Sunday, 22 July 2012

Human-animal studies Vienna style

One of the nicest aspects of my recent travels was meeting the team at the Messerli Research Institute and presenting a paper to the team.

The Messerli Research Institute was launched just a couple of months ago. It's first annual report is available free online. 

The Institute is part of the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine and operates in partnership with the Messerli Foundation and the University of Vienna.

The Messerli Research Institute was established as an interdisciplinary human-animal studies centre; and it truly is interdisciplinary. It features three units: the Unit of Comparative Cognition; the Unit of Comparative Medicine; and the Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies.

I was invited to visit the Institute by Dr. Judith Benz-Schwarzburg, whom I met at the first Minding Animals conference in Newcastle, Australia. Unfortunately Judith was unwell the day I was there. But I was very well cared for by Dr. Herwig Grimm, Dr. Martin Huth and Samuel Camenzind. All arrangements for my visit were made by Julia Schöllauf.

After meeting the Ethics team I was taken on a tour of the Clever Dog Lab. I found the Lab very interesting. I have often thought that one of the challenges of the animal rights philosophical position is its reliance on the findings of animal research to demonstrate that animals are worthy of the type of moral consideration typically associated with rights. It seems to me that much of the evidence used in the animal rights literature is obtained in ways that could be argued to violate the rights of the very animals the theorists seek to serve. However, the Clever Dog Lab appears to be doing good work in a morally sound way. 

All dogs that participate in the research are companion animals that come to the Lab for short periods (typically around an hour) to be part of the research. They are there with their humans and no financial incentive is offered. The staff told me that humans and dogs attend because they find it fun and stimulating. The humans probably also wish to learn more about their dog friends. 

I saw three projects in action. The first was new research designed to uncover how dogs' eyes more around an image. This research is at an early stage and I saw one of the research's dog friends learning how to rest his head in position so his eyes could be scanned. In this case they are adapting technology used for humans. The second research project was aimed at understanding dog logic and involved a dog touching a computer screen with her nose to receive a treat. Needless to say she was a very enthusiastic participant. The third was research into how dogs respond to common household objects. 

I also spoke to a member of the research team about her research into wolves and the impact of domestication on dogs. 

Following the tour it was time for me to give my paper. After meeting the team and discovering how truly interdisciplinary the Institute is, I was concerned that my paper might have been too theoretical for the audience. I had chosen to focus on the theoretical component of my book 'Animals, Equality and Democracy' and my paper was quite similar in emphasis to the talk I gave at the Wheeler Centre in May. However, despite my concerns, the audience appeared to be very engaged and we had a lively discussion session which included questions from many different members of the audience, not just the philosophers. 

Following my paper it was time for dinner, a drink and more informal discussion about all things human-animal studies related. My visit was rounded out with an informal tour of the centre of Vienna.

At the University of Melbourne I have begun working on human-animal studies puzzles with an interdisciplinary team. Although we are interdisciplinary we are all drawn from the Faculty of Arts. That working relationship is exciting and challenging and makes me think about how stimulating and challenging it will be for the scholars working at the Messerli Research Institute. They use learn to speak to each other in a shared language. An exciting and worthy objective. 

I had a wonderful time at the Messerli Research Institute and I look forward to seeing the Institute's research output in the coming months, years and decades.     

No comments:

Post a Comment