Living With Animals II

LWA Program Cover What a difference a couple of years make. When I went to the inaugural Living With Animals conference in 2013 I was negotiating the first invigorating turn of connecting my teaching with blogging and putting students in charge of creating most of the course content. Gardner Campbell had helped me think through the implications of various motherblog configurations, my students had developed a method of “google-doc-ing” class discussions, and I was riding high on the transformative experience of  “Blogging Domestication.”  That Living with Animals gathering gave me the chance to to think through and talk about the intersection of two passions — human-animal relationships and web-based pedagogies that augment student learning (cf. Doug Engelbart) — with like-minded souls from across the academy and around the world.

Now I am further along the road of connected learning and have extended the class-sourced blogging format to all of my courses. And after a necessary and rewarding excursion into the Belyaev fox experiments and the cultural implications of domestication, I am back at work on the project that brought me to animal studies in the first place — a collective biography of the Soviet Space dogs.  I have explored several analytical frameworks for different aspects of the space dogs’ histories, but continue to mull over the challenges and possibilities of integrating agency for the dogs into narratives, memories, and legacies that are shaped by all kinds of complicated human constructs. Living With Animals offered an ideal opportunity to talk through some of these issues with an interested and expert audience. So last week I set out for Richmond Kentucky with two wonderful graduate students — an aspiring veterinarian interested in the effects of lead toxicity in raptors, and a historian who is completing a master’s degrees in History and Teaching and Learning and writing a capstone research paper on dogs in World War I.

Like the first conference, this year’s meeting was organized by the indefatigable, good-natured, and ever-so-talented Robert Mitchell.  Together with Radhika Makecha and Michal Pregowski, Bob again assembled a rich program that included students, scholars, and practitioners with special emphasis on animal agency, dogs, horses, and elephants. As with the first gathering, the power of this conference emanated from the way it brought together people from applied fields (conservation, animal welfare and rescue, animal-assisted therapy, etc.) with academics engaged in ethical, sociological, historical and zoological research on some aspect of human-animal relationships.  The opportunities for dialogue and learning between people working in “real world” situations and those focused more on contextual and theoretical issues are essential for any field, but are especially crucial for emerging and interdisciplinary projects such as animal studies.

The Animal Studies major at Eastern Kentucky University does this via a carefully crafted, comprehensive curriculum, and one of the emphases of this year’s program was discussing the expansion of animal studies and the potential benefits and drawbacks of promoting more coherent taxonomies and definitions (animal studies, anthrozoology, critical animal studies, etc.).  I found the presentations by Anne Perkins and Erica Feuerbacher (both of Carroll College, home to the most robust Anthrozoology major in the country) inspiring and refreshing.  As a humanist-historian, I appreciate how the degree programs at EKU and Carroll provide an integrated, comprehensive collegiate experience to students seeking careers working with dogs and horses.  These programs are not just about “job training,” but rather offer a mind-opening education of the whole-person. They are grounded in the ethical, humanist traditions of the liberal arts as well as the art and science of inter-species communication and community service.

As for the space dogs…..I am still thinking about various ways to incorporate an ethological perspective into a theoretical framing of their “contributions” to making human space flight a reality. I deliberately left the end of my paper open for interpretation — hoping the audience would offer suggestions for how one might read and weave a dog’s perspective into the human drama.  I got some good questions, as well as affirmation of my own read on researcher’s accounts of their interactions with the dogs.  What humans see as willingness, cooperation and acceptance in a research subject may be a dog’s best effort to display submission to a situation (and people) it cannot control.

But challenges remain. Ian Duncan, who gave the opening keynote address, asked us how we might evaluate subjective states in a non-human being. While most of us think we know suffering when we see it, how do we know that animals are “happy”? Duncan’s research with farm animals uses preference tests to “ask animals” what they want and need.  Not surprisingly, his insights about the nesting behaviors of chickens and pigs’ aversion to extended isolation and confinement indicate that battery hens and production sows may be “productive” (they lay eggs and farrow piglets), but they are certainly not happy.  With dogs, determining and evaluating these preferences is more tricky.  Dogs have co-evolved with us. Their social behavior and community include interactions with people as well as other dogs.  Their preferences and subjective states (“happiness”) may be (even) more complex than those of other domesticates, as Erica Feuerbacher’s presentation on the effects of familiarity, context and schedule on dogs’ preference for food or petting suggested. (I love this title: “Most Dogs Prefer Food….But Sometimes They Don’t”).

I will keep working on it.

There’s much more worth remembering about Living with Animals II, but I’ll close with a presentation that resonated with my New Media brain as well as my “dogs have histories too” convictions: A group of students working with Ellen Furlong at Illinois Wesleyan University have investigated the possibilities of using an iPad app to provide shelter dogs with mental stimulation. Since many of the 6-8 million dogs that enter shelters annually have behavior problems linked to insufficient exercise (i.e. separation anxiety), and many owners and shelter staff find it difficult to give their dogs enough exercise, the prospect of having a dog find a mentally challenging and engaging activity on a touch screen is quite appealing.  Having recognized the potential for interactive computing to “awaken the digital imagination” in humans, how can I not salute the students who developed object recognition and number discrimination tasks that shelter dogs like to play on a touch screen?  Game on!

"Good Dog! APPlications of Dog Science" poster presentation by Brenden Wall, Anthony Bohner and Jeffrey Toraason, March 21, 2015
“Good Dog! APPlications of Dog Science” poster presentation by Brenden Wall, Anthony Bohner and Jeffrey Toraason, March 21, 2015



Interaction, Agency and Ants


ant.sim.110810-530pxThis week my post-seminar musings circled back to our discussion about what we expect of our computers and how we understand and imagine them.  I found thinking about what exactly what we mean by “interaction” pretty interesting. I’m going to duck the whole question about how good or bad Brenda Laurel is on Aristotle and focus instead on the issue that Janine raised when we were talking about agency and computers.

There’s much that resonates with me in Brenda Laurel’s definition of agents as “entities that can initiate and perform actions” (p. 569).  Thinking about my computer, or my ipad, or my Iphone, I definitely see a potential there for performing actions, a potential that is realized countless times over the course of any given day. Initiation is a bit more complex, but it seems to me that when I tell Siri to send a text to Alan, “she” initiates the action by executing the program that calls up the text window and then “asks” me what I want to say in that text.  I don’t think I have a theory of mind about Siri. I do expect “her” to interact with me so that we can successfully accomplish something I couldn’t do by myself. And at some level it does feel like I’m engaging a cognitive entity when I use my phone. But because I know that Siri is a suite of programs and technologies that can’t make associative leaps independently of what her programmers gave her, I understand that her limits are absolute – she cannot be “trained” to quit confusing “Alan” with “Ellen.”  She does know that Alan is my brother because she was programmed to ask “what is your brother’s name” the first time I said “send my brother a text.”  But when I asked her to send a text to my mother, she asked what her name was, and when I told her she replied: “there is no Bonnie in your contacts.”  I’m pretty sure that the next time Siri gets an upgrade there will be an association between “mother” and “mom” somewhere in her code, but this is not something that Siri can develop (initiate) on her own.  At the end of the day, she is the creation of her programmers and designers.  In some sense of the word she is “organic” – that is complete and more than the sum of her inter-related parts.  But she is not unique.  My Siri is just like your Siri and every other Siri out there, even if she does call me “Amy.”

But you can interact with her.  I liked Janine’s assertion that computers are technologies or tools that help humans accomplish specific tasks, but not entities with which we interact. We both thought about how the concept of “interaction” squared with what we think about humans’ use of other technologies.  I suggested cars, skiis, and a cello, and Janine proposed a broom. I agree that brooms do not have agency. But you might be able to make a case for agency and interaction with skiis, and certainly with a cello.

After class I also thought about how we understand our interactions with some animals (where the “theory of mind” issue is often invoked to deny animal agency). Dogs, for example, can certainly initiate and perform actions. They do things for us that are beyond our solo capabilities (herding sheep, finding a lost child).  And mine have never confused Alan with Ellen or not known who “mom” was. They continue to learn over the course of their lifetime, without a software upgrade. They are also unique individuals, a claim that can be made about cellos (and flutes) as well.  All flutes might have the same components, but each has its own feel and sound. Musicians make music with their instruments.  Through breath and/or touch they animate the flute to create something exquisite and unique. The performer might initiate the breath or the touch, but it is the synergy between the breath, the fingers, and the flute that creates the sound we recognize as music. Of course instruments are technologies in some ways, as are some animals at least some of the time.

I feel like I should write something about human-computer interaction in terms of ANT (Actor Network Theory) but am going to end with Sim Ant as a reminder of the connections between cognition, play and agency – as well as the generational differential we’ve talked about before in terms of how we respond to emerging digital technologies.  Here’s Will Wright’s description of the development of Sim Ant and the game’s connections to animal culture:

“The next game I did was called SimAnt; it was actually based on the work of Edward O. Wilson, who is the premier myrmecologist in the world. He had just published this very large book called The Ants18 that won the Pulitzer Prize that year. Ants have always fascinated me because of their emergent behavior. Any single ant is really stupid, and you sit there and try to understand what makes it tick. If you put a bunch of these little stupid components together, you get a colony-level intelligence that’s remarkable, rivaling that of a dog or something. It’s really remarkable, and it’s like an intelligence that you can deconstruct. Ten- and fifteen-year-olds really got into SimAnt; it was really successful with that group. Most adults didn’t play it long enough to realize the depth of ant behavior and mistook it for a game about battling ants.”