Sensory Research for Animal Studies Advocacy Scholarship?

I write this as a scholar, an activist, and someone who lives with and deeply loves her canine companions.  My scholarship, my thinking, has changed over time – as everyone’s does, no doubt.  I have become less concerned with what others think and more pre-occupied both with what interests me and with what can ‘help’ other species live better lives immediately, and change attitudes towards other animals in the long term to ensure better lives for future generations.  As you might imagine, this interest and motivation comes from my own personal interest in, and attachment to, other animals.  While I find nearly all animal species fascinating – and would no doubt like the individual members of various species if I got to know them – dogs have been a lifelong obsession for me.

I’ve lived with dogs all my life, literally, with only a 3-month period without one or more in my home and my life.  I’ve also advocated for them wherever possible, and spent countless hours running and volunteering in animal shelters – always working with dogs.  You can imagine then, that this love of dogs combined with an academic mindset means I often spend a lot of time thinking about dogs, thinking about their lives and experiences, their feelings, their wellbeing and because of the work I do, about the ways in which we harm them.  I also spend a lot of time thinking about ‘my’ dogs specifically and about the relationship we have.  I currently live with 2 dogs – Loki a 13 year old fox terrier mix, and Bailey an 8 year old ridgeback x boxer, and I recently lost another – Squirt a 15 year old terrier cross. The relationships between and among us are/were very different. For instance, Squirt was fiercely independent and would not tolerate being held or picked up – she came to you when she wanted to spend time with you and no matter how much you might want to interact with her, unless she was interested it simply wouldn’t happen. Bailey loves to lie touching me. After watching him for years I think it gives a very highly-strung dog some sense of security. He absolutely will not be cuddled though – under any circumstances – and will growl long and loud if I try. Loki is far more willing to interact – anything goes for this one who will lie on me whenever she gets the chance.

Recently I have noticed that all our relationships – both mine with them and theirs with each other – have smell and touch at their centre.  I love the smell of the dogs; it comforts me greatly.  When they lie next to, or on, me, I find myself sniffing their ears and their feet which are the most pungent areas on them.  I often bend to kiss or cuddle them when they are near me on the couch or the bed, and I always sniff them. And I mean always. Once I noticed this, I tried to stop it and simply couldn’t – it’s second nature to me now.  What’s more they don’t seem to mind, and as you would expect for a species that lives so olfactorily, they smell me all the time too. It can be frenzied sniffing as when I have been in close proximity to other animals and return home, presumably smelling interesting to them, or it can be more gentle as when Loki sniffs out scratches on my hands and arms after a day’s gardening and gently licks them clean for me.

I also touch them, and they me, all the time. They sit next to me, draping heads or legs over mine; I absent mindedly stroke their ears and their paws; we sleep curled up tight next to each other; they lean on me when I am in the kitchen; they lean and sit on each other seemingly content in what looks to be very uncomfortable situations at times – in winter when it was chilly in the evening, Squirt (who was small at around 5 kgs) would climb onto Bailey’s back (he’s about 30kgs) and flop down on him and sleep, presumably it’s warm and comfortable there. Two days ago Bailey was lying on Loki’s preferred couch cushion at my side so Loki simply sat on his head – he didn’t seem to mind at all, in fact he made his pleasure rumble sound, the one he only usually makes when he gets belly rubs. As I’m writing this Bailey and Loki are on the couch next to me and as Bailey heads into the back garden to check out something he just heard he stops on his way past me and nudges my hand with his head, presumably just checking in before he leaves; Loki stands up and stretches, turns round and lies back down again and I can’t help myself, I put out a hand to touch her, just checking she’s ok and enjoying the feel of her. And, of course, we all touch each other during our daily play sessions. These sessions might involve playing tuggy which in turn involves one of the humans gently slapping the dogs heads and chests as they try to wrestle toys off us, or they may involve the more rule bound ‘digging’ game where Loki sits on a cushion (or three) on the couch and starts the game by digging into it as if she is trying to bury her head. She pops up from this with a grin on her face and gently pushes at our hands until we put our hands under the cushion and make it jump so she can attack it. Whenever we stop, she digs the cushion again. An integral part of this game is me nuzzling her belly while she is digging which usually prompts a thorough lick attack of my face from both her and Bailey who is usually interested in the proceedings by this point.

All this ruminating got me thinking that I can’t be the only one who engages with sensory relationships with their animals – I see posts on social media all the time about how people love the smell of their dogs’ feet. Why, then, is there so little written about both smell and touch in our relations with other animals? Is it because they can sometimes be horrible and unseemly – I also have to routinely ‘touch’ – albeit with gloves on – dog faeces as I clean up the back garden; dogs are notorious for farting while lying close to their humans; other bodily fluids – drool, vomit – regularly touch me and have their own unique odours. Is it because the senses of touch or smell are thought not to matter in a world that prioritises – at least verbally if not in action – the mind over the body? Is it because the senses are seen as base when compared to the intellect?  Classen argued that 19th century ‘high’ culture required the suppression of the ‘lower’ senses because it was linked to the view that civilised society needed to be above ‘animal’ senses. And I think that, along with the pervasive humanism and anthropocentrism of our research interests and agendas, can start to explain why we have ignored smell and/or touch in our research. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that I am using the broad field of human-animal studies to think about senses, primarily touch and smell.

This is a call, then, to develop research in animal studies that includes touch and smell (other senses too potentially). It’s also a call to consider why this would be part of a broader decolonising of methods project or part of projects that seek to understand the epistemic roots of animal oppression versus the solely corporeal. This may sound niche and some aspects of it are but it is also a project that could usefully borrow from feminist work on somataphobia (fear of the body), or on black vegan feminist work on the problems associated with seeing difference as solely embodied. In so doing, it’s a project that could contribute to troubling existing epistemologies based in post-enlightenment, white, Euro paradigms – those pesky paradigms that ecofeminists have been telling us for the last 50 years simply have to go if we are to have any chance of preventing the environmental disaster we teeter ever closer to.

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