Skip to Content

Seeking Sanctuary: An Interview with Professor Elan Abrell

For more than 40 years, animal protection advocates have established sanctuaries and shelters for animals who have fallen victim to humans. This includes sanctuaries for formerly farmed animals or animals who have survived the entertainment industry. There are also shelters that rehabilitate abandoned companion animals.

In his new book, Saving Animals: Multispecies Ecologies of Rescue and Care, vice president of programs for Phoenix Zones Initiative, Elan Abrell, JD, PhD, explores the ethical issues of establishing such habitats for those animals who have been abused and mistreated that enable them to live out their lives and thrive.

We asked Elan to share some of his journey toward writing this book and what he has learned from rescued animals and sanctuaries.


PZI: When did you first come to see animals as individual, sentient beings with their own interests and agency?

EA: I don’t remember ever NOT seeing animals in this way. As a young child, I would try to move insects off the sidewalk into the grass because I was worried they would be hurt if they were stepped on. I think that, like many children, I recognized the sentience and individuality of other animals at the same early age that I recognized it in other humans, but I just resisted the enculturation that replaces that understanding with a more objectifying view of animals.

One memory that stands out vividly is catching a fish with my dad when I was about seven years old. I was really excited about the idea of going fishing, but after we caught the fish with my pole, I was overcome with sorrow for taking her away from the stream where she lived and causing her death. I couldn’t bear the idea of eating her, and sat outside on the porch sobbing while my dad had her for dinner.


PZI: When did you first become aware of the connection between human and animal rights and wellbeing and of the importance of working to transform systems so that they enable all beings to thrive?

EA: I gained my first rudimentary understanding of the interconnection of human and animal oppression in high school as I got into the punk music scene in Berkeley, California. Going to punk shows at the 924 Gilman Street club with a dear friend who first introduced me to veganism, I would buy anarchist zines at the merchandise tables that highlighted the connections between racism, sexism, homophobia, and speciesism.

Through college, law school, and grad school, I continued to seek out writings and thinkers that explored these connections, and I became increasingly convinced of the necessity of transforming all systems of oppression simultaneously.


PZI: Why write about animal sanctuaries?

EA: While I was beginning to develop my dissertation research project for my PhD, my cat companion, Panza, had major complications from bladder stones that required surgery. I told a grad school friend about how expensive the surgery was—several thousand dollars—and he was dumbfounded that I would pay so much money for a cat’s healthcare.

I was struck by his reaction, because it seemed the obvious and only course of action to me; Panza had lived with me since he was born in my linen closet while I was in college. He was quite literally family to me; I considered him a brother and would have done anything to help him.

But as I thought about my friend’s astonishment at the way I valued Panza as an equal whose wellbeing was as important as my own, I started to wonder why we saw things so differently. What makes people care about other animals like I do?

As I started to consider exploring this question in earnest as a possible research topic, I quickly realized that one of the most interesting places to investigate it would be with people who dedicate their lives to rescuing and caring for animals in need. And sanctuaries stood out as the ideal context for meeting such people. During my research, though, I came to realize that sanctuaries can also help us understand better ways to live with other species that can facilitate mutual thriving for animals, ourselves, and the planet.


PZI: What surprised you most during your research?

EA: I was shocked to learn that cows love forests! I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to briefly visit a wonderful sanctuary for formerly farmed animals in Vermont called VINE Sanctuary. The cows at VINE live on a hillside pasture surrounded by wooded slopes where many choose to wander among the trees throughout the day. I had always imagined cows as preferring open fields where they could graze, so it was surreal at first to see them blissfully strolling through the woods, leaning against trees and eating shoots from the forest floor.

I think this image really stuck with me because it is an excellent example of how sanctuaries can provide animals the freedom to pursue their own interests and desires in ways that would be impossible in many conventional contexts of animal captivity, such as factory farms.


PZI: In your visits to various sanctuaries, was there a particular animal (or two) whose story—or presence—was especially memorable or impactful?

EA: Yes. I actually open my book with the story of Bob (a steer) and Eloise (a goat), which is one of my favorite stories from my fieldwork. They came to their sanctuary around the same time. Bob was a calf rescued from a dairy farm where he would’ve otherwise been slaughtered for veal, and Eloise was an older goat who had been abandoned by the previous humans she lived with. Although she seemed uninterested in socializing with the other sanctuary animals, she took a liking to Bob, and they became fast friends.

As Bob grew, the caregivers eventually felt it necessary to separate the pair. At his adult size he weighed half a ton and was full of adolescent energy. Bob was moved into a pasture with the other steer so he wouldn’t accidentally injure Eloise when they tried to play together. But their friendship endured, and they continued to graze side-by-side along the fence line that separated them.

Not only does this story illustrate some of challenges and compromises that shape animal care decisions in sanctuaries, it also shows how animals can often influence the conditions of their own care, forging important, enriching relationships with each other, even across species lines.


PZI: What important information about sanctuaries is missing from most people’s understanding? What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about sanctuaries?

EA: I think one thing many people fail to understand about sanctuaries, including within the animal protection movement, is that sanctuaries have a significant social role beyond the specific animals they are able to rescue and care for. Some would argue that sanctuaries are not a good use of resources since they can only rescue such a small fraction of the animals who are exploited, abused, and killed every year by humans, and that money spent on sanctuaries would be more effectively put to use through vegan outreach campaigns or other activist efforts.

While it is true that the population of sanctuary animals is relatively small compared to the vast population of animals mistreated by humans, the work that sanctuaries do obviously matters tremendously to the animals who are saved, all of whom are individuals with rights to health, wellbeing, and the conditions under which they can thrive.

But beyond their importance to the individual animals in their care, I think sanctuaries also occupy an important conceptual space in human societies. As an anthropologist, I spend a lot of time trying to better understand the way culture influences and is influenced by various social institutions. The existence of sanctuaries, I think, has a significant impact on the way we think about and relate to animals. It’s an impact that is much harder to measure than the number of people who may choose to go vegan in a particular year, for example.

But since I first started doing my research on sanctuaries about nine years ago, I have seen interest in and support for their work expand as more people have established new sanctuaries throughout the US and around the world. I think it’s important not to dismiss the more diffuse, but nonetheless culture-shifting influence that sanctuary work can have over time on the way people think about their relationships to animals.


PZI: In your book, you say “…sanctuaries can only function by excluding most animals from care,” which, on the surface, seems counterintuitive. Tell us more.

EA: This refers to the astronomical number of animals—over a trillion—killed every year for human consumption in slaughterhouses and through commercial fishing, as well as the animals used in invasive research, for draught labor, in entertainment, and those killed at companion animal shelters.

As important as they are for the animals in their care, sanctuaries are finite spaces with very limited resources. All the sanctuaries in the world can collectively only care for a very tiny fraction of a percent of the animals abused and exploited by humans. Trying to take in more would quickly deplete sanctuary resources and overwhelm care staff, so they by necessity must turn away more animals than they can take in.

But, as I argue in my book, sanctuaries are extremely important even if they can only help a miniscule number of animals impacted by humans. For one, they model better ways for relating to and respecting animals as individuals with their own interests. And as I mentioned previously, the existence of sanctuaries as social institutions can have a culture-shifting effect on the way animals are treated more broadly as more people come to understand and appreciate the importance of relating to animals as fellow subjects with their own rights and interests.


PZI: Talk about the importance of animal agency.

EA: I quickly saw in my research that animal agency is at the center of sanctuary work. Like humans, animals have agency and can only realize a full life when they are able to exercise it. Aside from the violence and suffering inflicted on them, the restriction of their ability to exercise agency is one of the most detrimental aspects of the way animals are forced to live in conventional conditions of exploitation, such as factory farms or aquariums.

Sanctuaries endeavor to afford animals space and environments in which they can exercise their agency by, for example, going where they want, interacting with or avoiding other animals (including humans) when they choose, and eating, drinking, playing, and resting when they want. This freedom to live self-guided lives is important to the wellbeing of all animals.

Of course, sanctuaries are still spaces of captivity that must balance the interests of many different animals at the same time, so animal agency is still constrained in certain ways, as is shown in the example of Bob and Eloise. But making the ability of animals to exercise agency a priority is an important aspect of sanctuary care that is missing from many other contexts of captivity.


PZI: How can we transform the current legal and social worldview of nonhuman animals as property?

EA: I think there are least two important components to achieving such a transformation.
One is the essential legal advocacy work of the many fantastic animal law practitioners who are currently bringing creative lawsuits and pursuing other policies to expand legal rights to nonhuman animals.

The other, which I see sanctuaries as already contributing to, is actively relating to (and modeling how to live with) other animals as rights-bearing subjects entitled to the conditions necessary for them to thrive. Legal rights are important, because they can help to create and strengthen fundamental protections for animals, but animals are entitled to rights whether we recognize them in the law or not.

By refusing to treat animals as property or resources for fulfilling human desires, people can forge subject-based relationships with animals even without laws in place to guarantee their rights. Sanctuaries and other animal advocates already do this everyday, as do many people who share their homes with companion animals, and it’s a model we can draw on in our own relationships with other animals.


PZI: Talk about what you mean by animals as “improperty.”

EA: Improperty is a concept I employ to describe the condition of animals in sanctuaries.
While sanctuaries provide spaces in which animals can live as rights-bearing subjects with the ability to exercise those rights in many ways, they still remain categorized as property in the law. In fact, it’s the legal status of animals as property of the sanctuary that enables sanctuaries to make decisions about how to care for them.

To be clear, sanctuaries do not treat or see the animals in their care as property, but as long as they are categorized that way in the law, they remain “improperty”: subjects within the space of the sanctuary who are nonetheless still legally entangled in the property regimes that ensnare all nonhuman animals outside the bounds of the sanctuary.

Until animals are given recognized as rights-bearing subjects within the law, they are dependent on sanctuaries or other similar spaces of care to be able to exercise their rights in their interactions with humans.


PZI: In your book, you talk about sanctuary as liberatory political action. How is that so?

EA: I see the act of providing sanctuary as a powerful form of liberatory political action that can be extended far beyond the context of animal care.

In essence, creating sanctuary is the act of building spaces of resilience in which oppressed beings can thrive. The obvious human example that comes to mind is the establishment of sanctuary cities to provide limited protection to undocumented immigrants from oppressive state violence.

However, I think sanctuary making as a form of political action has the broad potential to help dismantle and transform structures of violence and inequality that negatively impact humans, animals, and the environment.

The ethos of sanctuary, as exemplified in many animal sanctuaries, is a guide for extending care and compassion to the most vulnerable that can help shape and guide the kind of politics we need to avoid the many crises that humans have created for ourselves and the planet.


PZI: Toward the end of your book, you say “… saving animals is a project that can only truly be complete when we save ourselves as well.” What do you mean by that?

EA: We are ourselves animals, and recognizing our shared vulnerability and interdependency with the other species on our planet is essential to successfully saving other animals.

Human, animal, and environmental wellbeing are inextricably connected. The only way we can save one is by saving them all. Of course, this fundamental interdependency means that the converse is also true: we can only save ourselves if we save the other animals as well.

Our fates are linked. It’s up to us to determine what they’ll be, and I think sanctuaries have a lot to teach us about how to do that in a way that benefits us all.

Add Impact To Your Inbox

Get our emails to stay up to date.