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 Amy reflects on how animal studies allows her to merge her academic and animal-advocacy interests.
I suppose I have been what some would refer to as an ‘animal person’ for most of my life. I became an ethical vegetarian when I was sixteen years of age (‘a phase’ as far as my family was concerned) and subsequently vegan. I spent quite a bit of my time as a teenager and young adult rescuing and caring for animals, volunteering for animal advocacy organizations, and soaking up as much information as I could about the animal advocacy movement. Yet, when I was young, my passion for animal advocacy and my academic pursuits seemed like two separate worlds: the two rarely intersected.
One of the rare times that I was able to connect my personal passion for animal advocacy with my academics occurred in a high school English class where we had to give an oral book report presentation and were given quite a bit of leeway in structuring our presentations. I had read Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman wherein the main character, figuratively consumed by the larger culture, begins to identify with the foods she consumes and eventually eschews animal products. I seized the opportunity to structure my presentation around the theme of meat consumption, and marched into class the day of my presentation with my cat, guinea pig, and chicken I had rescued to demonstrate that my chicken was just as sentient as my cat and guinea pig, yet she had been destined for slaughter and consumption. I also brought in a raw piece of chicken meat and passed it around for my classmates to ponder while they watched my chicken playing with my cat and guinea pig, and I recited the ills of meat production and consumption. A little heavy-handed, perhaps; but I remember that it felt rather cathartic to merge my passion for animal advocacy with my educational pursuits, and if I could make some of my classmates think twice before their next meal, then all the better.
I did not have an opportunity to meaningfully merge these passions again until I was working on my MA degree (in sociology, specializing in criminology). I had been volunteering at a no-kill cat shelter for a few years, and one of my jobs included completing the paperwork when someone would surrender a cat to our organization. Over time I noticed that several women who were relinquishing their cats to us said that they were doing so because their romantic partners were threatening and/or mistreating their cats. In some instances they also disclosed to me that their partners were mistreating them as well. I did some looking around and found a small but growing body of research that documented a high rate of coexistence between intimate partner violence and animal abuse. In short, these women were not alone. At that point in time, however, the literature had not addressed the questions I wanted answered: why are these forms of abuse interconnected and what can be done to assist the human and non-human animal victims? So that’s what I set out to study in my MA thesis. It was my introduction to the field of human-animal studies. Once I realized that I could meaningfully link my interest in animal issues with my academic pursuits I was hooked. It was to become the focus of my career.
I decided to centre my doctoral dissertation on a form of animal use that is institutionalized and not considered abusive to balance out my earlier focus on behaviour considered abusive in my MA thesis. I ended up studying the connection between slaughterhouse employment levels and crime rates in counties across the United States. Shortly before I finished, I accepted a tenure-track positon in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at the University of Windsor. I have been at Windsor for ten years now. I am currently an Associate Professor and am now also appointed to the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research.
I continue to study both criminalized and legal/institutionalized forms of animal (ab)use. On the criminalized side, I continue to conduct research on the relationship between intimate partner violence and animal abuse, write about sociological and criminological theories of animal abuse, and I am currently working on a project examining the work of animal cruelty investigators in Canada and how it is shaped/constrained by current funding and legislative structures.
On the legal/institutionalized side of animal (ab)use, I have focused on the harms perpetrated against animals by industrial animal agriculture and the ‘pet’ food industry. Most recently, I wrote a book on industrial animal agriculture – Animals as Food: (Re)connecting Production, Processing, Consumption, and Impacts. I have also written about the animal advocacy movement and how it may most productively move forward. To that end, I am currently working on a book examining the relationship between the animal advocacy and environmental movements, focusing on the historic divides and how current socio-political and economic factors are bringing these movements closer together.
As alluded to above, what I appreciate most about the field variously known as human-animal studies, animal studies, anthrozoology, and critical animal studies is that it has provided me with the space to merge my interests in animal advocacy with my academic work. To be honest, I’m not sure that I would be in academia today if I had not stumbled across the human-animal studies field years ago. The increasing institutionalization of the field over time has helped me to forge connections with other academics interested in similar work at conferences (such as the American Sociological Association, which has an Animals and Society section) and through programs such the Animals and Society Institute’s Fellowship program. I also value the multidisciplinary nature of animal studies; I think it is a significant strength of the field, and it has made me a more well-rounded scholar, as I regularly engage with literature not only from other disciplines within the social sciences, but also from the arts, humanities, law, and the natural sciences.
When I first developed an interest in human-animal interactions in the late 1990s, the problem I encountered was that there was not much written on the topic. I am happy to say that today I am confronted with a different problem: there is so much work being done in the field that it is difficult to keep up with it. Further, the field has grown in empirical and conceptual sophistication. Based on my own observations, it has also gained greater acceptance within the social sciences. I certainly get fewer quizzical looks now when I tell others what I study than I did years ago.
In spite of these advances, I do think that there are challenges still facing the field – as there is with any field, although there are a couple unique to animal studies that I would like to mention here. First of all, I think that animal studies needs to foster stronger connections with environmental studies/environmental science/the environmental movement. I would argue that animal studies has much to learn from this more established field and movement, and that coalition building would be mutually beneficial. Building these connections in a meaningful way will also require more interaction with the natural sciences, which is admittedly complicated by the fact that the animal advocacy movement has had a tense history with scientism.
Second, one of the risks of greater institutional acceptance is cooptation and a blunted critical analysis. I appreciate and respect the work being done under the banners of human-animal studies, animal studies, and anthrozoology, but I think it is imperative that the empirical, theoretical, and applied insights of critical animal studies are meaningfully integrated so that the field does not lose sight of its radical potential, which would result in failure to adequately advocate on behalf of animals.
Amy is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology, and works with the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor. You can find out more about Amy, here.