I’m often asked two things about my work. The first is why I study human relations with other species, and the second is how I cope with all the research into human-animal abuse I do.
In terms of the first question: I’m a sociologist which means, broadly speaking, I study society. Most people think this equates to human society as our anthropocentric worldview dictates that we are of central importance and that ‘the social’ equates to ‘the human’ and ‘the natural’ means everything else, including other species. I take a different view. To me, humans and animals share this world and animals are, in one form or another, an integral part of our societies. To speak of differences between the social and the natural is to preserve taken for granted, illogical, binaries that do not exist. We humans and other species might not share this world equally but we do share it. This means they have as much right as we do to live in this world. That’s part of why I study our relations with other animals.
But this is only part of the story. Another part is that I believe animals matter – to us, in their own right, and to the ecosystems we are all a part of. I believe they are individuals with lives, preferences, relationships, desires and needs. Moreover I believe that most of these things are ignored, or trampled over, to suit our perceived human needs. Often, these perceived needs are the ‘need’ to make a profit, so we slaughter other animals by the billion to produce cheap meat, fish, dairy products, and clothing; we force them to endure captivity to ‘entertain’ us; we remove or restrain their freedom to make them ‘work’ for us and so on. Then, we create rich and detailed justifications for these actions which we cleverly embed so deeply into our social and cultural milieu that they seem normal, even necessary, thus cleverly marginalising those who question such beliefs and practices. Hegemony in action. Without people willing to question and deconstruct the ways all this is achieved, I don’t think we will get very far in changing attitudes toward animals, so this is another reason why I study human relationships with animals.
I also do this because I am angry, terribly angry at times. I am angry at the things we do to other species, from the mass slaughter of them for food through to the (almost incomprehensible) acts of cruelty to individual animals. Often, I don’t know where to put this anger so I write about and research the oppression of other species. Sometimes it makes it worse – I rarely go a day without seeing, reading or writing about some form of animal abuse. Sometimes it makes it better – I get to connect with others who think/feel the same way, and I get to feel as though I may be contributing in some small way to changes for the better for other species.
In terms of the second question – how I cope – the thing I struggle most with in all of this is the anger I feel toward other humans at times. My core values are those of social justice which means I tend to have high expectations of myself and others. It means I do not (or at least try not to) judge or despise others but seek to understand their lives and their meaning systems, not as a contrast to mine, but as simply legitimate in their own right. This doesn’t mean I have to accept that difference, nor does it mean I can’t be critical of it, but it does mean I have to understand it. Some days I fail. Some days I simply can’t comprehend – despite having the intellectual explanations at hand – how so many people can turn a blind eye to, and participate in, a culture of animal cruelty. You probably think that’s an excessive claim but I don’t. If we eat, wear or use other species then we are complicit in animal cruelty. This means the vast majority of humans are. On certain days it’s impossible for me to be understanding or forgiving – in other words on some days I don’t cope.
It’s hard to know where to put myself and all that anger. My usual solution is to spend time with the dogs I share my life with. I’m not unaware of the irony of spending time with animals whose freedom has essentially been removed. Don’t get me wrong here, the dogs I live with have fantastic lives within the parameters available to me, but they are still subordinate in our human-centred world, at least in other people’s eyes. There are three of them – Squirt, Loki and Bailey. All very different in terms of size, outlook, personality and ways of interacting with me. But all precious individuals who have a right to live, love, and be happy.
I once wrote, somewhere else;
I think ‘through’ my dogs. That is not to say that they are a category through which, by opposition, I define my humanity and their animality, … Rather, it is to say that I think with, and about, my dogs when I am trying to think about this thing we call ‘animal.’ I talk to them, I ask them questions, I think what their worlds might be like and how they may be ordered (olfactorily, for instance instead of cerebrally), I try to think what they might want or wish for, what makes their lives different to mine (other than four legs and a furry face). I am curious about this ‘we’ that we constitute – canine and human – and how it might be and feel for them. Above all, whenever I read something that claims to be ‘about animals,’ I place my dogs forefront and centre in order to see how this might apply to these particular, embodied, creatures. In this way, I truly think through my dogs. I can’t help it. I am besotted by them and with them. … [This] … keeps me grounded. It reminds me that what ‘we’ do here in academic inquiry has very real consequences – embodied consequences- which are inevitably ramified by the fact that in (most) human-animal relationships humans hold all the cards.
And all of this is true, but what I didn’t write, and perhaps should have, is that my life is better because of my dogs. When I read ‘just one more’ story of abuse and see ‘just one more’ damaged and beaten face, when I hear ‘just one more’ story of how an abuser used animals against the humans in his life, sometimes the only thing I can do to cope is go and find my dogs and smother them with cuddles. Spending time with them makes a bad day better; a playtime on the beach with them helps dissipate the anger; a snooze with them makes me feel content and safe. Next time I am asked why I do what I do, and how I cope, perhaps I’ll just say ‘because I love my dogs.’
Author: Nik Taylor