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!