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 email@example.com
In this post Niki Rust reflects on how human-animal studies has contributed to her understandings of human-carnivore conflicts and relationships.
When I was eight years old, my mother took me to a medieval re-enactment theme park. I was not very interested in learning about village life during medieval Britain, except for the fact that people at that time appeared to have a much closer relationship with other animals. As an animal lover, I remember being fascinated with the idea that every home at that point had their own barnyard menagerie, which helped to feed families for their entire lives.
In one of the model villages at the theme park, some chicks had just hatched from their eggs. The hen was doing her motherly duties of guarding and warming her little balls of fluff. Along I came, totally in awe at these beautiful and cute chicks; all I wanted to do was pick one up. Absolutely besotted with a tiny yellow one, I gathered it up in my small hands and trotted off to show it to my mum. In horror, my mother gasped at the sight of this poor little chirping bird, as the realisation dawned on her that I had made the grave error of separating the scared and fragile chick from its doting parent. My mum grabbed me and marched me back to the hen, where chick was reunited with its mother. It toddled off back to the safety and comfort of its mum, just as I did with mine. And it was in that moment that I realised that we humans are not that dissimilar from other animals.
Sadly, it was not for many years that I would have the chance to work academically on the interactions between humans and other animals. Knowing that I wanted a career working with animals, I first thought about becoming a vet (but didn’t have the grades) and then an RSPCA inspector (but didn’t have the stomach). I resorted to studying Zoology as a Bachelors, which, in the short term, did not lead me to where I wanted to go.
Unfortunately, I have grown up in the era where every person and their dog has gone to university, so an undergraduate degree means nothing to prospective employers nowadays. I was told by my university careers advisory service that many animal-related jobs are given to people who conduct a lot of volunteering. So between the ages of 21 and 25 I spent the majority of my time travelling around the world and working for various wildlife NGOs, animal sanctuaries and ecology researchers.
After building up my skills in the field, I decided to expand my academic experience and so I undertook a Masters in Conservation Biology. I was in my mid-twenties and all I could think about was how we humans were destroying the planet with our wastes, our consumption and our numbers: I wanted to do something about it. (I think watching Captain Planet as a kid definitely rubbed off on me.)
One of my passions is carnivores – which is weird, given that I am a vegan. There’s something so majestic and captivating about the stripes of a tiger, the stare of a leopard and the speed of a cheetah. So I focused my Masters studies on large carnivore conservation. My thesis tested whether guarding dogs could protect livestock from predator attacks, thereby hopefully reducing the need for ranchers to kill carnivores. And the good news was that these dogs worked wonders: predation was reduced to almost zero when the dogs were used.
This led me on to my PhD. I started wondering “well if these dogs work so well, why doesn’t everyone have one?” And this, I think, is where I began to take steps in the direct of HAS. The interaction between humans, their livestock, their working animals and the wildlife that they share their farms with plays a large part in how we perceive and act towards predators. And this of course affects the survival rate of threatened carnivores such as lions. If I were to understand more about this complex relationship we have with other animals (and indeed with other humans), I could start to entangle the key to how we can coexist more amicably with these species of tooth and claw.
After working in Namibia for a year with a carnivore conservation NGO, I then focused my PhD studies on this southern African country as it turns out it is one of the best places on earth for carnivore (and indeed wildlife) conservation. Most wildlife here live outside protected areas on farmland, but some of these animals come into conflict with humans if they eat their crops or livestock. So I spent nearly a year living on a livestock farm and learning about ranching to understand more about the interaction between farmers (who are the custodians of wildlife in Namibia), their livestock and the wild animals that share their land.
What I found baffled me. Namibia was previously colonised by the Germans and then the white South Africans. Through a century of occupation, culminating in the apartheid era, racial tension tore across the country – scars that are still apparent today. Most of the land was stolen from the Indigenous peoples and allocated to the white settlers. The Indigenous peoples were relegated to the arid, water-scarce remote areas, which was a hard place to live for these pastoralists and cultivators. As such, they were forced to go work on the white-owned farms.
This pattern of white-owned farms employing Indigenous peoples is still rife today. And this forms the bedrock of the problems associated with predators. Some farmers are still racist towards their workers, which of course annoys the employees. Disgruntled employees are less likely to do a good job and won’t care if a few livestock are left behind in a field when you move the rest of the herd on. These forgotten livestock are more vulnerable to predators, which increases depredation.
But on top of that, farmers pay employees an extremely low wage because of the huge supply but low demand for farm workers. Low salaries encourage poaching of wildlife and stealing of livestock for meat or money. Some of the employees would then blame predators for the losses, meaning that the farmers believe they have a more serious problem with predators than they actually do.
So by studying this web of interactions between people and other animals, I was able to realise that the reason why livestock guarding dogs are not used everywhere is not just because farmers don’t want them. It’s because the dogs require training, which usually falls on a worker to do. If the employee isn’t motivated or incentivised to train the dog, the dog will do a bad job and predation will continue. If the employee wants to, he could instead train the dog to hunt wildlife (or indeed livestock), which would negate any positives of having the dog in the first place. And because conservation organisations are promoting these dogs, anti-predator farmers sometimes don’t want to have a dog on principle as it would seem to them that they are giving in to the “greenies”.
Human-animal studies has allowed me to start piecing together the wicked problem of wildlife conservation and begin to understand the underlying drivers of threats to biodiversity. Like the medieval village, humans today still have an intricate relationship with other animals, but this relationship is sometimes more distanced than it was in the past. We still depend on animals for our food (if we don’t eat them directly then we require bees to pollinate our crops). However, as the distance between us widens, we begin to lose sight of what is important. Understanding the interactions we have with fellow humans and non-humans can highlight the areas where we can begin to shorten this distance and reconnect ourselves with nature. And that, I feel, is key to solving the biodiversity crisis.
Niki Rust is a Postdoctoral Consultant for San Diego Zoo’s Institute for
Conservation Research. She uses social science to help understand the human
dimensions of conservation problems and advises international NGOs in the
best use of social science methods to solve wildlife issues. Her
specialities are carnivore conservation, community-based conservation in
Africa and human-wildlife conflict. She undertook her Masters and PhD at
the University of Kent.