Speaker series highlights the role of animals in human culture

January 19, 2011

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Animals are food, but they are also companions. They are beasts of burden but they also inspire poets and painters. We use them as metaphors for everything from faithfulness (the loyal dog) to the ridiculous (silly goose), the industrious (busy bee), the outcast (black sheep) and the impotent (lame duck). They are property and yet they are worthy of societal protection from abuse.

A series of public events sponsored by the Center for Advanced Study explores these animal-related themes and more in a series of events this spring. "Knowing Animals: Histories, Strategies and Frontiers in Human/Animal Relations," will explore the latest developments in animal law and wildlife protection, celebrate the search for the origin of species, delve into the social life of chimpanzees and survey evolving ideas of "animal personhood."

"This initiative is part of a whole wider international movement to ask the question in every discipline, not just the obvious ones such as biology or zoology, 'What if we put animals into the equation?' " said University of Illinois anthropology professor Jane Desmond, who chairs the multidisciplinary steering committee that planned the events.

The movement, called simply "animal studies" or "critical animal studies," explores the overlapping disciplines of scientists who study animal physiology and behavior with those who look at the role of animals in history, law, religion, philosophy, language and the visual and performing arts, Desmond said.

"Of course zoologists and biologists have been doing animal studies forever," she said. "But the questions are different and the conversations are even more interdisciplinary than within the sciences because they cross the humanities and the social sciences and the arts."

This series began in the fall of 2010, with talks by James Elkins, of the Art Institute of Chicago; Emory University primatologist and author Frans de Waal; University of California at Berkeley cultural geography professor Jake Kosek; and a multi-media performance event by Illinois art and design professor Deke Weaver.

The spring events, all on Tuesdays, will begin on Feb. 15 with "The Evolving Nature of Animal Law," a presentation by Valparaiso University law professor Rebecca Huss, who was the court-appointed guardian/special master of the American pit bull terriers in the Michael Vick dogfighting case.

On Feb. 22, University of Wisconsin molecular biology and genetics professor Sean Carroll will present "Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species," which will chronicle the exploits of scientists and explorers whose work "changed, profoundly and forever, our perception of the living world and our place within it."

"Hominid," a theatrical performance based on the work of de Waal, will be held on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. at the Armory Free Theater. Illinois theater students will perform the piece under the direction of visiting director Ariel Fristoe (co-artistic director, Out of Hand Theater) and Illinois theater professor J.W. Morrissette.

On March 8, Mark Stetter, a zoo and wildlife veterinarian, Illinois alumnus and director of animal programs and environmental initiatives at Walt Disney World, Florida, will present "Humans Helping Wildlife." He will discuss efforts to protect wild animals and their habitat, the life of captive animals and educational efforts on behalf of wildlife and wild places.

On March 15, William and Mary College anthropology professor Barbara King will present "Apes, Elephants, and the Relational Self: Thinking Through Animal Personhood," an exploration of the implications of the science of "animal nature."

And on April 19, Andrew Rowan, president and CEO of Humane Society International and chief information officer of the Humane Society of the United States will speak about international animal welfare.
-end-
Editor's note: To reach Jane Desmond, e-mail desmondj@illinois.edu.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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