An interview with Margo DeMello on Animal Studies

“We can’t ‘love’ all animals, but when we create artificial categories, and then imagine that they are real, we allow ourselves to use those categories as the justification for every possible kind of treatment.” — Margo DeMello

Animals and Society Margo DeMello teaches anthropology and sociology at Central New Mexico Community College, and she is the author of the recently published Animals and Society, the first book to provide a full overview of human–animal studies. Today, we have an interview with Professor DeMello, in which she discusses some problems with common human conceptions of animals. For further reading, be sure to check out her essay introducing human-animal studies!

Animal Studies is a relatively new field. Only now are we beginning to see the ways in which animals are given identities like you mention in your book, “based on their use to humans.” How do you propose we begin a new way of fashioning our ideas of animals that is not based on human-centered universe?

This question points to one of the fundamental problems with our relationship with animals—it’s structured around humans, and our needs and desires. To get past this basic way of thinking is to challenge ourselves to see the world, and our place in it, in a radically different way. Rather than asking ourselves, “what’s in it for me,” we have to look at the systems and relationships that we’ve set up and endeavor to put aside, at least a little bit, our own desires. And that is hard!

In Animal Rights without Liberation, Alasdaire Cochrane proposes that animal rights should not be based on what humans think animal wants (such as “equality”). Instead, he proposes an “interest-based” theory in which animal rights activists focus on what interests the animals. What is your reaction to this claim?

I think that he’s saying that an animal’s interests—to not be killed, to not suffer, etc.—are more important than abstract concepts like equality, and that rights can only be extended when those interests are sufficient to force someone else to behave differently. I’m not a philosopher and tend to take a very practical view of things—it doesn’t feel right to me to make an animal suffer, if it can be easily, or at all, prevented—but this perspective makes sense to me.

You write about how some animals are considered “livestock” or “lab animals” and others “pets.” There is an obvious division between the animals we care about and those we don’t. It would seem wrong to want all animals to fit into one, loving category. What do you propose is the best way to change these categories?

What I’m really saying is that the categories that we’ve constructed are just that: constructions. And those categories shape how we see, and then treat, animals. If an animal is defined as a pest, as rabbits are in many places, then they can be slaughtered wholesale without any concern, as was just the case in New Zealand when 23,000 were killed on Easter Day as part of a charity hunt. We can’t “love” all animals, but when we create artificial categories, and then imagine that they are real, we allow ourselves to use those categories as the justification for every possible kind of treatment.

Your book is chock full of these fantastic stories about animals that are often televised and written about. It seems that everyone has a story about an animal, whether it changed them or simply struck them as interesting. I have one of my own. My grandmother was reared in the countryside of a Caribbean island. She was very consumed with the idea of motherhood. In her eyes, chickens were better mothers than ducks, so she would take the duck eggs and put them with the chicken eggs. The duck wouldn’t really care and the chicken raised the ducklings as if they were her own. The problem, however, arose when the ducks went into the lake for a swim and the hen would rush over to the edge, screaming, thinking that her babies were drowning. The image of the distraught chicken is one that has remained in my mind. Do the stories in your work speak to the desire to have a better understanding of what it is that animals feel and know? Is it humor? Curiosity perhaps?

That is such a great story! One of my first books, Stories Rabbits Tell, was named that way because my co-author and I love animal stories. We like telling stories about animals, reading stories about animals, and we love imagining the stories that animals would tell to each other. And yes, I absolutely think that one reason we tell so many stories that feature animals, and why we have animals act as stand-ins for us in our own stories, is that we are, in part, trying to imagine what is going on their minds. I know that most every person who lives with a companion animal, and who talks to or through that animal, is imagining what their animal is thinking and how they are responding.

You write that “no scholarship is truly objective,” especially Human-Animal Studies as it seems to have political obligations. Would you say, however, that there is a divide between those who wish to intellectualize animal studies and those who see it as a means to gain some sort of political protection of animals?

I don’t think there’s such a divide, where there’s a clear line between the players, so much as people whose interests lie more with animal protection and those whose interests lie more with scholarship, and those whose interests lie equally on both ends. I know that probably sounds like I am saying there’s a line, but I think that for many of us, it seems so natural to want to do both—scholarship about animals and work on behalf of animals—that it doesn’t seem like there is a line.

In your textbook, you briefly explain how Darwin’s Theory of Evolution changed the large divide imposed by Aristotle that humans were superior because of their rational thoughts and their ability to speak for the better. It seems that the theory is based on an individualistic and almost aggressively capitalistic view of the world, even though it is obviously scientific. Some may even use it to justify the way in which humans treat other animals. What do you make of this double-edged sword?

Sure. I think that the same could be said of the role that Darwinian thought had on racial thought too. For some, that showed that the “races” were all human, and that we could not justify racial inequality based on a biological concept of difference/superiority/inferiority. But at the same time, many jumped to the conclusion that non-whites were insufficiently evolved, or had perhaps devolved, thus once again justifying their subservience. With animals, I think the argument is much stronger that because we’re much more similar than we are different, that we can’t justify human superiority. But some will certainly hang on to a simplistic (and incorrect) version of evolution which says that humans have evolved further than other animals. But evolution is not about progress, so from a scientific perspective, this latter position has little merit.

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