‘Never an It’: Intersubjectivity and the Creation of Animal Personhood in Animal Shelters
In this paper, Nicola Taylor asks sociologists to open themselves up to the further study of human-animal relationships, and specifically the way that identity and subjecthood is constructed across the human-animal dualism. Using two animal shelters from the U.K. as case studies, Taylor examines the way that animals living at those shelters are treated as persons and accorded personhood through the actions of shelter staff. Taking account of the processes of naming animals, as well as how individuals are placed into homes, Taylor shows that shelter staff take great consideration and labor in making sure that the animals in their care are taken seriously as individuals and persons.
Anyone who has cared closely for non-human animals, whether at home or in a more official capacity as part of a shelter or sanctuary, knows that it is nearly impossible not to see them as individuals. However, for people who haven’t had that experience, it may be more common to think of non-human animals as less individual and more generic. “Animals are culturally customarily not granted personhood,” Taylor says, but as she notes, “companion animals, are often viewed differently, at least by their “owners” who impute personalities and other attributions of ‘mind’ to them.” What makes animals kept as pets different, and how is that level of personhood granted? Though increasingly more studies are looking at animal shelters, few focus on how workers might view the non-humans as persons. In this sense, shelters are “a ripe place for the empirical study of human attribution of personhood, personality and mindedness to animals.” For three years, Taylor studied two animal sanctuaries in the UK, visiting numerous times per week and observing the animals and shelter staff.
What Taylor noted were a variety of different techniques used – both consciously and unconsciously – by the shelter staff “to ensure that the animals under their care were taken seriously (and, as a direct corollary that their own jobs were taken seriously).” First and foremost, all of the animals entering the shelter were given names if they didn’t have one already. “Naming is an important way to establish individuality as well as a biography and thereby establish personhood,” Taylor notes. Originating from a combination of information given by the humans surrendering the animals to the shelter, as well as initial experiences with shelter staff, the animals would tend to be given names which, as much as possible, were “based on the animals personality and therefore more apt.” What’s more, there was a taboo or distaste for potential adopters who referred to an animal as “it,” and that “this became even more distasteful if it was used when discussing the animal they were hoping to adopt.” A further aspect to how the shelter animals were given personhood was “in the way that sanctuary workers laboured together to create ‘good’ animals.” It was generally believed that it was not the animals’ fault that they were surrendered or abandoned, but rather that it was a problem with the owners who either did not know how to properly care for the animals or who did not treat them well. The flipside of this is that shelter staff also had very strong feelings about the potential home where their animals might be adopted, and routinely refused to place animals in homes that they felt might not suit their personality.
One interesting thing Taylor observed, not directly related to animal personhood, was how shelter staff dealt with each other. Even when staff did not get along with each other or have personality clashes, they could still generally recognize that each other’s motives were good, and that they were all “in it for the animals.” Though the staff sometimes disagreed with each other, they often could see past those differences to work together for the best interests of each individual animal, and/or the shelter as a whole. For many in animal advocacy, it is probably easy to see why this kind of teamwork is a desirable goal to strive for.
This paper argues that sociology should begin to turn its attention to human-animal interaction and that one particularly effective way to do so is to adopt a phenomenological approach. This approach sees the personality, and thus the personhood of animals, as intersubjectively and reflexively created. Based on ethnographic data collected over three years in animal sanctuaries this paper assesses how animal sanctuary workers labour collectively to establish the identity of the animals under their care and how this, in turn, justifies their attitudes towards, and treatment of, them.