Guest Column with Siobhan O’Sullivan

June 13 / 111

The University of Melbourne is fast gaining a reputation as a hub for the study of nonhuman animals. While the University has a long history undertaking research and teaching in the fields of veterinary medicine; biological sciences; and animal welfare science, it is now increasingly contributing to discussions about the relationship between human and nonhuman animals and in turn the relationship between humans and the natural world. This emerging field of academic inquiry is often referred to as human-animal studies (HAS) and is typically undertaken by scholars working within the social sciences, humanities, law and the creative arts. 

In 2012, the Faculty of Arts funded the Human Rights and Animal Ethics (HRAE) Research Network. The Network was launched in December by former Justice of the High Court Michael Kirby. Chaired by Prof. Barbara Creed, HRAE takes an interdisciplinary approach to HAS. The Network includes scholars from Culture and Communications, the School of Social and Political Sciences, and Historical and Philosophical Studies. Projects underway include a study into the history of animal emotions; the changing role of zoos; and the cultural and political process underlying species based favouritism.

Most recently I co-authored a paper with Dr Clare McCausland and D. Scott Brenton about the use of trespass by animal advocates. That paper appears in the latest edition of Res Publica. In it we argue that trespass for the purpose of acquiring information about how animals live and die, used to inform policy debate, is consistent with the principles of civil disobedience. We are currently developing that work further by considering whether the same principles apply to animal activism at sea. Animal activism at sea is a greater challenge to civil disobedience. Against whom is the action being taken? What laws are being broken? If the high seas are more like the Wild West, does the concept of civil disobedience hold much moral significance? 

This line of inquiry develops my research interest in policy formulation, with a particular focus on how we formulate public policy in cases where the subject of the policy is either socially or politically invisible. How do we decide what’s fair in the absence of information? As Michael Pollen famously asked: pork is all around us, but when’s the last time you saw a pig? In a post-script he notes that Babe doesn’t count!

My book Animals, Equality and Democracy offers an extensive analysis of the relationship between animal visibility and the structure of animal welfare laws. One of the challenging features of animal welfare policy formation is that while animals are property items – to be bought and sold – they also live almost entirely on or within private property. Around 98 per cent of purpose-bred animals are bred for agricultural purposes. They are seen exclusively by those with a pecuniary interest in them. This generates a puzzle: should the community be involved in setting animal welfare standards? If yes, how might this occur? I will be considering these and other issues when I deliver the keynote address at the upcoming Australian Animal Studies Group (AASG) conference, hosted by the University of Sydney.   

HRAE also features an interdisciplinary reading group. The group meets on the last Monday of each month, at 5.30pm. The group meets on the grounds of the University of Melbourne. Each month we consider a different peer review, academic article about nonhuman animals. The group is open to anyone with an academic interest in animals. To join simply email me at          




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