Exploring the human and greater-than-human world

Friday, 22 March 2013


The second day of the “Living with Animals” conference at Eastern Kentucky University started, for me at least, with the “Final Interdisciplinary Discussion of Teaching With Animals” panel.  It began with the head of the Animals Studies program at EKU, Robert W. Mitchell, presenting on how he helped create the Animal Studies major at EKU.  With self-depreciating humor and candid recall of the process, Mitchell first outlined the interdisciplinary foundations of this major – from Arts and Humanities, to Applied Sciences, to internships and/or study abroad programs, to electives, to capstone courses, I was frankly envious of the students taking this major.  Not only would they get an incredible foundation of animal studies through the lens of various disciplines and fields, but they would become well-versed in various disciplines through the uniting query of “the Animal.”  I was particularly heartened to hear anthropology classes hailed as crucial to this major, for one cannot question “the Animal” without questioning “what is Human?”  By relativizing, complicating, and nuancing what is taken for granted in “human” across cultures, students unpack their ontological and epistemological baggage to make room for deeper understandings of human-animal relationships.

After Dr. Mitchell’s highly informative and entertaining presentation – of which I’ve only provided a snapshot here – the panel proceedings really began as he joined colleagues Margo DeMello, Robert Mitchell, Kenneth Shapiro, and Kari Weil while Brett Mizelle moderated.  Dr. Mizelle posed thoughtful questions for the panelists that resorted in resourceful answers for us audience members: What works every time to get students engaged? And: How do you assess what students are learning / what skills get built?  Content and perspectives?  Assignments?  In response to the first question, key authors were cited such as Hal Herzog, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, and T.C. Boyle, as well as salient readings, such as The Dreaded Comparison by Marjorie Speigel.  In response to the second question, responses ranged from assigning projects to students where, after a semester of studying the history and critique of zoos, they were asked to design new habitats for zoos that were historically and theoretically informed.  Another panelist shared how students kept a journal that she would merely read to track their transformations and obfuscations without the anxiety of being graded for their explorations.

Perhaps something that arose most saliently in questions posed by the audience at the conclusion of the panel was the twofold concern: how do you deal with colleague and/or administrators who assume animal studies means getting a degree in animal activism?  And: When is a good time to share your personal perspectives / stances on human-animal relationships, animal welfare and activism?  The answer seemed to be that one must accept that animal studies, despite its ongoing and decades-long growth, is a relatively new venture for many scholars, much less universities.  And while animal studies does carry a component of questioning and intervening when it comes to issues of animal ethics, the answer was to let students (if not administrators and interdisciplinary colleagues) process these dynamics themselves.  One effective classroom method for this would be to set up a debate where students chose sides (such as to go vegan or remain a meat-eater) and, moreover, chose / be assigned a position one would not habitually take.  That is to say, a die-hard vegan would then have to consider the merits of meat-eating, and a meat-eater who might joke that s/he is a PETA member in the sense that s/he was a “Person Eating Tasty Animals” (my connection, after seeing these t-shirts at the Denver National Western Stock Show) would have to embrace the merits of veganism.


The next session I attended featured two presentations on human-ape relationships and one on human-equine relations.  In her presentation, “Nonhuman Primates as Pets,” Pamela C. Ashmore followed her curiosity about the understudied relationships between humans and the nonhuman primates they keep as – not “pets,” as she informed us, for many of her research participants blanched at such a term – but as “companion species,” as I would put it as neutrally as possible.  Instead, Ashmore learned that the better question to ask these human primates was: why did you choose to bring these nonhuman primates into your household?  A physical anthropologist by training, Ashmore joked about how bewildering it was at first to conduct an ethnographic interview with a human informant (ah, the four fields of anthropology seem separated by deep chasms at times like these).   Interestingly, she found that some of her a priori assumptions – such as nonhuman primate owners / significant others would not be highly educated when in fact all had high school diplomas and approximate 3 out of 15 participants had terminal degrees (Ph.D., J.D., M.D.) – disproven by her initial research results.

The next paper was about the famed Chantek, an orangutan with mad jewelry making skills – on top of the fact that he was the subject of language and enculturation experiments at a primate facility in Atlanta, Georgia.  Chantek’s cross-species foster mother, H. Lyn White Miles detailed Chantek’s life in a paper titled “’Get car, go home’: Chantek’s Journey to Enculturation and Back” – referring to Chantek’s hand-signed reaction to his departure from the primate facility (“home”) and the end of Miles’ partnership with him.  While I found Miles’ presentation fascinating, I was unnerved by how uncritically she presented Chantek’s enculturation training and the future of creating “dual-cultured persons of the nonhuman kind.”  What struck me at first was how Chantek was isolated as a test subject  (ie. taken away from primary socialization with his mother) in order to learn human sign language and cultural ways – jewelry making being one of the “ways.”  The purpose behind this?  Humanocentric curiosity and arguments that such studies better helped us (humans) understand the evolutionary origins of language and culture.  But the biggest rub came when Chantek was decommissioned from the study – where does a dual-cultured person of the nonhuman kind go from there?  The first answer was the Atlanta Zoo, but here he was only objectified in another way as he was deployed for entertainment and as an educational mascot for conservation.  The zookeepers described his irascible behavior as “only child syndrome” and thought they needed to “put the wild back in him.”  Miles concluded her presentation with a utopian vision of “Animal Cultural Centers” where dual-cultured nonhuman primates such as Chantek could be trained and remain in an environment that fostered their training and the “persons” they had become – literally, a “Chan Tech” as Miles put it.

The last presentation of this session was given by Karen Head, the director of an equine-assisted therapy center in North Carolina.  She began by asking us all in the auditorium to take a deep breath and take note of what feeling we had.  For those that responded, the overwhelming emotion was sadness – perhaps lingering over the limbo life of Chantek previously presented.  Head then asked us all to take off our thinking caps for her presentation, for as she noted, horses feel energy and respond to people mindful of their breath and not living in their heads.  As such, she went on to give more of a life-coach presentation of her work, which still came with its own subtleties of inculcation.  I admire (and envy) people who work with horses and acknowledge their extraordinary capacity to bring about emotional healing (I’ve cried in many a horse’s mane), and Head’s work with helping address the emotional needs and rejuvenation of purpose of those people who work as addiction therapists is a much needed and no doubt effective one.  But as the curmudgeonly anthropologist in the room, I could not help but think I was being sold a service or a path to personal salvation via the vehicle of the horse.


The last session of the day consisted of three papers that questioned the ethical impact of human imposition on nonhuman lives/spaces.  Bob Sandmeyer shared his ideas on the conflicting conservation philosophies of John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, signaling where each faltered in their dualist conception of nature and culture.  While Pinchot saw conservation necessary for furthering human growth through the use – not depletion – of natural resources, Muir saw nature as a sanctum sanctorum that needed to preserved so that humans could retain a necessary sense of “the wild.”  To transcend this binary, Sandmeyer also explored the perspectives of Aldo Leopold and Gary Paul Nabhan, suggesting we think of future “conservation” efforts less in humanocentric terms – that is, saving the environment only to preserve human communities – and more like cultivating a “multispecies household.”

The next presentation, “Living with Transgenic Animals,” took us from the landscape to the laboratory as Jonathan L. Clark detailed the rise and fall of the “Enviropig” experiment.  Starting suggestively with Bruno Latour’s idea of monsters and loving them, Clark told us the story of the creation of transgenic pigs at the University of Guelph for the purpose of, as far as I could tell, providing more environmentally friendly pig farts and feces.  But when it was deemed by the Canadian National Research Council that the pigs were too risky to introduce to conventional farms after all– fears of feral, clean farting and shitting pigs? (moreover, fears of passing on transgenic traits) – orders to euthanize 16 pigs came down the pike.  Farm Sanctuary jumped on this and started a petition to stop the killing.  8,349 signatures were collected – three months AFTER the pigs had been killed.  Clark brought up some intriguing, important questions, one in particular that got me thinking about how my ideas of “redemptive capital” can be applied to lab animals: who is eligible for life after laboratories?

The last presentation of the day, “Putting Them Out of Their Misery: A Critique of ‘Knockout Livestock’” was given by Matthew Pianalto.  Here, the most salient point was that of once again manufacturing animals to fulfill specific humanocentric concerns.  But instead of concerns over the environment, which linked the previous two presenters, Pianalto shared his critique over the ethics of creating animals whose capacity to feel pain was “knocked out” genetically.  That is to say, to allay concerns and guilt over inflicting pain on animals be it for slaughter or laboratory purposes, is it okay to create animals who wouldn’t feel pain?  At least if they were decommissioned like the Enviropig they wouldn’t feel pain when euthanized – so the logic and lessons of history might lead us to believe…


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