Kendra Coulter, associate professor in the Centre for Labour Studies, has written a new book, Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity, released Dec. 3 by Palgrave Macmillan. Described as “thought-provoking and innovative,” the book challenges readers to think deeply and differently about animals and work. Coulter sat down with The Brock News for the details.
TBN: Can you give us an overview of your book?
KC: This is a unique look at the contributions, problems, and possibilities of work that involves animals. I first examine the work people do with/for animals on a daily basis. Next I focus on the work animals themselves do. Then I highlight the work people do with/for animals that is political and advocacy-oriented. I conclude by reflecting on the intellectual and ethical implications of recognizing all of these kinds of work. So it is a truly multispecies discussion that takes the work-lives of people and animals seriously.
TBN: What do you mean by the work done by animals?
KC: When it comes to animals’ work, people usually think of police and guide dogs or equines pulling carts in the global south, and these are clear examples. But I propose a much broader way of recognizing the full range of work done by animals, including in the wild, in homes, and in formal workplaces. From tending to their own young and others across species who need care, to courthouse dogs supporting child witnesses, to rats sniffing out landmines, the work being done by animals is diverse and fascinating. Animals use their minds, bodies, and abilities in so many different ways.
TBN: What are some of the conditions animals encounter on the job?
KC: There are reciprocal and helpful instances where people and animals are partnered in work that is mutually beneficial, especially in health care and conservation. High-energy dogs are happily at work around the world helping to track endangered species’ behaviours and combat poaching, for example.
Unfortunately, there are many workplaces where animals are kept in situations that are very painful and damaging for them physically and emotionally. Industrialized agriculture is one of the most complex and troubling areas, and farmed animals are the largest group of land animals on earth.
There is a lot to learn from the good, the bad, the ugly, and the more complicated cases of human-animal work, and in the book I approach all of these dynamics carefully. I interweave theoretical frameworks from labour studies, feminist political economy, and other scholarly fields that are not usually combined, but also propose completely new concepts for better understanding animals’ work and experiences in particular.
TBN: Why did you want to cover these particular topics in this way?
KC: My goals are intellectual and political. First, it is a scholarly book that illuminates a very under-studied but important area. Work has a significant influence on income, on health and well-being (or their absence), on the environment, on ideas about others and what is possible, and on the lives and deaths of living beings everywhere.
But despite its effects on literally billions of lives, work involving animals has not been well-studied in work and labour studies, or in animal studies. With this book, I foster deeper understand of what’s really going on close to home and around the world. I encourage nuanced thinking that recognizes the perspectives of both animals and people, and how their experiences vary depending on the time, place, and individuals involved.
In addition to its theoretical contributions, the book is driven by my commitment to social justice. I challenge readers to see the similarities and the differences among human and animal work-lives, to confront the effects of human choices, and to recognize the possibilities for more hopeful paths forward.
Understanding, analysis, and critique are essential first steps, but are not enough; we also need solutions and alternatives. So I end the book with a call for humane jobs that benefit both people and animals. You cannot build a just and caring society on top of the suffering of others, period. So this book is a springboard, for me as a researcher committed to a multispecies approach to work, and also hopefully for others who are inspired to think and act in more compassionate ways.
Kendra Coulter will use her new book, Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity, in her Animals at Work course, believed to be the only labour studies course in the world on the intersections of animals and work. Author royalties will support a student prize for top achievement in the course. Coulter’s last book, Revolutionizing Retail: Workers, Political Action, and Social Change, won the Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies 2015 Book Prize. Her latest book has already attracted international attention, and she has been invited to speak about animals and work at the Sorbonne in Paris this coming spring.