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Illinois hosting inaugural human-animal studies institute

Scholars from around the world will examine our relationships with animals

The University of Illinois is hosting scholars from around the world to look at our relationships with animals at an inaugural Human-Animal Studies Summer Institute.
The University of Illinois is hosting scholars from around the world to look at our relationships with animals at an inaugural Human-Animal Studies Summer Institute.
The University of Illinois is hosting a Human-Animal Studies Summer Institute that one of its organizers hopes will put Illinois at the forefront of the emerging interdisciplinary field.

Anthropology professor Jane Desmond, a co-director of the institute, said researchers in biology, ecology, and animal sciences have long studied human-animal relations, but the field has exploded in the last 10 years in the humanities. Scholars in literary studies, sociology and the arts are asking different questions about those relationships, she said.

“Animals are deeply entwined in our lives, from our shoes to what we eat, if we have them in our houses, if we participate in sports such as riding, whether we go to the zoo. This is a central, multifaceted relationship and it deserves our academic attention,” she said.

The institute – the only one of its kind in the world, Desmond said – runs July 9-15 and is a partnership between the U of I and the Animals and Society Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that promotes the study of human-animal relationships. The organization asked for proposals for an inaugural institute and the U of I was selected. The institute builds on a 2010-11 initiative of the U of I's Center for Advanced Study called “Knowing Animals – Histories, Strategies, and Frontiers in Human/Animal Relations.”

“As a public institution, as a land grant university, as a place that has animals on campus, I wanted to build on that,” Desmond said.

Anthropologist Jane Desmond is a co-director of the Human-Animal Studies Summer Institute.
Anthropologist Jane Desmond is a co-director of the Human-Animal Studies Summer Institute.
Nearly 30 scholars from seven countries – doctoral students or those in the early stages of their careers – will attend the institute. They represent a diverse array of disciplines including musicology (a doctoral student studying whale song), sociology, French language and literature, art, occupational therapy, psychology, veterinary medicine, geography, political science and religious studies.

“These relations with animals cut across law and economics and literature and the arts. We need to be talking about them in interdisciplinary ways,” Desmond said.

Such study can result in changes in public policy. For example, she said, people being evacuated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 refused to leave their homes without their pets. That led to changes in the regulations regarding the presence of pets in emergency housing.

“It’s an area we didn’t have an academic understanding of, but (pets are) a central part of how people organize their lives, and they were willing to risk their lives,” Desmond said.

The scholars at the institute will participate in workshops in which they will provide feedback on each other’s work. The institute includes presentations each day that are open to the public. Among the speakers are U of I English visiting professor Jamie Jones, who will talk about animals and energy resources, from whaling to deep water oil drilling; Chris Green, an Illinois graduate who helped create the U of I's environmental sciences degree program and is the executive director of Harvard University’s Animal Law & Policy Program, who will speak about alternative approaches to animal advocacy; and a half dozen scholars from around the country.

U of I new media professor Deke Weaver will discuss his “Unreliable Bestiary” project, a series of performances which highlight threatened animals and habitats and our relationships to them, and he’ll perform an excerpt from “BEAR,” his latest work in the project.

All the events will take place at the Levis Faculty Center, 919 W. Illinois St., Urbana. A complete list of public events at the institute is online. Desmond said she and her co-directors from the Animals and Society Institute hope to make this an annual event.

The Center for Advanced Study is co-hosting the institute with the Animals and Society Institute, with cosponsorship from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and the Department of Anthropology.

Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau
7/5/2017

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