Kate McClellan, Mississippi State University
Animals, plants, and other non-human actors have increasingly become subjects of anthropological inquiry as multispecies ethnography, posthumanist theory, and animal studies have gained disciplinary ground. Much of this effort has produced important work that explores how the human condition – and, indeed, very notions of humanness – are produced through relationships with non-human species. As anthropologists engage more actively with non-humans in their fieldwork, ethical considerations of how to behave towards, interact with, and think about non-human actors inevitably emerge. What are the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists towards animals and other species they encounter during research? How should different cultural understandings of animal abuse and cruelty be weighed against calls for universal animal rights? Though animals are mentioned in the AAA statement on ethics, should anthropologists’ ethical codes expand more to encompass to the non-human realm and, if so, how?
During my own fieldwork on animal welfare and protection movements in Jordan, I myself often grappled with ethical questions about the animals I encountered on a daily basis – both in the streets of Amman and at the clinics and shelters of the animal welfare groups where I conducted fieldwork. The mostly transnational animal NGOs working in Jordan promoted practices, attitudes, and behaviors towards animals that sometimes clashed with understandings of animal ethics held by many Jordanians. For instance, though stray animal problems abound throughout the country and animal welfare groups strongly promote sterilization or trap-neuter-release programs as responsible actions, many Jordanians disagree with the ethical arguments for such practices. Some saw spaying or neutering stray cats and dogs as a sacrilegious practice that altered animals that God had made in perfect form; others argued that it denied the basic right of all creatures to experience parenthood. For many Jordanians, it was unethical for humans to make decisions about animals’ rights to reproduce freely, even if such a stance meant more stray animals on the street. Euthanasia is viewed similarly. When I came across a dying kitten on a residential street in Amman, a man who lived nearby discouraged me from calling a veterinarian to euthanize the animal, arguing that it was unethical for humans to interfere with the natural death of an animal and noting that only God was able to make those decisions. When my response (and my feeling of responsibility) was to put the kitten ‘to sleep,’ his was to let it die in its own time as the appropriate ethical decision. To be clear, these beliefs are not more or less ethical than one another; rather, they signify the cultural contingency of moral and ethical codes anthropologists are bound to encounter in their work. Whether or not there should exist a universal code of animal rights (or human rights) is, I think, a different question.
Ethical responses and reactions to care and suffering – be it human or animal – are of course variable and, as global human and animal aid movements grow, are inevitably political. But as multispecies ethnography and similar anthropological inquiries continue to provoke important questions about human-animal relationships, discussions about the roles anthropologists take in their encounters with non-human species – and not just animals – are particularly salient. Several anthropologists have begun to address these issues, and it is an area that will continue to benefit from greater anthropological discussion on a larger disciplinary level. As we become increasingly aware of the ways in which our relationships, encounters, and engagements with other species shape our own lives, we need also to attend to how we as anthropologists respond to those encounters, and how we allow space for different cultural interpretations of multispecies ethics.