s not really abuse or it’s abuse that’s okay because it makes the culture part able to live on.
  • Then there’s abuse that’s abuse but we call it farming or processing or production (and it’s also a part of culture, as we’ve decided which animals are for food and which are for petting). If I were to fatten my (already chunky) cat, Emily, and slaughter, skin, and eat her with some fava beans and a nice chianti, my entire community would be appalled. Several humane and welfare organizations would call for my prosecution, and the stiffest fine and sentence allowable. Letters would pour into the prosecutor’s office, and letters to the editor would drown local editors with their reprimand and ridicule. Meanwhile, if I strolled up the block and ordered chicken with some fava beans and a nice chianti, no one would call for my public flogging.
  • When I order my chicken, I’m not directly abusing an animal with my hand; I’m doing it with my money. I’m paying to have someone else do it for me. I am involved and complicit, and if it weren’t for my hard-earned money, the abuse part wouldn’t have been set in motion. I am a cog in the wheel of animal abuse. Supply and demand.

Think about the abuses of animals that we as a society universally find egregious: anything involving kittens or puppies and a blowtorch or a microwave. I’m not saying those cases aren’t horrible, but is that maltreatment, injury and harm different from what we do to farm and clothing animals? If cats, dogs, chickens and cows all have the same capacity for pleasure and pain, how is the abuse substantively different? It’s not. (Although it is different in name, called, "institutional abuse," as if the "institutional" makes it acceptable.)

When you eat meat, wear wool, and buy a car filled with the skin of a handful of cows, you are an abuser of animals.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cláudio Godoy #

    Hello Mary,

    I've discovered your blog recently and since then I've been reading it almost daily, because it's so excellent.

    However, I always feel uncomfortable with your use of the word "abuse", because, in my view, this is very problematic from a true animal rights perspective. If you condemn the abuse, you are implicitly assuming that the use is OK. Even when you use "use and abuse" together, the use of the word "abuse" seems redundant.

    April 23, 2007
  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Claudio.

    I do not agree that by condemning abuse I am condoning use. I condemn both use and abuse, as I wouldn't call every instance of use abuse. For instance, my greyhounds (I know, I know, them again) were used and abused by their trainers and breeders. But I use them, as well, as pets, and I don't consider that abuse. It's not maltreatment; it's simply, shall we say, "treatment" that is may not be optimal (they could be living in the wild . . . somewhere). Is it injurious to them, particularly when there's no way one could survive without me (she's an insulin-dependent diabetic and also needs eye medication daily)? I say "use and abuse" mostly to be clear to NON animal rights people that use is something I disagree with. If I said only "abuse" each time, people would be writing me all day long talking about what abuse is and how some uses aren't necessarily abuses. Does that make sense?

    April 23, 2007
  3. Cláudio Godoy #

    Hello Mary,

    I didn't say that by using the word "abuse" you were explicitly condoning the use (after all, I read all your posts and I couldn't agree more with all of them). But I think that animal people like you and me should be very aware of the words we choose to express our view, especially to the ones who are not familiar to the concept of animal rights (I'm sorry if this sound pretentious, I really don't mean that). Most of them think that animal rights and animal welfare are interchangeable concepts, so it's important to stress that the point is the use instead of the abuse. Of course I'm against "abuse" in the sense you are reffering , but if there were no use, there wouldn't be any abuse. I think is very important to be accurate, so we should always use "other animals than humans" instead of just "animals", "sentient beings" instead of "living beings" , etc.

    As for the nonhumans who live with us, I think that since they are the consequence of a domestication process conducted by humans and they can't survive by themselves in the nature, we have the obligation to take care of them FOR THEIR SAKE. Whether we enjoy their presence, it's a secondary question (although I really enjoy my rescued guinea pig). Talking about her, it's time to feed her.

    Keep on your great blog, and let me finish this post by saying that I'd really like to be able to write like you do.

    April 23, 2007
  4. Claudio,

    I couldn't agree more about language. I have a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics, and in the minds of most, I obsess over language. You'll find, if you read the blog from the past couple of months, that I have been quite preoccupied with the welfare vs. rights situation. Sometimes I bore myself with how much I refer to it and how much I use phrases like "nonhuman animal" (my phrase of choice). The funny thing is that you remind me that I can't use ENOUGH of that language (I don't want readers to tune out, so I try to mix it up with "sentient beings," and such).

    Just when I thought I was overusing certain language, it turns out the opposite is true!

    Thanks again.

    April 23, 2007
  5. Cláudio Godoy #


    I meant the rescued guinea pig who lives with me instead of MY rescued guinea pig. I was victim of my own criticism…

    April 23, 2007
  6. Deb #

    I enjoyed the Silence of the Lambs reference, and when I saw the movie (a year or so before I went vegetarian, I think), I remember how disturbing I found it to learn what the "silence of the lambs" referred to. A little off topic, but I don't think I can ever hear anyone talk about fava beans and not start thinking about silence of the lambs!

    I don't think I necessarily agree with Claudio, though I certainly see the point. I think most people would see some of the "abuses" you listed as "uses", and so calling them abuse makes it clear to me that you think use *is* abuse. But then, my mindset is already there, so maybe Claudio is right after all.

    April 23, 2007
  7. Just my two cents worth. In many cases, use and abuse are synonymous. Take the case of using minors for work in a factory, for instance. The practice involves both use and abuse. In fact, use in this case is abuse. This is because in minors' case, they are not in a position to know what's good or bad for them, and so, are not in a postiton to give rational and informed consent to work in a factory. Uninformed consent is tantamount to non-consent.

    Similarly, there is no way that non-human animals can in any meaningful way be thought of giving us consent to use them. Therefore, all non-consenting use of non-human animals is abuse, since there is no logical way to deduce that non-humans consent to their use.

    Therefore, all use of non-humans is abuse, and so this makes being against both use and abuse of non-humans as practically meaning the same thing.

    April 24, 2007
  8. By the way, since the greyhounds are rescued, you do not USE them as your pets. You are not using them in any way. You are only offering them protection and sustenance. Rescues aren't pets in my books. Pets are non-humans one buys, sells, or otherwise obtains for non-altruistic reasons (just to enjoy their company.

    April 24, 2007
  9. Okay, how about this:

    Every use of animals is wrong (unjust). And I do think pets are a "use" of animals, whether rescued or not, as they are property. I understand that pets are probably the trickiest to consider usage, but every other use is (I think) easily considered abuse because injury and harm are involved.

    A wrong use is, technically, a "misuse," which could in fact be considered "abuse." I am not disagreeing with any of that. Again, pets are the only dicey use/misuse/abuse.

    But let's look at the conjunction. If I say it's "hot and humid" today, which it already is at 8 am here in South Florida, you know that it is both hot and humid. If I say we shouldn't use AND abuse animals, that is different than if I say we shouldn't use OR abuse them. The OR tells you that use and abuse are very different, and you can do either one OR the other (but not both, or I'd say use AND/OR abuse). The AND tells you that when you're using you're abusing.

    And though it can be thought of as redundant, in my mind it underscores FOR PEOPLE OTHER THAN YOU what animal rights really is. The funny thing is that I usually get e-mails from welfarists complaining about USE, rather than rightists concerned with ABUSE.

    Ah, the journey of attempting to communicate equally with those who agree with you and those who disagree. It is an interesting one . . .

    April 24, 2007
  10. Mike Grieco #

    Hello all-Any "USE" of a"Nonhuman" creature that is not a positive experience for these creatures is "ABUSE"!! So THERE! Thanks again for your words of wisdom Mary…Peace to all Life.


    April 24, 2007

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS