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What’s Up with the Internet’s Fascination With Disabled Animals?

Image via https://www.flickr.com/photos/handicappedpets/5731391896/in/photolist-9JsT8E-4Pfkjy-JXMo36-LiBSGu-7UL6ce-bASnee-5h7TGt-aEF82d-burs8a-yRZk9G-JV1kxj-7YMEFv-7FhBGR-SbSS6B-SbSQDZ-8cbMo8-jpdxWU-anmiqK-7YQTGh-bW9SZ3-9f4YKL-9f1Qzx-ngxmo-5h1ho6-J2Snyn-KZc2pj-QkAnX7-cW5CNd-a1Fkc2-3dYFt6-9Jq4MM-as7qew-as4MUn-51jCSW-g3BUZQ-7YQTJu-S8hqtm-k1H7g-613TzU-51frUX-bE824i-6Ge8VJ-9U54UU-bE7Np2-brcR9m-bE7jjF-bE7S6i-bE7jFx-bE7TLV-bE7VVB; used with Creative Commons (CC) license.If there’s one thing that internet denizens can agree on, it’s that animals–especially domestic pets–are great. (There’s even a Wikipedia article on the internet’s love of cats.) And why not–pets are so cute!

From the (now inactive) Cute Overload blog to the /Aww subreddit, cute animals have been in high demand online for a while. But there’s a not-so-adorable side to the internet’s thirst for cute: the fetishization of animals, particularly pets, with disabilities.

The breathless coverage of apparently “inspirational” animals with disabilities is everywhere: A pig named Chris P. Bacon (ha ha, because we usually eat pigs, right?!) had a wheelchair made for his back legs! This duck has a new lease on life thanks to a prosthetic foot! Wow, a goldfish with a wheelchair! Don’t discount the thousands of results that a simple Google Image search for “disabled animals,” brings up, either—there are a lot of photos, stories, and memes about them.

As with a lot of internet trends, this fetishization is widespread, but difficult to trace to a single source; there are Buzzfeed articles, photo sets with varying degrees of context about the photo subjects’ disabilities, television specials, and—of course—lots and lots of “inspirational” coverage of humans who have saved animals with various disabilities (but WHO SAVED WHO?). So why is the internet obsessed with disabled animals? My take is that the various “inspiring” stories about disabled animals provide a way for nondisabled people to talk about and engage with disability in a facile way. If one is constantly gawking and aww-ing over pictures and stories about animals with disabilities, then they don’t have to spend time thinking about actual disabled people, or the ableism against disabled humans that still exists.

Much of the positive coverage of disabled animals takes a cue from inspiration porn, a term that was coined by disabled comedian and activist Stella Young. Disability activist and writer Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg sums up inspiration porn as “consist[ing] of the objectification of disabled bodies for the purpose of inspiring able-bodied people” to, among other things, stop whining, get a better attitude, and use their WILLPOWER to overcome various obstacles. The main message of a great many inspiration porn images, stories, and memes is generally: This person with a disability overcame adversity/got in shape/stopped whining and embraced happiness, so why can’t you, abled person?

Being inspired by other humans to live up to one’s full potential is not bad on its face, but inspiration porn reduces disabled people—and their varied life experiences—to life lessons and just-so stories that abled people can be inspired by and then forget about. Inspiration porn uses disabled people as objects—not subjects—in its quest to motivate (or shame) abled people into getting up and “doing something,” living their dream(s), or accomplishing amazing feats. Simply put, inspiration porn images, articles, and memes use disabled people as inspiring things to be shown off, usually for the benefit of abled people’s personal motivation.

There are other phrases and tropes that tend to be used in inspiration porn material, including “[condition or disability] doesn’t stop this person from achieving their dreams,” “[person] is so happy despite their disability,” and “[person] has such a great attitude about life” and can teach abled people so much about what it means to really live; that last one seems to have sprung from the ridiculous Scott Hamilton quote about the “only” disability being a bad attitude. [An aside: That quote is also a great example of a person with a disability policing the experiences and opinions of other PWDS—Hamilton has had a few much-publicized battles with cancer, but doesn’t seem to have realized that cancer is disabling, no matter what kind of attitude you cultivate.]

Unsurprisingly, these tropes are also present in a lot of disabled animal inspo-porn:

These animals are so INSPIRATIONAL for doing normal animal things, plus a side of “disability is bad”: “These fur balls were dealt crappy hands, but they’re still smiling, purring and wagging their little tails. That’s what I would call totally inspirational!”

[Disabled animal] has so much to teach us nondisabled people about compassion and empathy: “Now, Joe has a new mission: using his experiences to help teach young kids to prevent bullying by using empathy and compassion.”

Another [disabled animal] has so much to teach humans about themselves—and LOVE! “He shows them that with love and kindness anything is possible.”

Hear that, nondisabled humans? Don’t complain or feel sorry for yourselves—be like this cat. “Cats just figure things out…They do not waste time feeling sorry for themselves—they simply get on with the act of living and have a whole lot of fun doing it! In their heads, they are fine and dandy, just as they are!”

This INSPIRATIONAL cat can do things, just like normal cats! “Belle is quite an inspiration. She cannot jump like other cats, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing on anything that she can stick her claws into.

Gawking at these disabled animals—and sharing their “inspiring” stories (usually written by nondisabled humans) across social media—becomes a way for people who may not have significant personal experience with disability to engage with some common tropes about disability. Unfortunately, many of these “positive” tropes about inspiring disabled animals who (unlike humans?) don’t complain about their lot in life are still damaging. It may not be politically correct these days to pity and gawk at people with disabilities, but it is accepted—even encouraged—for nondisabled people to project these feelings about disabilities onto disabled animals. The compassion that commenters, Tweeters, and social media sharers may have for these disabled animals doesn’t seem to extend to people with disabilities; while pigs and goldfish get wheelchairs and their humans are praised for “good deeds” by the internet, many members of the online disability community have had to crowdfund for wheelchairs.

Certainly, on the scale of issues surrounding the comparisons of disabled people to animals, this one lacks the horrifying implications that, for example, Peter Singer’s continued contempt for people with disabilities in the name of animal rights and utilitarian philosophy do. But the continued and unquestioned objectification of “cute” and “helpless” disabled animals highlights how even the most well-meaning nondisabled people can and do project damaging stereotypes and tropes about disability—and the apparently “inspiring” nature of people with disabilities–onto animals. Such projections do both animals and humans with disabilities a disservice. Disabled animals deserve to have full lives—not to just be “inspiring” objects at which to be gawked.

Originally published on Disability Intersections.

Grief is a Conniving Imp

anna-winston-new

Winston and I enjoying each other’s company.

Astute readers will probably notice that I haven’t been around as much on the various social media widgets the last couple of weeks, nor publishing things to either this blog or Disability Intersections. Why is that? Well, it’s because, like most people’s 2016, my 2016 kind of sucked. My year-long case of an “Oh, FUCK, seriouslyyyyy?” facial expression started in January, when David Bowie died, and made its horrendous curtain call last month, when my 17-year old Yorkie, Winston, had to be put to sleep due to a sudden illness. Like a canine version of David Bowie, Winston lived a long and interesting life, although I can’t say that he ever wore makeup, dressed up like a space alien, or went on tour with Trent Reznor at any point, since he was a dog and not an influential British musician and fashion icon.

I spent a large portion of 2016 trying to not fall into a spiral of general grumpitude amidst various medication changes — and a lot of failures on that score — for chronic pain and fatigue from fibromyalgia, while also attempting to make progress on a humorous essay book, for which I hope that a publishing house that’s not aware of my immediate reputation will be interested enough to purchase (eventually, that is, since I need to finish the damn book first). As far as my Resting EVERYTHING SUCKS AND HOW CAN THINGS GET WORSE? SHOW ME, I DARE YOU Face goes, I thought Donald Trump winning the U.S. Presidential election was going to be my personal feeling-like-shit apex this year. It was not.

For those of you who have lost someone — human or non-human companion — who was important to you and whom you’ve known for a long time, you know what grief is like and how it makes you feel like someone froze your soul, shredded it in a snow cone machine, and then served it to the world’s brattiest child, with an extra-tepid topping of your snot and tears. But if you have not experienced this (yet), allow me to outline exactly what happens afterwards.

“But Anna,” you might ask. “Winston was a dog. How hard could it have possibly been?” First of all, you might want to shut your face hole, and consider that you are very lucky that losing someone close to you has not happened to you. Second, Winston was 17 and a half when he passed away. Dude was with me for over half of my life. That is a lot of time. When you have that amount of time to get to know someone — in this case, a small creature who depends on you for food and basic needs and such — they become a part of your life. Their quirks and personality characteristics make themselves known to you, and accommodating their habits becomes part of your daily routine. Yes, animals can and do have personalities; I know I sound like such a Bay Area hippie here. Winston was more than a furry and elderly roommate. He was a friend — a friend who spoke a different language, depended on me to take him outside to go to the bathroom, and had his annoying moments, sure, but a friend nonetheless.

Winston also dealt with chronic pain issues in the final years of his life. In early 2016, my partner, Liam, and I found out that Winston’s arthritis in his back had progressed to the point that he would need to be put on pain medication. And not just any pain medication — our vet determined that Winston’s pain would need to be managed with tiny doses of opioids.

The irony — and unintentional hilarity — of both Winston and I being on opioids to control our respective chronic pain conditions does not escape me.

A bunch of other health issues also came up during his last few years, including a heart condition that made him cough (honk, really) loudly at night, eye issues that left his little face constantly goopy and some of the hair near his eyes in his eyes because of the thickness of the goop, various digestive problems that would cause him to throw up silently, or poop either too much or not enough, and a nerve problem in his back that caused one of his tiny hip joints to pop in and out of its socket randomly. Despite all of his health problems, Winston remained a fairly happy little dog until the end of his life. The only time that I saw him visibly unhappy was when his hip joint would pop out, rendering him unable to walk or stand; this got better once the vet increased the daily dose of pain medication. The eye goop also proved to be an issue, as Winston did not like having his face touched — but we needed to touch his face to remove the goop with Lids and Lashes. No matter how much we cleaned his face, the goop came back.

Winston’s kidneys began to fail, he became extremely dehydrated, and he stopped eating — losing over a third of his body weight in two days — and so, seeing how distressed he was and realizing that he wasn’t going to bounce back from this, Liam and I made the decision to have him put to sleep. The process itself was peaceful, but difficult to watch. Liam and I held Winston’s little paws as the medication took effect, and as Winston passed, I felt like the Yorkie-shaped hole in my heart would never heal.

The aftermath has felt like someone has taken a giant melon-baller to my soul and scooped a large portion of it out. My chronic pain issues got worse in the week following Winston’s passing, and the fibromyalgia-based fatigue became so severe that there were several days in a row that I slept for more than 12 hours at a time, getting up only to eat or use the restroom. When you’re asleep, you can’t cry. You also can’t feel your chronic pain weighing on you like a giant barbell.

It’s been more than a month, and I’m still feeling somewhat fragile from this loss. There are a lot of things I miss about Winston; I miss his little grunts and loud snoring, his weird salty smell, and his habit of nosing my bare leg whenever he needed attention. I miss coming home and seeing him “dance” with excitement; if he was in his bed and couldn’t be bothered to get up when he heard the door open, he would lift his head up, grunt or whine in acknowledgment, and wag his tail very slowly to welcome me home. I even miss some of his habits and quirks that annoyed me, especially his method of waking me up in the middle of the night to let me know that he needed to go out, his “give me attention NOW” grumbles that often sounded like air being let out of a balloon, and his penchant for walking into mud puddles and then leaving gross paw prints wherever he went. He was a unique little dog with a personality that belied his small size (six pounds at his largest).

And so, with Winston gone, I am still experiencing the aftershocks of grief. Just when I think I’m making progress, I’ll see something or hear something — you would not believe how often I’ve mistaken some outside noise for a little dog whine or sigh — that reminds me of him, and then the full force ofhe’s not here anymore will slam into me like the kickback of a rifle. Lately I’ve felt like grief is just hovering around the edges of my life like a conniving, evil imp, or a bunch of them; I can play Grief Imp Whack-a-Mole all I want, but the imps are still going to be there no matter how fast I’ve become at whacking them back into place. Part of me does not want to admit to being this vulnerable, or to missing Winston this much, but the other part of me knows that I have to acknowledge what a huge loss his passing has been.

I’m trying to work through this grief in a healthy way — and to resume working on my book — because I know Winston would have wanted me to keep doing stuff. If he were here right now, perhaps he would be by my side as I type this, snoring away or repeatedly positioning his head on my leg until he was perfectly comfortable. I am trying to move in the right direction for 2017 — however slowly, as Winston did.

snoozy

Winston in his bed.

This piece was originally published on Medium.

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Content note

Ahoy. As many of you have probably realized, I am devoting a huge share of my blogging energy (blog-ergy?) these days to maintaining Disability Intersections. A lot of my writing/contentincluding longform cartoons–can be found there! This is not really a “state of the blog” post or announcement that I’m taking it down, or anything of the sort; it’s more of a “hi, here is why I haven’t updated my damn blog for over a year” post. WHEE.

Relatedly, s.e. and I are always looking for new contributors for the site! Please read about our submission guidelines/policies here and get in touch with us if the mood strikes.

Gimme That Old Time Religion: A Starter Guide to Nonfiction Books on Religion

Image: a pile of books.

STACKED

I find religion—and especially fringe religious movements—incredibly interesting. I don’t subscribe to any faith (for the curious, I’m an atheist, but that’s tangential to the rest of this piece), but the human search for answers—metaphysical, spiritual, or something else–to the “big questions” is something that I find compelling and confusing in equal measures.

Perhaps my interest in religions old and new, as it currently manifests, is more akin to kudzu, a plant that gets all over EVERYTHING and has been known to do things like cover entire houses. But for those who are not quite at the kudzu-level of interest in religious movements, it can be hard to know where to start with reading about this sort of thing. So, here’s a list of some of the books that, for me, didn’t help to stop the intellectual kudzu growth so much as encouraged it.

Righteous: Dispatches From the Evangelical Youth Movement (2005) by Lauren Sandler: I am both terrified and fascinated by evangelical Christianity, and Salon reporter Sandler’s book on evangelical youth movements in mid-2000s America shows us exactly how these extremist beliefs have taken root in a new generation. As Sandler details in her reports from youth gatherings as diverse as anti-abortion music festivals, a skater-centric mission, and the extremely conservative campus of Virginia’s Patrick Henry College, evangelical Christianity is not a fusty, old-style movement that Millennial believers are rejecting—paradoxically, many seem to be embracing it in droves. If you’re at all interested in the “culture wars” of the last 15-20 years, the current battles over reproductive rights around the nation, or are baffled by the appeal of pop culture-heavy evangelical churches like Seattle, Washington’s Mars Hill, look no further—Sandler provides a provocative look at the unlikely direction in which evangelical Christianity seems to be headed.

Further reading: Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 expose The Family is a look at the extremely powerful faith-based group that has more influence on United States politics than many people know. Nation contributor Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (2009) paints an equally disturbing picture of evangelical gender politics—which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, extremely regressive and being emphasized right now by many prominent leaders of that movement.

 Underground (1997) by Haruki Murakami: Celebrated fiction writer Murakami interviewed hundreds of survivors of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack perpetrated by fringe group Aum Shinrikyo, and this stunning, horrifying book is the result. Although the book does include a narrative of the events, it is less a meditation on Aum’s motives than a skilled, movingly told account of a deeply scary event that gives the reader insight into what it’s like to live through—and after—a very public trauma. It’s difficult for me to describe how incredible this book is without lapsing into hyperbole; it’s a powerful chronicle of how ordinary people react when faced with terrifying events.  

Further reading: Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It (2000) which places Aum and other apocalyptic faiths (including the Manson family, Jonestown, and Heaven’s Gate) in context with the “end of the world” strain in some religious traditions, and in the age of global terrorism. This is the book to read if you want a better idea of Aum leader Shoko Asahara’s rise to power, and/or how Aum has been influenced by Japanese culture and social mores.

Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan (2000) by John R. Hall, with Philip D. Schuyler and Sylvaine Trinh: If you’re familiar with some of the basic concepts in Sociology and/or Religious Studies—and are interested in how alternative religion/NRM activity relates to cultural anxieties about the 20th century ending, this is a fine book to pick up. Although the Jonestown material has been well-covered by this point (the primary author of this book, John R. Hall, also wrote a thorough academic study of Jonestown entitled Gone From the Promised Land), the chapters on Order of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate are excellent in narrative as well as insight. A word of caution: This is pretty clearly an “academic” text in more ways than one—that includes the price–and a new copy will run you upwards of $50. Fortunately, used copies for a couple of bucks are not too hard to locate online.

 Further reading: Journalist Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown (2011) gives readers a nuanced, humanizing view of one of the most notorious post-1960s religious sects. Since “drinking the Kool-Aid” has entered the U.S. cultural lexicon since the sect’s mass death in 1978, many still believe Jonestown to have been a cut-and-dried case of mass suicide by vulnerable people who were all swayed, zombie-like, by Jim Jones and his message of socialist revolution via a self-reliant commune (in a former French colonial country, no less). But as Scheeres admirably shows, the members of Peoples Temple who died in the massacre were people—all with hopes, aspirations and dreams.

 Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (2011) is a behemoth of nonfiction and investigative amazingness. Rumor or fact, if it has to do with Scientology, it’s probably ably documented by Reitman here–but without the “spin” that the CoS likes to put (or litigate) onto any coverage that has to do with their faith. I don’t want to spoil the book too much, but I will say that Scientology is called “America’s most secretive religion” in the book’s title for good reason. There are a lot of secrets—and even more scary tactics used to intimidate critics, skeptics, and defectors–and none of these reflect well on the faith or its followers.

 Further reading: If you’re more interested in the media and Hollywood-influencing side of Scientology, pick up Lawrence Wright’s recent Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013). Don’t be surprised if you give extra side-eye to celebs associated with Scientology after you read this book.

So many words, so many books! Readers, what are your favorite books about topics that you find endlessly interesting — or about religion? 

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BACKLOG, and a hello

Hi folks! I’ve got a backlog of cartoons that I’ve drawn during my absence from blogging. While I go through them to pick the most “blog friendly” ones, here is a list of pieces that I have contributed to other sites during my hiatus.

Review of Feminist Disability Studies for Global Comment

Review of Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back for Global Comment

Lady Products: The Odd World of Cutesy, Pink Self Defense Weapons for Ladyish

9 Stylish Pieces That Will Remind You of Your Childhood for Ladyish

Review of Get Out of My Crotch for the print edition of Bitch Magazine

Don’t Let Unemployment Crush Your Soul for xoJane

I’ve Got Your “Useless” Major Right Here for xoJane

Please read and (I hope) enjoy!

 

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