Zoopolis Examined – political rights for animals?

On the 6th of June 2016, we welcomed the renowned authors Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka to the University of Winchester to discuss their book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights.

This one-day seminar was organised by the
Institute for Value Studies and the Centre for Animal Welfare as a follow up to a reading group which took place earlier in the year. Dr. Thomas Norgaard (Director of the Institute for Value Studies) and I set up a reading group between January and March 2016. We invited interested students and staff to talk about the book Zoopolis. Dr. Kay Peggs – a key member of the Centre for Animal Welfare – who also took part in this reading group, suggested inviting the authors to discuss our thoughts and ideas with them. We were very pleased when Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson indeed agreed to come to Winchester to share their points of view. Thus, Thomas, Kay and I organised the event for 25 delegates from different universities and the public. We also invited another two panellists (Dr. Sabina Lovibond and Dr. Alasdair Cochrane) to discuss the concepts of citizenship, denizenship and sovereignity for animals in four sessions.

In the first two sessions, Sabina – an emeritus fellow of Worcester College (University of Oxford) and Thomas shared their thoughts on the suggestion to treat companion animals as citizens. Sabina and Thomas raised issues on the risk of forced assimilation; the scope of animal responsibilities; whether the political framework is enforceable and applicable in a world where they majority of people eat meat; and worries about diluting the concept of citizenship. The first two sessions were then interrupted by a delicious vegan lunch and some mingling opportunities.

In the third sessions, Alasdair – a political theorist (University of Sheffield) and co-founder of the
Centre for Animals and Social Justice – shared his ideas. He advocates a cosmopolitan framework of animal rights as alternative to Donaldson’s and Will’s approach; and discussed if instead of sovereignty for wild animals, property or habitat rights would suffice. In the last session, Kay expressed her agreement with the ideas of the book and raised a discussion how we should treat insects – as liminal animals – if we were to find out that they were sentient.

Sue and Will convincingly resolved some of the raised concerns by proposing a flexible and adaptable framework while also acknowledging that certain risks of treating animals in unfavourable ways will always remain. The seminar was a great success; the delegates, panellists and our guests enjoyed the discussion. We achieved what we had aimed for: to create a ‘nice balance between focus and space for creative exploration’ (feedback from one of our delegates). Inspired by this success, we are looking forward to organising similar events in the future and hope to welcome new guests soon.


Madelaine Leitsberger is a PhD student within Winchester's Centre for Animal Welfare