Animals and Society II: Considering Animals
July 3-6, 2007, The Old Woolstore, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Organised by the University of Tasmania Animals and Society Study Group
Following the success of the inaugural Animals and Society conference held at the University of Western Australia in 2005, this conference aimed to bring together researchers from a broad range of academic disciplines spanning the humanities, social sciences and sciences, as well as representatives from non-government organisations, industry and government, to examine the relationships between animals and humans from social, cultural, historical, geographical, environmental, moral, legal and political perspectives. The call for papers encouraged a critical approach to human relations with nonhuman animals and provided an important opportunity for researchers to share knowledge and experience in this exciting field. The organising committee saw the conference as consolidating human-animal studies in Australia, but almost a third of the delegates were from countries outside Australia. Over a hundred attendants, ninety-five of whom presented papers, gathered in the city of Hobart on the relatively remote island of Tasmania for the three-day event. The program can be viewed on the conference website: www.cdesign.com.au/AS2007
Presenters and Papers
This report covers many, but not all, the sessions that referred to farm animals, as well as papers focussing on the representation and management of feral and native species.
The opening keynote address from biologist and environmentalist Tim Low, ‘When is Nature Not?’, was timely. As someone with a lay perspective on the ecological aspects of feral animals, I needed to hear what he thought was important. His comments on the extent to which indigenous plants and wildlife had already adapted to the presence of feral animals was thought-provoking. Another theme that I mused on throughout the conference was communication across disciplines and to members of the public. Tim Low commented on the strengths of Michael Pollan as a communicator. He is simple, poetic and has a strong message; above all, the public find him readable. But as Low says, his books are lacking in complexity – in the papers on pest management, over-reliance on dualism and simplistic strategies reappeared regularly. His message that the interests of individual animals and species are unequal and clearly in conflict with each other, directed our attention to parallel problems
Tim’s session evoked a brief but valuable discussion of animals in the less developed countries. This area is crying out for research and engages a different spectrum of cross-cultural issues. Though, arguably, sensitivity to inequalities, gender and childhood are present in some of the work on animal human relationships that I am aware of, knowledge of poverty and development in non-western countries is lacking. I see the problems of animals in these countries as inseparable from the problems of the people who live with them, with rising standards of well being the way to solve problems for both. But if this is a distant goal, what are the intermediate steps? Is this linked to Kay Milton’s question later in the conference: why is it ok to die but not to have extinctions? Discussion around the role of emotion and rationality in approaching issues like this reoccurred throughout the conference.
Further papers took up and added to these themes, addressing dualism, integration of the social and biophysical (Latour appeared more than once in this regard), and the dialectical relationship of social movements and institutions. The sessions on law (Animals and Law) and religion (Valuing Animals I) both commented on the differences between what important texts call on societies to do and what individuals actually do. If law currently follows behind public opinion, treating animals differently according to human utility, I was reminded of the public health truism that you don’t regulate until you know enough people accept the premise so to avoid mass public insurrection. This theme surfaced across these papers. The suggestion was made that one of most effective arguments for changes in laws which encourage better treatment of animals (and means of enforcing these laws) may be to get people to accept that there is a link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to human beings. This provoked lively discussion, with reference back to the 19th century experience of promoting the first-ever protective laws. Later, the problem that making animal and human rights equivalent might have a negative impact on human beings who are marginalized, as well as improve the lot of animals, was raised. These knotty moral issues raised by philosophy surfaced in diverse disciplines.
The Animals and Disease session highlighted the complexities of production relations in what some have called a post productivist world (production is structured to maintain valued social relationships and landscapes as well as to produce commodities). These ideas may be especially attractive in Britain and Europe where heritage and tourism challenge the farming share of GDP, but they are also big issues in countries like New Zealand. Here, pastoral production is a major element of income but, because our tourism is so dependent on landscape values and perceptions of purity and wholesomeness/safety, tensions are emerging. Treatment of animals is an important element of New Zealand producers’ presentation of their products for overseas markets.
In their paper ‘Human Animal Interrelationships and the control of disease’, Alex Franklin and Gareth Enticott provided an overview of their work at the UK ESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Society and Sustainability (BRASS). Their work entails a review of the decision-making process surrounding the contemporary attitudes towards practices of disease control played out in the public arena. The focus of their talk was on the relationships that develop surrounding the incidence of Bovine Tuberculosis. Building an understanding of the relationships allows human and nonhuman animal agency to be recast. The next paper, presented by Gareth Enticott and Alex Franklin examined the current interplays that occur when farmers illegally kill badgers. Farmers in Britain kill badgers in the belief that they are the major transmittors of Bovine Tuberculosis, whilst at the same time running the gauntlet of the authorities who try to protect this otherwise endangered animal. The authors believe that farmers kill badgers out of their own marginalisation and social fragmentation. Killing badgers can be seen as an attempt to recapture some control over their own lives, and reassert a different natural order based on local knowledge. Evelyn Nava-Fischer presented the final paper in this session – ‘Time, animal biosecurity and knowledge transfer’. Evelyn's work examines the policy-making of animal health and biosecurity in rural space. She has found that biosecurity responses are founded on the way animal experts weigh diseases and their assessments. She considered the social construction and knowledge transfer strategies of risk when those responses are framed.
These papers raised questions such as: how do different images of the world and current practices relate to future action/strategy? The Enticott and Franklin papers addressed debates about the interaction of the “local” knowledge of farmers and “universal” knowledge of the scientific community.In development studies, local knowledge is linked with participatory research methods as a means of supporting the poor, the marginalised and exploited. Here the question is whether local knowledge is a means to more enlightened and equitable social relationships and more balanced relationships with natural processes or whether it becomes part of the toolkit of an elite group who are scapegoating animals (badgers who have difficulty defending themselves). In this case it appears that scientists’ understanding of the problem in this case appears to challenge farmers to be more responsive to their local context. Complexity again: whose empirical observation should guide action? Is any other understanding of badgers legitimate? How do management strategies relate to good farmer identity? How do power relations between urban and rural interests, lay and science people play out in this specific case? Classic questions that reappear the next day in the Rural Animals Session.
The Rural Animals session again featured scientists, first as actors whose understanding of animal behaviour helped them to develop effective stock handling programmes. Science is the hero, able to identify the physiological responses that stock make, countering the intuitive assumption that pain is the important source of stress and bringing up the problems created by unexpected and non-respectful behaviours - such as slapping which may not cause pain but does cause stress. Refreshingly, getting the stock handlers to respond to the courses developed on the basis of scientific understanding of animal responses to handling seemed relatively unproblematic, or at least major problems were outside the scope of Mariko Laube and Paul Hemsworth’s paper ‘Improving Human-Farm Animal Relationships’. In Natalie Lloyd’s paper, ‘The Animal as ‘Index of the Pasture’: deficiency diseases and cattle in twentieth century Australia and New Zealand’, scientists featured as players in an imperialist saga of production and the taming of nature.Observation versus laboratory analysis and farmer knowledge versus scientist’s knowledge played out across the British Commonwealth in the 1920s-30s as the solution to what turned out to be cobalt deficiency was sought in several countries. The links to contemporary science studies are here to be relished. In the final paper in this session, ‘A Dog of One’s Own: canines, ovines and the gendering of high country farming’, the male-dominated farm and science scene gives way to Carolyn Morris’s analysis of the contemporary challenge to the gendering of high country farm practices. The dog features as the means to agency. Without one, a woman is unable to manage stock, but access to the skills required to handle a dog are restricted.
Animal Binaries had its own dualism – two papers on recently introduced feral animals and two on dingoes. The latter were also defined by some as feral, but their long history in Australia means that the issues that they generate are very different. Kay Milton’s paper ‘Possum magic, possum menace: wildlife control and the demonization of cuteness’, addressed some of the issues of representation raised by the badgers in the Animals and Disease session. The animals in that session were presented as carriers of disease to be eliminated where they have contact with cattle, as victims of inappropriate management strategies and as cultural icons who should be preserved. In Australia some species of possum are endangered and their lovable appearance is emphasised. In New Zealand they are destructive ferals, whose “cute” appearance must be downplayed because of the consensus that they should be poisoned or otherwise killed in large numbers. Kay rehearses the understanding of complex emotions and in addition identifies nationalism and contamination as important discourses that would allow people to hold these dual views. It turned out that an important means to a conservation end is to reach children and counter what is presented as an ‘innate’ tendency to relate to animals by suggesting that they should be selective about their support – that some animals must be sacrificed for nationalistic ends.
Alison Loveridge’s paper, ‘Do Peter Rabbit and the Easter Bunny have the power to influence pest control?’ looked at a feral animal, the rabbit, that like possums is “cute” but is being destroyed in New Zealand and Australia in a way that is not required in countries where they are indigenous. Both her paper and Kay Milton’s noted the importance education of children had in strategies to ensure policy was unopposed. Discussion looked at attributes other than cuteness such as cleverness (to the point of criminality) that might be emphasised by those wishing to manage emotional responses to possums. Those wishing to promote subversive attitudes could do more work on Brer rabbit.
While the problems of introducing species led to fairly unified demands for killing the animals in the case of possums and rabbits in New Zealand, the dingo’s position was much more ambiguous. This was noted in the third and fourth papers in this session, Peter Howard’s ‘Good and evil in an island paradise: emergence of rogues as saviours and martyrs in the management of Fraser Island’s dingoes’ and ‘Dingo Dualisms: Constructions of nature and culture in the Australian context, by Karen Hytten and Georgette Leah Burns. Because of their dual status as protected species within national parks and pests in other areas, dingoes have mixed press of a different type. I learnt that they are an introduced species that over time has become better integrated into local ecosystems. Recently, the dingo has been interbreeding to the extent that it could lose its status as a species and become seen as a dog – shades of Tim Low’s themes. They do not evoke a cute response and are still killed in large numbers. The culling of dingoes on Fraser Island is interesting in the same respect as individual animals that have become taken up by the pubic and discussed at the conference – Phoenix the calf in the foot and mouth cull, Shambo a bullock with TB. Because these animals had become socially connected with humans (but not companions in the usual sense?) their killing was resisted although far more animals are killed without comment outside national parks. The cull of dingoes was handled by designating the individual animals as ‘rogue’ – not an option in the other examples where production requirements are at stake, rather than human safety, but an interesting commentary related to the species versus individual or environment versus welfare debates.
Jill Bough’s paper, ‘Mules and Mines, Donkeys and Droughts’ provided a wonderful history of donkeys and mules in Australia - a history well-known, but never described in any book. That history has been a vital one in the development of Australia since European settlement commenced over 200 years ago. Jill's work mainly revolves around the exploitation of the donkey and mule in outback and regional South Australia, particularly in their use in mining and wool industries. A case study of the Beltana Pastoral Company was highlighted and historic photography presented.
The New Zealand high country is distant from the equine landscapes discussed in the last session – Place, Space and Ritual. Rhys Evans and Alex Franklin’s paper, ‘From primary producer to member of the service class: mapping countryside change through an equine lens’, raised some issues around tourism and farming that resonate with the New Zealnd high country’s attractiveness for recreation – tramping, hunting etc. These intersect with growing tensions between urban and rural practices in relation to animals, as the number of people who are not directly related to production observe these practices on the urban/rural fringe and question welfare standards and other aspects of rural life (offensive smells, loud noises early in the morning) which conflict with the rural idyll. The view from the back of a horse challenges us as social scientists to use new technologies in our research but also evokes Foucault, surveillance, the pressure to conform…
Review of "Animals and Society II: Considering Animals"
Alison Loveridge,with Rod Bennison
Date Published: September 5, 2007