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  • Suzanne Rogers

'Looking' into human-animal relationships

I recently attended the British Animal Studies Network (BASN) seminar in Glasgow. As someone with a strong scientific background I have attended countless seminars on behaviour, welfare, and the biological sciences. This was the first event I have attended aimed at academics from the other side - the humanities side of animal studies and it was something of an eye opener for me. It was a reminder of the need to change people’s perceptions and ways of looking at animals in order to drive positive change for animals, and highlighted the role that the humanities and arts have in this change.


The first talk by Vinciane Despret was about her work studying the people who study animals. As a scientist I am familiar with the way ethologists (people who study animal behaviour) conduct their research and the discussions and interpretations that follow on from field work. Despret was interested that different ethologists ‘see’ the same behaviours in Arabian babblers (birds) but interpret them differently in the scientific literature. And that the different methods of observation affect the behaviour of the birds themselves.  She also noted that interpreting animal  behaviour in terms of human emotions and intentions has long been criticized in ethology but scientists can be less aware of being 'academico-morphic’ or 'science'morphic’ - interpreting animal behaviour in terms of an academic theory or focus of research, which although at first seems against the essence of scientific principles, is undeniable when you read the different theories for why animals perform certain behaviours and how the scientists can see the same behaviour and interpret it according to those different theories. A quote that struck me was "Scientists use food in their experiments into animal learning and cognition because then they don’t have to ask why the animals do something - they say its 'for the food’. To ask more deeply about animal’s interests and motivations would raise so many questions that studies steer clear of this but there is so much more that needs to be considered". As a scientist, I know why food is used so often but I agree that it does shut off interesting avenues that need to be explored before we will have a better understanding of animal behaviour. Her talk is nicely summed up in her quote “the behaviour of animals is the product of the observer’s gaze” and it was the perfect start to the seminar theme of 'Looking’.


Amelie Bjorck from Lund University studies photographed animals and presented a comparison of ways that primates are photographed and how the different presentations affect the viewer. She recounted that when photographs of children in different negative emotional states were used alongside captions against the Bush administration in the USA there was outrage that a picture could be taken of a child having a certain negative experience (in most cases their response when sweets were taken away) and be labelled as another (outrage against the Bush administration). Bjorck suggested that we do this to pictures of animals all the time and there is no outrage and considered this issue of 'contextual disturbance’. If public understanding of the body language and expression of emotion in animals could be improved we would probably see a movement against inappropriate labelling of pictures of animals but a visit to a card shop with the endless 'funny’ captions on cards depicting animals that to the trained eye are at best non-plussed and at worst incredibly fearful I am not confident that this change in understanding is imminent.


Alastair Hunt’s presentation followed on from this as he explored what he termed 'the moment of wild surmise’ - the moment when people suddenly understand/realise something that goes against their previous knowledge and core values. He used the moment in the popular film 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ where a chimpanzee for the first time says 'No!’ (or more accurately 'Nooooooo!’) to his human imprisoner and instills in witnesses a moment of jaw dropping suprise to illustrate the concept. Hunt explored this in terms of the need for legal equality of rights for animals and humans in a fascinating and humerous presentation.



The highlight of the seminar for me was a talk by Sarah Franklin entitled 'Watching Sheep with the sheepwatchers’. Like Despret she studies people who study animals, in this case Thelma Rowell and her work with sheep communication. Did you ever wonder how a group of sheep decide to suddenly get up and move, as a flock, to a new location? At first one sheep looks pointedly in one direction, others might look pointedly in other directions. The sheep look in a direction and then look around to see if any others are looking the same way. Eventually many sheep look the same way and one will get up and be followed by others but only after the lengthy conversation in head gestures. The discussion session after this talk considered whether the sheep are interested in the person watching them! If not are we the only species interested in what other animals are interested in? We suggest not but these sorts of questions have not been fully explored.


A talk by Lourdes Orozco considered the use of animals in the theatre. "Animals bring a lot to the theatre, theatre brings very little to the animal" she said. In her many observations of different productions involving animals she noted that animals generally tried to leave the stage and humans generally try to keep them there! And to keep them there requires much effort into ways of treating the animals using food rewards in a way that the audience doesn’t see this being done. The presentation explored how people are captivated by animals appearances in theatre productions because of their improbable presence - they don’t belong there. She also highlighted the gap between public interest and policy - in countries with high emotive bonds with animals why are crowds still drawn to animals being used in ways that are not positive experiences for the animals?


Other talks explored the history of animals in circuses, studying deer stalkers, the behaviour of farmers in relation to take-up of disease surveillance systems and an analysis of the different ways that people 'look’ at displays and artwork of animals.



The meeting considered how humans 'look’ at and 'see’ animals - whether researching their behaviour, watching them in art, theatre, films, zoos or circuses, humans 'see’ what they want to see based on their attitudes and core values relating to animals. However, these vehicles of 'looking’ can also provide us with routes to reach people and to change their attitudes and relationships with animals, something that is a vital part of our work at CFAF.

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