Monday, October 24, 2011

Four Legs Good! In praise of Companion Species



In The Companion Species Manifesto Donna Haraway asks what might happen if we started taking relationships with animals seriously. She asks this in part as a way to (re)consider history.  This feminist manifesto differs from the earlier (and I'd say more anthologized) Cyborg Manifesto in that the companion species is a precursor to the function the cyborg has in that earlier text. Here's what I mean: she's traded the slogan "Cyborgs for Earthly Survival," for the pithier "Run fast; bite hard." Upon reading Haraway I was immediately reminded of the tagline of my blogging cyber-mentor Sina Queyras's Lemon Hound: "More bark than bite since 2005." I wondered what our academic relationships with animals may tell us. Sure, not everyone is an animal lover and not everyone can--or wants--to live with an animal, but I am constantly surprised by how many academics--and how many female academics--I know who are dog, cat, or other animal-crazy. What's up with academics generally (feminists specifically) and animals?

I found myself mulling this question over again when I was standing in my dear friend M.'s office earlier this week. While we were chatting I noticed a poster above her desk. It read "behind every productive woman there is a rather remarkable cat." Indeed! I thought, but why?

Granted, my companion species is a rather remarkable dog by the name of Felix (though I've had fine cats in my life) but the point is that animals seem to be absolutely necessary in the lives of many academics I know. In my department alone Chai, Tusket, Finnegan, Sam, Obie, Sage, Rosie, Duchess, Herbie, Tink, Brock, Ollie, Cobaka, and Waldo provide unquantifiable amounts of anecdotes. Those of us who live with animals seem to flock together in the halls to share the most recent story of our four-legged friends. 

I have always loved animals. I got my first pet--a hamster named Hammy--after I passed the goldfish test when I was about five. Tippy the Beagle came to live with us when I was about eight. Sam came later, and Wallace the cross-eyed, soft-hearted, fancy-stepping deer hound still lives with my parents, but it wasn't until graduate school that I really developed companionship with a four-legged friend. Felix and I have lived together for eight years. He came home with me when he was a wee pup and we were both in Montreal. He, in a pen waiting to be adopted; me, writing my MA thesis. I was one of only two people in my cohort who chose to write a thesis, and it was lonely work. While I think it prepared me for the solitariness that is (often) scholarly research at the time I was surprised by how lonely I felt. Walking with Felix got me out of my head and out of the house.

Since 2004 Felix has been my constant companion. We moved from Montreal to Calgary together. He has seen me through immense changes in my personal life as well as in my career. He sits beside me when I grade papers. He sits beside me when I read. He wakes up with me when I can't sleep because of some anxiety or another, and he leans on me when I have a cry (often that cry is my first response to peer review. There, I said it). But perhaps what my relationship with Felix reinforces on a regular basis is something that Haraway calls significant otherness. Animals--dogs, for Haraway--are "partners in the crime of human evolution." They tell us much about ourselves, and they tell us much about the way we as treat others. Oh yes, and they have wonderful senses of humor.

Do you have an animal in your life?






6 comments:

  1. Years ago a friend of mine who is also an academic told me that I should get a cat. Cats are English professors' best companions, she said. They walk over your keyboard; they jump up on your lap and insert themselves between you and the book you are reading; and sometimes they just sleep on the chair nearby while you work. They can be a soothing presence in your work/living space and they definitely help the lonely academic feel less alone. They don't require much of your attention, but when they need attention they ask you for it. I've learned a lot from my cats.

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  2. And oh the lovely feeling of a purring cat nearby!

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  3. My cat, Lulu, has been with me longer than my kid. Longer than my husband. When I was a single dissertating PhD candidate living far away from all kith and kin, she kept me company and kept me rooted. It was nice to have someone to care for.

    She always naps with me, lets me hold her paws, jumps in / scatters my grading, inserts herself between me and my keyboard, and always always takes my spot whenever I stand up to get a cup of coffee or a pen. Which she often attacks.

    She is somewhat neglected by me since arrival of husband and daughter (both lavish her with attention), but she's still my writing buddy those days I work from home in my bathrobe. Like old times. She knew me in grad school ...

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  4. My sister had terrible allergies to animals when we were kids, so the only pets we ever had were hamsters (I called mine Radar, and my sister's was Harold). We had great fun with the hamsters, driving them around in our Barbie motorhome, and yanking them up and down the elevator in the Barbie city home. One time, I even sent Radar for a ride in the Barbie catamaran, and my dad had to plunk the canoe in the lake and go rescue him.

    But I digress ... I've had a little dog (Bronte) for six years now, and getting a dog was possibly the best thing I've ever done in my life. I am just plain crazy about that little dog: her fuzzy little body, her goofy little antics, and her loving little soul.

    I got Bronte when I was well into the Sahara of my doctoral dissertation. Wish I had done it sooner. She became my constant companion: I set up a "consulting chair" next to my computer desk, and she sat next to me while I typed. When we both needed a break, we'd head off to hike along the Bay of Fundy, where Bronte would carefully sniff every twig leaf and blade of grass, and I would breathe in good ocean air and clear my head.

    Ah yes, and Bronte has seen me through some of the most brutally discouraging times in my life. She was there when I finally broke down and cried because I was so tired and discouraged with the whole messy business of the PhD. My dog was the only one who saw me at my most vulnerable. And what love that little animal gave me that day.

    So here's to all the pets in our lives, who help keep us centred and whole!

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  5. @digiwonk and PhDiva: I love that Lulu and Bronte are witnesses for your lives! (& you theirs...) I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition again and again as I read your posts. Thanks!

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  6. I have a cat named Liora, adopted her when my boyfriend (also named felix lol) started working for months at a time up north. She is probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me since she keeps my stress levels down at home, and is constantly just there. It's like always having someone around to back you up. The fact that I'm the only person besides the vet that she allows to touch her sort of reinforces the connection that we have together. She seriously keeps me from falling into anxious depressive moments, because I find that I am still accountable to another living being, so it gets me out of bed, and reminds me that maybe I should also eat lunch since the cat is. It's silly, but I can't imagine waking up with my cat not sleeping on my chest, or trying to groom me by licking my face. When she got out for a day and a night I was totally inconsolable. Hate to quote a TV famous fellow, but caeser milan is correct when he says that animals show you what you need in yourself.

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