Symposium puts the value of animals’ lives on the agenda

Published 09 December 2010

catOrganisers of a recent symposium at the University of New England hope the event has laid the foundation for a continuing dialogue on the intrinsic value of animals’ lives.

The event, titled “Animalia: a Critical Animal Studies symposium”, brought together UNE academics from disciplines – including literature, music and philosophy – who share a compassionate interest in animals. They presented papers on subjects ranging from dogs in fiction to the musical representation of birds and beasts.

The guest speaker was Julia Hardaker, Executive Officer of the organisation Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC) – an independent group of veterinarians, academics, health professionals and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. “With the view that human and dog health are inseparable in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” Ms Hardaker explained, “AMRRIC works to improve community health by improving the health and welfare of the dogs.”

“AMRRIC is privileged to information regarding the inner and complex world of relationships between owners and their dogs,” she said. “We have come to better understand the history of dogs in remote and Indigenous communities and the shift from the dingo to contemporary dogs as companions and protectors. We’ve been taken to ‘dog dreaming sites’, and have been educated about family kinship systems and the spiritual connectedness to their dogs.”

The symposium was hosted last month by the UNE-based Arts New England Centre for Research and Innovation in the Arts, and organised by Dr Jane O’Sullivan and Dr Julia Petzl-Berney from UNE’s School of Arts with the assistance of Rowena Smith, a PhD candidate in the School of Arts. Dr Jennifer McDonell, a lecturer in English at UNE who is internationally recognised for her work in Critical Animal Studies, opened the event with an introduction to this emerging field of inquiry.

“Scholars identifying their work within Critical Animal Studies (also known as Human and Animal Studies) are interested in the ways in which humans and animals are connected,” Dr McDonell said. “Humans and animals have co-evolved, so neither can be understood – discursively or materially – without the other. Work in this field is informed by the assumption that scholarly reflection about animals depends not only on discursive practices, but also on observation, cooperation, openness, and compassion for actual beings.”

Dr O’Sullivan emphasised the interdisciplinary – and, indeed, multidisciplinary – nature of Critical Animal Studies, explaining that it embraced research in the humanities, as well as in the natural and social sciences, that focused on “animals as the prime subjects of inquiry” in the context of animal/human relationships. “Critical Animal Studies is growing as a field of academic activity at universities around the world,” she said. “It’s a good example of the Academy taking up the challenge of speaking for the voiceless.”

“The symposium provided an introduction to the field – and an invitation to wade into that field,” Dr O’Sullivan said, adding that the contribution of Julia Hardaker as guest speaker exemplified the role of Arts New England as a research centre for the whole community.