In the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protests and the call for racial justice in America, Animal Grantmakers has been researching diversity and inclusion within animal welfare. As part of this, we came across an article in U.S. History Scene, a history education website founded in 2011 by historians trained at Harvard University, about the history of pet keeping according to class and race in the United States.

In “Pet Keeping and Pet Hiding in Black America,” author Katheryn Lawson “investigates the roles that animals played in the lives of African Americans in the northeast as treasured family members, tools of white supremacy, and markers of respectability.”

According to the article, Americans have long considered pet keeping negatively for people living in poverty, regardless of race. Up until the 1970s, those receiving welfare were often barred from sharing their homes with animals. Thus, some poor families hid their pets when caseworkers made their rounds. Another barrier to having pets for African Americans, poor or not, is the violent history of attacking Black people with dogs dating back to slavery.

Despite these barriers, according to the article, many middle-class African Americans added pets to their families to prove their respectability. Unlike families receiving financial assistance, their pet ownership did not need to be hidden as evidenced by ads for pet food or including pets in African American newspapers. The article even references a Black hotel owner named C. Percy White who entered his dogs into the 1939 Wilmington Kennel Club competition to gain respect from whites. It also goes on to demonstrate (through photos from the 1950s through the 1970s in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin) that animal rescues and hospitals, at least in that city, employed and served multiracial populations.

In the conclusion, the article states that “America’s racial divisions and politics are entangled with animals, as evidenced by the ways that pet ownership has been selectively accepted in American history. Those with higher status and fuller citizenship enjoy the rewards of pet ownership, like companionship, status and protection, without criticism, while more vulnerable populations have weighed their needs against their animals’ under the weight of public scrutiny.”

As those in animal protection seek to make the movement diverse, equitable and inclusive, it is important to understand how class- and race-based attitudes can hinder lifesaving efforts. Fortunately, a handful of organizations that have been working on these problems for a while offer some good models and resources:

  • Pets for Life, a program launched in 2011 by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), is closing the service gap that exists for people and pets in underserved areas, and bringing awareness in a new way to larger systemic inequities and injustices.
  • CARE (Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring diverse voices to the animal welfare industry while also advocating for a more inclusive path to pet adoption. In its effort to promote equity in pet adoption and animal wellbeing, CARE partners with organizations (like HSUS) on their journeys to becoming more inclusive by providing access to: Evidence-based training and tools; research and data; and stories and insights.
  • Encompass is another nonprofit working to make the animal protection movement more effective by fostering racial diversity and inclusivity, and empowering advocates of color. Focused on farmed animals, Encompass helps the farmed animal movement by building it into a more sustainable, inclusive and equitable space.