You Had Me At ‘Hello’ — The Politics of Greeting

Chien

Drawing by Eva Meijer

Next time you walk across your local park you might want to try a new form of political communication – ‘greeting as recognition’.  If a squirrel crosses your path, say hello. If a crow fixes you with one of his sharp black eyes, offer a respectful nod. If you’re lucky enough to encounter a dog companion, crouch low, ask if she’s having a nice walk, and let her approach and greet you if she will.

Eva Meijer is a Dutch artist, novelist and philosopher. In her current work, on animals and political communication, she is considering the role of greetings and other interspecies “language games”. We generally think of language practices, such as ‘protest’, or ‘greeting’, in a human context, but in fact, these words and the rituals they represent (like our language more generally) have been formed in an interspecies context, not a strictly human one. This is true in socio-historical terms, since we have always lived in multispecies communities, and at the individual developmental level. For example, many of us had beloved animal companions (or neighbours) as children, and learned the meanings of words like ‘love’ or ‘friend’ (or ‘need’, ‘want’, ‘hope’, ‘intend’) through interaction with nonhumans as much as humans. And so, when we use these words in relation to animals we are not making an anthropomorphic error of projection; rather, we are using words in the very context in which we (and other animals) originally came to understand and shape their meaning. So too for more politically charged linguistic practices such as greeting, or protest, or resistance.

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Dogs and Hemophilia Research at Queen’s

Dog

©Pharaoh Hound (WikiCommons 2.0)

A colony of dogs has been maintained at Queen’s since 1981 for use in hemophilia research (miniature schnauzers, spaniels and beagles). This ongoing research project is instructive for thinking about the ethics of using animals for biomedical research to benefit humans, and the need for genuine public oversight.

Hemophilia is a rare blood clotting disorder, affecting approximately 3000 Canadians. Current treatment, which is highly effective, is to replace the missing clotting factor either on an as-needs basis if a bleed occurs, or as part of ongoing prophylactic treatment (self-injection with the deficient clotting factor 3 times per week). The standard treatment has improved significantly in recent decades, and most people with hemophilia can now live a normal life span, with excellent quality of life, although a minority of patients develop inhibitors (a rejection response to clotting factor) making their treatment more complex.

The Queen’s colony includes dogs purpose-bred to have hemophilia, as well as non-diseased dogs to serve as research controls, or as blood donors for the hemophilia dogs who need regular transfusions. As noted in this article, these dogs are used for experiments over and over again, into old age. Dogs in other hemophilia research colonies, like University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at least have outdoor runs, and access to a one acre outdoor play area. Not so for the Queen’s dogs who spend their entire lives in the lab.

Originally the Queen’s dogs were used to refine the standard infusion treatments for humans with hemophilia, and to study the problem of inhibitors. More recently, however, the dogs have been used for to explore gene transfer techniques as a possible treatment for hemophilia A (the common form of the disease which accounts for approximately 80% of cases). Here is the pubmed link to a 2014 gene therapy study conducted at Queen’s.

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An Alternative to Breed Specific Legislation: Treating Dogs as Members of Society

In Ontario, ownership of pit bulls is restricted and the importation of “new” dogs is banned by the Dog Owner’s Liability Act. The legislation is meant to protect people from dog attacks by ridding the province of all pit bulls. The law is discriminatory because it targets a dog for its breed, not its deed. A pit bull found to be in the province illegally will be seized. A judge must order the dog to be destroyed if it bites a person or animal. A pit bull will not get a second chance, though dogs of other breeds could get several.

Many argue that breed-neutral “dangerous dog” legislation should be implemented to replace Ontario’s breed-specific legislation (BSL). Dangerous dog legislation would be marginally better than our current system because it would apply to all breeds and so it would not place pit bulls at an unfair advantage. But, the legislation would not challenge the legal status of animals. Animals would still be mere “property” in the eyes of the law and dogs would continue to be destroyed.

Any suitable alternative to BSL needs to strike a balance between protecting the rights of animals and protecting members of society. The best way to do this may be to treat domesticated animals similarly to the way children are treated in society.

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The Courage to Admit Being Wrong

No doubt, no awakening.

—C. C. Chang

World-renowned giraffe researcher Anne Innis Dagg (University of Waterloo) wrote a commentary for The Globe and Mail last year in which she said she was wrong. Her early research (and that of colleagues), based on observation of giraffes in the wild, had cast doubt on whether giraffes form friendships due to the apparently random nature of the observed physical groupings of individuals. Recently it has been discovered that giraffes, like elephants and rhinos, can communicate long distances using vocalizations undetectable to the human ear. With this new understanding scientists have revised their interpretation of giraffe behaviour, recognizing that giraffes may indeed form friendships, and that these bonds can be recognized in patterns of infrasound communication amongst animals even when they are not physically proximate. Dagg’s public acknowledgement demonstrates the character of a true scientist – committed to vigorous examination of her own blind spots and errors, and to open sharing, interrogation, and re-evaluation of research practices and findings, especially as it concerns our chronic tendency to underestimate the inner lives of animals. Her most recent book is called Animal Friendships.

Philosopher Michael Allen Fox (Professor emeritus, Queen’s University) published a book called The Case for Animal Experimentation in 1986 in which he argued that humans are cognitively and ethically superior to nonhumans, and therefore it is okay for us to use them in harmful research to benefit ourselves. Animal researchers lauded the book, which was widely reviewed and cited. But then Fox realized he was wrong. It must have been tempting to ignore his misgivings, and to continue to accrue accolades from the research community, but instead he publicly disavowed and challenged his earlier arguments, and since then has published widely on vegetarianism and animal ethics. Continue Reading