English professor receives human-animal studies fellowship

At the beginning of this month, the Animals and Society Institute (ASI) announced the eight winners of the 2011 Human-Animal Studies fellowship.

At the beginning of this month, the Animals and Society Institute (ASI) announced the eight winners of the 2011 Human-Animal Studies fellowship. Portland State English professor Alastair Hunt was among the recipients.  

The fellowship will take place for eight weeks this summer, bringing together scholars from across the country. From May 23 to June 1, the eight fellows will reside at Wesleyan University to work on their various projects.

The fellowship brings together scholars from varying fields who have an interest in human-animal studies, according to Margo Demello, the director of the Human-Animal Program at ASI.  

“[It] allows [the scholars] to work on their various projects for six weeks without any other distractions,” Demello said.  

Projects vary from person to person. Many will be working on journal articles and others, like Hunt, will continue to work on book projects.  

Hunt said his goal is to finish another chapter and the introduction to his book, which will examine the human rights discourse since the late 1880s. Hunt is particularly interested in the idea of human rights—or rather, the idea that humans have rights simply because they’re human.

Hunt first became interested in the field when he was an undergraduate student taking a philosophy course in practical ethics. He said that the course examined the basis of equality, sexism, racism and later the environment and animals. One of the questions that came up in class was “What are our ethical obligations to animals?”  

“[Human-animal studies] entails every possible aspect of the human-animal relationship,” Demello said. “Whether it’s real humans or virtual animals. We’re looking at animals in media, literature and pop culture.”  

Demello said that the goal of human-animal studies is to assess what kind of effect human actions have on animals and society.  

“We’re connected to animals in every possible way,” Demello said. “We eat them, we keep them as pets, use them as labor. How does that work? How do we feel about it? What does it mean for us and them?”

These are the big questions of the human-animal studies field, he said.

Mark Berrettini, an assistant professor in the Department of Theater Arts, first became interested in human-animals studies in the late 1990s when there was an increasing number of Animal Planet documentaries and shows such as “Crocodile Hunter” and “Grizzly Hunter.”

Berrettini said that one of his interests in the field is “how some of this material gets positioned to spectators.” A prime example of this can be seen in the 1975 film “Jaws.”  

There has been a lot of scholarly debate over the film because it “goes out of the way to make the shark a villain along the lines of a serial killer,” Berrettini said.

Scholars have discussed the fact that “Jaws” might have enhanced an already widespread fear of sharks in the public eye, according to Berrettini.  

While he doesn’t believe that there is a direct link between a film such as “Jaws” and the actions of the public, Berrettini is interested in how viewers understand the material.

One of the unusual aspects of human-animal studies is the fact that it is such an interdisciplinary field. Both Berrettini and Demello emphasized the fact that this new field of study is bringing together people from more hard-science backgrounds with people from humanities backgrounds. The field is bringing together people of different fields that have the same questions, according to Berrettini.

“It’s not even necessarily a field that is precisely defined,” he said.  

Hunt moved to the United States from New Zealand in 2001 and moved to Portland in 2009. He has his Ph.D. in literature and specializes in literature of the late romantic period. In addition to working on his book over the summer, Hunt has two articles that will be published in literary journals this year. ?