Can using the bodies of animals run over by speeding motorists be ethical? Emma Willats thinks so.
This past Sunday, The Press and Journal ran a story about the enterprising Scottish vegan taxidermist who (you guessed it) heavily relies on the corpses of roadkill to make luxury fashion accessories for human consumers.
Obviously upon reading this, I immediately died. But I had to resurrect myself quickly before a plucky young white woman discovered my lifeless corpse and saw a business opportunity.
Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps I should just quote Willats herself:
“The way I look at it is that if something has been killed for me then that’s wrong (okay, so far we’re on the same page). But if it’s something that’s died naturally or been run over then we should try to preserve it in some way (starting to lose me). It feels like a bigger waste to just throw an animal to the wayside once it’s dead (yup, totally lost). It’s better to use them in taxidermy than have some council employee just discard them (ORRRR we could also not consider dead bodies to be commodities for human consumption…because that’s also an option). We should be encouraged to use every part of the animal (as opposed to just discouraging people from using others’ bodies at all). I know a lot of people don’t like what I do but once I explain it I think I manage to win them over (ohhhh, so close!). I want to make use of the whole animal rather than just the face (GURL! 0_____0).“
The Press and Journal goes on to report that Willats “started working out of a bothy at her remote home after her partner suffered a nearly fatal car crash.” There is no mention of whether or not Willats had designs on her partner’s corpse had they not survived. But one can only assume a nice pair of kitten heels and a keychain might have been possible. And since some pieces are sold for up to £750, quite profitable!
But this highlights a couple of problems of how we sometimes approach vegan advocacy. First, if we’re trying to decide how to best exploit someone’s corpse (whether they died accidentally or on purpose), we’re probably asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking how to exploit a corpse, we should be asking why we think we are privileged to someone’s corpse at all. When we start mulling over how bodies can benefit us, that almost always spells trouble for pretty much everyone who isn’t a straight white, cisgender, wealthy, able-bodied human male. Don’t believe me? Take the case of El Negro.
In 1831, French dealer Jules Verreaux witnessed the burial of a Tswana warrior in the African interior to the north of Capetown. Shockingly, he returned under the cover of darkness to DIG UP HIS REMAINS AND ROB HIS GRAVE! The warrior’s body was displayed as a museum piece for over 150 years before it was finally returned to African soil and properly buried in 2000.
This isn’t a comparison of black people and animal bodies, btw. This is an example of how an imperialist and capitalist mentality teaches us to devalue some bodies as consumable goods and escalate the value of others as sacred instead of respecting every individual’s autonomy in life and in death.
And it’s not limited to race and species. Social class is another indicator of how we value certain bodies. In the 19th century United Kingdom, the only cadavers that could legally be dissected for medical experimentation and study were those of humans condemned to death by the state. The problem? Only 55 people were executed each year on average, and expansion of medical schools meant that up to 500 were needed!
So what then did people do? Clearly, the solution was for grave robbers to start digging up the recently interred remains of strangers’ loved ones. And you can probably guess that the graves targeted were not those of people wealthy enough to protect their loved ones with metal coffins and thick iron bars.
So to the original question, does using bodies create a demand for bodies? Well, yes! Historically, the answer to this question is ABSOLUTELY YES! Imperialist capitalist thought demonstrably compels us to exploit the underclass (regardless of what face that underclass takes). Dismantling the system is critical to the liberation of all species.
And in case any condescending smart ass is going to make the argument that indigenous people use animal bodies too, save it. Focusing on the cultural practices of indigenous communities who use bodies out of necessity is every bit as disingenuous as focusing on those crafty minimum wage earners trying to get by instead of shining the light on the wealthy CEOs who hoard global resources and create artificial scarcity. It’s a head fake, and it’s sickening.
As long as we view persons—human and otherwise—as inherently exploitable resources, we can never live (or die) free.