Disasters bring into sharp focus a range of complex issues in animal-human relations. On the one hand, animals are used to serve human needs, caught up in human conflicts, and have little if any choice in the matter. On the other hand, many of these relationships are characterised by what can be described as deep compassion and loyalty (perhaps on both sides). Animals abandoned by civilians during times of war were often rescued by soldiers, providing companionship, inspiration, sometimes engendering a will to live in their human companions. During the Blitz, there was some effort by the RSPCA and others to account for and evacuate zoo and companion animals. Many individuals and families in New Orleans refused to be rescued from their homes if rescue meant leaving their animals behind.
Gratitude for the courage and gallantry of animals in war has been marked by the Dickin Medal in Britain, with 62 recipients so far (including pigeons, dogs, horses and one cat) (PDSA, 2008). The exhibition 'The Animals' War' at the Imperial War Museum (2004), and the subsequent Animals in War Memorial erected in Hyde Park, give formal recognition to the huge role played by animals in war and the deaths sustained by a variety of species (Gardiner, 2006, 190). There have also been recent developments aiming at improving animal evacuations; in response to the dire aftermath of Katrina, the US Congress passed the Pets Evacuation Bill, and one US entrepreneur is setting up a consulting firm for implementing animal evacuations.
Are such efforts merely sentimental gestures or are they evidence of new and serious recognition of the remarkable abilities and importance of, primarily, domesticated and companion animals? Probably it is a bit of both. Human relations with animals - from wild and feral to domesticated and companion - are characterised by the serious as well as the trivial and sentimental. Our emotional attachments to both familiar and strange animals can be as strong as those to other humans, and it is often within these relationships that we come to a better understanding of the crucial role played by animals in our lives. In recent years, I've witnessed a turn in animal ethics towards trying to understand and interpret animal-human relations, thereby moving beyond the narrower yet equally important focus on animals through questions of animal rights and welfare. A more inclusive shift towards animals in everyday life is also evident, that is, not just considerations about the distant and the wild (Palmer, 1997; Palmer, 2003). This widening of the scope of animal ethics probably parallels the growth of transdisciplinary animal studies, which draws on a range of perspectives: anthropological, historical, geographical, literary, artistic. While to describe this as a surge may be exaggerated, we can see at least that animals are now very much on the academic agenda. Among other UK events, the British Animal Studies Network has been holding a series of Arts and Humanities Research Council workshops on topics ranging from genetic engineering to companion animals. On the same day in 2008, Tate Britain held a conference on 'Close Encounters of the Animal Kind' and London Metropolitan University hosted an exhibition and symposium, 'The Animal Gaze', with both events bringing together artists and academics to talk about animal-human relations. One of the largest academic conferences ever on animal-society relations, 'Minding Animals', will take place in Australia in 2009, with animal advocacy groups, academics, film-makers and others presenting their work. (See references below for websites.)
The majority of papers in this issue of the journal are concerned with rethinking animal relations. For example, Francisco Benzoni argues for a process metaphysics that interprets value in terms of all creatures being subjects of experience (Benzoni, 2009). Heideggerian ways of being-with inform Simon James' case against scepticism about animal minds (James, 2009). Animal interdependence and ecological ethics are key components in Cahoone's justification of some forms of hunting (Cahoone, 2009). The approaches taken are various and reflect the ways environmental thought, as seen in this journal and others, is now engaging with concepts beyond intrinsic value, such as embodiment, process, narrative and relationship (Firth, 2008; O'Neill 2008). In our new ways of thinking about animals, the challenge, I believe, is to recognise the rich and complex role humans play in animal lives and animals play in human lives, and to work toward an understanding that acknowledges how our emotional attachments can ground care and respect. Sentimentality and anthropomorphism inevitably have some role in our relations with animals, but we need to think very critically about how we deploy them. They may help us to see affinities with other animals, but may also present us with mistaken understandings both of particular animals, and whole classes of animals, thus distorting our ethical attitudes to them (Hepburn, 1993). Open-minded and progressive thinking about animals is certainly on the agenda; let's hope it stays there.
'Animal Gaze' symposium and exhibition. http://www.animalgaze.org/. Accessed 23 December 2008.
Benzoni, F. 2009. 'Moral worth of creatures: neo-classical metaphysics and the value theories of Rolston and Callicott'. Environmental Values 18: 5-32.
Cahoone, L. 2009. 'Hunting as a moral good'. Environmental Values 18: 67-89.
'Close Encounters of the Animal Kind' conference. 2008. http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/eventseducation/symposia/15666.htm. Accessed 23 December 2008.
Firth, D. 2008. 'Do meaningful relationships with nature contribute to a worthwhile life?' Environmental Values 17: 145-16.
Gardiner, J. 2006. The Animals' War (London: Portrait and Imperial War Museum).
Hepburn, R.W. 1993. 'Trivial and serious in aesthetic appreciation of nature', in I. Gaskell and S. Kemal, eds. Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Humane Society of the United States. 2006. 'Responding to Katrina: meeting the challenge together'. All Animals, 8: 1. http://www.hsus.org/press_and_publications/. Accessed 23/12/08. James. S. 2009. 'Phenomenology and the problem of animal minds'. Environmental Values 18: 33-49.
Minding Animals Conference. 2008. http://www.mindinganimals.com/. Accessed 23 December 2008.
O'Neill, J. 2008. 'Happiness and the Good Life'. Environmental Values 17: 125-144.
Palmer, C. 1997. 'The idea of the domesticated animal contract'. Environmental Values 6: 411-426.
Palmer, C. 2003. 'Placing animals in urban environmental ethics'. Journal of Social Philosophy 34: 64-78.
PDSA. 2008. http://www.pdsa.org.uk/page309.html. Accessed 23/12/08.
Other papers in this volume
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