Arguments that focus on the “irony” of animal protection preceding child protection do so in a context that presumes child and animal alike as disempowered subjects, as distinctly other than and separate from adult humans. I have argued here that such a construction of the child and the animal is essential to protectionist discourse, rather than something against which it defines itself. And while I am far from arguing that protections should be rescinded, I would suggest that battles over which victim society prefers, the animal or the child, should not be confused with actual considerations of the rights either group should be granted. Instead we should be asking: what inequities are we protecting within these protectionist models? The fact that corporal punishment of children is still allowed in England, Canada, and the United States demonstrates that protection models do not necessarily challenge the parental “right” of violence towards the child, and the RSPCA’s current stance on animal experimentation demonstrates that animals’ use value still trumps their rights to life and freedom from pain.15 I am not suggesting that these are similar or equal oppressions; instead, I argue that my very need to clarify the comparative magnitude of a child being spanked and an animal being experimented upon speaks to the problem at hand: how does one sort through cultural representations that present “the child” and “the animal” as similar constructs without producing analogies that succeed in demeaning both?
The best answer I can give to this question is that it is necessary to recognize that various forms of oppression can be mutually reinforcing, without necessarily being experienced in exactly the same ways. Animals, children, and for that matter, women, racial others, and members of lower classes, all “live in an adult-centered, age-segregated world that better serves the political and economic interests of powerful adults” (Kurth-Schai 194), and have all been subject, at various times in English history, to “social restrictions…often justified in terms of protection, affection, and assistance” (194).16 Too often, groups representing disempowered others do so through a “single-mindedness so common in Western institutions” (Gruen 60), a single-mindedness that, I argue, sometimes leads to narratives of competition that place one victim in opposition to the other. While ecofeminists have done excellent work arguing that “an adequate ecofeminist theory must not only address the opposition of women and nature, but must specifically address the oppression of the nonhuman animals with whom we share the planet” (61), I believe there is still significant work to be done to unravel the web of similarities and contrasts linking (and separating) animal and child victims. Until the connection between the child and the animal receives the critical attention it deserves, the oft-repeated argument that animal lovers care more for animals than they do for children will continue to undermine activism on behalf of both animals and children in contemporary society.