Saturday, March 30, 2013

Animals, Art and Death

I recently got back from the three-day Living with Animals Conference at Eastern Kentucky University, co-hosted by Bob Mitchell and Julia Schlosser. It was a fabulous conference, featuring a variety of talks covering all facets of the human-horse relationship (Kentucky is, after all, the horse capital of the United States), teaching human-animal studies, and a variety of other topics of interested to a human-animal studies scholar such as myself.

There were a number of talks I was especially taken by. Besides horses, art was heavily featured at the conference, perhaps because Julia Schlosser is an artist and art historian. She gave her talk, for example, on the use of roadkill in the work of artists Steve Baker and Craig Stecyk. Dead animals showed up in another artist’s presentation, that of Mary Shannon Johnstone, a North Carolina photographer who photographs shelter animals. One of her projects, called Discarded Property,  photographs companion animals before, during, and after their euthanasia, and her current project, Landfill Dogs, involves taking dogs who have been at her local shelter for more than two weeks, and who will soon face euthanasia, to the landfill where their bodies will be buried, and photographing them where they play joyfully on what may be their last excursion outside in their lives. The great news is that thanks to her talent and courage, most of the dogs Johnstone has photographed have since found homes, and have not ended up back at the landfill.  Another artist, Keri Cronin, spoke about the course she created in the Visual Arts Department at Brock University which combines animal studies and art in an interesting way.

While some of the artists showed dead or dying animals in their work, other scholars also talked about or showed dead animals as well. Emory University graduate student Christina Colvin, for example, presented a paper on taxidermied pets and the pet preservation industry. While most of us would never consider freeze-drying our dead companion animals so that they will remain with us forever, for some people, this act apparently brings them some sense of satisfaction. University of Mississippi English professor Karen Raber, on the other hand, showed delicately rendered drawings of dissected horses from the Renaissance, while American Studies historian Brett Mizelle discussed the ways in which butchers and slaughterhouse owners used images and text to elevate their professions at the turn of the century. And Monica Mattfeld, from the English Department at the University of Kent, discussed the memorialization of a dead performing circus horse whereby his hide was turned into a thunder drum.

While the conference certainly had plenty of wonderful talks that didn’t have to do with animal death, it was this topic that affected me the most, and I’m now ruminating on my next book project. If you love animals, and live with animals, animal death is a topic from which you will never be able to escape. And more broadly speaking, if you advocate for animals in any way, death is ever present, perhaps not in your own household or life, but for billions of animals every year. It’s what drives many animal advocates to do what they do, after all. For example, anthropologist Tamar Victoria Scoggin-McKee spoke movingly about her documentation of the people who work to save ex-racing horses from slaughter, and how the threat of death shapes the human-horse relationship.

As a rabbit rescuer, I think about death often—both the death of my own rabbits, since their lives are inevitably, and unfairly, so short. But I, and my fellow rescuers, also think about death, because we often feel as if we are the only ones who stand between rabbits, both in our own communities and even more broadly speaking, around the world, and death. It’s a difficult—and unrealistic—burden to take on, and it’s no doubt one of the reasons so many of us suffer from compassion fatigue, and use food, alcohol and other substances to cope with our messy emotions.

Living with Animals was a fantastic opportunity to hear interesting talks, to network with people doing great work, and for me personally, a good way to put some of my own thoughts and emotions about living with animals into a wider context.