Series: ‘Why Animal Studies?’ with Lynda Birke

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 nik.taylor@flinders.edu.au

In this wider ranging piece Lynda reflects on her own trajectory in animal studies as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the field,

From Lynda: Why Animal Studies?

          That’s an easy question to answer at the personal level: I am fascinated by all kinds of animals, and share my life with many.  That was why I became a biologist.  But it was never an easy journey, for my love of living creatures was too often at odds with the requirement to dismember them as part of my training;  there is a profound disconnection between fascination with the living, behaving, animal, and curiosity about how organisms work inside.  I am in awe of how bodies work, how blood flows, how nerves communicate – but I can never forget how we get to that knowledge, through the bodies of so many animals who have lived and died in science.

             My route out of these contradictions was to focus on animal behaviour (ethology), to try to learn more about what makes animals tick.  Studying behaviour usually requires a whole animal, not body parts, so I felt less conflicted.   Still, ethology (indeed, the biological sciences more generally) has in general focussed on species as they live in the wild – their adaptations, evolution, typical physiology or behaviour.   Important though that is, it presented two dilemmas for me during that period. The first is the way that animal emotions and sentience were, at the time I was an undergraduate, downplayed or ignored.   And second, the very companion animals who inspired my fascination were seen as marginal, as were their interactions with humans.   A big gap between what I was learning, and how I felt about the animals who shared my life.

             In the meantime, interdisciplinary studies became my focus, partly around feminist work in/on the natural sciences, which included critiques of the ways that biological narratives construct ideas of gender.  We humans cannot help but see the behaviour of other animals through a lens reflecting our own ideas of how society is ordered, so there was (and still is) plenty to analyse.  That engagement with feminist ideas continues to inform how I think about human-animal encounters.  Perhaps most importantly, the emergence of feminist studies from political activism provides a link to (and parallel with) animal studies, something which we need to understand more fully.

             Given the dilemmas of my youth, a particular interest in how animals fare in laboratories was inevitable, and my research focussed for some time on lab animals and the people who use them.  This was not particularly about the ethics (a thorny question, at the best of times), but more to do with how scientists using animals in invasive procedures perceive their actions: how do they justify what they do?  How do they talk about it?  What, if anything, do they do to mitigate the animals’ suffering?   It’s a pivotal question for scholars in animal studies, to try to understand the actions of people who have to do things considered unacceptable outside that context – lab workers, slaughterhouse workers, for example.

             Alongside the various academic inquiries, I lived with companion animals, especially dogs and horses, who continually enrich my life (only they can tell you whether I enrich theirs).   So perhaps another inevitability was to shift my research from a focus on a particular context of human-animal encounters, toward a particular species – namely, horses.   A lifetime spent messing around with horses (allegedly in my spare time) now became the excuse for scholarly inquiry, and it continues to do so, in the form of studies of human-equine relationships.  Horses for courses, as they say.

             Looking back at my life, there seem to have been numerous changes of direction – partly reflecting demands of particular jobs at the time, but probably also reflecting the ontological insecurity that Richie Nimmo notes in his contribution to this series.  Thinking about my “animal studies story”,  I am reminded of my own process of coming out as lesbian, and the ways in which everyone who did so (me, too) immediately rewrote their own narrative to fit that particular story.  I am well aware that my scholarship trajectory has more U-turns than a politician, and just as many contradictions and re-inventions of myself.   Am I simply smoothing these over to make my narrative more coherent?   Maybe, but I do think that there is a common thread in what seem disparate directions: and what weaves through my life is a fascination with what animals are, and how they are in relation to humans.  “Animal studies” as a formal description may be relatively recent, but I feel I have been doing it all my life, in one form or another.  And AS as a specific area of inquiry has grown at just the point when the aspects of ethology that once caused me disquiet are disappearing.  Companion animals are now very much in evidence, and so too are their emotions and sentience – most notably in the field of cognitive ethology.

             Among the strengths of animal studies, for me, are its interdisciplinarity, the sustained attempt to think through and beyond the intellectual divisions we inherit (anthropocentrism, for instance), as well as its continued (if sometimes fraught) interconnections with on-the-ground animal advocacy.  That said, there remain some sticking points.  The first is that for all the efforts to cross disciplines,   we are not much good at it, tending frequently to fall back into the habits of thought inculcated by our “parent” disciplines.  If, for example, I write something drawing directly on scientific studies, I slip too easily into the putatively “dispassionate” mode of writing so beloved of science….. and then wonder how I got there. I can’t seem to stop that automatic slippage into particular ways of thinking and being.   And I have been trying to be interdisciplinary for most of my life.

             That brings me to the second sticking point.  Boundaried ways of thinking do not help us to understand the perspectives of the very animals we purport to study.  Part of the problem is that so many of the leading theorists in the field write about “animals”  – a catch-all generic.  Look at major conferences, journal articles; generic “animals” abound.  This has two implications: first, despite our purported concern to challenge human- nonhuman binaries, this focus on abstracted animals inevitably reinforces it.   I am, of course, as stuck into the binary as anyone else, as I sit here reflecting on “Animal” Studies.  But I want to ask:  who are these animals, who are subsumed into the generalisation?  Their specificities, their lives, seem to become less important than the theorising at times, and individuals, or even different species, become obscured in this rhetoric.

             A few years ago, I wrote an article asking the question: “what’s in it for the animals?”  As you can see, I cannot escape the generic, but my purpose in asking that was to emphasise that, while we claim to study human-animal relationships,  all too often the nonhuman point of view is obscured: individual animals,  as sentient individuals, as specific dogs, horses, cows, birds, or whoever else, seldom seem to directly enter the research process.  They are talked about, but rarely get to be part of what counts as research, and so we cannot know their points of view.  To be sure, some studies of animal welfare try to consider the animal’s viewpoint, as Ken Shapiro’s blog noted, but these usually have quite a narrow ethological focus and the human context is often absent.   More importantly, research studies – from whatever discipline – seldom ask the question often raised by feminists agonising over the ethics of research processes.  That question is one of accountability:  are our inquiries actually making change?  Are they accountable to those whom we study, the animals we write about?  Should they be?

             And which animals?  Jonathan Clark’s blog noted the mammal-centricity of AS.  I’m as guilty of that as anyone, having initially done ethological research with mammals and some birds, and then focussing on human relationships with companion animals.  When we interviewed scientists for the project on lab animals, it was very clear that almost all draw the line somewhere: one could work with mice, but not monkeys; another, with goldfish but not mice.  And most could work more easily with invertebrates.  It is, indeed, a question of identification with whoever is more like us, and AS undoubtedly needs not only to question that (what does it say about our critiques of anthropocentrism?), but also to be more inclusive of other species.   That said, I have to admit that I can begin to think about my question of accountability rather more easily for mammals than I can for, say, mosquitoes.

                       Clark asks us to ponder what criteria we use when we decide to study this animal rather than that.  It’s a crucial question for us in AS.   While I acknowledge Nimmo’s point that we must be careful to maintain scholarly standards I also acknowledge that my choices are driven by passion.  Sorry, but I can’t identify with mosquitoes, and only feel passionately about them when I am covered with itchy bites.  But I do feel passionately about those animals with whom I share an emotional life – the cohabitants of my home particularly.  I can, indeed, identify with them, even if that sense of empathy is partial and shifting, or at times misinformed.  I will unashamedly admit that this is why I want to study horses (as well as the excuse I noted above, for spending more time with them on the pretext of research).  Of course this is a partial perspective; it is undoubtedly anthropocentric (more specifically, it is I-centric, since it is based on my personal sense of connection).  But, as feminist scholars have often noted, we must all take partial perspectives, and it is an important challenge to understand and take account of those.   That means thinking about the partial perspectives of different kinds of animals, but also acknowledging our own.  For me, that perspective is built on a history of living with, and loving, specific animals.  I have never known mosquitoes except as a victim; but I have certainly had lengthy relationships with individual, named, mammals, and it’s that history which drives my passion for animals and my scholarship in AS.

                       Years ago, I was once accused of not doing “proper science” because of my feminism.  I was proud of that accusation, and have long been in rebellion against the  strictures of “proper science”.  Sure, we must do good, painstaking, scholarship.  But I don’t want to do that if that means being dispassionate, “objective”.  It was passion that drew me into feminist studies, and it is passion which underwrites much of what I do in animal studies.  I care deeply that the academic inquiries of AS do not become removed from advocacy and activism, that the field retains its connections to real lives and politics, that it continues to be critical.  And I care deeply about animals, of all kinds. Research that is accountable to the animals involved must always be passionate.

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