Animal Studies Beyond Biology

July 8, 2010

In his first year as an assistant professor in the University of Iowa’s archaeology department, Matthew E. Hill made a move that many other junior faculty would’ve considered risky: he said he wanted to teach an undergraduate seminar on animals and culture.

“When I first proposed the course, I thought I would get a more negative response – ‘Oh, it’s fluffy’ -- and I still worry about some of my colleagues having that attitude,” he says. “But my chair and other people have been supportive, interested.”

Hill first taught Animals, Culture and Food, in the fall of 2008 and will offer it again this fall. Leaders in his department are “real happy that I’ve been able to fill the class,” attracting not just anthropology majors, but also students studying nursing, engineering, visual art and several liberal arts fields.

“Any time animals come up in any of my more traditional archaeology classes, there’s kind of an excitement in the room,” he says. “I realized there’s an interest in learning more about human-animal interactions. I’m trying to fulfill a need.” He plans to teach a course next spring on humans’ ancient and modern relationships with dogs.

Hill’s courses aren’t outliers, but part of an emerging group of courses that meld approaches and texts from law, religion, ethics, literature, visual art, ecology, sociology and other fields to consider the role animals play in human culture. Animals have long been on the curriculum in veterinary colleges, agriculture colleges and biology departments -- but the new animal studies is about the humanities and social sciences. The American Academy of Religion and the American Sociological Association have in the last decade created sections to focus on animals. Faculty from about four dozen institutions, mostly in the United States, have posted syllabuses for their courses on animals in human culture to H-Animal, a discussion group hosted by H-Net.

The field that has perhaps been most amenable to examining humans and other animals is the law. By the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s own count, more than 120 law schools in the United States and Canada have offered courses on animal law since 2000. In 2000, the group identified just nine law schools with courses on animals.

Pamela D. Alexander, director of ALDF’s animal law program, says that students are demanding courses on animal law. “A lot of it is coming grassroots, from the students. More and more students are going to law school because they want to fight for animals,” she says. “Animal rights is one of the greatest social justice movements of our time. It’s captivating and alluring to students to get involved in this, to recognized that the human-animal bond is not reflected in the law as it is in society.”

Practicing lawyers, she adds, will likely come across some cases involving animals during the course of their careers. “Animal law permeates into all the traditional areas of law,” she says, citing high-profile animal cases involving constitutional, family, criminal and estate law.

Paul Waldau, president of the Religion and Animals Institute and former director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, says he thinks the real surge in law schools offering courses on animals has happened because of the introduction of courses at top-ranked schools and the media attention they garnered.

In the summer of 1999, Harvard Law School and the Georgetown University Law Center both announced plans to introduce courses on animal law during the coming academic year. “Harvard adopting the course was a key event,” says Waldau, who as a visiting lecturer has taught the class every other academic year since 2002. “The law school and its reputation gave the field the respect it needed to expand.” He’s also taught animal law at the law schools of Yale and Suffolk Universities and Boston College.

Alexander teaches one at the University of Chicago Law School and, before joining ALDF, co-taught a course at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Our goal is to see every law school teach animal law,” she says. “The fact that a place as conservative as the University of Chicago offers animal law says a lot about the field.”

But Waldau stresses that law isn’t the only discipline that needs to build a robust study of the interaction between humans and animals. “You need teachers, economists, communities of faith, journalists to all understand animals,” he says. “That kind of dissemination, the osmosis of animal studies and the permission to care needs to spread widely.”

At Tufts, he’s taught courses on ethics for veterinarians, and this summer he’s teaching a Harvard Summer School seminar on religion and animals. (In addition to a J.D., Waldau has a Ph.D. in religion.) In religion, he says, animals are often studied only as symbols when they ought to be studied as “real living beings.”

His summer course is not an exhaustive survey but an attempt to help students “unlearn some of their biases, talk to other people and ask questions” about how humans and animals interact. He’s focusing on Christianity, Islam and several indigenous traditions. “It’s a rich topic and it’s fun. Some students are more interested in religion, some in animals,” he says. “They obviously self-select.”

At Southwestern University, Laura Hobgood-Oster, a professor of religion, first offered a course on animals and religion in the fall of 2001, after students in her course on religion and ecology expressed interest. The course filled with 20 students and attracted a waiting list of 20 more. She’s taught it several more times since – including at least once during each of the last four academic years – and it always fills.

“Some students say they never even thought about animals and religion having anything to do with each other,” Hobgood-Oster says, but the course’s examination of animals – mainly through the beliefs of Christianity, Buddhism, the Lakota Sioux and market capitalism – changes that. “Students come to see how much religion tells humans about how to treat animals.”

The course also includes a week of discussion of the modern animal rights movement that developed following the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, now a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and the writings of Tom Regan, now an emeritus professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University. Their work and the work of a few others, Hobgood-Oster says, sparked broader interest in animals outside biology departments that was first reflected in research and has slowly migrated into course offerings.

Students, she says, “say that more than any other course they’ve taken, this one leads them to question their basic assumptions” about life. “We break down that human-animal binary and allow students to consider that it might be a faulty assumption that humans are not more important than or superior to other animals.”

Faculty at Baylor University hope that their new course on animals and human society, set to begin this fall, will encourage students to question what they want to get out of their college years. The course is being offered in the university’s Engaged Learning Groups program for freshmen, which aims to help students adjust to college by intertwining living and learning.

Susan P. Bratton, chair of Baylor’s environmental science department and author of three books on Christianity and environmental ethics, says her goal is to create “a social environment that turns into a robust learning environment, and a way to do meaningful things for others.” The other course leaders are experts in conservation biology, music and wildlife ecology.

Forty-six incoming students have registered for a combined residential and academic experience. More are on a waiting list contingent on the availability of dormitory space. (The students will live in a newly renovated dorm with one wing for male students and another for female students.)

The course will be graded but only worth one credit each semester, mixing short reading and writing assignments with trips to a zoo and a rodeo, as well as service learning opportunities that students will choose. Based on their applications to the program, the students’ interests vary greatly, Bratton says. Some students are interested in hard sciences, while others plan to major in the humanities and arts.

“We have everything from the deer hunting crowd to people who are very, very committed to vegetarianism and animal protection.”

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