Welcome to our series, ‘Why Animal Studies?’ The aim of the series is to have scholars across the ideological spectrum (i.e., human-animal studies, critical animal studies, anthrozoology) reflect on why they locate their scholarship in the field. We will be featuring pieces from PhD students, established and early career scholars as well as established scholars from other areas who are increasingly interested, and working, in the field. If you would like to contribute to the series please email firstname.lastname@example.org
In this piece Ivy Collier reflects on how she came to work in animal shelters and on how the knowledge generated in human-animal studies might be harnessed to improve animal shelters for the humans working in them and the animals living in them.
When I first sat down to write this essay, I was simply going to answer the question, “Where would you like to see the animal studies field go in the future?” But the more I wrote and revised, the more I realized how hard it was to write about the future without explaining the past, at least my past. Throughout most of teen and young adult years, I was convinced I was going to be a dog trainer. I read every training book I could get my hands on; Ian Dunbar and Nicholas Dodman and progressed to reading canine behaviorist like Stanley Coren and Bruce Fogle. I was an apprentice to a wonderful lady who had been teaching training classes for many years. I would join her every Saturday to watch and learn training techniques and assist her when needed. My goal was to have my own training school. I met so many people that came to class and said “I’m at my wits end, if you can’t solve my dog’s problems, I am going to take it to the pound”, surely I could help, right?
Then one night, my life was forever transformed; it was the night I realized that to truly understand dogs and save them, you must know more than how to potty train them. It’s not just a dog problem nor a cat problem, it’s a people problem, it’s a societal problem. I was driving along a dark, rainy road, when I found a stray dog. Of course, I stopped and put him in the car and took him home. He was a black chow-mix, very matted and skinny. He was alone, soaking wet and afraid. I called my local shelter and they advised me to search for the owner. I put up lost dog signs in the area and continued to contact the shelter to see if the owner called. Nobody called, nobody claimed the dog. Knowing that I could not keep the stray and my own dog as I would violate my one pet per apartment policy lease, I took the dog to the shelter. I’d never been inside a shelter before and I was horrified. It was dark, damp, and noisy. There was a smell I could not describe; musty, sewer-like, urine, I’m not sure, but it is a smell I will always remember. I was riddled with guilt and I was very anxious but the staff assured me they would groom him and find him a loving home. But the truth is, they didn’t. I called every day for next few days and on the third day they told me they euthanized him. My heart nearly stopped. I didn’t understand. They told me they simply did not have the space, it is a hard decision to make, but they have to do it at nearly once a week.
This was an eye-opener for me, I had no idea that animals lived in those conditions and were being euthanized simply because their owners no longer wanted them or claimed them, or there wasn’t enough space. I wanted to find out what I could to help, so I started volunteering at the shelter, found my true calling- animal welfare and have never looked back.
I later completed my bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and by this time, I was an avid volunteer with multiple shelters and activist groups and started a career in fundraising. Yet, there was still this yearning to pursue animal welfare on a scholarly level and consequently I started looking for a Ph.D program. I wanted to research and study why owners give their pets away, why pit bulls are framed as aggressive animals, how public policy effects our animal community and a plethora of other questions. This is where I had a life-changing conversation. I met Margo DeMello. I happened to come across a list serv that was for people interested in human-animal studies. Great! I wrote a brief question asking if anyone knew of a Ph.D program and Margo wrote back. From this question, she introduced me to the world of human-animal studies and the Institute of Animals and Society family. Amongst the many new theories and ideas I’ve learned, probably the most significant is that I’ve come to realize that animals are not in our world we are a part of each other’s world and thus we must live harmoniously. So yes, I’ve altered my lifestyle, I no longer eat meat, I do not wear leather, feathers nor fur and I buy cruelty-free products just to name a few but most importantly, while I am a steward of all animals, I truly feel that it is my calling to help change the world of shelter animals.
After many years of volunteering and later working in animal shelters, I’ve discovered that this world is very complex. It is not as simple as taking in a cat and adopting out a dog. Shelters are multifaceted, they involve both people and animals and their intricacies together in society. Animal shelters are faced with animal abuse, hoarding, neglect, relinquishment, not to mention animal disease and suffering; staff members see people and animals at their worse and in more cases than we would like to think, they must make life or death choices.
But the beauty of human-animal studies is that it is multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary, it can address each of these areas. Human-animal studies encompasses, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, psychology, social work, feminist studies, political science and public policy. I must apologize as I am know that I am leaving out disciplines, but this speaks to just how powerful this field really is. When posing the question, “where would you like to see the field go in the future”, the truth is, it is vast enough to go anywhere, but more specifically I look forward to watching the field flourish throughout the animal shelter world. I want it to weave itself into the tapestry of best practices, recommendation and public policy. Guidelines for animal shelter management including care and disease control is constantly evolving, even best practices and suggestions for adoptions, social media and web design are becoming more prevalent. I have watched humane education take off as well as scholarly work on linkages between domestic violence and animal abuse. So yes, the field is growing, expanding and progressing, but what I most want to see is animal studies change people’s hearts and minds so that one day they will no longer see animals as property. This is so engrained in our society that we don’t notice it in our animal shelters nor our everyday lives. Some shelters have the word property on relinquishment documents, use numbers for their animals instead of names and have “exchange” and “refund” policies as if puppies were shoes, not to mention database systems that classify shelter animals as inventory.
Until we change the belief animals being property, we will not change animal shelters and its relationship with society thus we will maintain the status quo. But this is where I am hopeful and how I know that animal studies IS the answer. Scholarly work in animal studies disseminated through animal shelters and all of its facets CAN change this perception. What some people may not realize is that shelters are frontline organizations in our community; through outreach, humane education, public policy petitioners and simply everyday conversations, shelters CAN change beliefs. A robust field of animal studies with a lens on shelters WILL lend the tools so desperately need to win hearts and minds. This is why I am so optimistic about the field of animal studies, it can only continue to grow and as it does, it will save more lives; not only animals but people too and because of this our communities will change for the better, we will truly live in harmony.
Ivy D. Collier is an animal advocate guided by the belief that no animal should be abused or neglected. She earned her Bachelor of Science in social psychology and her Master of Public Affairs focusing on fundraising and nonprofit management. As an independent researcher, her interests focus on human–animal studies with a specific lens on companion animals and popular culture, canine selfhood, companion animals and public policy, puppy mills, the no-kill movement, shelter management, and the Five Freedoms. She is a Board Member for Animals and Society Institute and a council member of the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section and contributes to the Faunalytics blog and the Human–Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute