Out and About with Anthrozoology

John Bradshaw’s book The Animals Among Us (2017) ends with a scene at his five-year-old grand-daughter’s school, where the children are delighted to find that what they had left the previous day as a clutch of hen’s eggs has turned into eight live chicks. The author says “a fascination with animals was kindled in Beatrice’s mind that day”, and goes on to draw the moral, which is implicitly the moral of the whole book:

Her generation will have to stabilize the ecology of the planet for their own survival. Why would they want to do this without knowing the reality of animals, both pets and wild?”

Actually the chicks have been hatched in the school’s incubator, so perhaps “reality” isn’t the right word. But then the book is mainly a history and anthropology of pet-keeping, and although the title of this last chapter is ‘Animals Maketh Man’, the story it finishes has been mainly about what humans have made of animals, for good and ill (predominantly good, so Bradshaw believes, and one review of the book quite accurately calls it a “celebration of pets”). Anthro.JPG

You can see that it’s a book with a personal touch to it, a popular book then, but popular science: in fact its sub-title is The New Science of Anthrozoology. As the book (and its cover) make obvious, Bradshaw regards this new science as essentially about our “personal relationships” with animals, therefore about why and how we keep pets. And he ought to know, because he was one of the coiners of the name and founders of the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) in 1991. However, even ISAZ doesn’t quite agree with him, defining the science more broadly as “the interactions between human and non-human animals”. And it’s a version of that definition which the Oxford English Dictionary prefers: “The multidisciplinary study of the interaction between humans and other animals”. By way of illustration, the Dictionary quotes another popular introduction to the subject, Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some we Hate, Some We Eat (2010): “Anthrozoology is a big tent. It includes the study of nearly all aspects of our interactions with other species.”

The wider the scope of this new academic discipline, if that’s what it is, the more its attitudes matter. Herzog not only gives it a very large scope, but goes some way to fix its attitudes, for his book has been a notable success, enthusiastically reviewed (“Read this book, read it again, and share it widely. It is that important.” – Mark Bekoff), and also much cited. Steven Pinker’s discussion on animal welfare in The Better Angels of Our Nature (reviewed in this blog on 25 May) has Herzog in 14 of its 64 footnotes. John Bradshaw himself calls the book “seminal”, and his own has clearly been influenced by it.

Herzog is an academic psychologist, but he writes his book as a genial guide and roving interviewer. The book is full of journeys to meet people, of drinks, meals, and chats, but yes, people: Carolyn, Staci (“forty-one but looks ten years younger”), Sam, Becky (“she loves animals. She really does.”), Bobo, Pam, Fabe (“a legend among western North Carolina cockfighters”). There are animals too, of course, some of them with names, but mostly too numerous and out of focus for that, and interesting not for themselves but as dramatizing these human personalities. Well, Herzog.JPGit’s there in the title of the book: the animals are the vaguely specified point of reference, but it’s the people, “we” (the key word in the book, perhaps in the science), who govern those intriguingly contradictory verbs: we’re the mystery, then. And the publisher’s summary makes the same point: “this enlightening and provocative book will forever change the way we look at our relationships with other creatures and, ultimately, how we see ourselves.”

So when anthrozoologists have us looking at animals and our treatment of them, we’re really looking into the mirror yet again, getting, as Herzog says, “an unusual glimpse into human nature” [35]. It’s a point likewise implied throughout John Bradshaw’s book (even though he’s a biologist by training), and often enough made explicit: pet-keeping “provides insight into what makes us human”, and “is one way of expressing what it means to be human.”

For Bradshaw it’s really an anthropological point: modern pet-keeping is the latter end of a long history of dealings with animals which have helped to make human communities successful. For Herzog, naturally enough, it’s the human psyche which makes it all so interesting. And not just the variety of attitudes between Carolyn, Bobo, Fabe, and the rest, but the variety within any one person’s attitudes. Hence his sub-title: why it’s so hard to think straight about animals.

It’s true that he occasionally suggests that we’re on our way somewhere: “our beliefs about how we should treat other species are changing.” He even says that anthrozoologists “hope that our research might make the lives of animals better.” [17] But mainly it’s the inconsistency that fascinates him. For instance, there’s “the moral ambiguity of the human-meat relationship”. He finds this ambiguity well identified by Staci, with whom he shares a meal of raw home-raised steak (“I ask for seconds.”). Staci says “It’s amazing how complex our psyches must be in order to nurture creatures every day for seven months, only to have them sent away and then come home in little freezer packages.” [203]

Herzog looks for complexity of this sort wherever he goes – and finds it, of course, or seems to. He sees it, for instance, in a research laboratory, where the mice being used in experiments are “cared for by a competent and fully certified staff” [220] but, if they should escape, at once join the category ‘pest’ and are ruthlessly trapped and killed. (Is there really any contradiction or even paradox here?) And still on the theme of research animals – to whom he devotes a chapter, ‘The Moral Status of Mice’ – Herzog quizzes animal advocates like Jonathan Balcombe and Marc Bekoff on their willingness to use, when making their claims for the sensibilities of animals, evidence derived from the sort of animal research which they would like to prohibit. He concludes that “reason can be elusive in the debate over animal research.” [234]

In fact that’s his conclusion on all the varieties of human/animal relations which he views in the book. His last chapter is titled ‘The Carnivorous Yahoo within Ourselves’. It’s a quotation from J.M.Coetzee’s fiction The Lives of Animals (1999), which describes the experiences of a novelist, Elizabeth Costello, as visiting lecturer at a university, her chosen subject the animal holocaust (her term for it). Shouldn’t we accept ourselves as we are, one questioner asks her: “Is it not more human [there it is again] to accept our own humanity – even if it means embracing the carnivorous yahoo within ourselves?” Implicitly, Herzog’s answer is yes. “What the new science of anthrozoology reveals”, he says on his last page, “is that our attitudes, behaviours, and relationships with the animals in our lives . . . are more complicated than we thought.” But the confusions needn’t be deplored or apologised for: “they are inevitable. And they show we are human.” As you were, then; or rather, as you are, for by the end of Herzog’s book, the habitual present tense (even at such moments as “I ask for seconds”) carries a momentum of acceptance and validation. It’s what humans just are like and how interesting with it!

Hal Herzog is a good-humoured observer, with a sympathetic and knowledgeable interest in non-human animals, though a much greater one in humans. His book is full of information as well as chat, and although it doesn’t ever quite answer that set question, why it’s so hard to think straight about animals, he at least shows clearly enough that most people don’t succeed. Still, he may have been unwise to evoke the ghost of Elizabeth Costello in his last chapter. It’s not just that her answer to the Yahoo question is so much more searching than his own (there isn’t space here to talk about that). As Coetzee presents her, Elizabeth Costello doesn’t just lecture on, she publicly suffers, this subject. She calls it a “wound” and speaks accordingly, without jokes or flourishes, without geniality. She refuses almost discourteously to be made a personality of (a Becky or a Fabe) by the assembled academics, and thereby to turn the problem into an intriguing aspect of herself and take it away with her when she goes. In short, she makes Herzog’s treatment of the subject, and anthrozoology itself, seem jaunty and superficial, a human self-indulgence.

Nevertheless, Anthrozoology lives and grows. In particular it’s a rising subject in universities, where likewise it seems to be essentially anthropocentric. Here are a few of the inducements offered to potential students:

“At its core, the field of anthrozoology is about helping people live better lives.”

 “Welcome to Anthrozoology! Are you interested in learning more about the significance of animals in our lives?”

 “The MA in Anthrozoology will be of interest to anyone who would like to investigate the many and varied ways in which humans perceive, engage, compete and co-exist with non-human animals in a range of cultural contexts.”

It seems that the ISAZ journal Anthrozoös takes the same point of view, habitually concerned with human attitudes or more generally with the human part in the relationship. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the journal recently made available online its “top 30” articles (ranked by downloads and citations). Of these, sixteen have to do with the therapeutic possibilities of animals; at least six are about human attitudes and ‘perceptions’; only three show interest in the experiences of the animals themselves.

So? Other journals, other academic disciplines, are free to study whatever’s missing from this new ‘science’, and have of course been steadily doing so: philosophy, for instance, women’s studies, literature. But the name ‘anthrozoology’ makes a claim which either misrepresents what it does or misrepresents the subject itself. As promoted and practised, it’s simply a branch of anthropology or perhaps sociology, the study of man by an interested party, and should be called by its right name.

Meanwhile, a study of “human-wildlife interactions”, featured recently in the journal Science, indicates how much there is to learn about the animal part in the relationship. Under the heading ‘Animals feel safer from humans in the dark’, the journal reports that the human presence is obliging other animals not only to give up land, but also to give way temporally and live by night rather than by day: “nocturnality is a universal behavioral adaptation of wildlife in response to humans.” This change in behaviour entails abandoning “natural patterns of activity, with consequences for fitness, population persistence, community interactions, and evolution.” We may miss the affable style of Bradshaw and Herzog, but that’s what I call anthrozoology: not just humans looking at themselves anew in the animals they happen to keep, use or eat, but the whole world of animal life (zoology) and what the human element (‘anthro-‘, or properly ‘anthropo-‘) shunts it into doing.


Notes and references:

The Animals Among Us: the New Science of Anthrozoology is published in USA by Basic Books (2017) and in the UK by Allen Lane (2017) and Penguin Books (2018). The quotations come from this latter edition, pp. 310, xii, ix, and 21.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: why it’s so hard to think straight about animals is published by Harper, 2010 (p/b 2011). Page numbers for quotations are given in the text.

Coetzee’s short fiction The Lives of Animals was subsequently incorporated as chapters 3 and 4 of the novel Elizabeth Costello (2003) and the quotation is from pp.100-101 of the edition of that novel published by Vintage in 2004.

The advertised courses in anthrozoology are at Carrol College (Montana), Exeter University (UK), and the University of Windsor in Canada.

The journal Anthrozoös was started in 1987, before ISAZ was founded, but was subsequently taken over by ISAZ. The anniversary issue can be seen here: http://explore.tandfonline.com/page/ah/rfan-30th-anniversary-vsi

The article ‘The Influence of Human Disturbance on Wildlife Nocturnality’ is published in Science, 15 June 2018, vol.360, pp.1232-35. A brief report about it by a staff writer under the quoted title appears on pp.1185-86. Quotations are from both texts.


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