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No Longer in the Dog House: Pets Now Academic Subject

/ Published February 15, 2010

YouTube videos of cat antics, late-night stupid pet tricks, holiday themed dog toys—pets are pervasive in our culture. Doggie daycare centers cater to anxious owners and pet attire is on display in major clothing stores.

Yet in academia, pets have long been shunned to the proverbial doghouse. Until now.

The modern study of anthrozoology, which is among the latest interdisciplinary fields, has gained ground as serious scientific investigation, according to Smith College Professor of Anthropology Donald Joralemon, who is teaching a course on the subject for the first time this spring.

Joralemon chose the subject for what he thought might be its broad appeal. He was right. Even with enrollment restricted to anthropology majors, demand for the course far exceeded its 20-person limit.

“The commitment to pets, both economically and emotionally, that characterizes contemporary America is unprecedented in human history,” said Joralemon, whose primary research area is medical anthropology. “It is also striking to me just how much personal experience my students are bringing to the subject. Every member of the class grew up with a pet.”

Humans had profound connections with some animals, particularly wolves, as early as the Paleolithic era, explained Joralemon, probably because of advantages their companionship offered in the quest for food.

Many scholars, he said, point to some animals’ similar facial characteristics to human babies — big eyes, soft features — as well as to their compatibility with modern domestic life as key features in explaining the appeal of animals as companions. It is also true that selective breeding of pets has resulted in behavioral traits and physical features that make some animals even more appealing as pets.

In American history, the idea that some animals could become a part of family life took hold in the 19th century, with birds, fish, dogs and cats taking their place in the kinship circle, he said. Favored animals have a capacity to interact with humans and to be trained.

Animals also began to play a role in the moral education of children, through the proliferation of children’s literature featuring tales of right and wrong with anthropomorphized creatures.

In addition to introducing students to the scientific study of pets, Joralemon’s colloquium aims to develop basic skills in research design and proposal writing. The subject this term may be cats and dogs, but the ability to translate a general interest into a research proposal has far wider application.

The student research proposals will be the culminating class project. But not before at least one of Joralemon’s three English Springer Spaniels — Mimosa, Pancho or Silkie — makes an appearance in the class. His wife is considering introducing one of their six horses to the students, as well.