Monday, 26 January 2015

Minding Animals 3, New Delhi, India, January 2015

My animal studies year got off to the perfect start when I attending Minding Animals 3. Having attended the first conference (which was also the third Australasian Animal Studies Association conference in Newcastle, Australia) and then the second in Utrecht, it was my great pleasure to be at the third.

This time Minding Animals was held at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India. Much of the conference organisation was undertaken by the Wildlife Trust of India:

I had some misgivings about visiting India. Some people love the country, but others told me that after visiting once they would never return. Thankfully I am one of the people who love India. While I didn’t travel too far out of Delhi, I loved being there and I hope to return soon.

Some regular Delhi visitors commented that the number of animals living on the streets of Delhi is now far smaller than in previous years. The city was also in a particular mode as it prepared for US President Obama’s visit.

Yet despite the apparent clean up efforts – both long and short term – I did still see many animals on the street. Most evident were dogs. Dogs appeared to fall into two categories. Those who were clearly ‘owned’ as evidenced by being on a lead or wearing a winter coat, and those who appeared to be un-owned and simply living their own life on the street. The dogs were overwhelmingly healthy looking, friendly and social. Many dogs had cuts in their ears indicating that they had been de-sexed and vaccinated.

This photo was taken around the corner from my hotel. The cow just stood there all day and people fed her. 

Cows were also clearly visible in the city. They did walk among the traffic and did appear to have right of way. I was told that many cows who I would have assumed were street cows were actually ‘owned’ and their movement around the city during the day is simply free time. At night they are collected up by small dairy owners and then milked in the morning, before being released again the next day.

One of the most disturbing things I saw during my trip was a documentary called ‘Plastic Cows’. You can watch it online here: The streets of India are full of rubbish, much of which is plastic waste. The cows eat the plastic and it gets lodged in their first stomach, never to be passed. It creates the illusion that the cows in Delhi are well fed. In fact they are often starving and the bulk is plastic. It is very sad to see.

Monkeys were less present in the city, although we did see some. I didn’t see a single elephant the entire time I was in India.

India truly is the land of vegetarianism. Veganism is (as far as I could tell) almost unheard of. But vegetarianism reigns supreme. My hotel had a daily breakfast buffet. It featured around 12 dishes, 11 of which were always vegetarian. Meat eating is the exception and relegated to the margins of society. This suited me just fine.

The conference featured regular keynotes and parallel sessions. My favourite keynote was by Will Kymlicka: Writing with his partner Sue Donaldson, Kymlicka spoke about whether we are providing animal citizens with adequate choice in their lives. I live tweeted Kymlicka’s paper and you can read the tweets @so_s #MAC3.  

I also enjoyed hearing Erica Fudge: talk about animals in wills in the early modern period. She is trying to understand whether animals were given names during that period. Erica will be a keynote at the upcoming Australasian Animal Studies Association (AASA) conference at the University of Melbourne in July 2015:

But the conference wasn’t just about the keynotes, or even what was said during the sessions. It was also very much about networking, learning who is doing what in the field, and sharing ideas informally.

Networking drinks. The conference seemed to be dominated by Australians. We are quite a loud people!

It was a pleasure to meet Lori Gruen: who hosts the Animals and Society Institute fellowship: each year.

 Dinner with Lori, Fiona and Yvette Watt.

It was great to reconnect with Fiona Probyn-Rapsey who heads up the Human Animal Rights Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney: and to meet Peter Chen: who is also based at Sydney and conducts research into policy networks and animal protection.  

Now that I have moved to the University of New South Wales (UNSW) I will hanging out with the Sydney crew more and more.

But I shouldn’t get into naming individuals because I met and reconnected with so many people that it really isn’t fair to single out just a few.

However, it wasn’t all hard conferencing work. The closing night started on a fascinating note as we heard from Ace Bourke:, one of the people featured in the book and documentary ‘A Lion Called Christian’:

Following the formalities we were treated to an Indian dance show Bollywood style and then a disco. It was so much fun!

Me rocking out Bollywood style. Lots of people in Indian wanted to have their photo taken with me (for some reason).

Thank you to everyone who made Minding Animals 3 so special. I look forward to the next one in 2018!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Melbourne Zoo and its elephants

In 2012 Melbourne Zoo is celebrating its 150th birthday.

Earlier in the year I wrote an opinion piece about the Zoo's decision to use images of the baby  elephant it bred in captivity - Mali - as one of their principle means of commemorating the event. I wrote:

Mali will live her entire life in a space only a fraction the size of the typical home range of a wild herd of female Asiatic elephants. She may literally never know what it is to run. She will have no control over who she mates with, whether she has a calf, or what happens to that calf. She will never taste the foods of her homeland. She will not make a single significant decision about her life. It has already been determined that Mali will live in a tiny enclosure, on display, with a couple of other elephants, for the entirety of her life. She will never be returned to Asia. Nor will her offspring.
Does the elephant really encapsulate everything Melbourne Zoo wants to say about itself after 150 years?

The Zoo's idea was to commission artists to paint Mali sized statutes and to place those painted statutes around the city of Melbourne.

The statues have now started appearing throughout the city. The photo below was taken in Parkville. The second photo is the text that accompanies the statute.

While I think the artistry is beautify, I am no less disappointed by Melbourne Zoo's choice. My view is that the thing Melbourne Zoo should be least proud of is its elephant enclosure. I wrote earlier in the year:

Many urban zoos have decommissioned their elephant enclosures. In 2006, Philadelphia Zoo ended its 132 year old practice of exhibiting elephants. Andrew Baker, former vice-president of Philadelphia Zoo, said that in order to continue exhibiting elephants, the Zoo would need to expand the space devoted to them. They were not prepared to do so because community attitudes are shifting so quickly that they were concerned that by the time they had completed a new enclosure it would already by out of step with community expectations – it could be too small or not adequatly enriched. Zoos in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto and New York have all done the same.
Yet despite this international trend, Melbourne Zoo persists in keeping elephants on a tiny tract of land in the high density inner city suburb of Parkville. This is hardly a vanguard approach to exhibiting animals and seems to have little to do with fighting extinction.
It may be true that Melbourne Zoo is also doing good conservation work. Indeed, they achieved quite  PR coupe by attracting renowned wildlife documentary maker Sir David Attenborough to the Zoo. He seemed to be sincerely impressed with the Zoo's stick instinct breeding program. But I am yet to be persuaded that Melbourne Zoo's elephant breeding program is about conservation first and foremost. Moreover, even if I could be persuaded that conservation is the principle motivator it would still be unclear to me why the elephants must be exhibited in the middle of the city of Melbourne. 
If Melbourne Zoo is going to fight extinction by caging animals why can't it do it by housing animals in enclosures that are appropriate for the animal in question? Stick instincts may have the capacity to thrive in small cages. I don't think the same is true for elephants. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Animal Research - the most polarising issue?

The use of animals in research continues to be the most polarising issue in the debate over animal rights; animal welfare; and what constitutes an appropriate human/animal relationship.

It seems that not more than a few weeks can pass without the media opening up the debate over the use of animals in research. Yet despite extensive writing on the topic, the views expressed by commentators are often polarising and rarely move the discussion forward in a meaningful way. Moreover, in cases where readers can leave comments about what they have read, the opinions posted are often vitriolic and rarely constructive. 

A case in point is an article written by Helen Marston from Humane Research Australia. Helen wrote about her personal battle with breast cancer and the ways in which she reflected on laboratory animals while undergoing treatment. Her article attracted some 360 odd responses from readers, many of whom aggressively objected to what she had to say. The commentary from readers quickly became personal with one reader writing that he could tell from Helen's photo that she's fat. I assume that the fat comment was intended to suggest that being overweight causes cancer. What is clear from such occurrences is that the use of animals in research generates passion, yet few people have much of value to add to the debate. 

A further example of the polarising nature of the animals in research debate is the way in which the Conversation website has dealt with the issue in recent weeks. 

On August 6th the Conversation carried an opinion piece which argued that the use of animals in research is inherently flawed. Monika Merkes wrote:

There are many other examples showing animal testing to have very poor predictive value for human diseases and toxicity. But animals are still used in laboratories all over the world to test the safety, toxicity and effectiveness of drugs. In fact, (and rather paradoxically) animal testing was made mandatory by drug regulators after the thalidomide tragedy. During the more than four decades since, it has become clear that animal tests fail to accurately predict human responses. And now, new testing methods are available.

That article also attracted numerous responses, many of which were polarising, and some of which attached the author. 

Then on August 9th, in response to Monika's article, the Conversation carried a second piece on animal research titled 'Animals-based research is still relevant and necessary'. In that article the author, Swetha Srinivasa Murali from the University of Sydney, wrote: 

Drug development is a slow process involving years, even decades, of research and animal models have always been integral to this work. 

As in the other cases, the article generated quite a debate among readers.

The same polarising tendency is evident in a piece published on The Independent online site in which the author asks: 'should testing on animals be banned?' That author affords equal space to two guest authors who go on to make polar opposite arguments. The first writes that animal research is cruel and unnecessary. The other argues that while animal research may at time be cruel, it is vitally necessary if we want medical advancement. The conclusion? There is none because both authors make opposing claims and when pushed I'm sure that both could produce a host of experts to back up their position. 

So where does this leave readers? I would suggest that it leaves us with very little to go on. Thankfully we now seem to have a consensus on the observation that the use of animals in research may cause animals to suffer. But is it beneficial? Both sides of the debate cross their heart and swear that they are telling the truth. But those truths appear to be mutually exclusive and the current form of intellectual engagement seems to be bringing us no closer to a consensus on the issue.  

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Viewer distress as we look inside an Australian piggery

One of the biggest animal news items of the last week relates to footage captured covertly inside a New South Wales (NSW) piggery. 

The footage was apparently obtained by a piggery worker, under the guidance of Animal Liberation NSW. Animal Liberation was involved in the collection of the footage over a two month period

According to those who have seen the footage, including representatives from the NSW Department of Primary Industries; RSPCA NSW; Animal Liberation NSW; the manager of the piggery in question; the CEO of Pork Australia; and the NSW Chief Veterinary officer, the footage shows animals experiencing significant suffering. Mark Pearson from Animal Liberation NSW described the vision in the following way:

The evidence that was gathered certainly showed abuse of animals, brutal treatment of animals.
Not treating wounds and injuries and disease and then slaughter of animals with the use of a sledge hammer, and no electrical device was used to stun the animals.

Authorities raided the piggery in response to the footage, which suggests that they found the evidence to be compelling and worthy of further investigation. 

The footage was so newsworthy that is was included in both the ABC (Australia) and SBS news broadcasts on Saturday August 4th. 

The airing of animal related footage as a national news item (and it may well have run on commercial television also - I don't know) suggests that it is a big story and that the treatment depicted in the footage is remarkable. 

What I found most curious, and the reason for writing this post, is that before both the ABC and SBS news segments went to air the respective newsreaders warned the audience that some people might find the scenes distressing. You can watch the ABC broadcast by clicking on this link: The warning comes at the 22 second point.

The news often includes reports about things that are upsetting, shocking, unpleasant, or distressing. Wars are being fought all around the world and as those wars are fought people are displaced and made to suffer in terrible ways. Yet rarely are warnings offered before a news item. The decision by both ABC and SBS to warn viewers that they may find the piggery footage distressing suggests to me that producers at both the ABC and SBS believe that the general public don't like to see animals being treated badly or suffering either prolonged cruelty or bursts of violent activity. Indeed, not only did the SBS newsreader warn her viewers that the footage may be distressing to some, the producers cut out a section and the reporter told the audience that 'what came next' was too distressing to be aired. SBS also pixelated the image of a worker kicking a piglet 'like a football'. 

I don't find it surprising that the community are sensitive to images of animal suffering. My research is predicated on the idea that there is not strong community support for animal suffering. But what I do find curious is: if the community is so distressed by animal suffering, that warning must be issued before news items that contain images of animal suffering can go to air, why do we allow so much animal suffering to take place? 

It would seem that as a society we are both oppose to, and are distressed by, animal suffering. Yet we also generate so much of it. 

Many people seem to agree that sow stalls look like miserable places to live. Many people seem to find the sight of them unpleasant, shocking or distressing. Yet they are perfectly legal, commonly used, and most people eat pork. 

I find it interesting that something can be both confronting to the point of distressing, yet also widely acceptable.

While the piggery footage captured by Animal Liberation NSW clearly depicts extraordinary events, I wonder whether audiences would have been shocked by the footage even if it didn't include piglets being kicked or sows being chased. I suspect they may have still been shocked, although probably less so. I think that many members of the community find the inside of an intensive farm (factory farm) confronting. Yet they exist and are home to many billions of animals in Australia and around the world.   


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Animals and the London 2012 Olympics

London will host its third Summer Olympic games starting in a couple of days time, and the role animals will play in the opening ceremony is still generating controversy. 

When it was first announced that nonhuman animals would be used in the opening ceremony there was considerable contention, especially among animal protection organisations. 

Twelve horses, three cows, two goats, ten chickens, ten ducks, nine geese, 70 sheep and three sheepdogs will be used in the opening ceremony. Director Bill Morris has admitted that he had not put adequate thought into how to safeguard the animals against noise and stress, until the problem was pointed out to him by animal activists. 

Now, in a further twist, it seems that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had understood that the animals to be used in the Olympic opening ceremony would be retired to a sanctuary after the event. It turns out that this is not the case. While the animals will not be eaten, they will continue to be used as exhibited animals for the remainder of their lives. 

Having just come from London, a couple of things come to mind when I read about this issue. The first is that I assume that the inclusion of animals in the opening ceremony is intended to remind the audience of the London of yesteryear. This must be the case as I certainly saw no evidence of cows, goats, sheep or chickens as I walked around the modern-day city of London. Cities in the developed world are now human-only or human-predominantly spaces. They rarely incorporate nonhuman animals. Yet this was not always the case. Animals were once part of the cityscape, even in London. However, the inclusion of animals in the London Olympic games will hark back to a time that was in actual fact far from idyllic.  

The reason animals once occupied cities was that they were brought to city centres for slaughter and sale. However, far from making cities cute, animal friendly environments, they made them chaotic and often filthy. 

This is how Charles Dickens described London's Smithfield Market in his classic book Oliver Twist (1838):

It was market-morning [at Smithfield Market]. The ground was covered, nearly ankle–deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemd to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

Historian Dorothee Brantz argues that the common perception that European cities were polluted environments during the modernising period is closely associated with the way animals were transformed into food close to the point of sale. She writes:

Since meat production involved the killing of living creatures and the dismantling of their bodies, it inevitably generated strong smells, loud noise, and lots of blood and waste. When slaughterhouses were dispersed throughout the city, livestock were herded through the streets, blood flowed in the gutters, and animal parts often polluted rivers and alley ways. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts of city life often referred to the stench and dirt of slaughterhouses when trying to describe the filth.

So while having animals on-hand makes them visible, if you wish to kill and eat the animals it will be a messy business indeed.

Of course the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics will have very little mess to worry about. No more than 150 animals will be part of the opening ceremony. While the inclusion of only a small number of animals is probably a blessing from the animals' perspective (and probably all the organisers can cope with logistically) it also acts as a reminder that their inclusion is only symbolic and not at all a reflection on the true number of animals that will be part of the 2012 Olympics. 

According Olympic organisers, the following quantities of animal protein will be consumed by residents of the Olympic Village:

More than 82 tonnes of seafood
31 tonnes of poultry items
More than 100 tonnes of meat
75,000 litres of milk
19 tonnes of eggs
21 tonnes of cheese

With hundreds of thousands more people watching the Olympics from the stands, many of whom will eat meat, we are reminded that the number of animals on display at the opening ceremony is only a tinny fraction of the actual number of animals that will be used as part of the 2012 Olympics. 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Guest Post: Minding Animals in Utrecht

Guest Post by Sally Healy: Minding Animals in Utrecht

I was fortunate enough to attend the 2nd Minding Animals Conference in Utrecht at the start of July. The enormity of the event had been indicated to delegates in the months leading up to the conference Competition to present was fierce – a clear indication that the field of human animal studies is gaining momentum throughout many countries.

The program offered an extremely diverse selection of presentations and posters. The multidisciplinary nature of the conference was reflected in the nine keynote presentations which ranged from political philosophy to animal behaviour and cognition. It was the public lecture by Marc Bekoff to close the conference that I assume would have resonated with the largest audience. His message was clear – we all care about animals, and we can all agree (even those who are not affiliated with the cause) that animals can most certainly suffer and feel emotions. It is therefore clear that by minding animals we are doing both them and ourselves a favour.

With up to 12 sessions on at any given time, and a schedule running from 9am until 10pm for all three days, it was often difficult to decide which session to attend. Jill Robinson opened the Protecting The Animals Seminar Series with an update on the progress being made by Animals Asia in their efforts to free bears from the horrors of bile farming in China. I thought Jill's  presentation was the perfect start to the streams that featured speakers from the 'applied' side of things. Caley Otter from Animals Australia and Mark Pearson from Animal Liberation Australia also gave valuable insight into the work that animal protection groups do that results in a change in community attitudes and behaviours.

With over 700 delegates present, I met people from a wide array of disciplines, most of which were uncharted territory for me. However, it wasn't until I presented on the final morning that I could share ideas with others from my field. In my session I gave a brief overview of results obtained from the online survey I conducted recently as part of my PhD project. Following this, I met a number of PhD students and academics whose research intersected with my own. Those involved in this field are not only looking at societal attitudes to animal welfare, but how we can bridge the concerns between different stakeholder groups to deliver optimal outcomes for farm animals. It was exciting to see the resources being devoted to this area and I'm sure many of the delegates appreciate that the majority of research is not just looking to one stakeholder group for the answer, instead recognising the need for moral responsibility at all levels of production, consumption, and regulation.

Overall, I felt that the Minding Animals Conference struck the right balance between theory and practice and had something to offer everyone. I eagerly await the next instalment which I am sure will be even bigger and better! 

You can contact Sally directly about her research at:

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Human-animal studies Vienna style

One of the nicest aspects of my recent travels was meeting the team at the Messerli Research Institute and presenting a paper to the team.

The Messerli Research Institute was launched just a couple of months ago. It's first annual report is available free online. 

The Institute is part of the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine and operates in partnership with the Messerli Foundation and the University of Vienna.

The Messerli Research Institute was established as an interdisciplinary human-animal studies centre; and it truly is interdisciplinary. It features three units: the Unit of Comparative Cognition; the Unit of Comparative Medicine; and the Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies.

I was invited to visit the Institute by Dr. Judith Benz-Schwarzburg, whom I met at the first Minding Animals conference in Newcastle, Australia. Unfortunately Judith was unwell the day I was there. But I was very well cared for by Dr. Herwig Grimm, Dr. Martin Huth and Samuel Camenzind. All arrangements for my visit were made by Julia Schöllauf.

After meeting the Ethics team I was taken on a tour of the Clever Dog Lab. I found the Lab very interesting. I have often thought that one of the challenges of the animal rights philosophical position is its reliance on the findings of animal research to demonstrate that animals are worthy of the type of moral consideration typically associated with rights. It seems to me that much of the evidence used in the animal rights literature is obtained in ways that could be argued to violate the rights of the very animals the theorists seek to serve. However, the Clever Dog Lab appears to be doing good work in a morally sound way. 

All dogs that participate in the research are companion animals that come to the Lab for short periods (typically around an hour) to be part of the research. They are there with their humans and no financial incentive is offered. The staff told me that humans and dogs attend because they find it fun and stimulating. The humans probably also wish to learn more about their dog friends. 

I saw three projects in action. The first was new research designed to uncover how dogs' eyes more around an image. This research is at an early stage and I saw one of the research's dog friends learning how to rest his head in position so his eyes could be scanned. In this case they are adapting technology used for humans. The second research project was aimed at understanding dog logic and involved a dog touching a computer screen with her nose to receive a treat. Needless to say she was a very enthusiastic participant. The third was research into how dogs respond to common household objects. 

I also spoke to a member of the research team about her research into wolves and the impact of domestication on dogs. 

Following the tour it was time for me to give my paper. After meeting the team and discovering how truly interdisciplinary the Institute is, I was concerned that my paper might have been too theoretical for the audience. I had chosen to focus on the theoretical component of my book 'Animals, Equality and Democracy' and my paper was quite similar in emphasis to the talk I gave at the Wheeler Centre in May. However, despite my concerns, the audience appeared to be very engaged and we had a lively discussion session which included questions from many different members of the audience, not just the philosophers. 

Following my paper it was time for dinner, a drink and more informal discussion about all things human-animal studies related. My visit was rounded out with an informal tour of the centre of Vienna.

At the University of Melbourne I have begun working on human-animal studies puzzles with an interdisciplinary team. Although we are interdisciplinary we are all drawn from the Faculty of Arts. That working relationship is exciting and challenging and makes me think about how stimulating and challenging it will be for the scholars working at the Messerli Research Institute. They use learn to speak to each other in a shared language. An exciting and worthy objective. 

I had a wonderful time at the Messerli Research Institute and I look forward to seeing the Institute's research output in the coming months, years and decades.