Human-Animal Relationships

Lauren Richie

Topic: Human-Animal Relationships (pp. 3-5, 36-46, 174-188 from Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships by Richard W. Bulliet (2005), New York: Columbia University Press)

Bulliet identifies four stages in the history of human-animal relationships:

  • Separation – when our human ancestors became self-aware as a distinct species; characterized by a feeling of superiority
  • Pre-domesticity – when humans thought of animals as objects for artwork, story-telling, and religious reverence; characterized by a feeling of humility and respect for animals’ symbolic and spiritual power
  • Domesticity – when humans protected, bred, and used tame animals for meat, milk, work, and other uses; characterized by daily contact with animals for many humans
  • Post-domesticity – the current situation in the U.S., characterized by a physical and psychological separation from the animals from which we derive food and clothing, but a close emotional connection with pets; also characterized by feelings of guilt and avoidance regarding the industrial processes by which meat and animal products are produced

The class discussed this general transition and how from 1900 to 1990, the percentage of people living on farms in the U.S. dropped from 40 to 2 percent. I asked whether the class experienced the “studied obliviousness” maintained by people buying meat or other animal products. We concluded that this mentality exists in many aspects of life and is not isolated to animal products, and that humans tend to prefer not to know where their food or other possessions come from as long as they are determined as safe.

Bulliet also discusses why post-domesticity has arisen in some countries but not others. He proposes that if pastoralism exists in a country, it acts as a block to the transition into post-domesticity. This is because pastoralists see living animals as having tangible value, which impedes the formation of the mindset that animals’ worth lies in how their bodies can be processed into food and materials. Colonial ranching, on the other hand, encouraged this view, and the absence of ideological obstacles to viewing animals as commodities lead to the development of industrial-scale meatpacking and post-domesticity. England, in contrast, followed a different pattern, in which livestock breeding lead to post-domesticity.

I asked what people thought of the change that has occurred through history in (some) humans’ perception of animals: once considered spiritual beings, animals are now treated as raw materials whose value lies in the products derived from their bodies. I contrasted this with the pastoral way of life, in which animals’ lives had value regardless of the products obtained from processing their bodies. There was not much discussion on this point, although we did talk about the stark contrast between seeing animals as raw materials and the often intense emotional bond that exists between humans and their pets. Someone raised the question of whether humans actually respect their pets.

Our discussion transitioned to issues regarding today’s factory farms and industrial meatpacking giants, such as vegetarianism, alternatives to industrially produced meat such as small, family-run farms, and the environmental impacts of eating meat.

Other topics that I would have liked to discuss include:

  • whether the class agreed with Bulliet’s statement that post-domesticity is characterized by an increased fascination with sex and blood
  • how the gulf between animals and humans is not discussed and can sometimes be seen as a “taboo” subject
  • whether the class agreed with Bulliet’s hypothesis that pastoralism serves as a block to post-domesticity, and colonial ranching a pathway
  • whether the class agreed with Bulliet’s suggestion that the spectacle of male animals fighting has fascinated male humans since predomestic times
  • whether a contradiction exists in the development of humane concerns regarding staged animal combat (and laws protecting pets), and the coincident increase in breeding experiments on domestic animals and industrial harvesting of their bodies with little concern for their welfare.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 4/17/08