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

 

 

Remembering Alika

The posts this week about the first section of Part Wild have made me think a lot about a wolf-hybrid I lived with in the late eighties. I thought I’d share some of my impressions of life with an Inyo-like creature as part of our ongoing discussion about the distinction between tame and domestic, and the liminality of the domestic condition.

Big Sticks
Big Sticks, Frozen Pond
Leaping Shadows
sharing-the-big-stickBweb
Sharing the Big Stick

 

The photos here show Alika, who was 75% wolf and 25% husky playing with my German Shepherd, Alyosha (named after the kind brother Karamazov, but known to his friends and family as “Loshy”).  Anyone who has read Part Wild will recognize the wolfiness of Alika’s lithe, leggy frame and note how it contrasts Loshy’s burly, more softly contoured silhouette.  They were both amazing creatures, fast friends and allies.  They shared a love of big sticks, woodchucks, swimming in the pond, and doing anything the humans were doing (writing dissertations being the most common activity). And yet they were also very different, and many of Terrill’s difficulties with integrating Inyo into a domestic space rang true with my days with Alika.

Loshy was one of those incredibly perceptive dogs who never needed “training.”  He was eager to please, played outfield on an intramural softball team, worked as a therapy dog in the University of Michigan hospital, and took his duties as mascot of the girl scout camp where I lived very seriously.  He loved everyone but feared pizza boxes. He was a vigilant guardian of my person but would have watched quietly while thieves took my last possession.

Alika was different. (See Corinne’s reminder that we need to consider animals as individuals as well as representative of a species.) Her powers of perception could be extraordinary, but I would not characterize my interactions with her as “training.”  She was extremely attentive to her “pack” of humans, domestic canines, the living room couch, and a large grey cat. She was very gentle and very shy. She ate normal dog food and whatever the campers gave to her. But she could not be confined.  Like Inyo, she would destroy or thwart the most elaborate and expensive containment system out there. When we were home all was well, but if she got loose while we were gone she would run. And run, and run and run. We spent hours, sometimes days, searching for her, only to have her reappear at the camp when she thought we were home. Loshy taught her to hunt woodchucks and she taught him to chase deer. She could not fathom why the humans discouraged this activity.  Unlike Inyo, she figured out a way to live in mixed company, but the part of her that was wild – intractably, genetically, evolutionarily not domesticated – eventually undid her.  These old photos remind me of her gentle, ghostly beauty.

I could go on for quite a while, but will stop for now. Kara’s insightful queries about dogs’ “sixth sense” also reminded me that we still need to talk about cross-species communication.  So if you get a chance, have a look at Patricial McConnell’s latest post about how humans misinterpret dog affect due to our own sign stimuli.