Notes From the Field of Human-Animal Studies
Dr. Kendra Coulter
Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University
What got you interested in human-animal studies?
My mother began teaching me about care and respect for animals before I could walk, and my learning has continued through formal study and interactive, interspecies experiences ever since. Reading about Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Francine Patterson, Koko, and the other apes with whom they worked in my late teens had a significant influence on the development of my critical consciousness. I saw that the world could be based on selfish individualism, greed, and destruction, or organized around compassion, reciprocity, and shared responsibility. I am pleased to now work at Brock University which has the largest concentration of animal studies scholars in Canada. Overall, I have learned equally from animals and from people.
Tell us about your current project: what are you working on and why is this important for the field?
Expanding on earlier research analyzing gender, class, work, and horses, I am now developing a conceptual framework for understanding and approaching multispecies labour. There is a small body of literature on the intersections of animals and work, and my scholarship both builds on this research, and broadens the ways we understand interspecies and multispecies labour. The approach is genuinely multispecies in nature, and recognizes that humans and non-human animals are workers and social actors who shape work relationships, hierarchies, and contexts. Central to this project are the concepts of interspecies solidarity and animal work – the latter meaning the work done with, for, and by animals. Work can cause exploitation, but also can be a space of struggle, betterment, and potential. Moreover, people need jobs. So we cannot simply critique problematic practices; we need to thoughtfully and collaboratively promote alternatives. Consequently, I am also beginning analysis of what I call humane jobs, and how to create and sustain diverse jobs which are good for people and for animals. In this spirit, I also developed what we think is the first university course focusing on multispecies labour, “Animals at Work,” and I am grateful for the support of the Centre for Labour Studies.
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?
All academic work is political in some way, whether through what is asked, what is highlighted, what is avoided, how it is funded, and/or who it serves. Both emphases and silences are telling. I engage in the scholarship of possibility. That means I not only seek to build nuanced understanding of the way things really are, but I also generate proactive solutions and actively foster progressive change. A political and ethical commitment to ending suffering and improving lives inspires my work. An intellectual commitment to empirically-based research, thoughtful inquiry, and critical reflection, strengthens my work. In other words, my love for animals is vast and deep, and I harness those feelings into intellectual rigour and contextualized, multi-faceted analysis. There are ethical, economic, environmental, and social reasons why we need to improve animals’ lives. The strongest and most effective arguments are those informed by evidence and propelled by hope.
Why is it important that scholars study and teach about human-animal relations?
Humans are but one of many species sharing this extraordinary – and essential – planet. At the same time, nature and animals are part of and integral to “the social,” thus must be taken seriously in understandings of society and in visions of social justice. Learning about human-animal relations helps us see and better understand people’s inequities and contradictions. Thankfully, some of our relationships with animals also illuminate the best of what people can be and do. Equally as important is that such study pushes us beyond anthropocentrism, as well. Animals are fascinating, complex, and important, and they matter for their own reasons, as well as for everything they do for people.
What is your prediction about the future of human-animal studies?
I am hopeful about the potential to mobilize knowledge into meaningful cultural, social, conceptual, economic, and political change. The breadth and ongoing expansion of interest in animals is very noteworthy and important, and it crosses national borders and disciplinary boundaries. I am committed to bringing the labour dimensions more fully into human-animal studies (and vice versa), and am heartened to see so many scholars challenging conventional ways of thinking and interacting. Plus, the bourgeoning animal studies community is both reflecting and affecting the larger social context. Every act of kindness towards animals is a victory, but real change will require more than individual acts. It is possible that the next seismic social shift will be about improving the lives of animals. That is powerful food for thought – and action.