British Animal Studies Network Conference - November 2019

British Animal Studies Network Conference - November 2019

Human Behaviour team member Katrina Holland visited Leeds University in November 2019 to attend the British Animal Studies Network (BASN) conference. In this blog post she reflects on some of her highlights from the conference and gives a brief summary of the presentation she gave on the topic of puppy smuggling.

British Animal Studies Network – what’s it all about?

BASN is a research network that brings together people interested in animal studies in both contemporary and historical settings. Researchers curious about humans and other animals from a diversity of academic disciplines including history, sociology, behavioural sciences and ecology are warmly welcomed by the group. Although most people affiliated with the group work within academia (i.e. studying or teaching at an academic institution), the network also attracts professionals from animal welfare organisations who are involved in research focused on humans and other animals.


Twice a year, BASN organises conferences based around a single theme. On this occasion, the theme was ‘movements’ which was creatively interpreted by the speakers, providing a fascinating range of topics covered over the two days. Under discussion was an impressive diversity of animals, study sites and time periods. Presentation topics included the BBC’s first attempts to televise the fast-pace of the race horse in the early twentieth century (Scott Hunter, Kings College London), the tree-swaying locomotion of orangutans in contemporary Sumatra (Dr Julia Myatt, University of Birmingham), and the GPS-tracking of wolves within (and beyond) the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Jonathon Turnbull, University of Cambridge).


As well as enjoying listening to the other speakers, I was thrilled to be invited to present a discussion about the puppy smuggling trade: a presentation I prepared with support from Dogs Trust’s Communications and Public Affairs teams, referring to findings from the charity’s four investigative reports (available to download here).


I explained how the dogs caught up in this trade are rendered invisible at each stage of their (often long) journey from countries such as Hungary and Poland to the UK. For instance, from overseas vets supplying breeders with pet passports and microchips for dogs they have not even seen, to the lack of visual checks conducted by carrier (ferry and Eurotunnel) staff, and the lack of a central microchip database in the UK to enable tracing of the dogs once in the UK, the puppies are kept out of sight and opportunities to safeguard their welfare are missed as a result.


Much to my delight, my presentation wasn’t the only one to refer to dogs. I was fortunate to share a panel with Dr Sundhya Walther (University of Manchester) who spoke about her research concerning the multispecies relationships between migrants and the animals who they travel alongside. Whilst their claims to space are threatened by state power, Walther illustrated how together, the migrants and their animals “hold space” for one another. Sese Ma (Kyoto University) shared reflections from her preliminary visit to her PhD field sites in the Himalayas. She intends to return in 2020 to study how stray dogs living along the trekking trails go about their daily lives, prioritising the experience of individual dogs over the group. Her approach is informed by a concern that research about animals often considers the animal as an exemplar of a particular species, even when individuals are being studied. This issue was also touched upon by Dr Julia Myatt (University of Birmingham) who reminded us of the limits of the notion of ‘species-specific’ behaviour. As she explained, factors such as the animals’ group size and the quality of their habitat can affect how animals move around their environment. Myatt illustrated this through a comparison of the hunting behaviour of African Wild Dogs in Botswana and Tanzania. She explained that the degree of cooperative hunting behaviour between African Wild Dogs in these two locations has been found to differ, which she suggested is a result of differences in habitat structure and prey type.

Hot topic: changing habitat

The necessity for animals to adapt to environmental degradation in the age of the Anthropocene (the name given to the current geological time period in which human influence has, for the first time, become the primary driver of environmental change) was a recurrent theme throughout the meeting. For instance, several speakers asked how humans and animals live alongside each other under conditions of increasing competition for resources like food and shelter.

Anthropologist Professor Nayanika Mathur (University of Oxford) provided the plenary lecture, presenting a comparison of what it means for people live with leopards in 3 Indian cities, as habitat destruction pushes these animals into ever-increasing contact with humans. Understanding local perceptions of what it means to live in close proximity to these animals is certainly important if instances of human-leopard conflict are to be avoided. Using evocative vignettes and images from her field research, she demonstrated that living with these big cats evokes a city-specific response that is affected by factors including biodiversity depletion, migration patterns, technologies of visibility (i.e. home CCTV), class and caste differentiation, and relations between leopards and other animals including pet dogs. Mathur also highlighted that the ways in which a city’s human inhabitants understands leopards and live alongside them is not fixed but subject to change. For instance, in her case study of Mumbai, which has the highest density of both humans and leopards, Mathur explained how the Forest department has worked with famous Bollywood stars living on the fringes of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, in their outreach work, to shift the local narrative to incorporate an understanding that the leopards have rights to the space too.

Beware the Cat

As well as a programme of stimulating academic discussion, conference entertainment was also provided and did not stray from the theme of human-animal relations. On the evening of the first night we were treated to a performance of ‘Beware the Cat’, based on one of the first ever English novels written by William Baldwin in 1553. The performance, a collaboration between academics in Sheffield and Sussex, invited us to question how cats might experience the world. If you’re curious to find out more, one of the cast members, Dr Robert McKay, has written a great blog post about the themes the performance explores.

Interested to learn more about animal-studies research, or want to keep up-to-date on future BASN events? Follow BASN on Twitter (@BASNTweets).

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