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

 

 

Food, Pest, Pet…Research Subject

Jonathon Burt’s introduction to Rat prompted many of us to think long and hard about why our 21st-century American reactions to a ubiquitous rodent are so strong and so negative.  Looking at the rat in other contexts provides a somewhat different perspective.  For example, the Rat is the first animal of the Chinese horoscope cycle. Rat - Ai WeiWei's RatThe Rat conveys many positive qualities to people born under its sign, including leadership, charm, passion and practicality. Year of the Rat people might also be cruel, controlling and exploitative, which reminds us that good and evil are inseparable.  One requires the other, and problems arise when balance is disrupted.

Other cultures have a more practical approach to mice (which belong to the same sub-family of the rodentia order as rats — the murinae).  In Malawi poached mice on sticks (captured in freshly harvested corn fields) are considered a culinary delicacy.mice

But I find that rats and mouse brethren get especially interesting here in the West in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, when creatures mainly seen as “vermin” join the ranks of pets and then become the first purpose bred laboratory animals.  Why and how did this transformation come about and why do rats still evoke such complex and strong responses from us?  Bill’s fabulous post noted that “there is no species whose narrative has been as forever altered by contact with humanity as the rat.”  I’m wondering what would happen if we inverted the query:  Where would we be without rats and how has the human condition changed as a result of our interactions with this creature?  (As you know, this is a central question of the research projects, and I am looking forward to learning about how everyone sees this issue in terms of the species they’ve been working with throughout the semester.)

Our readings by Karen A. Rader and Kenneth J. Shapiro present us with a good analytical framework for thinking about how the process of domestication shaped human-rat (mouse) interactions over the last century or so.  Camilla and Ben have some excellent insights about how rats double as humans, serving as models for humans in biomedical experiments, and anthropomorphic citizens of parallel societies in young adult fiction.  Ai Wei-Wei’s zodiac rat, pictured above, portrays the ambiguity of the rat-human divide more powerfully than many words could. Disney’s Mickey, the world’s most famous mouse has long provided scholars with insight about a creature, who in Karen Raber asserts “redefines or challenges conventional zoological and social understanding” (p. 389).  Stephen J. Gould’s 1979 essay on neotony still provides an excellent jumping off point for those wanting to learn more.micearmyweb

I’m intrigued by the nexus of domestication, affection, revulsion, and technology we find in contemporary American attitudes about rats and mice.  Connor makes some good points about the importance of these rodents to scientific research, and I agree that the contribution to human welfare these animals have made is significant.  I think it’s important, however, to consider Shapiro’s and Raber’s analysis closely – regardless of what one thinks about the ethics of animal testing.  In Shapiro’s article, we find a nuanced dissection (sorry!) of the synergy between the development of the concept of the “lab animal” and the domestication of rats for that purpose.  The application of selective breeding, specific kinds of socialization, and the creation of new “habitats” / confinement systems facilitated the emergence of the domestic lab rat (from the Norway rat) and articulated and shaped the meaning (social construction) of those animals for researchers and human audiences outside the lab.  Shapiro’s assertion that rodents make poor models for humans, especially in psychological research presents us with some uncomfortable questions, as does Donna Haraway’s concept of the “cyborg” animal, which is equal parts nature, culture, and technology (think OncoMouseTM).

Finally, for all of their negative cultural baggage, stigma as vermin and unwilling contribution to scientific research, rats can be that most favored of American creatures – the domesticated pet. Rats are clean, sociable, and come in a rainbow of colors.  Unlike other rodents sold in pet stores, they rarely bite, and are excellent companions for young children. Ginger and Snap 2004 The first two rats our family adopted were rescued from the snake food tank at a local pet store (our enthusiasm for raising domestic animals to feed captive wild animals would also be worth thinking through more carefully).  In their two years with us they provided endless hours of entertainment and companionship, loved nothing more than to snuggle into a pocket for a nap, and displayed remarkable calm in the face of the cat’s obviously predatory intentions.  If they could write about their histories with us, I wonder what they would say?

Animal Studies

There were so many good papers and interesting, accomplished people at the Living With Animals Conference at Eastern Kentucky University! One rarely finds such a collegial, kind, smart, and diverse group coming together around anything — much less the issue of animals in the academy.  So this meeting was truly a treat. I definitely can’t do the whole experience justice in this post, so I’ll just touch on the highlights: Every session I attended kept me riveted for the duration.  A “Living with Horses” session on Thursday addressed the subtle and profound issues of helping people and horses who fall on hard times through Equine Rescue services, as well as the changing paradigms and ethics of enlisting horses in therapeutic interventions for humans. The third paper in this session used Jane Smiley’s work, especially her fiction for juveniles, to consider the ways children and horses both function as “live property” in the contemporary United States.

Friday began with a wonderfully rich and entertaining presentation by Margo DeMello, about teaching “Human-Animal Studies.”  This theme carried over to the session where I talked about our blogging project. I also learned about how to incorporate animal studies into a first-year seminar with a service-learning component, how the occupational  therapy program at Eastern Kentucky University engages a broad spectrum of learners (and horses), and how inquiry-based learning (using the Project Dragonfly QUEST model) can be used in an animal ethics course. The afternoon was devoted to Animal Subjectivity.  Pamela Ashmore’s presentation raised many troubling questions about the often noble goals and incredibly high physical and monetary costs of taking non-human primates into the home as “pets.”  Even more confounding, was Lynn White Miles’ paper about the thirty year journey of Chantek the orangutang from research subject to enculturated child, back to research subject, and then (currently) to exhibition object (at the Atlanta Zoo).

The highlight of the day was a round table session about setting up Animal Studies programs featuring Bob Mitchell, conference organizer and founder of the Animal Studies major at EKU. This is the first major of its kind, and will produce its first graduates this spring.  The curriculum is rigorous, practical and elegantly balanced: Students develop in-depth competence in Arts and Humanities (courses such as Animals in History, Animal Ethics, Cultural Anthropology), they gain a solid footing in the sciences with coursework in zoology, ecology, comparative psychology, human evolution, etc., and they complete an “applied” concentration in conservation, animal science, and animals and the law.  Capstone coursework and options for field study and study abroad provide the flexibility and focus for an academic experience grounded in the three major elements of Animal Studies: study of the animal, study of human interactions with animals, and study of relationships between animals and people.

I had to leave mid-day on Saturday to avoid driving through the spring snow storm that swept off the flatland and into our mountains this morning.  I hated to miss the tour of the Kentucky Horse Park today, but was grateful for the chance to hear Ken Shapiro’s final keynote about the future of Human-Animal Studies and some very compelling papers before heading home. These included Jessica Bell’s analysis of how the new “naturalization” of the circus in major media outlets invokes discourses of conservation, animal protection, and domestication to legitimize the exploitation of animals, especially elephants. Jeannette Vaught’s presentation on the connection between commercial horse slaughter and private horse cloning raised a host of issues, none of which sit easily with popular conceptions of equine sport, biomedical advances, and the monetary “value” of individual horses.  The shifting sands on which equine capital is evaluated and which determine the fate of race horses at the end of their career received nuanced and sophisticated analysis from Tamar Victoria Scoggin-McKee, whose fieldwork with Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorse Rescue promises to produce a fabulous dissertation.

Scoggin-McKee also provided a thorough update on the conference via Twitter (#livingwithanimalseku).