When I was searching for graduate programs along the line of “animal studies,” I kept coming across “animal science” programs and almost applied to one. It turns out that academically these two disciplines, along with critical animal studies as well, are quite different and shouldn’t be confused. Animal Science (AS), Animal Studies (abbreviated MAS for mainstream animal studies), and Critical Animal Studies (CAS) all study nonhuman animals. However, they all do so very differently.
Animal Studies looks at human and nonhuman (usually referred to as human and animal) relationships and interactions. Often the focus is on day-to-day interactions with nonhumans. A MAS article might include a discussion on vegetarianism but there will probably not be any ethical argument for one reason over another. Also, MAS largely focuses on animals typically labeled “pets,” like dogs, cats, and horses. The MAS viewpoint is often anthropocentric (i.e., the role animals play in human lives). MAS is continuing to gain popularity exponentially, and along with it the related field, Critical Animal Studies, is also gaining support and recognition.
CAS, as opposed to MAS, instead of a focus on interaction, concentrates on what the absence of interactions between humans and nonhumans might entail for both groups of animals. When CAS does view interactions, they view them often from an institutional viewpoint, that is, a typical question of CAS is along the lines of examining the structures in place that enable oppressive human-nonhuman interactions. Following more classical scholars, CAS has a clear call for liberation as part of its scholarship. While MAS stays very “middle-of-the-road” not often advocating one way over another, CAS demands that all who are oppressed should be liberated—humans, nonhumans, and the environment—taking an activist and political stance against all suffering. CAS uses the lens of intersectionality, the view that all types of oppression are essentially equal, albeit not the same. In this respect, human, nonhuman and environmental liberation are not separate causes but different manifestations of the same root cause of oppression.
CAS can seem harsh to some by insisting on maintaining an activist bent and advocating for a vegan lifestyle in the form of complete abolition of all use of nonhumans and the environment for human ends. MAS takes no such stance in the literature and simply studies non/human interaction and the consequences, often without explicitly taking sides. Due to the ubiquity of animals in human lives, both are interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary being composed of scholars from nearly every academic background and often have care for nonhumans as a deep concern.
Lastly, Animal Science defines itself as the study of farmed animals; that is, those bred, raised and/or killed that “give” humans something of use value. Really, AS is more specific than that: AS seeks to find the “best” way of exploiting animals for human gain. This is literally stated repeatedly in every AS book I’ve looked through. Individual welfare is considered insofar as it produces a better animal product to be sold. AS examines things like exactly how much “feed” animals should receive in order to maximize desired growth (and hence profit) while minimizing production costs. This also has a large tendency to ignore animal behavior, nutritional and physiological concerns. In AS animals are always referred according to their use value, equating importance of animal lives with how much humans can get from them.
Academically, the Canisius program sits rather squarely within Animal Studies, although interactions between humans and nonhumans is viewed quite critically in a number of classes I have taken so far. Canisius offered its first (1-credit) course on CAS in the fall of 2015 and it went over very well with those who took it. There are no animal science classes offered in this program, but there is a natural science course requirement. Canisius touches on the strengths and potential weaknesses of all three disciplines within the masters program.