ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Anthropologies of veterinary medicine: healthcare across species lines
Location Science Site/Chemistry CG218
Date and Start Time 05 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Chrissie Wanner (University of Edinburgh) email
  • Robin Irvine (University of St Andrews) email

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Discussant Rebecca Marsland

Short Abstract

We invite papers that consider how forms of human and animal life shape, and are shaped by, veterinary care and other animal-healing practices. With the understanding that care is an ongoing process of negotiation, we ask how health care is negotiated across species lines.

Long Abstract

This panel speaks to a rapidly emerging field: the anthropology of veterinary medicine and animal health. Veterinary medicine has, so far, been largely overlooked by anthropologists - this despite anthropology's contribution to the study of human health and healing, and its recent attention to life 'beyond the human' and the notion of 'One Health.'

In practice, animal healthcare takes many forms. Vets care for a variety of species, many of them selectively bred to extremes in the name of productivity or in pursuit of an idealised aesthetic. Without an easily standardised model of health, what counts as normal or pathological when it comes to different forms of animal life? How do vets and their clients approach varied and context-specific understandings of animal health? We also know that animal healthcare is not limited to biomedicalised veterinary approaches, nor is veterinary medicine a homogeneous practice. What does veterinary care look like in different settings, and how do biomedical approaches to animal health co-exist with other practices of animal health and healing?

In this panel, we hope to further anthropological discussion about the engagements between vets, animals, and animal-owners or spokes-people. We invite papers that consider how human and animal lives, concerns, and desires shape practices of veterinary care, and, in turn, how the lived worlds of humans and animals are shaped by veterinary care and other animal-healing practices. With the understanding that care is an ongoing process of negotiation, we ask how health care is negotiated across species lines.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Animal health and violent conflict: the intersection of veterinary medicine and socio-political dynamics in Greater Upper Nile (South Sudan)

Authors: Naomi Pendle (London School of Economics and Political Science)  email
Maximilian Baumann (Freie Universitaet Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper, based on veterinary and ethnographic field research in 2015, looks at how animal healthcare practice across species lines has been renegotiated in a context of violent conflict, and how socio-political dynamics of the conflict have been impacted in South Sudan since December 2013.

Long Abstract

In the South Sudanese setting, animal health is interconnected with physical survival, but also with socio-political relationships and power. A plurality of actors have been involved in animal healthcare at all public and private levels. Over time, they have renegotiated models of animal health and healthcare delivery. Governments and international donors have also used the provision of 'successful' animal health care to build relationships and assert authority. Their prioritization of the health of certain species has had socio-political implications. Anthropologists have long noted the importance of cattle for authority, and cattle health has been prioritized. However, recently, the poorest South Sudanese have used other species creatively to renegotiate their poverty and authority. For example, poor women use the growing demand for eggs to redound to family income and increase their decision-making powers.

Since December 2013, South Sudanese have again been confronted with civil war impacting animal usage and health, and resulting in new forms of poverty. Yet, South Sudanese are still innovatively using animals to construct food security, build peace and reclaim mastery over their own lives. Thus, animal health care is again shifting and new models of delivery are being developed and practiced. This paper will further look at conceptions of animal health and species' social value focusing on international development donors and South Sudanese perceptions of species, and how this is impacting the lived negotiations of power in this context of conflict.

The paper is based on field research by eleven anthropologists and veterinary researchers in 2015.

Veterinary Infrastructure: defensive architecture, animality and medical care on an Andalusian bull breeding estate

Author: Robin Irvine (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

Healthcare across species lines often involves risk. In the world of the Spanish fighting bull the ferocity of the bulls shapes veterinary practice. This paper looks at veterinary strategies and infrastructure when it comes to caring for animal subjects who are understood to be unwilling by nature.

Long Abstract

This paper takes as its starting point the idea that particular kinds of animality shape practices of care, including routine veterinary treatment and extraordinary surgical interventions. I explore how the fierce nature of the fighting bull (toro de lidia), as understood from within the bullfighting world, is reflected in not only the kind of care they receive, but also in the infrastructure that facilitates that care.

The estates where fighting bulls are bred are built around the animals. They both manage and reproduce the belligerent nature of fighting stock. Care in this context is care oriented towards the ultimate destiny of the bulls: the bullfighting arena. Here, a good care outcome is a healthily robust animal arriving at the arena having grown up as free from human interference as possible. However, bulls are also considered livestock, which means they are subject to regional, national and Europe-wide biopolitical regimes of care, which involve tagging and regular disease screening. Veterinary intervention is inevitable, but has to be carefully structured so as to minimise both the interruption in the lives of the animals and the risk to all parties involved.

Drawing on my fieldwork on an Andalusian bull-breeding estate, I argue for an attention to veterinary infrastructure - in my case the corrals, chutes, crushes, and stocks that allow vets to come into contact with their bovine charges - and suggest that veterinary anthropology could benefit from an interdisciplinary approach to the historical, geographical, and cultural aspects that shape such infrastructure.

Pet death and owner wellbeing

Author: Douglas Davies (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

The role of the vet and the vet's premises are explored in terms of the health, sickness, and final death of a pet, and of potential forms of symbolic echo that may resonate between them and the owner's emotional life.

Long Abstract

This paper concerns the complex relationship between pet health and death, pet-owner wellbeing, and the pivotal role of the veterinary practitioner. It represents part of the outcome of a very recently instituted pilot study of pet death and owner wellbeing currently underway at Durham University (Funded by Durham's Wolfson Institute). Issues to be explored will develop the interplay of pet health and pet death in relation to pet-owner health, bereavement, and grief. The part played by veterinary personnel, premises, and professional education will also be sketched as will end of life care of and for a pet, and for the treatment of the dead animal, not least in terms of the interplay of 'funeral' practice, both in terms of burial and cremation.

Killing and caring: a historical perspective in veterinary medicine

Author: Andrew Gardiner (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

The paper takes a historical approach to veterinary killing and explores the relationship between caring and killing in different locations (slaughterhouse, clinic). The technologies and methods of animal killing are related to emerging notions of welfare and a ‘good death’.

Long Abstract

The regular, deliberate killing of patients is unique to veterinary medicine. With companion animals, this commonly takes place as euthanasia, a word deriving from the Greek eu (well) and thanatos (death), and generally taken to mean 'a good death'. Euthanasia may be performed as an alternative to futile treatment, or else to alleviate uncontrollable pain or suffering. Euthanasia is seen an extension of care and an act of compassion.

However, in veterinary medicine euthanasia is used to describe the act of killing as well as the reason behind it. The term euthanasia can be used to describe the killing of happy, healthy but unwanted animals in a rescue shelter. Such animals can be given a 'good death' if we consider euthanasia as a perfectly performed technical procedure rather than, primarily, an act of mercy killing to alleviate suffering. Veterinary killing also includes other kinds of animal for which the term euthanasia is not routinely employed: farm animals are usually 'slaughtered', not euthanized; parasites are 'destroyed' or 'eliminated', never euthanized. Deliberate killing by the veterinarian is therefore more complex than the term euthanasia alone suggests because there are varied forms of veterinary killing.

In this paper, I will explore killing in historical perspective. I will show that the mass killing of animals was instrumental in establishing veterinary medicine as a discipline, and that throughout veterinary history, 'killing and caring' has constituted an important construct for the veterinary profession, requiring frequent re-negotiation to legitimate the ethics and practice of the act.

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Breeding for show; breeding for health: the borders of knowledge and authority between dog breeders and veterinarians in the long twentieth century

Author: Alison Skipper (King's College London)  email

Short Abstract

Using a historical approach, this paper examines the interface between veterinarians and dog breeders, suggesting that differing local epistemologies and conflicting power networks underlie the ongoing friction between two communities with distinct, and sometimes incompatible, identities and ideologies.

Long Abstract

Writing in about 1885, the British dog fancier Gordon Stables (himself a medical doctor) opined, '… it is my firm conviction, and has been for years, that not three veterinary men out of ten possess sufficient knowledge … to enable them to cope successfully with the ailments of dogs.' Throughout the long twentieth century, relations between veterinary surgeons and dog breeders have frequently been characterised by mutual suspicion, intolerance and misunderstanding. Using a historical approach, this paper suggests that these conflicts have arisen partly because the two communities have developed separate conceptualisations of health and disease. Conformation regarded as desirable in the show ring has been considered pathological in veterinary circles, and the categories of disease recognised by veterinarians and fanciers have not always corresponded. The transfer of novel health approaches into the breeding community has variously been imposed by professionals or introduced by enthusiasts, with consequent resistance or adoption contingent on the methodology of their introduction. Supported by separate constructions of disease and networks of power, the two communities have powerful but often incompatible identities and ideologies, with the canine body the site of the conflict between them. Modern activists may reference dogs of the past as preferable to those they criticise today, but the historical literature shows that the debate about pedigree dog health is as old as the pedigree dog itself.

Living and dying well without euthanasia: vignettes from the limits of 'One Health' and UK veterinary practice

Author: Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter)  email

Short Abstract

While palliative care is routinely offered to human patients in the UK, the normative treatment for terminally ill or seriously injured animals is euthanasia. This paper details the experiences of informants who challenged veterinary advice and sought alternatives to euthanasia for their nonhuman companions.

Long Abstract

The success of the One Health movement falters in the face of death or more specifically in relation to the division between what Butler has termed 'grievable' and 'ungrievable' lives. Nonhuman lives are ungrievable because they are not accorded the same legal protection as human lives. While palliative care is routinely offered to human patients in the UK, the converse is true for animals. Moreover, a recent poll of UK vets conducted by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons found that only 28% of those surveyed felt that hospice care should become a standard part of veterinary practice. Euthanasia is widely accepted by members of the profession (as well as legislative bodies and animal welfare organisations) as the appropriate course of action for terminally ill or seriously injured patients. Yet many human clients, for a variety of reasons (including ethical, religious, emotional) do not agree with euthanasia. These individuals often have to ague with consulting vets to overturn recommendations of euthanasia and obtain clinical support for palliative care, natural death or high-risk treatments. This paper details some of the experiences of human informants based in various locations in the UK who chose to challenge veterinary advice and seek alternatives to euthanasia for their nonhuman companions in both end of life and palliative contexts. Their experiences and some of the outcomes of their decisions provide grounds for challenging the normative status of euthanasia and encouraging the UK veterinary profession to consider hospice care more seriously.

Pathology or perfection? Vets, breeders, and pedigree dogs

Author: Chrissie Wanner (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore the relationship between pedigree dog breeding and veterinary science, asking why some physiological developments are considered normal in the show-ring yet pathological in the veterinary clinic.

Long Abstract

In 2012, the world of pedigree dog-showing was thrown into disarray when the British Kennel Club asked veterinary surgeons to give their expert opinions on the health of 15 Best-of-Breed-winning show dogs at Crufts dog show; the biggest and most prestigious event in the international dog-showing calendar. To the dismay of many onlookers in the show-world, 6 of the 15 dogs failed to meet with veterinary standards of health - this despite the fact that the dogs were well-known show winners who had been selected by some of the show-world's most experienced and respected judges. Yet while judges saw breed-specific features as positive traits to be celebrated in the show-ring, it seemed that few vets shared in the show-world's appreciation for the drooping eyelids, shortened muzzles, large heads, profuse skin wrinkles, and hobbled gaits which breeders had spent decades cultivating and maintaining. Tracing events during and after Cruft's 2012, this paper will explore the relationship between pedigree dog breeding and veterinary medicine, asking why some physiological developments are considered normal in the show-ring yet pathological in the veterinary clinic.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.