Humane Society University in D.C. is a pioneer in the growing animal studies movement

April 13, 2012

Moody octopuses, altruistic bats and honeybees that vote are academic fodder for Washington’s newest university.

On a rainy Wednesday evening at 21st and L streets NW, a small group of people has gathered — physically or via the Internet — at the offices of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

In session is a class at the Humane Society University, which in 2009 began offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the once-esoteric field of animal studies. Students can log on to HSU’s site for a list of courses unlikely to show up in most university catalogues, including “Understanding the Human-Animal Bond” and “Sociology of Animal Abuse.”

Presiding over the Wednesday class as chair of HSU’s animal studies department is Jonathan Balcombe, 53, a Germantown resident with a doctorate from the University of Tennessee in ethology, the study of animal behavior. (The university’s other two departments are animal policy and advocacy, and humane leadership.)

This evening, Balcombe is teaching a course called “Animal Behavior, Animal Minds and Animal Protection” to six students stretched out over seven time zones.

Tonight’s topic is animal sociability and virtue. Balcombe begins with the thesis that animals take votes on decisions affecting the group. For instance, he says, geese will honk in agreement or disagreement as to whether they should fly off or stay in their present locale. Sixty percent of the geese need to be honking/voting to leave for the whole group to decide to move on.

“Honeybees also vote,” Balcombe says. “As more foraging bees visit prospective food or new hive locations, the intensity of their dances, when they return, conveys the quality of the target. Depending on who does the best dance, thus goes the decision as to where to move the hive.”

Two students sit at a table with Balcombe: Jesse Grimes, 27, a District resident who works in information technology for a government contractor, and Kristin Lamoureux, 39, of Silver Spring, a professor of tourism at George Washington University who rescues boxer dogs in her spare time.

Lamoureux is not looking for a second career, she said, but “I recognize this university would give me the tools to combine what I love: my passion for volunteering for animal rescue and the skills I have as a business professor. In the rescue community, there’s a big need for better business practices.”

Laura Vancho, 46, of Maple Shade, N.J., is one of the four students who are tuned in remotely via speaker phone or webcam. A chemist for a drinking water utility, Vancho says she decided to take the class after learning how animals are forced to swallow or inhale a product or chemical to test the toxicity of cosmetics or household items.

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw an ad in a science journal for beagles for sale,” Vancho says. “It said how docile they were for tests. It just broke my heart, and it changed my life.”

Balcombe explains how animals cooperate with each other: Female bats help nurse unrelated pups and have been observed assisting other bats in delivery. Sperm whales babysit one another’s young. The discussion veers into the thought life of coyotes, whether virtue resides in birds, and whether animals bear grudges. Someone mentions Moby-Dick, the whale who had it in for Captain Ahab. Others posit the theory that cats are the most begrudging.

No, says Balcombe. The moodiest, he theorizes, is an octopus. When a Canadian octopus researcher saw the creature trying to escape from its aquarium, he says, she banged on the lid of its tank. The cephalopod was so displeased, it squirted water jets on the researcher or her chair for weeks.

***

The American animal rights movement has officially been underway since Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” was published in 1975. In recent decades, it has expanded to issues such as “no-kill” pet shelters, better-quality pet food and more sophisticated animal medicine, and it has birthed whole industries based on pet care.

Only recently has the movement morphed into an academic field, with almost a dozen academic journals on animal-human studies, including the social sciences and animal law. Courses have popped up around the world, including at Harvard and Dartmouth universities in the United States and the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Every summer, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Animals and Society Institute (ASI) sends six to eight scholars to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study topics such as genetically engineered pigs and gender relations in cattle ranching. At the University of Maryland, Professor W. Ray Stricklin reports that the 65 seats in his “Animal Welfare and Bioethics” course quickly fill up. The majority of his students, he says, “are female, urban, and 85 percent are interested in attending vet school. When you ask them why, it’s their concern about animal treatment.

“Students today are very keen on doing something beneficial,” he adds. “They care about animals, and I have e-mails in my box from students asking about possible career opportunities. There has been an incredible interest in this over a period of time.”

ASI estimates there are 23 full academic programs worldwide in animal studies. The three degree-granting human-animal studies programs in the United States are HSU, Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., and Carroll College in Helena, Mont. Then there is Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., which has an animal studies specialization within a sociology major. There are animal studies minors at University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif.; Drury University in Springfield, Mo.; New York University; and Canisius College in Buffalo. These degrees equip students for careers in fields such as animal sanctuary management, animal therapy and zoo design. According to the Society for Animal Welfare Administrators, salaries are on par with most other careers. At the low end of the scale is a non-certified vet tech, who makes between $25,237 and $28,240 a year; executive directors of welfare organizations make between $56,351 and $186,337.

In all, there are more than 300 academic courses worldwide in 29 disciplines at law schools, colleges and universities, scattered through anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, literature, American studies and women’s studies departments, according to ASI.

“These are not just animal advocacy courses,” says Kenneth Shapiro, executive director of ASI. “Human-animal studies is an academic field that provides scholarship on issues raised by the animal protection movement. It will generate jobs for people going into the shelter or zoo business and animal law.”

***

But few of these programs were offering a bachelor’s degree, much less a master’s in the field. The HSUS — which had already been offering continuing education certificates in the fields of animal welfare, sheltering and advocacy — decided to capitalize on that void.

“We see [the university] as central to the future of the animal movement in the United States,” says Bernard Unti, senior policy adviser for the HSUS, which, with more than 550 employees, is the nation’s largest animal advocacy organization. “There is a lot of interest in animals and helping them, but most of the people in the field are self-educated. There is the question of where they go to get training to go to the next level.”

***

Courses at HSU, which is seeking accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, span all sorts of aspects of animal welfare, with names such as “Animals, Advocacy and Corporate Change” and “Special Issues in Companion Animal Policy: Dangerous Dogs.”

For the latter, according to the HSU Web site, one learns to “critique tethering laws, insurance regulations specific to certain breeds, dog fighting laws, breed bans and other policies aimed at dangerous dogs.”

In other words: learn about pit bulls?

“Among others,” says Dara Lovitz, an HSU adjunct professor who teaches the dangerous dogs course online. She also offers animal law classes at law schools associated with Temple and Drexel universities. “We talk about the quote-unquote bully breeds that are aggressive and a poor choice for pets. So, pit bulls do make their way into the discussion.

“I’ve never heard of a dog bite that has not been provoked by human error,” she adds. “It’s just a failure of human education.”

Lovitz is one of 37 adjunct professors teaching at HSU along with four HSUS staffers. Faculty members teach online from locales such as the Bahamas and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, whose conservation education director teaches “Animal Protection and the Environment.” Other teachers include a sociology professor from the University of Colorado, a philosophy professor from Morehouse College in Atlanta and the founder of the Vegan Retreat Center in Rocheport, Mo.

“Initially, their courses were occupationally defined, such as teaching people how to run shelters better,” the ASI’s Shapiro says. “But now they’re moving into this larger field of human-animal studies, and they are bringing in major faculty to run the program. These are established teachers; they’re not just pulling in activists from off the street.”

HSU is a nonprofit like its parent organization, the HSUS. Administrators split the course offerings into five eight-week terms. Tuition is $350 per credit hour for undergraduates; $450 per credit hour for graduates. Class sizes range from five to 10 students. Typically, HSU bachelor’s degree students have taken two years of college elsewhere, and HSU courses complete their junior and senior year. The master’s program is a two-year course taken online, although most MS students work full time at other jobs, Unti says, and take longer than that to complete their studies.

Christiana Remick, a vet tech from California, transferred to HSU in 2009 and studied full time for two years. Now 29 and working for the House Rabbit Society Adoption and Education Center in Richmond, Calif., she said her BS from HSU helped her clinch the job.

“There’s never been a degree program in humane education and animal-assisted therapy prior to HSU,” she said. “I was thrilled to find this.”

***

Every Saturday morning, Balcombe gets his hands dirty at the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, where he and other volunteers clean animal stalls, refresh the water, scoop the poop and herd the chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl and peacocks into a barn to avoid local hawks. A vegan, the owner of two cats and the author of several books on animal emotions, he jokes that he was born with an “animal protection gene.”

“Thirty years ago, I stopped eating animals,” he says. “The main reason I did a PhD was to be a more effective spokesperson for the rights of animals.”

The 20th century saw a huge leap in animal protections, according to Balcombe, and the 21st century is looking even brighter.

“One hundred years ago, you could fill one middle [book]shelf on animal rights,” he says. “Today, there are several books coming out a week. It is a growing social movement.”

“[British philosopher] John Stuart Mill said all social movements have three stages: ridicule, discussion and adoption,” Balcombe adds. “We’re over the ridicule part.”

Julia Duin is a contributing writer for the Magazine. To comment on this article, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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