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March 3, 2019

In philosopher Vinciane Despret’s essay “Sheep Do Have Opinions”, (1) she argues that ethologists’ questions about the nonhuman animals they study have elastic properties. Certain lines of inquiry may make behaviours more expansive, complexity more visible, allow for new and unexpected discoveries. Alternatively, she says, their questions can shrink our understanding by reproducing assumptions – that males always dominate, or that competition pervades every dimension of animals' lives. For Despret, expansive questions mean allowing animals to “testify to what interests them”, rather than simply what interests the researcher. This, she argues, is a form of inter-species “politeness”.  Primatologist Thelma Rowell's experiments with a flock of sheep, she says, are a case in point. After decades studying apes and monkeys in Africa, Rowell became frustrated by the ‘hierarchical scandal’ that saw some animals the glamorous subjects of fascinating questions about social relations, and others...

November 29, 2017

It’s been a summer where the intense privilege of being a PhD student studying human-animal relationships has really struck home. I have serious academic questions to answer. They just happen to be best answered from within a herd of horses under big blowsy skies, tearing the summer grass alongside the busy, muscular, lips of soft muzzles, watching the swallows scooping over the fields and the surrounding woodlands turn from vivid June greens to misty autumnal extravagance. Pastoral clichés welcome here.  “Bottle me some of that horse breath!” texts a friend when she learns where I am going that morning. “Best smell in the world!”

This is where I sit now with Erin, the owner and founder of an organisation I’m calling Equine Instinct, as we chat after a session with her flock of sheep, discussing the transparency of intention when approaching other animals. It took me nearly half an hour to get within companiable distance of this flock of snoozing sheep, playing a strange game of Grandmo...

March 31, 2017

 Photograph: Ben Gilbert/The Guardian

Recently, in a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust in London, the dance theatre company Fevered Sleep opened their doors for the public to engage in their creative research studio production of Sheep Pig Goat - a performance by musicians and dancers for an audience of animals in a warehouse in South London. The aim of the project was to explore inter-species communication and empathy, deliberately using farmed animals - sheep, pigs and goats - to unsettle habitual perceptions of them as meat providers. An invited series of evening speakers from the worlds of literature, science, philosophy and sociology attempted to contextualise the central question of the project: “How well do we see animals as they really are, rather than what we tell ourselves they are?”

This question has long exercised theorists in human-animal studies, because engagement with nonhuman entities raises fundamental questions about what constitutes ‘nature’ or ‘culture’; the sta...

December 17, 2016

           Twitter/National Geographic

Last month National Geographic disseminated a video with a sequence between three penguins, in which a male comes in to disrupt a monogamous nesting couple, successfully mating with the female as the previous partner is bloodily expelled ‘in humiliation’. The video went viral,  and the invader’s characterisation as a ‘homewrecker’ drew evident ire from penguin expert Norman Ratcliffe, who stated in  i News  that the label ‘made no sense’:  “There is a drive to fight for mates, resources and territory. But the video uses very anthropomorphic language, there is absolutely no indication animals feel humiliation”.

The  programme-makers put a playful  gloss on the penguin drama, transposing it to a melodramatic marital meta-narrative so hackneyed it can only have been conceived of by a human. That is a question of aesthetic taste. There are many words one could use to criticise such choices: naivety, sent...

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