Veterinary anthropology

When medical anthropology meets animal studies

Frédéric Keck

07 Sep 2016

This conference was held at the Centre for Medical Anthropology of the University of Edinburg on 18–19 April 2016. It was organized by Andrew Gardiner (Royal School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh), Rebecca Marsland (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh), and Adam Reed (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Saint Andrews).

This event brought together anthropologists, veterinarians, geographers, and historians to discuss how the problems of medical anthropology are reframed by the multiple human/animal relationships in which the tension between care and killing is managed. It questioned contemporary programs linking human and animal health, such as the ‘One Health’ approach to diseases that can be prevented at the animal level before they spread to humans. It also asked how veterinary medicine utilizes interventions that are almost unthinkable in the treatment of human beings, such as the massive stamping out of animals infected with a disease transmissible to humans (or zoonosis). The conference furthermore investigated the different arenas in which veterinarians regulate animal life, such as farms, zoos, markets, and domestic households. 

Veterinary anthropology is an anthropology of vets and with vets. It traces the formation of a specific medical tradition of animal health in Western countries to see how it produces perceptions of animal bodies that can complement or contradict the perception of animal breeders or owners. This line of anthropological study shows how vets qualify the value of the life of animals in contrast with the value of human life, following general techniques of power and regulation. If vets are often the invisible actors in interactions between humans and animals, this approach endeavours to bring them to the front, in tension or collaboration with other forms of treatment of animal bodies.

Taking the perspective of vets in animal health also raises questions about animal agency: Can animals be considered as patients? Do they consent to their treatment? Do they evaluate the interactions that take place around their health? Who is authorized to distinguish a normal animal from a pathological one? Questions of property, biocapital, and biopower are placed under a new light when they are raised about animals. The critical stance of ‘animal studies’ is balanced by the reflexive stance of a more-than-human anthropology. Key questions discussed by the speakers were: How do animals matter to anthropology? What does their status as sentient beings reveal about the materialities studied by social sciences?

In the first session, Stephen Blakeway (The Donkey Sanctuary) and Pete Kingsley (University of Edinburgh) recalled the importance of Central African cattle not only for Evans-Pritchard’s classical analyses of classifications in his studies of the Nuer, but also for the control of rinderpest (which is one of the reasons why Evans-Pritchard came to Sudan, though he seldom acknowledged it). Kingsley showed that the unification of the veterinary profession through the fight against rinderpest allowed vets to prevent the transmission of trypanosomiasis by tse-tse flies, which, as a silent and invisible disease, doesn’t follow the powerful narrative built around rinderpest.

In the second session, Chrissie Wanner (University of Edinburgh), Glen Cousquer (University of Edinburgh), and Robin Irvine (University of Saint Andrews) raised questions on the multiple layers of causality and responsibility involved in the treatment of animal health. Wanner interrogated the responsibility of bulldog breeders in their selection and reproduction, suggesting that vets care more for pedigree than for individual dogs. Cousquer showed how the troubles of a mountain mule in Morocco cast light on the multiplicity of actors who compose this tourist activity. Irvine proposed the concept of ‘veterinary infrastructure’ to describe the fences, cages, and walls that allow bull breeders in Andalusia to regulate their mobility.

The third session dealt with new technologies that reveal new potentialities in animals, as well as new possibilities of domestication and exploitation. Henry Buller (University of Exeter) talked about the tensions created by microbial drug resistance in a veterinary profession affected by the withdrawal of the state: How to maintain the same level of production while lowering the number of antimicrobials administered to animals? He reported that vets are tempted to solve this tension through a striking attitude: ‘We’ve got to keep our antibiotics to ourselves’. This reveals another tension with the physicians who prescribe antibiotics. Anne Bruce (University of Edinburgh) detailed the new gene editing tools used to modify animals, as in the production of pigs resistant to African Swine Fever, and the competition between companies who propose these tools. Jamie Lorimer (University of Oxford) showed that the discourse on ‘rewilding’ was now applied to the microbes we carry, with the projects aiming at ‘reworming’ our microbiome, that is reintroducing worms that are necessary for the balance of commensal microbes in our guts that have been destroyed by antibiotics. The distinction between good germs and bad germs, often raised in terms of biosecurity and containment, is troubled by a long-term analysis of the coevolution between humans, animals, and microbes.

The fourth session considered the role of vets in those enclosed spaces called zoological gardens or zoos. Abigail Woods (King’s College, London) showed that in nineteenth-century Britain, zoo animals were cured and dissected by physicians, who considered these operations as an ‘analogous experiment’, not only for human health but also for animal health. By contrast, said Irus Braverman (SUNY Buffalo Law School), American zoos soon declared that surgical operations could only be performed by vets. The visibility of vets in zoos, who justify the presence of animals in these institutions by the care provided to them, is counterbalanced by a low salary and a heavy workload divided into many different tasks.

The fifth session was dedicated to the emotional charge produced by the tension between curing and killing. Sue Bradley (University of Newcastle) discussed extracts of oral histories in which British vets recalled their conditions of work in farms, pits, and households a half-century ago. Philip Robinson (University of Harper Adams) provided testimonies of the reactions of breeders and vets after the massive killings used to control bovine spongiform encephalopathy tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom. Frédéric Keck (Musée du quai Branly, Paris) gave an ethnographic account of the management of avian influenza by vets in Hong Kong and Singapore, suggesting that the repetition of culling through simulations allowed vets to detach themselves from the emotional charge of killing companion species.

The sixth session asked questions about animal welfare. Françoise Wemelsfelder (Scottish Agricultural College) described protocols of qualitative behaviour assessment used by veterinary nurses to evaluate the well-being of animals before treatment. Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter) detailed the arguments of groups opposed to euthanasia and the alternatives they proposed for palliative treatment. Melanie Rock (University of Calgary) argued for the inclusion of social planners in the management of dog bites in North American cities, to provide new conceptualizations of relations between humans and stray dogs.

In the final session, questions were raised about the scope and limits of veterinary anthropology. If it is to ally with geography and history to show how vets have framed a specific topology of health and disease, it should also be attentive to the multiplicities of forms of welfare and public health, and to the role of animals in the diversity of collectives between humans and nonhumans. Veterinary anthropology thus promises to become a stimulating field both as a critical site to think about the limits of human intervention and as a new space of collaboration between human sciences and public health.

About the author

Frédéric Keck is a researcher at the Laboratory of Social Anthropology and Director of the Research Department of the Quai Branly Museum. After studying philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, he has been researching the history of anthropology and contemporary biopolitical questions. He has published Claude Lévi-Strauss, une introduction (Pocket-La découverte, 2005), Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, entre philosophie et anthropologie (CNRS Editions, 2008), and Un monde grippé (Flammarion, 2010). He has coedited Des hommes malades des animaux with Noëllie Vialles (L’Herne, 2012) and Sentinel Devices with Andrew Lakoff (Limn, Issue Three, 2013).