Thursday, November 19, 2015

Animalia Journal: Anthrozoology and Anthropomorphic Poetic Expression

Anthrozoology and Anthropomorphic Poetic Expression

Peggy Moran

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Keywords: Anthropomorphism, Liminality, Poetry, Appropriation, Animal-Others
Talking about animals is always an act of appropriation. Expressed through another’s written ideas, thoughts, imaginings, biased observations, interpretations, and recordings, without awareness of their own status as a point of focus, the nonhuman animal is utterly subaltern, an object possessed and manipulated, where even natural behavior only occurs as permitted and portrayed by the author. 

As one of these authors, I like to write poetry about animals as viewed through an anthropomorphic, child-centric lens. This approach provides me with an ironic means for allowing the animal- as I do not know him- to peek back and gain an implied voice; paradoxically, the voice remains mine, posing as my interpretation of the hypothetical “Other”. 

Writing about the child, like the nonhuman animal, allows me to puppeteer my imagined human subjects into roles as inadvertent teachers or liaisons for animal-Other-centered connections at a more intuitive level. Children are, themselves, in-between, in a liminality or boundary space where they are suspended, for a while, between infancy- where they are entirely unaware of the greater sphere of lives around them- and entitled, adult, human dominion over nonhuman animals. Children are uniquely capable of identifying with animal-Others on a similar, shared plane of existence. Writing my human subjects as guileless children is an effort, on my part, to demonstrate a level of humility as I explore human-nonhuman attraction. 

In both of these poems, I push my imagined subjects to roam and explore anthrozoological boundary areas, but not without leaving very human footprints. 

Tomboy runs willy-nilly through the wild dog woods,
sporting Father’s new camouflage boots,
stomping saplings and kicking up leaves,
breaking bittersweet and cockscomb, crashing
trembling brush with no consideration
For coyotes, who crouch, eyes darting at ankles
slim and tender; long-faded tan tucked under
corduroy pants, wide-wale whispers of 
thighs passing so near, unwieldy rubber
footwear can’t mask her smell; each cell tells
stories of the taste of a November child;
They toy with thoughts of bursting forth: fangs
and foamy spittle gnashing to pierce the girl,
still pulsing, darker shades of autumn,
sanguine, pooling in the roots of tall dead grass,
grey and fading golden; instead, they hold steady,
muzzles pressed to the ground, ears cocked,
Almost coy; soundless breath signaling southbound geese,
tiny clouds from snouts long and toothy;
smiling, they fight the urge to wag, joyful
as she sings her winter song to conjure
the full, cold moon.

On the morning after the Leonid showers, I skip school and bolt, 
a coltish girl, to the wild-horse beach, racing the squall line 
to follow him, spectral-bright; unfurling across shores of lifting terns, 
trampling trembling sea-rocket and salt-meadow grass; 

Tangled mane of wind-blown spume, all lightning-hooves and gusty-flare, 
snorting blasts of salty-fume, all pale and pearly iridescence; 
On his forehead, a tattoo, of the meteor-sort; rhythmic fragment 
of light, in flight, infinite, until I speak; and then he stands, transfixed,

Silver haze of misty-brume, billowing with the stillness 
of tidal pools in static air, holding breath before the hurricane;           
I tie a kite to his bowstring tail and give chase, ignoring accusations,
sharp glances cast over colder-shoulder, not once recalling the rain 

Of petals from the blossom tree, the sweetness of apple-breath; 
all a welcome to where we used to stand, discussing gravity
until too late; in a sea-foam froth of acrid sweat and vapor-plume,
all arc-of-spark and sonic-boom, reluctant wings unfold, unbound, 

To sweep the sky in thunderous, pounding waves.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

#SPARCS2015, Phoenix, Arizona: YES!!! (And also some academics-related musings)

Okay, firstly, I'm bragging a bit, but feel I must:

I WON FREE ADMISSION to the SPARCS 2015 Conference!

All of my canine cognition and anthrozoology heroes will be there; or at least a lot of them. Many are people I wrote to, asking them to be my home-school-grad-school mentors. None agreed, and very few responded, but that's okay. That was a silly and short-lived idea. I've gone ahead and applied to real grad school. Or, I should say, sort of real; it is through the amazing University of of Charles Darwin's almae matres!...but I'll be doing it as an online student. Boo :(
No teachers to bother in person.

In the interim, I'm still open to local offers...preferably ones that are accompanied by sweet fellowships, since two years ago, like an idiot (okay, like an exhausted person), I waived my continuing scholar support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation :(
At the time, I didn't think I had it in me, to continue. Now I'm sorry I was so impetuous.

If I do get the chance to continue my studies, I have to stay local or do it online, so that I can remain within this life I've made for myself, surrounded by other lives I love and care for. I have no regrets, but if there were more 'me's to go around, perhaps I'd send one me off to study in Scotland. It would tie my early childhood Lassie fantasies (collie and I running across the moors, surrounded by the bonnie heather and moody highland skies), neatly together with my late-to-the-party academic scrambling, all in an awesome setting. If I get accepted into the University of Edinburgh program (still waiting to hear), perhaps I can eventually go there to graduate...and then afterward borrow a dog and run hobble across the moors!

But meanwhile, more realistically and in the here-and-now, the SPARCS conference has suddenly, amazingly become accessible, all chock full of legitimate dog researchers I hope I get the chance to pester with questions in person! This is something I can actually jump (okay walk) into with both feet, led not by a bouncing collie, but by my own frisky brain-- which I like to let run off lead as often as possible.It moves at a snappier pace than my body, these days.

My off-lead brain sometimes gets me into trouble. I'm talking about dropping out of school at 17 to "do research my way;" I eventually (at age 49) made up for that by doing a u-turn and dropping back into school, and I've been holding a pretty steady, "traditional," educational course ever since. My old, off-the-beaten-path ideas, informed by a lifetime of experience, are still percolating, but they have been tempered by my new found academic discipline, and I believe the combination is nicely balanced. Now if I could just find the motivation/ nerve to tighten it up and publish...

SPARCS certainly may help. Every time I get exposed to people I respect, who have taken that next step and have moved forward into positing, examining, and sharing their research ideas, I get a little more motivated. Now that I'm actually rested enough after my four year, pedal-to-the-metal drive through undergraduate studies (thank you, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation!), graduating summa cum laude (I'm bragging again; its my way!) at 53 with a BA in Anthrozoology, I am ready to begin again. SPARCS this summer, and grad school in the I come!

Who knows? Maybe next year I might even present my own research at SPARCS 2016!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rethinking Dog Research

In the not so distant past, people who focused upon domestic dogs as their favorite subject for academic research were viewed by the overarching animal behavior community as crazy dog lovers who were barking up the wrong tree. 

Image result for dog behavior research experiments

Okay, that is an exaggeration; I guess I was more referring to myself, back in the day, as a dog-obsessed, self-proclaimed dog trainer lacking an academic degree. The scientific literature pertaining to man’s best friend was out there; it just wasn't easy to find, and that reinforced my sense of loneliness and insignificance as one who desired to study, not just boss around or snuggle, dogs.

While investigating these matters, despite my fervent desire to see published dog behavior research juxtapose a breath of scientific reason into the library of entirely anecdotally-based dog nonfiction in my town's public library, I did not yet have a high school diploma (dropped out; long story). I was not in a position to break the ice and begin filling the void with accessible scholarly insights into the canine mind.

Luckily, other, more studious, disciplined individuals kept their noses to the academic grindstone and forged their way into just what was needed; modern scientific dog behavior research. Yea! This seems to have really caught on, along with the pet dog's rise from sort-of-subject status as a "pet" to family member/ surrogate child in most developed nations. Now universities around the world are rising to the occasion (and the more readily available grant money?), popping up with canine cognition laboratories where they perform dog studies and then publish their experiments and results.

Here are some awesome examples (I’d work for any of them if they begged me to). This list was put together by Julie Hecht and shared by Patricia McConnell on her blog:

Canine Cognition Research Groups 

Once lumped with the likes of snake charmers and dog whisperers, dog behavior researchers are becoming the rock stars of the animal behavior field. They get to interact with their subjects, and sometimes even engage with them in fun games posing as exciting experiments. They give Tedtalks and present lectures the public (nonacademic) actually care about; they get to publish crossover books that enlighten the average pet owner about the underpinnings of their research subjects, and people actually buy their books. (How many fairy wren researchers can say that!?)

Doing good animal behavior science requires respect for boundaries and a desire not to corrupt or compromise results. Besides being the way science is done right, perhaps this is because anthropocentrism is so attractive and full of whimsy. Despite the attraction to animals as not-quite-Others (“you are just like me!”), when people directly interact with nonhuman beings, things generally get weird/ bad. Applied behavior work with animals used to mean things like taming tigers for circus acts. 

My thoughts turn to a man named Roy, getting dragged away to a Las Vegas tiger’s den for snack time. According to Roy, in interviews from his near-death bed, this tiger, Mantecore, had purely altruistic, loving, “motherly” intentions; he simply wanted to extract Roy from the stress of the stage, the lights, and the thousands of staring audience members’ eyes, to whisk him away by the jugular—er, scruff of the neck—to “protect” him. According to Roy, Mantecore severed his artery as a deliberate, protective act of bloodletting, to relieve his brain of dangerously-building blood pressure. Stuff like this may impact the researcher contemplating the study of dog behavior as a hands-on science. On the one side, it sounds like fun: puppies! But then again it could also induce scientist-shame: interaction = meddling! Nobody wants to be the academic Roy.

But wait, there’s more! In this case, where we actually live with companion dogs in shared environments, academic meddling in the name of research is part of the bigger behavior-analysis picture. We NEED to be involved, in order to understand the ways dogs are impacted by, and respond to, us… so yes, PUPPIES!

Dog behavior researchers get to jump into the attractive gap between human kind and nonhuman others--that anthrozoological boundary area where most animal behavior research demurely, respectfully peers through a self effacing one-way mirror, or, where it looks for the deleterious impacts of us upon them. Dog behavior studies allow the researcher to (in a controlled manner) tear the membrane, step in, and engage with subjects in full, species-specific awareness of one another. They engage with their subjects (or have their assistants engage with their subjects) in search of understanding domestic dog behaviors and ways of responding to  human beings and the shared environment. The dog researcher basically is rewarded for getting right up into the nonhuman side of the anthrozoological divide, while still holding a position of academic respectability.

Despite getting to roll around with the puppies while enjoying the guilt-free leap into the limelight of academic acceptance and—dare I say it?—credibility, might empirical dog studies still get inadvertently bogged down by a muddy line drawn in the shape of a heart? People share a bond with dogs that transcends the feelings generated by bees, fairy wrens, and other creatures of interest to the animal behavior researcher. We name dogs (and occasionally tigers), consider them friends, and many of us sleep with them when we are not at work studying them; we care for, and accept care from, dogs. Does this set the stage for confirmation bias? If so, I guess confirmation bias in companion animal research is yet another area of study just waiting to be explored!

All of this thinking/ rethinking aloud has served to make my mind up; its time to start a dog behavior research program! 

Now accepting volunteers with all of the following: 
  • PhD in a related field
  • Access to an illustrious academic institution with an awesome lab
  • Must love dogs
  • Lack of distracting, competing animal behavior research interest specific to tigers or other animals that tend to eat people