Why I Study Human-Animal Relations as an Anthropologist

Anthropology is the study of humans, or as Dr. Jon Marks says: “the study of who we are and where we come from.” I consider it to be the study of humans and the variety of relationships humans have. These relationships include some of the most obvious: kinship, communities, institutions, businesses, and religions. It also includes our relationships to our past (archaeology), our biology, our evolutionary history, and other beings (e.g., animals, plants, fungi, microbes, and the supernatural).

During my career, I have worked with a community of Drag Queens in North Carolina (community). I worked in a Drag community to understand how they maintained the community despite being in a fairly rural area in North Carolina. This study was typical of what many people think of anthropology; I participated in the community, attended events, and interviewed Drag performers.

However, for much of my career, I have studied non-human animals (mostly primates). I worked with captive chimpanzees at the NC Zoo to understand juvenile time budgeting and parasite transmission. I also studied a free-ranging group of rhesus macaques in central Florida to understand how they use the novel conditions of Florida.

Why might anthropologists study primates? Dr. Sherwood Washburn argues that by studying the behavior of primates, anthropologists can gain insights into the evolution of human behavior, social structure, and culture. Additionally, studying primates can provide comparative data that allows anthropologists to better understand human uniqueness and the ways in which humans are similar to or different from other animals.

My approach to primatology is less about understanding the evolutionary connections between humans and primates and more about how primates change their behavior in response to human activity. My work with primates was mostly unidirectional; I was concerned with how the things we do (keeping primates in captivity, moving them from their historical range into novel ecological conditions) affect others. My work with primates was my first lean toward the questions I’m most interested in: what sorts of relationships exist between humans and animals, why are they the way they are, and how can we make our relationships with other animals (wild, specifically) better for all.

My current project, over the past three years, has examined human-javelina relations in Texas. The study has taken me to Wildlife Management Areas to study public javelina hunts, national and state lands, and private properties. The nature of human-javelina relations across these spaces represents many textures. For instance, the hunters discuss how javelinas provide them the opportunity to hunt and engage with nature outside of deer hunting season in the way they know best. At Big Bend National Park, visitors encounter javelinas in the park and become fascinated by them, while the javelinas mostly accept human presence and ignore them. On a private ranch in the Hill Country, the property owner and javelinas interact every day. He feeds the javelinas, sometimes by hand, and they will lay around his feet, purring with contentedness. The project with people and javelinas is not unidirectional. I am approaching these different relationships as co-constructive; both javelinas and humans make these relationships possible.

To answer the question posed in the title of this essay, I study human-animal relations because it tells us something about how we humans do not exist in a distinct cultural world, apart from nature and the beings that occupy it. Instead, human lives are intimately entangled with the lives of others, and by understanding these entanglements, we can find our place in the world and [hopefully] find better ways to live alongside our co-residents. In short, my research is a work of possibilities.

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