My research examines various existential, emotional, and ethical phenomena that emerge within children’s relationships with non-human animals. Following Donna Haraway, I believe that “the relation” is the smallest or most vital unit of analysis. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I employ methods and theoretical frameworks from a range of disciplines including education, psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and even animal behavior.  I am curious about human children’s relationships with nonhuman animals in a variety of physical places and social spaces (i.e., at home, with families, with friends, in their communities, at school, in nature, in parks or wilderness areas, at the dinner table, in books or movies, and even in their imaginations).

A key component of my research is a focus on children’s experiences of death, loss, and grief concerning animals and nature.  These themes are of vital importance, especially when one considers the sheer number of animals around the world that die for various reasons.  Millions of companion animals run away, get lost, die at home, or are euthanized in and out of shelters.  Billions of animals die each year within the global agricultural industry.   Hunting and fishing are billion dollar industries but also exist in small communities for subsistence and traditions that are important.**  Wildlife die each day on roads.  Habitat loss and destruction, climate change, and poaching are just some of the contributing factors to our world’s increasing numbers of endangered and extinct species and decreasing biodiversity.  Death is also a very normal and natural part of life and is taught as such in many cultures.

So I ask many questions, including:

  • How do children learn about death and other issues surrounding their relationships with animals?
  • How do children experience death and loss of animals or natural spaces, if at all, in their day-to-day lives?
  • How might children use their own experiences and knowledge to imagine and enact a better world for all species on earth, including human beings?

The practical and theoretical consideration of such “dark matters” is at the heart of my research, but the ultimate goal is rooted in possibility and hope.

 

** One further note.  One question I am often asked about my research is whether I approve or disapprove of different activities, such as animal agriculture, fishing, hunting, pet euthanasia, etc.  The best response I can give is that my research is not about me or my beliefs.  It is about the many kinds of phenomena and relationships that exist between children and animals.  I have never been hunting, but I have been fishing.  I do not eat meat, but I recognize that any consumption of food (plants, dairy, etc.) involves economies of different scales, always impacts animals (both domestic and wild), and on occasion I have found that eating meat seems to be the “right” thing to do when it is served to me by people or in contexts where it would be rude, impolite, or inconsiderate to deny the gift or labor that goes into sharing meals.  While I have thoroughly considered ethical arguments about many things (and I sometimes write about these) those ideas do not prevent me from conducting honest and fair research with different participants.  My research assistants and I also engage in strict practices to “set aside” our own biases, beliefs, politics, and morals, to truly understand and describe what children and young people experience in their own lives with animals.  Finally, I also am open to a variety of ideas and thoughts about how to best live our lives on this planet, with other creatures and people, and so I always find that I learn a lot personally from working with children and young people!  I am happy to answer any other questions or concerns you might have, feel free to e-mail me at russellj@canisius.edu.