02/12/2014 08:50 EST | Updated 04/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Animals Are Workers, Too

There are workers who are not counted in censuses, protected by labour laws, or given a paycheque for their labour. Some of these workers are not humans.

The mention of animal work may evoke images of a by-gone era or a poor community in the global south where animals provide much-needed manual labour, like pulling and plowing. Animals have always been essential to human and social development, and as historian Susan Nance explains, "there has never been any purely human space in world history." In fact, animals work every day, around the world, and they deserve to be recognized.

The work animals do is diverse and wide-ranging. Dogs, for example, are effectively doing herding, law enforcement, search and rescue work, conservation, and other kinds of detection, whether that be sniffing out drugs, bombs, or human remains. Rats, too, are being enlisted for the dangerous work of land-mine detection -- with impressive results. Research is also underway to determine whether rats and dogs can be used to detect illnesses in humans ranging from tuberculosis to cancer.

Simultaneously, dogs, like cats, horses (both miniature and full-sized), and other animals, are increasingly involved in service work and in delivering a kind of health care. Service dogs provide round the clock guidance and assistance to people with physical and developmental disabilities. We entrust these animals with immense responsibility, tasking them with navigating complex terrain to guide people to work and school, and through the demands of daily life. The animals help transform the daunting and even the seemingly impossible into the achievable.

The transformative power of animals' work is also evident in some of our very intimate and personal experiences. Children struggling with literacy develop their abilities and confidence by reading to a patient dog or cat. Youth battling depression and addictions, as well as soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, work to rebuild their lives with the therapeutic help of horses and dogs. Seniors and people of all ages in hospice care find meaningful peace and strength in communion with an animal. The emotional work animals do in homes providing joy, comfort, and compassion is immeasurable.

There are many other important and remarkable examples of animal work, and this brief survey does not do justice to the breadth or depth of the contributions animals make to our societies and lives, some of which come at great cost to the animals. But even by recognizing that animals are workers, we disrupt human-centric ideas about work and are challenged to think more deeply about value. Feminists and women have long fought to have the crucial unpaid labour done every day in homes recognized as work. Environmentalists and even some economists have pointed out the extraordinary benefits humans garner from nature, such as the processing of carbon dioxide and the production of oxygen by trees, plankton, and so on. Similarly, beyond simply recognizing that animals work, we must acknowledge how much we gain from their labour.

Encouragingly, there is growing interest in the work done with, by, and for animals. More and more people are asking questions and extending their spheres of empathy and even solidarity to animals. And it may be that the next major social and political movement for progressive change champions animals, too.

One thing we know for sure is that animals do so much for people. So what will people now do for animals?


Photo galleryAnimals Who Think They're People See Gallery