Critical Animal Studies Conference Report

The critical difference between Human Animal Studies (aka Animal Studies) and Critical Animal Studies is in the word critical. What may appear to be a relatively unimportant difference is, in fact, key to understanding why there is a legitimate need for both HAS and CAS. It helps to let the protagonists of each define themselves.

Sociologist Clifton P. Flynn quotes Ken Shapiro of the Animals and Society Institute in the human and animal studies reader, Social Creatures, whose description of HAS is the investigation of “all aspects of our relations with other animals.” (xvi) Whereas the Institute for Critical Animal Studies describes CAS as the study of the “abolition of animal and ecological exploitation, oppression, and domination.” A further key difference is how HAS and CAS view the intersectionality in our relations with animals. Ecofeminist Carol J. Adams situates animal exploitation and the consumption of animal products in Neither Man Nor Beast as an “intersection of oppression.” “A progressive, antiracist defense of animals locates itself at the point of intersection of race, class, sex, and species,” she writes. (83) Both HAS and CAS embrace this view of intersectionality; however HAS frames it in the tradition of academic study whereas CAS frames their academic study in the context of progressive politics. “CAS is grounded in a broad global emancipatory inclusionary movement for total liberation and freedom.” Capitalism is featured in CAS as on one of the intersections of oppression, particularly in the context of its impact on animals.

All of this leads me to say that my principal interest in animal studies is to discover how animal advocates and animal studies scholars can learn from each other so that the animal rights movement can more effectively accomplish its mission. This is one of the key reasons why Ken Shapiro and I merged our respective organizations (Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals/Society and Animals Forum and The Animals’ Agenda magazine/Institute for Animals and Society) to form the Animals and Society Institute in 2005. ASI’s mission is to “advance institutional change for animals by helping to establish the moral and legal rights fundamental to a just, compassionate and peaceful society” by “promoting legislation, stopping the cycle of violence between animal cruelty and human abuse and learning more about our complex relationship with animals.”

It is with the animal rights movement and its effectiveness in mind that I attended “Animal(s) Matter(s): The Future of Critical Animal Studies” conference at the University of Liverpool in April. This meant that some of the speakers and their presentations were of more interest than others.

For example, the conference started with Alistair Currie, PETA Foundation’s Policy Advisor, who provided a useful summary of the current state of play with various key performance indicators, including trends in public opinion, animal use, fur retail sales and legislation and so on. Uncaged’s Dan Lyons explored the expose of documents relating to an animal research laboratory and showed how implementation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 essentially covered up preventable animal suffering and death. Political scientist Robert Garner made the argument that if animal suffering were made illegal in any future legislation it would significantly reduce the numbers of animals used and how they were treated. Jasmijn de Boo from Animals Count provided an overview on animal welfare and mainstream politics.

Of the remaining presentations that were more related to the future of the animal rights movement, Dr Karen Morgan focused on lessons to be learned for ethical veganism and animal rights from feminist research and activism and Dr Richard Twine described what Critical Animal Studies meant. While these presentations were useful in explaining their respective subject matter I wished they had addressed more about the impact they could make to achieve social and political change for animals.

This is where I think HAS and CAS have yet to make their mark. Animal studies scholars and animal advocacy practitioners have a lot to learn from each other. This sharing of information and experience combined with research and understanding could be the charge the animal rights movement needs to move the issue of the moral and legal status of animals from essentially cruelty-free lifestyle choice to the domain of public policy and legislation.

Nonetheless Liverpool University’s Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Stephen R. L. Clark is to be congratulated for organizing this conference but what a shame he was not included in the program of speakers. I would have liked to have heard his thoughts on the past and future of animal rights as a leading philosopher in animal ethics for more than 30 years. In future I would like see animal studies conferences more focused on the application of animal studies to the implementation of animal ethics in public policy. The head of animal studies needs to be united with the heart of animal advocacy. Now that would be a critical development.