On Violence and Human-Animal Relationship with Nik Taylor

We have talked about human- animal bond, animal abuse, link between domestic violence and animal abuse with Nik Taylor. You could follow her blog : https://nikt6601.wordpress.com/

Their current research is about how people feel about their companion animals; you could contribute to this work with sharing your story through http://whatisitaboutanimals.com/

She is one of the pioneers in human-animal studies field, I’m thanking her not only for this interview, but also for her work, contributions to animal rights and welfare

BP: Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Nik Taylor: I am currently Associate Professor of Sociology at Flinders University in South Australia.  My research area is human-animal studies and I have a broad interest in how humans and animals interact in contemporary societies.  I approach this critically with the belief that power is central to those interactions and that, for the most part, it is humans who hold the literal, figurative and ideological power when it comes to interactions with, and treatment of, other animals

Nik and Loki

Nik and Loki

BP: What is anthrozoology?

Nik Taylor: Anthrozoology is the scientific study of human-animal interactions.  It is also known as human-animal studies (HAS), animal studies and occasionally critical animal studies (CAS).  To many the terms are interchangeable but to my mind they actually denote different ideological approaches.  My own opinion is that anthrozoology tends to be more positivist in orientation with less critique about the role of science itself in maintaining animal oppression; human-animal studies and animal studies are broader and tend to include more from the humanities and social sciences, while critical animal studies is more narrowly defined and advocates an activist-scholar approach to studying human-animal relations, one which centralises both praxis and power.  There is a lot of slippage between all three, and my brief overview here will no doubt be contested.  I locate myself somewhere between HAS and CAS.  The fields developed organically for the most part although there were key moments, publications and ideas to all of them.

Humans, Animals and Society

Humans, Animals and Society

BP: Which topics are you interested in mostly?

Nik Taylor:  Broadly speaking I am interested in how power affects our relations with other animals. This means I do a lot of research that might seem disconnected, or loosely connected, but it is actually all held together by an interest in unequal power relations across the species.  I started my research looking at links between domestic violence and animal abuse but have broadened this out to look at violence to animals more generally – including discursive and institutional violence.  So, for example, I have looked at issues around animal killing and slaughter and around how everyday people contest – or do not – arbitrary species boundaries.  I am also interested in how power manifests in terms of knowledge production so this has taken me, more recently, into epistemological and methodological areas – how, for example, do we do research about human-animal relations that does not simply reinscribe human superiority by excluding the animals.  I temper this research, which can be confronting and depressing, with studies looking at the positive side of human-animal relationships; what do the close bonds between women and animals look like, for example.  A current study looking at the human-animal bond can be found here – http://whatisitaboutanimals.com/ (and your readers might like to contribute).

Animals at Work

Animals at Work

BP: Related to your studies and experiences are there events, results etc. that have surprised you and affected you positively or negatively?

Nik Taylor: It’s always quite difficult researching issues that you feel strongly about, even more so if those issues are confronting and/or difficult to hear about.  The work I do on animal abuse and cruelty can be really hard and upsetting and often it is impossible for me to “leave it at work”.  The other side of this, of course, is that I am motivated to do as much as possible which is usually a good thing but I can wear myself out with at times.  Forging alliances with others and working collaboratively has helped a lot in this regard – to share the work with others and to have someone to talk to it all about is very beneficial.

BP: What would you like people to understand deeply regarding your studies?

Nik Taylor: The really simple answer to this is that I would like people to realise that animals, and their lives, matter irrespective of our beliefs about them or our perceived “uses” for them.

Loki ve Squirt

Loki ve Squirt

BP: Could you explain what the findings of your studies have been up to now in general?

Nik Taylor: I have done research in a lot of different areas so to summarise the findings and arguments I will group them together:  1) animals and abuse/violence, 2) animals and therapy, and 3) our connections with other animals.  My main findings in these areas are,

  • Animal abuse should matter in and of itself, regardless of any connections it might have to human directed abuse but, at the same time, there are connections between human and animal directed abuse. These connections are complex and form a web with empathy and power at the middle.  Our beliefs in anthropocentrism, i.e. that the only beings that have inherent worth are humans and that everything is put on earth for their benefit, is the main culprit here.  It is this belief that leads to the condoning of abuse of all disenfranchised others, animal and human, so it is this we need to understand and to challenge.
  • Animals as therapy may work in certain situations and with certain groups but unless we conceive of therapeutic and animal assisted intervention programs that put the needs, rights and welfare of the animals first (and this may well involve coming to a decision that animal assisted interventions are not right in many contexts) then we risk inadvertently repeating the idea that animals are here for human benefit.
  • For many people, our connections with other animals are as deep, if not deeper, than those we have with humans. Crucially, it’s important to realise this is OK and not, as is often believed, the result of some pathology or inadequacy on behalf of the human, e.g. that they only forge relationship with animals because they cannot do so with humans.  I think that pathologised reading also comes from our anthropocentrism – there’s a kind of idea that humans should only really have relationships with other humans because we are more important.  I think that’s profoundly wrong and I think for some people, their relationship with other animals are different to those they have with humans and the difference brings something special, a richness, to their lives.

BP:I looked at the site http://whatisitaboutanimals.com/ and would like to contribute. I wonder what you would like to measure in this study; how you will evaluate the results, what your criteria to evaluate are. Could you tell us more?

Nik Taylor: The “What is it About Animals” study is actually quite experimental methodologically.  We want to know what people feel about their relationships with animals but want to allow any participants a freedom in how they express that.  We have had some people contribute long stories or accounts, while other have contributed photographs with either no words or just one or two words.  And this is exactly what we want – people to feel free to express their relationship with other animals in any way that makes sense to them.  We deliberately did not want to put parameters on it so there is no ‘right answer’ or ‘right contribution.’  We will analyse the results initially for a conference in July 2015 and then hope to write a paper from that.  The analysis might well be challenging as the methods are really quite novel, but we think there will be interest in both the findings and the approach, from the animal studies community as well as from the general public.

BP: According to your studies, how does power manifest our relationships with companion animals?

Nik Taylor: This is tricky as I think, quite often, we don’t want to acknowledge power in relations with companion animals.  In many ways, too, it is harder to see.  The power inherent in our relations with animals destined to be killed for food is really quite clear but the power we have with the animals that (some of us) share our lives with and often treat as family members is harder to see.  It is there though, we make decisions for them irrespective of their feelings (e.g. what they will eat, when to go to the vets) and we – i.e. the human-companion animal dyad – are also subject to some pretty strict rules about what we can and can’t do. For example, here in Australia only some of our beaches are designated “leash free” for our dogs.  Then, of course, there is the other side to all this, – the “bad” owners who leave their animals locked outside in the yard whatever the weather; those who surrender their animal because the relationship has failed; and those working in shelters who then have to kill those animals and so on.  The power is clearly there, we do have dominance over our animals because of their status, or lack of it, in society.  But this is often tempered with close bonds and affection which, for some animals at least means they have comfortable lives.


BP: While we are with our companion pets, although we love them, and we feel them that they are our family, how do we act, so that these acts can be defined as superior? Do people behave towards their own pets as if they are like God to them? In this manner, could dog owners and cat owners differentiate with each other? Dogs are obeying people, they are trained by their owners, they listen to them and being listened could make them feel superior, is this some kind of human superiority?

Nik Taylor:  For some, sure, I think the idea of training is dominance.  There is, unfortunately, still a very widespread belief that dominance training models work.  Science has largely disproved this and shown that reinforcement models are much, much more effective, but the legacy of dominion is still very much there.  I am not sure if this is different with cat people as my work has tended to be with dog carers but the cultural stories about cats are very different – they are perceived as aloof, uncaring, disconnected, and somewhat superior themselves.  The social scripts about training them are also absent, so I suspect there are differences in the way we treat them as individuals.  That said, though, they are still – like dogs and all other animals kept as companions – subject to legal and social systems that post them as inferior to humans, and we know that people are just as likely to be cruel to them as any other domesticated species.  Again, this comes back to beliefs about superiority.

Yav he he :)

Yav he he 🙂

BP: Why did you choose to work in this field? Who are the people that impressed you?

Nik Taylor:  It wasn’t really a rational choice as there wasn’t a field as such when I started.  I finished my PhD in 2000 and the field was pretty much non-existent, or at least in its very early stages, then.  I chose to focus on animals in my PhD because at the time I was involved in running an animal shelter in the UK and we used to get requests to foster the dogs of women wanting to go into domestic violence refuges that had no capacity to look after the animals.  This started me thinking about links between domestic violence and animal abuse.  From there I just gritted my teeth and refused to research anything other than human-animal relations, despite various academic mentors trying to steer me away from it.

BP: Why and when did people start to care for animals? Could we compare countries with each other?

Nik Taylor:  Putting a finger on a starting point is difficult.  Bear in mind I am not a historian so there might be others better to ask this but my understanding is that the timeline is different across countries and across species, and we are still making discoveries.  I think we can make broad comparisons such as looking at when animals were first domesticated, or when certain species first became companions, but we need to be mindful that there are differences.

BP: What is animal abuse? Are there any categories since people are eating some of those animals?

Nik Taylor:  This is a tough question as the definition is debated.  The oft used definition is that by Ascione – “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal.” But the problem with this is that it focusses on individual acts of cruelty that are considered problematic when the majority of animal abuse is institutionalised and largely condoned.  By doing this – focussing on individual acts – it prioritises the abuse of particular species, largely companion animals, and ignores the daily abuses and murder of thousands upon thousands of other species not deemed important.  I think we need a more encompassing definition of animal abuse that recognises this structurally sanctioned behaviour and discourse.

BP: Animal violence and domestic violence. What is the link?

Nik Taylor:  There are many really.  We know there is increased likelihood of animal abuse in homes where domestic violence, child abuse and/or elder abuse occur, and vice versa.  We also know that children who are cruel to animals may be victims of abuse themselves and may go on to be abusive to animals and humans in later life.  To my mind, these links are the inevitable outcome of a patriarchal society that sees the world hierarchically and in binary terms, valuing men more than women, humans more than animals and so on.  I think this explains the often messy links across different forms of interpersonal violence and animal abuse.

BP: Who are those people that performs violent actions on animals? For ex. Do these people have healthy lives with their friends, families, work etc; but occassionally they are torturing animals?

Nik Taylor:  There are certain demographics where animal abuse might be higher, for example among young men, or among those convicted of domestic violence, but it is fairly widespread and much more common than people tend to think. For example, 43,000 US residents were asked “in your entire life, did you ever hurt or be cruel to an animal or pet on purpose?” and 1.8% said Yes.  Extrapolated this equals around 4 million adults admitting deliberate cruelty to animals (Flynn, 2012).  In a different study, up to 50% of adolescents aged 9-17 years have reported engaging in animal cruelty of some form (Baldry, 2003), and again, between 17.6% and 20.5% of undergraduate students report they have engaged in animal cruelty (Flynn, 2000).  And, of course, this is just individual animal cruelty and does not include that done by the meat, fishing, wildlife management and other industries.  Again, I think the widespread nature of this abuse – at both individual and institutional levels – is down to the way our society is organised and our belief in human superiority.

Understanding Animal Abuse

Understanding Animal Abuse

BP: Are there databases people could query?

Nik Taylor:  Yes, petabuse.com is one I know of that seems pretty comprehensive.

BP: Is it the same thing to cull animals (poison/shoot stray dogs) and harming an individual one?

Nik Taylor:  On the face of it, no.  There are differences – one is sanctioned and the other is not, for example.  One certainly suggests interpersonal problems and aggression while the other might not.  I say ‘might not’ because the assumption is that when an individual is violent to animals it denotes a problematic personality and when someone, say an abattoir worker, kills an animal in a sanctioned way it does not.  But this is really problematic on several levels.  The first is that it pathologises the individual act of animal cruelty which might well be accurate – that individual might well have problems – but in doing so it tends to silence all other analyses.  For example, we know that young men are at higher risk of cruelty to animals due to ‘acting out’ for their mates – this needs analysing in terms of hegemonic, and structural, masculinity codes just as much, if not more, than analysing it in terms of the individual’s pathology.  Secondly, working in areas that require the regular killing of animals is extremely likely to be damaging to the individuals that do it.  In a study I was involved in we found that abattoir workers scored more highly on aggression scales, and lower on empathy scales, than those from the general community who did not work in killing animals (link to study, here – http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15685306-12341284).  Thirdly, the “culling” of animal is accepted and thus left largely un-researched but it still fits into the matrix I mentioned above of patriarchal societies and their links to all forms of violence.

BP: Are human beings superior to other animals? One of the things I often hear is that earth is created for people.

Nik Taylor:  This is an anthropocentric point of view and I think it is one that many people hold.  There has been a lot of work demonstrating how anthropocentrism is written into our epistemological and ideological frameworks and tracing it to, at least, post-Enlightenment ideals.  I think it’s a very mistaken view and one that does a lot of damage – to humans, animals and the environment.  I think it is maintained, in part, by a neoliberal/capitalist framework purely because it allows the construction of “Othered” beings (and I include the environment broadly here) which in turn allows them to be seen as resources for human use.

BP: Do you have suggestions to the people who are interested in anthrozoology? As I know, there isn’t any program in Turkey.

Nik Taylor:  The Animals and Society Institute maintains a list of all HAS courses offered around the world – it’s a good place to start.

BP: Whose studies are you following?

Nik Taylor: I have really broad interests and read widely but scholars whose work fits into HAS (although they may not identify that way) whose new publications will always be at the top of my list include Jane Goodall, Jonathan Balcombe, Marc Bekoff, Frans de Waal from the ‘animal’ side of things and, Erika Cudworth, Hal Herzog, Clint Sanders, Carol Adams, Lori Gruen from the social science side.

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