Choreographing human-companion animal relationships

Author: Zoei Sutton

Sutton, Zoei, 2019 Choreographing human-companion animal relationships, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Australia appears to be a nation of ‘pet lovers’. Approximately 62% of Australian households include companion animals, one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the western world. Human-pet relationships, which have been linked to many social, psychological and physical benefits for human owners, are promoted through positive discourses around pet ownership and nation-wide campaigns, to ‘keep Australia pet friendly’. However, for many animals designated as ‘companions’ the lived experience of the pet industry is not positive. Each year hundreds of thousands of pets are rejected — surrendered to shelters, euthanised or otherwise displaced. Companion animals who remain in homes face restricted agency and are also vulnerable to neglect and/or outright abuse. The pet industry depends on the exploitation of animal bodies, as forced breeding creates animals as both producers of pet-commodities (if bred) and/or commodities themselves (if sold). However, these experiences are seldom considered in popular or academic discussions of human-companion animal relationships. This, then, indicates that more work is needed to bring together critical understandings of human-companion animal relationships and empirical research on them, to arrive at scholarship that better accounts for the complexity of these entanglements. Sociology, with its attention to the relationship between the minutiae of everyday life and broader power structures, is well placed to explore this.

In this thesis I challenge anthropocentric depictions of these entanglements by creating space for companion animals' participation to render elements of their’ lived experience visible. Drawing on thirty qualitative interviews and in-home observations with humans and ‘their’ pets, I argue that human-companion animal relationships are inescapably steeped in an asymmetrical division of power but are socio-spatially constructed so as to appear otherwise. My sample included a variety of nonhuman species, allowing me to capture the complexity of granting pet or non-pet status and explore how relations with companion animals are shaped by external ideas around species and petness. In my observations and interviews I found that owners demonstrated some capacity to resist anthropocentric approaches to pet keeping through intentional de-centring of the human(s) within the household and creating space for animal agency. But, whilst these measures undoubtedly impact on the material reality of ‘their’ companions, they do not extend so far as to render these relationships unproblematic. Nevertheless I assert that examining these less oppressive ways of relating uncovers promising sites of resistance that can contribute to animal liberation — despite their complicity in the exploitation of pets. Pet ownership is a fundamentally problematic practice that has no place in anti-oppressive scholarship or a liberated society. Species-inclusive critical pet studies, however, is vital to the activist-scholarship agenda. The critical analysis of companion animals’ lived experiences presented in this thesis, which moves beyond the affective gaze of the human to look at the broader material conditions which are crucial to understanding these complex and often contradictory relationships, offers a fruitful contribution to critical pet studies, and sociological animal scholarship more broadly.

Keywords: Companion Animal, Sociology, Qualitative, Human Animal Studies, Critical Animal Studies, Multispecies research, Species Inclusive Research, Pets, Anthroparchy

Subject: Sociology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Nik Taylor