This was written shortly after I began my studies at Canisius College in pursuit of my Master's degree in Anthrozoology.
Anthrozoology and the Realities of Nonhuman Animals
What is Anthrozoology?
Most commonly, anthrozoology is described as the study of the interactions between human and nonhuman animals. While a seemingly simple definition, veritably this area of study is deeply complex, consisting of students and professionals from a multitude of backgrounds, utilizing information from a breadth of academic fields to further understand the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals. According to Hal Herzog, “Anthrozoology transcends normal academic boundaries (2011, p. 17).”
This truth is evident in the academic and professional backgrounds of well-known anthrozoologists: they are anthropologists, ethologists, psychologists, animal behaviorists, lawyers, conservationists, animal rights activists and much more. By having professionals with such diverse backgrounds and specializations, the multidisciplinary field of anthrozoology as a whole can provide a well-rounded, inclusive look at the interactions between humans and nonhuman animals.
The Realities of Nonhuman Animals
Defining the realities of nonhuman animals is even more complicated than defining anthrozoology, given the element of mystery when it comes to how animals truly perceive the world.
This concept of “self-world’ is often referred to as umwelt (Horowitz, 2014, p. 212). Humans often interpret the umwelt or realities of nonhuman animals in ways that are tainted with anthropocentrism or anthropomorphism. However, each species utilizes their own unique abilities to perceive the world. These are abilities that we may not even come close to understanding—similar to how we can’t ever really know what differences in umwelt exist between individual humans.
For example, dogs and many other nonhuman animals have a second olfactory system that allows them to detect and process pheromones (Døving & Trotier, 1998, p. 2913). Because humans don’t even possess the organ necessary for this ability, the vomeronasal organ, we can’t even imagine what that’s like!
This demonstrates why anthropocentrism is unfair, and anthropomorphism can be inaccurate. Even with animals whom we do share a larger portion of our anatomy (primates, for example), we still cannot assume we know their umwelt.
Contradictorily, we must also stray from anthropodenial, a term coined by Frans de Waal, which is “a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves (de Waal, 1997).” By recognizing that there are commonalities between the inner lives of humans and nonhuman animals, we cultivate feelings of empathy and compassion, which I believe to be at the heart of anthrozoology.
The Realities of Nonhuman Animals are Critical to Anthrozoology
In order to best study the interactions between humans and nonhuman animals, developing a deeper, comprehensive understanding of both the former and the latter is imperative. Subsequently, learning more about the realities and inner lives of other animals can also teach us more about ourselves:
“…Animals demonstrate intelligence, communication, personalities, emotions, sensory abilities and other features… When humans experience such complexities beyond our own species, paradoxically such experiences push humans to become as fully human as we can be (Waldau, 2010, p. 52)…”
There is so much more research to be done on how various animals perceive the world, however, anthrozoologists must be cautious when looking at the realities of nonhuman animals through the human lens. It’s easy to make inferences based on observations or even scientific data, but if we are to be honest about the realities of nonhuman animals, we must accept that we will never fully understand them. Nonetheless, attempting to expand our comprehension of nonhuman animals is critical to this discipline.
Anthrozoologists are not limited in their areas of study. They must study not only companion animals but also wildlife, zoo animals and farmed animals. There is an endless amount of knowledge to be gained when examining the relationships between humans and these various groups of nonhuman animals. Some important questions being asked about these relationships include the following: Is there a “human-animal bond”? Do nonhuman animals have emotional lives? Is it ethical to consume nonhuman animals, to keep them in zoos or even to keep them as pets?
Anthrozoologists should be committed to performing research, observing and interacting with nonhuman animals in an effort to better comprehend their realities, to interpret our relationship with them, and ultimately to better answer these pressing questions and more.
“We all believe that our interactions with other species are an important component to human life and hope that our research might make the lives of animals better (Herzog, 2011, p.17).”
Anthrozoologists must hold on to, recognize and share those feelings of compassion. By deepening our understanding of the realities of nonhuman animals, we will come closer to determining how we might better share this world, so that we (all animals) can truly thrive.
de Waal, F. (1997, July). Are we in anthropodenial? Discover. Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/1997/jul/areweinanthropod1180
Døving, K. B., & Trotier, D. (1998). Structure and function of the vomeronasal organ. The Journal of experimental biology, 201(21), 2913-2925.
Herzog, H. (2011). Some we love, some we hate, some we eat: Why it's so hard to think straight about animals. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Horowitz, A. (2014). Domestic dog cognition and behavior: The scientific study of canis familiaris. Heidelberg: Springer.
Waldau, P. (2010). Animal rights: What everyone needs to know. New York: Oxford University Press.
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