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.
Joseph Stalin is credited with saying “the death of one is a tragedy, but the death of a million is just a statistic.” When things (like bodies) start to pile up, each individual member loses value. Stalin was referring to human deaths, so what might a million animal deaths be considered as? As in this infamous quip, one million animals are killed by vehicles on U.S. roads each year. But who stops to think about any of these lives now lost?
Only a select few actually take time and effort to highlight the subjectivity of animals killed on roads. These are mostly artists who see a tragic beauty in the stillness of death coupled with powerful commentary on the human condition or drivers who notice a carcass whiz by on the side of the road. For a few moments we may feel some pity, sadness, or even guilt. But this is only fleeting as we must stay focused while driving, and often soon become sidetracked.
Mostly, though, road-killed animals are not taken seriously at all. So-called “rogue” taxidermists gloss over the lives of these animals by turning their bodies into commodities which often mock the violence of the animal’s death to the point of caricature. Cartoons make death seem temporary by showing flattened animals “popping” back into full form. There is also a subsection of the population that actively condones and engages in the promotion and eating of roadkill as a sustainable and cruelty-free way to consume animal protein spawning roadkill cookbooks. At first this does seem like a viable way to consume meat “humanely” since the animals are already dead and would be largely wasted otherwise. Thinking more critically a problem emerges; while there is almost never intent to hit an animal while driving, even inadvertent death to a human carries legal and moral consequences via manslaughter. The lack of analogous responsibility for nonhumans reifies the opinion that human life is automatically more valuable than “animal” life, an unsubstantiated claim. Furthermore, framing roadkill as a humane and guiltless way of consuming animals not only downplays the massive loss of life and reaffirms an addictive commodity fetish with automobiles, but also, as Dennis Soron says, “by breaking with taboo and enjoying the familiar taste of this ‘branded’ meat, the consumer dissolves any lingering anxieties about messy roadway violence and, indeed, the whole status of animals as food.”
Normalizing such violence to an even greater extent are roadkill-based commodities like candy and toys. These toys consist of stuffed animals with fabricated tire marks across their contorted bodies with faces comically distorted. This references the suffering that often accompanies a car-animal collision while remaining light-hearted. The overall effect renders roadkill absent from serious concern. In fact, empathy is usurped by enjoyment.
It is not even all that uncommon to see roadkill literally painted over with a road line, a symbolic statement that (human) life rolls relentlessly on without regard for those animals who have fallen victim to its “progress.” Even though dead animals on the side of the road are so ubiquitous and numerous they are still overlooked almost entirely due to desensitization as a result of full transparency. By replacing the individual by the anonymous—“roadkill”—humans facilitate an already lacking sense of responsibility. Anthropologist Jane Desmond informs us that “the notions of ‘unavoidable’ and ‘would have avoided if I safely could’ result in a legal and ethical understanding that does not attach blame to the driver”. Thus, roadkill are merely collateral damage so that humans can drive their cars and go places. Through the omnipresent lens of speciesism in the form of anthropocentrism, animals killed by collisions with cars are considered ‘in the way’ and hence beyond moral scrutiny.
Taking speciesism for granted, as people generally do, it is not difficult to see why “roadkill” so often goes unnoticed. Again Soron informs us as to why: “indeed, it would require a wholesale political challenge to automobile dependency, the auto-industrial complex, and—more broadly—the socially, psychically, and environmentally corrosive logic of commodification itself” which currently dominates the world economy.” Consequently this would mean a radical restructuring of personal beliefs, life patterns, social norms, public policy and law, in addition to other changes. It is therefore no surprise that billions of visible dead animals continue to not warrant our attention. After all, who among us would willingly give up our car(s), which would likely also hinder our ability to find income, which in turn could have disconcerting consequences on ourselves and our families? Hence, the killing continues unquestioned, unabated and, in fact, even accelerated.
With 400 million road-killed animals each year in the U.S. alone, one also needs to remember that most animals are connected to other animals. For example, parents who are killed may have young who are unable to fend for themselves and die as a result. Still more are injured and die out of sight, multiplying the total casualties. Maybe only when people and our roads cover so much of the Earth’s surface and have killed enough wildlife that there are hardly any animals left for us to hit will we notice in their absence. But is that the world we want to live in?
Consider the following quote from Nuria Almiron in her recent book about animals in the media in reference to Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt:
“Extraordinary efforts have been made in science lobbying by…‘merchants of doubt’—institutes funded by the industry and devoted to maintaining controversy and keeping the debate alive on claims contrary to most scientific evidence (and ethics). With the complicity of the media, the result is the social perception that there is no real consensus in science (and thus that the wisest thing is to do nothing concerning regulatory issues or habits).”
Oreskes and Conway mainly stick to the examples of tobacco smoke and global warming, and the scientists who are funded by industries who’s interests would be to keep people smoking (e.g., the tobacco industry) and denying the bitter reality of global climate change (e.g., animal agriculturalists). In short, their goal is to deny any evidence that would harm their economic interests so that they continue business as usual.
What the Anthrozoology program at Canisius (and the students that make it up are doing) is something akin to these ‘merchants of doubt’, except that we are going in the opposite direction. Canisius Anthrozoology essentially functions as a creative and intelligent think tank that creates a voice against the continuing avoidance of nonhuman others from academic and compassionate consideration. It’s graduates become well equipped not to leave the current status quo unchanged, but indeed, to accomplish the opposite: the Anthrozoology program provides a counter narrative to the current and historical paradigm that leads to cruel treatment of nonhuman animals, negative stereotypes. Those of us a part of this program automatically challenge the current consensus that animals “don’t matter,”, or that they “don’t’ have feelings”. Essentially we are creating doubt that animal cruelty should be a norm and a legitimate part of human society.
Keeping with Aliron’s quote, we maintain the controversy that nonhumans can be used at the whims of humans without giving thought to the lived realities of the non/humans involved. We are doing this with natural science, social science, and the humanities (at least one course from each of these broad fields is a requirement in the curriculum). The implication of such a program is to challenge to the consensus of a near complete absence of nonhumans form moral and ethical consideration and to throw doubt on a speciesist and anthropocentric ideology. Thus, we would contend that the wisest thing to do isn’t to “do nothing concerning regulatory issues or habits,” but instead stop and think critically about the resulting effects are from the choices we make regarding actual lived nonhuman realities.
In summary, Canisius is using the ‘merchants of doubt’ strategy against the ubiquitous “powers that be” effectively becoming ‘merchants of hope’. We are giving pro-smoking, anti-global warming lobbyists and others a taste of their own medicine. This program dares to reimagine a world where non/human relationships are fair and based off a mutual respect. This may defy current stereotypes of certain nonhumans, and go against our instinct, traditions, education, and media, but it doesn’t have to. By its very continued existence and growth, Canisius anthrozoology produces leaders and pioneers poised to help overturn structural and personal acts of cruelty by keeping the debate alive on claims contrary to the current oppressive social forces at work.
Anthropology is quite obviously an anthropocentric discipline. However, as a recent book by Eleaor Shoreman-Ouimet and Helen Kopnina titled Culture and Conservation: Beyond Anthropocentrism advocates, there are many ways in which anthropologists can (and should) open up their scope to include nonhumans, plants, and the environment in a holistic approach to conservation. Anthropologists are situated perfectly at the nexus of where culture and conservation collide and therefore can potentially play a pivotal role in saving and protecting life on Earth.
Because of academia’s insistence on precedence, this idea has been met with considerable resistance within the anthropology community. The point of this post, though, is to expose the Anthrozoology community to this broader ideal in the hopes that fellow up-and-comers can grab onto this idea and run with it, encouraging the next generation to do the same.
It is not such a radical idea to include nonhumans in anthropological concerns. “The animal turn” as it has been called, is already having a similar effect in many realms. Anthrozoology itself is trying to open up academics in general to consider the realities of nonhuman others. Kay Peggs wrote Animals and Sociology in 2012 encouraging sociologists to open their discipline up to considering interactions with and among nonhuman animals. Emily Plec recently did the analogous thing for Communications with Perspectives on Human-Animal Communication.
One of Canisius’ own Anthrozoology graduates, Adam Fix, published a journal article advocating for indigenous movements to include space in their agenda for nonhuman animals. Lisa Kemmerer compiled Animals and the Environment in order to encourage environmentalists to open themselves up to animal-specific issues, and conversely, persuade animal advocates to care about the environment (i.e., not just ‘release the animals,’ but to
where?). Ethnobotany has shown that historically there have been many personal connections and interdependencies between humans and plants. Thus, it does not seem unreasonable to ask anthropologists to consider nonhumans. Basic laws of ecology (biodiversity, finite resources, etc.) show us that variety equates to wellness. So the argument is that variety within anthropology will make it a stronger and more resilient pursuit.
The goal is to unite people over a more focused and mutual cause, namely, to free the oppressed from their oppressors. For anthropology to defend and protect humans while not raising an eyebrow over animal extinctions is not only a logical inconsistency, but it also doesn’t work too well. Many traditional societies depend on the environment for their livelihoods and so, regardless of your position on the use value of nonhuman others, a culture may not last without its animals. This may seem anthropocentric in itself, but the point is that a single-issue approach may not work well for anyone in the long run.
There is a trend developing in academics where disciplines are becoming more interdisciplinary and further reaching. I suggest that it is best for everyone if anthropology gets on board and becomes a leader in broadening and deepening the academic system. The program and people that make up the Anthrozoology program at Canisius College are a great resource to encourage development in this direction.