I’ve much to update on the site in the next few weeks, but first I thought I’d share something I’m super excited about: a new research project, funded by VUW’s Strategic Initiatives Impact Fund, and set to begin in March.
Caring for Sheep Through Birth and Death: Human-Sheep Relations on the Farm and in the Lab
Human-sheep relations have been part of the human experience for twelve thousand years—profoundly shaping countless material bodies and environments, while remaining integral to cultural signification and evolution. It is hardly possible to overstate the influence sheep have in New Zealand’s history, even if they no longer play the dominant roles they once did. As production animals, they still provide vast amounts of meat, wool, and dairy for human consumption—in 2017 there were over 27 million sheep in the country, with approximately 23 million lambs and adult sheep sent to slaughter, primarily for an export market. Sheep were also the fourth most-common species, comprising just over 10% of all animals, used in New Zealand’s research, testing, and teaching last year.
In 1873’s Station Amusements, Lady Anne Barker wrote:
I never heard [sheep] spoken of with affection, nor do I consider that they were the objects of any special humanity even on their owners’ parts. This must surely arise from their enormous numbers. ‘How can you be fond of thousands of anything?’ said a shepherd once to me, in answer to some sentimental inquiry of mine respecting his feelings towards his flock. That is the fact. There were too many sheep in our ‘happy Arcadia’ for any body to value or pet them . . . Even the touching patience of the poor animals beneath the shears, or amid the dust and noise of the yards, was generally despised as stupidity. Far different is the feeling of the New Zealander, whether he be squatter or cockatoo, towards his horse and his dog.
Indeed, as animal geographer Henry Buller (2013) demonstrates, there are real and important differences in human-livestock relations when animals are experienced as individuals or masses. But almost 150 years after Lady Barker’s words, ‘public’ conversations on livestock farming are no more nuanced—still inviting ‘for’ or ‘against’ positions, and reducing affective/effective participation to those who care about farmed animals versus those who do not. In our current era of ecological and economic precarity, this over-simplification of the human-sheep (or any human-livestock) relationship can lead to cultural controversies that arguably prevent, rather than enable, necessary actions for our shared futures on this planet.
This project seeks to create new parameters for international, public engagement on livestock farming by providing empirical evidence of New Zealand sheep care practices in the two contexts which receive the most ‘public’ distrust and/or opposition: farms and laboratories. The decision to focus participant observation on these spaces/cultures has both theoretical and methodological goals. First, scholarly critiques of human-livestock relations are heavily dominated by the assumption that ‘outsider’ perspectives offer greater objectivity and/or validity than what is allowed by the ‘vested interests’ of industry and government. While this position has enabled much valuable research and necessary public exposés of animal abuse and environmental degradation, it also ignores the lived experiences and perspectives of the farmers and scientists actually tasked with livestock care from birth to death. Second, these everyday livestock care practices remain understudied by social scientists and this research seeks to build on, and operationalise, an emerging literature that theorises farmed animal care and more-than-human ethics. Primary resources in this area include Mol, Pols & Moser’s (2010) edited volume, Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms, and two recent books, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017) and Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Shotwell, 2017).
The project’s theoretical and methodological innovation will be grounded by empirical evidence that can inform not only interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, but also model human-livestock relations in ways that encourage national and international policy-makers and industry to approach livestock farming from both critical and caring perspectives. The ability to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach also stands to actively promote less polarised public debate, and impact cross-sector public engagement strategies. The inclusion of 1-2 Māori case studies will help build new research partnerships and highlight Indigenous ways of caring for nonhumans, including both animals and the earth. Finally, a commitment to working together with iwi, government and industry partners to co-assess the fieldwork-based model will increase knowledge exchange and greatly improve the likelihood of impact beyond the university.
Although probably only interesting to other researchers, I’ve included below a couple of charts from the proposal—but if you have any questions, or you’re interested in participating, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me directly.