Notes From the Field of Human-Animal Studies
Director, Centre for Human Animal Studies, Edge Hill University, UK
What got you interested in human-animal studies?
I grew up around animals, volunteered at a rescue centre and worked with goats when I was at school, becoming involved in animal advocacy in my teens. As a child I thought I’d be a vet but things didn’t work out that way and I ended up in media, film and photography. I made creative works that explored animal issues and later moved into academia where I started reading philosophy, animal ethics and cultural history. Over the space of a few years my academic work refocused, from issues related to identity and representation onto human-animal studies.
Tell us about your current project: what are you working on and why is this important for the field?
As usual I’m working on multiple projects. I’m interested in sustainable ethical consumption and involved in a number of projects in this area including writing about veganism, the urgent need to reconnect pleasure to ethics, and policy change. I’m also part of a sustainable food group, exploring local community plant-based initiatives. This work involves critique of meat and dairy production, explores the barriers to and uptake of lifestyle and ethical veganism, and looks for ways in which we can develop local sustainable, ethical, plant-based food systems. My work on animals in the filmed entertainment industries continues with the aim of writing animals back into Hollywood histories and examining critically an institutional infrastructure that supports the use of wild animals for entertainment purposes. I’m also continuing my work on nature films with a focus on women’s contribution to wildlife filmmaking. One exciting project which has been occupying my time recently has been the establishment of the Centre for Human Animal Studies (CfHAS) at Edge Hill University. I’m delighted to be the Director of CfHAS and look forward to developing the work of the Centre over the coming months and years.
Does your academic work inform, or is it informed by, your feelings for and/or work with (or for) non-human animals? For example, does your pro-animal agenda influence your choice of research topic or research methods?
My main disciplinary fields are media, film and popular culture, the spheres in which the shaping of values, ideas and debates about animals take place. This does mean that I deal with an extremely wide range of topics. In addition to exploring the media treatment of animal issues and debates, such as breed specific legislation (BSL), hunting and vivisection, I also research and write about animals and media institutions and practices. This has included topics such as the use and treatment of wild and domestic animals in wildlife film, in reality television and in mainstream fiction films. I am also interested in individual animal biographies and have written about animal stars in Hollywood. In an industry that routinely uses animals interchangeably, where multiple animals are used to create a single character on-screen, it was important that my writing about animal stars acknowledged their individual lives and experiences in as far as it was possible to understand and reconstruct them.
Why is it important that scholars study and teach about human-animal relations?
There is little that is natural or normal about contemporary human-animal relations. The ‘norms’ of these relations are established over time, they change according to particular (human) societal needs, may be exploitative and cruel and cause extreme and unnecessary suffering. For many scholars there is an academic, intellectual and ethical, duty to engage in exploration, examination and critique of the systems that support and perpetuate these conditions.
What is your prediction about the future of human-animal studies?
If only I could predict the future! I don’t have a particular prediction but I do, however, harbour hopes that in the future human-animal studies will continue to develop, finding a permanent place within academia. Of course, I want the Centre for Human Animal Studies (CfHAS) to contribute to that development in some meaningful way! I feel incredibly fortunate to have met wonderful colleagues through my work in human-animal studies and I hope that this community of scholars continues to strengthen and grow. Most of all, I hope that the work done by human-animal studies scholars results in material benefits for the lives of animals.