Sarah Hann ’95 and Harlan Weaver ’99: “Animal Studies Fellowship Draws Alumni to Campus”

Sarah Hann ’95, a veterinarian with a specialty in acupuncture who is concerned with current agricultural practices, and Harlan Weaver ’99, a newly minted Ph.D. in the history of consciousness and the companion of two “pit bulls,” were two fellows in the Human-Animal Studies Fellowship Program this summer. They were back on campus for the annual six-week residency that brought together seven animal studies scholars.

Centered in the College of the Environment, the program offers the fellows—all engaged in research or writing projects—the chance to connect with a peer scholar, as well as to participate in rich interdisciplinary conversations. These conversations are key to the fellowship, which draws scholars from all over the world and many different disciplines who each have discovered that central to their thinking are questions involving nonhuman animals.

The fellowship is directed by Wesleyan faculty members Lori Gruen and Kari Weil. Gruen is professor of philosophy, of environmental studies, and of feminist, gender and sexuality studies and author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2011). Weil is director of the College of Letters and author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? (Columbia, 2012).

While Hann calls the fellowship her “first foray into the field of animal studies,” it’s clear that questions have been percolating. She says that her experience as a student of ecology and environmental literature led her not only to become a veterinarian, but also to “think deeply about the structure that we have created for animal agriculture.”

Hann, who was sponsored as the NYU Animal Ethics and Public Policy Fellow, is concerned about creating an agricultural system that would raise prices beyond what most working families could afford. “I’ve lived in a few different places in the country where local food is not necessarily as attainable as it is in New England,” she observes. “How we choose to eat has economic ramifications.”

During the fellowship, she’s discovered the writings of Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute, which focuses on developing sustainable agriculture and agrarianism in this country. “His thinking is that we need a whole new agriculture that’s focused on perennial crops, rather than annuals, which cause carbon loss, soil erosion, and pollution, and that we should tune in a little more to natural ecosystems,” Hann explains, and notes that her work is taking her further down this path. “I think that we have this assumption that we should continue trying to provide large amounts of animal products cheaply to a growing world population. It’s an unsustainable idea that seems foolish to perpetuate. That’s what I’m writing about.”

Weaver’s work is not focused on animals in agriculture. “My thinking about ethical relationship with animals has a lot more to do with training practices and with the worlds of race and class and gender,” he explains.

For Weaver, the thinking process began 10 years ago, when he adopted a pit bull. While writing his dissertation, “on a not terribly related topic” but with “an adviser who was a big animal studies person,” Weaver says, “I kept coming up against animal studies ideas and my relationship with this dog, especially on the subject of training. With pit bulls, you have to train them better than all the other dogs because they are such a stigmatized breed.” The pressure, he found, was to use domination techniques—a training model considered inappropriate by most current research—with the hope of ensuring that each pit bull will behave “perfectly,” serving as an ambassador for the breed. The comparisons between these expectations, feminist theories, and models of oppression were not lost on Weaver. “I realized, that, yeah, this is my next project.”

The National Canine Research Council was supporting Weaver’s fellowship work during the summer as he began to explore “how peoples’ experience of race, gender, nation, and sexuality, for example, are not just reflected in their relationships with animals, but actually shaped by those relationships.” Weaver is now enlarging the project and started fieldwork in September for “‘Dangerous’ Dogs and the Fuzzy Science of Canine Profiling,” funded by the National Science Foundation’s Science, Technology, and Society Center and located in the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society at UC Berkeley.

The Michael Vick scandal, in which the NFL player was convicted of dogfighting, brought the stigmatized pit bull and its “canine profile” as an “innately vicious dog” into national news—and brought this stereotype into serious question, says Weaver. “Almost all dogs involved in federal dogfighting cases up until that point had been routinely held as evidence and then euthanized. The Vick case was a landmark reversal in federal policy, in that the dogs were permitted to be evaluated and rehabilitated (when possible, which it was for the vast majority of them). The case marked a turning point from the viewing of dogs involved in dogfighting as innately aggressive to their being perceived as victims.”

While there is no such breed as “pit bull,” Weaver notes that many counties have supported breed-specific legislation. Denver, for instance, has a law on the books that would permit any “pit bull” found within city limits to be seized and euthanized. Weaver argues against all such breed-specific laws, even though, surprisingly, some animal protection agencies support the concept. “Breed-specific legislation attempts to respond to issues like dog bites by locating the problem in the ostensible breed of the dog,” he explains, “and naming those problems as ‘natural,’ rather than attending to the dynamics of canine behavior and the myriad other factors, often involving negligent human owners, which can play a part in dog bite problems.”

Weaver is hoping to use his research to advocate for fostering better training relationships between dogs and humans, as well as a better training culture and a more supportive and informed public. He’d like to demonstrate why breed-specific legislation has been ineffective, although he understands the high degree of prejudice against pit bulls. He doesn’t expect that research, writing, and facts will change deeply held fears overnight. Still, he’d like to open up discussions at a national level to provide a more complex understanding beyond the common pro-pit bull stance—“the dogs are innately good but have bad owners”—versus the fearful “the dogs are innately bad and nothing can be done.”

Before Hann and Weaver take their conversations to the national level, though, they are reflecting on the ones they’ve enjoyed during the fellowship this summer.

Hann says, “My ideas have evolved and shifted as a result of all the conversations we’ve had and the readings that we’ve done; they’ve felt cumulative. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation with Timothy Pachirat and reading his book, Every 12 Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, an ethnography on slaughterhouses— that was a very pivotal moment for me.  I feel transformed in my thought process.”

Weaver notes that he enjoyed the infusion of historical depth to his line of thought. “One of the other fellows has been thinking about race and species in a very historical context, while my work is contemporary. We’ve found all these fascinating overlaps in our projects, but I’m coming from a philosophy background and she’s coming from a literary background, so it’s like, ‘Oh, wait! We were having these conversations that were parallel, but now we can make them merge.’ It’s so exciting!” PROFILES