Childhood Animalness: Relationality, Vulnerabilities, and Conviviality

  • Joshua RussellEmail author
  • Leesa Fawcett
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


This paper traces how animals have been and are reduced to mere objects for use in child development, examining historical and contemporary trends in developmental literature. We alternatively present scholarship that delves into children’s and animals’ subjective encounters and intersecting worldhoods as critical of more anthropocentric developmental psychology models. We utilize continuity as a model that emerges from our field work in order to make various suggestions about the ethics that emerge from children’s embodied experiences with animals, including felt senses of vulnerability, death, and precarity. Finally, we finish the chapter by outlining potential pedagogical directions that encourage deeper reflections about the precariousness of childhood lives, lived differently and together on this planet. Key to this is the consideration of interspecies, intergenerational conviviality – emphasizing the shared joys, pleasures, and problems of multispecies living.


Developmental psychology Animalness Vulnerability Human-animal relations Childhood Conviviality 


While interviewing a 13-year-old girl named Sabrina, Joshua asked a question about the differences between the death of beloved companion animals and the deaths of animals in the wild or on farms. Sabrina thought for a moment before offering the following response:

Um, well I feel like pets is different because you have like, a connection with them and like specific people will like, be sad about it and stuff, but I try not to think about like, the animals that are killed for food and stuff and then like the wild and stuff you don’t really notice as much when they’re killed because you don’t really watch them die or anything and so then you kind of, its like not the same because you don’t really think about it you don’t really like notice, cuz I’m sure there’s like lots of animals who have died like, really recently, like in the past hour or something but you just like don’t, you don’t know cuz you don’t know specifically each animal.

As scholars working at the crossroads of environmental education, environmental philosophy, and human-animal relations, we are interested in the kinds of experiential curiosities that Sabrina outlines in her thoughtful response above. We wonder how children’s lived experiences converge and diverge with wider sociocultural and political practices and discourses about multispecies cohabitation, and we believe that critical and caring research on child-animal relationships can provide insights that counter hegemonic practices and promote nonviolent coexistence. In this chapter, we outline a theoretical framework built on relational ontologies and ethics, as well as bodily experiences – ranging from felt desires to mutual vulnerabilities – that we argue illustrates the significance and implications of child-animal relationships. By using the phrase childhood animalness, we mean to reclaim the continuities and differences across animals from the tight anthropocentric hold that has existed in schooling. We use our framework to build a pedagogical vision of conviviality, albeit an interspecies living and learning together that embraces interdependence and ethical comingling.

Throughout our framing, we employ a range of phenomenological, evolutionary, and feminist materialist approaches as well as examples from our research with children, to identify the ethical, political implications of the intersubjective, bodily phenomena that are central to child-animal relationships. Drawing from an array of discourses, we turn our critical eyes toward the persistence of anthropocentric views of childhood (often Western, Eurocentric views too) and of animal life that encourage a hegemonic hyper-separation of “the adult human” as contra to “the animal” or “the child.” These are the same views that posit “culture” as dominant over nature, as outlined in the important work of Val Plumwood, Donna Haraway, and others. In place of these limiting and damaging human-centric models of child-animal-nature, we trace various ecological lines of thought that emphasize relationality, complexity, and material interconnections as foundational ontological realities.

In addition, we challenge both political and educational habits that emerge from ontologies of separation and human exceptionalism, which perpetuate existing violent and destructive human-animal relations driven by varieties of anthropocentrism. Such practices rely on speciesism and long-standing generalizations about (white, privileged) adulthood as the pinnacle of human development. We align with non-anthropocentric philosopher Matthew Calarco as we try to disrupt and “shrink the influence of the institutional and economic practices that limit animal potentiality and to create other ways of life that allow for both human beings and animals to flourish” (2015, p. 5). Our goal is to highlight bodily experiences that emerge from child-animal relations – in particular experiences of shared, bodily vulnerabilities across species lines – as a starting point for decentering privileged, anthropocentric visions of individual development. In its place, we offer our thoughts on a living and dynamic pedagogy of conviviality that aligns with the vision of childhoodnature that reminds us that human children, more-than-human animals, and human adults are all materially and ethically embedded in relational, naturalcultural spaces. We are using the linguistically awkward term more-than-human (Abram, 1996) to signal the enormous array of living beings other than human beings. We chose not to use the common term nonhuman as it reproduces a binary negation. Some Indigenous scholars, such as Haudenosaunee elder Paul Williams (1999), talk about animals and plant as our brothers and sisters, as our relatives (p. 2); we find this environmental philosophy much more suitable, especially given the lands we are on, but we do not wish to misappropriate it or use it disrespectfully, as we do not speak the language.

Tracing the Divisions of Childhood, Animality, and Adulthood

It is likely that anyone formally trained to work with children has at some point become familiar with the work of Swiss biologist Jean Piaget. Piaget was originally trained as a zoologist, and his particular interest in children actually arose from a deep curiosity about the development of rational, scientific cognition in humans. Piaget’s work is described as establishing a “strong” model of human development (Damon, 1983). Piaget – along with Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and many others – portrays human development as a sequence of qualitatively distinct, holistic, and universal stages. Piaget notably outlined four stages of cognitive development:
  1. 1.

    The sensorimotor stage (newborns to infants of 2)

  2. 2.

    The preoperational stage (roughly ages 2–7)

  3. 3.

    The concrete operational stage (ages 7–12)

  4. 4.

    The formal operational stage (ages 12 and beyond)

These stages are part of Piaget’s overall epigenetic theory of child cognition (Damon, 1983; Piaget and Inhelder, 2013). That is, Piaget held that children are born with a genetic disposition or map for cognitive development, social meaning making, and self-recognition. Included in any child’s journey through these four stages and into adulthood are mastery over cognitive concepts like object permanence, intentionality, egocentrism, inductive reasoning, abstract thought, and rational problem-solving.

In his research, Piaget generally followed two categorical lines of growth in human beings: individuation, referring to a person’s distinguishing of self from others, defining one’s direction, and finding a position in society, and socialization, referring to the self’s ability to integrate into society and dealing with others and the world at large (Damon, 1983). As a result of Piaget’s foundational work, children, as research subjects, are often described in abstraction from their specific familial and social environments so as to maintain a dispassionate and universal view of their individuation and, ironically, their socialization (Damon, 1983; Burman, 1993). Piaget’s empiricist approach not only abstracts children from their environment and universalizes this pattern of growth, but as Erica Burman (1993) notes, his actual tools of measurement work to produce children as both research objects and research subjects, thereby failing to theorize the contexts they inhabit. Of interest to us, Piaget conducted only limited research into child-animal relations, and much of that was focused upon children’s categorical understanding of animals as animate and their cognitive ability to separate living from nonliving objects. For example, Piaget (2004) draws attention to the stage of development wherein children recognize that the moon, stars, and sun are objects separate from the free, self-motivated, and animate objects present in the animal kingdom, but this is the extent of his foray into children’s interactions with animal others.

Research on childhood covers a significant amount of disciplinary ground, from developmental psychology and psychoanalysis to cultural, historical, and sociological research on childhood as a phenomenon (Jenks, 2005). Investigations of the roles and experiences of animals in childhood remain rooted mostly in critical and cultural studies of symbolic animals – especially those drawing on psychoanalysis – and in psychological research surrounding children’s development in the presence of real animal others (Taylor, 2016). Gail Melson notes that child-animal relationships have rarely been given serious attention within research and scholarly literature, save for a few exemplary studies that tended toward an anthropocentric bias, studies which have “impeded both theory and research into the developmental significance of animals, especially companion animals, for children” (2003, p. 32). Given the disciplinary breadth of interest, however, researchers that do take up child-animal relationships vary widely in their scope and focus. What such work often shares, however, is an attentiveness to the ways in which animals play a key role in children’s attainment of some contextually specific vision of “adulthood.” At times, this emphasis on a predetermined achievement of adulthood diminishes children’s knowledge and likewise erases other animals as subjects, agents, and active, meaningful participants in relational spaces alongside of children and adults. Still, it is useful to trace some of the ways in which researchers have sought to explore children’s relationships with animals as predominantly aligned with an anthropocentric, becoming-adult vision of development.

Several researchers have approached the study of child-animal relations as a way of understanding the development of empathy or morality. Lori Gruen (2009) outlines empathy’s varied use within the psychological literature; it is typically described as knowing, feeling, or responding to another being’s (typically a person’s) own feelings. There is a historical precedent for thinking that relationships with companion animals contribute to children’s empathic abilties (Grier, 1999). Several contemporary, developmental studies suggest that higher empathy “scores” are correlative to relationships with pets (Daly & Morton, 2006; Wynne, Dorey & Udell, 2011). What such scores mean, however, is debatable. As Gail Melson notes (2003), there is no indication that the presence or introduction of cats or dogs into the family home produces the effect of higher empathic understanding; it may be just as likely that sensitive, empathic children ask their parents for a pet. Still, when asked about the connections between children and animals, almost 70% of adults reported a belief that it is “good for a kid’s development to grow up with pets” (Ipsos-Reid, 2001, p. 33). In a recent Time special edition on “The Science of Childhood”, psychologist Michele Borba advocates teaching children empathy and how pets can assist with those teachings: “watch the puppy’s tail, and you will know when she’s happy” (2017, p. 63).

Another psychologist interested in what child-animal relationships reveals about children’s affective and moral development, Frank Ascione similarly draws upon notions of empathy (see Ascione, 1992); although, his most prominent research tends to consider children’s animal relationships as indicative of future affective capacities or psychopathologies. In Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty, Ascione (2005) investigates various case studies and conducts new research into the correlations between domestic abuse, child abuse, and animal abuse. He argues that children who are abused by caretakers are more likely to abuse animals when young and spouses, family members, or other children when older. Ascione cites humane education programs as important steps toward improving children’s empathic capabilities, not only toward companion animals but toward other human beings as well (1992, 2005). He also describes various social work programs and strategies as critical methods of intervention for an otherwise predictable turn from childhood animal abuse to future psychopathology and criminality.

Stephen Kellert’s developmental research focuses upon the role of biophilia, as well as experiences with animals and nature, in children’s “personality formation and character development” (2002, p. 117). Kellert distinguishes between three kinds of experiences children have in natural environments or with nonhuman beings: direct, indirect, and symbolic experience. Direct experiences involve physical contact “largely outside and independent of the human built environment,” experiences that are unplanned or unstructured (Kellert, 2002, p. 118). Indirect experiences involve physical contact with “natural habitats and nonhuman creatures” that is the “result of regulated and contrived human activity” (Kellert, 2002, p. 119). Examples include visits to zoos or aquariums, animal visits to classrooms, and even experiences with pets in the home. Symbolic experiences, also referred to as “mediated” experiences (Fawcett, 2002), occur outside of physical contact with nature, where children encounter “representations or depicted scenes of nature that sometimes are realistic but that also, depending on circumstance, can be highly symbolic, metaphorical, or stylized characterizations” (Kellert, 2002, p. 119). Children, for example, may have symbolic experiences while watching nature documentaries, YouTube videos, or reading books with animal characters. Each of these experiential modes, Kellert argues, enhances the development of various cognitive, affective, and moral abilities within childhood, a finding which Kellert describes as unfortunate, given the decline in natural spaces and species as a result of modern capitalist culture.

Recent developmental research builds upon the concept of biophilia in establishing young children and infants’ tendency to “monitor the environment for the presence and location of animals and other humans,” known as the “animate-monitoring hypothesis” (DeLoache, Pickard, & LoBue, 2011, p. 87). An overview of research in this area indicates that even in infancy, human beings are drawn to animate stimuli and in particular animals. Both dynamic and static features of animals are attended to, including facial features, body shapes, animal movement patterns, “self-initiation, and apparent agency and intentionality” (DeLoache et al., 2011, p. 94). Arguably, this perceptual attendance to animate and animal objects in an infant’s lifeworld builds a foundation for children’s future epistemic investigations, including categorization, names, identities, and typical behavior of animals. Furthermore, tracking the presence and location of individual and recognizable animals in early childhood figures to be key in establishing interspecies relationships, bonds, or even friendships (Fawcett, 2014).

Kahn and Kellert’s (2002) exposition of biophilia overlooks the experience and meaning of child-pet relationships. Kellert suggests that direct experiences in nature are preferable to, and indeed more beneficial than, indirect and symbolic experiences. With this idea we largely concur. As a result, he puts studies of “pets” on a lower tier of interest. Ecological feminists have a lengthy history of critiquing the tendency to focus only on populations of wild animals and not include individual animals, such as pets. Erica Fudge notes similar trends within animal studies, citing a widely held belief that pets are “degraded animals,” since the “truly animal qualities of wildness and self-sufficiency have been removed from – bred out of – the pet and replaced with tameness and dependency” (2008, p. 8). Fudge instead suggests that pets provide much to think about regarding globalization, the destruction of natural spaces, and the human-animal divide, particularly, she argues, within literary explorations of human-pet relationships. We would add that pets are good to think with, especially about the development of interdependence and empathy in childhood and throughout human lives.

What Ascione, Kellert, and the others have in common with Piaget and more traditional developmental thinkers is the anthropocentric and adult-centric framework they use in thinking through the process and endpoints of development. While there is more emphasis placed on relationships outside of the human realm, other animals are reduced to bystanders or passive participants in the nexus of childhood. In some extreme instances, animals become objects for contemplation, consideration, or moral and affective experimentation on children’s journey to fuller participation in a human-centered world, full of adults and their grown-up concerns.

Children, Adults, and Other Animals in Continuity

Challenging Western psychology’s anthropocentric approach, a variety of other researchers have argued that children’s relationships to animals and to the larger ecology of multispecies assemblages are important for nourishing development, not as an endpoint for human adults but as a continuous process of becoming-with (Fawcett, 2014; Livingston, 1994; Malone 2016; Myers, 2007; Russell, 2016; Shepard, 1982, 1997; Taylor & Pacini-Ketchawbaw, 2015; etc.). Gene Myers provides one of the earliest empirical studies of child-animal relations that embraces participation across species lines. Drawing on his year-long study of preschool children’s interactions with animals in the classroom (2007), Myers’ work is built around a belief that nonhuman animals are real, subjective, and vital figures in children’s lives:

Partly because we do not see animals as fundamentally important to human life, we have dispersed them to the official domains of child psychology – here in conceptual development, a bat that is not a bird; over there in psychoanalysis the horse that is the father… But in the actual lives of children, the animal is a whole and compelling presence. We can recover that animal by identifying the biases that have led us to marginalize other creatures and, most importantly, by going directly to the source – to children and their experience of animals. (2007, p. 2)

Myers firmly places humans within the sphere of animality, arguing that we are first and foremost relational selves within an ecology of subjects (Evernden, 1993). Such an expression of human embeddedness and creaturely existence echoes Donna Haraway’s suggestion that “beings do not pre-exist their relatings” (2004, p. 6).
Myers’ observations of children led to a wide range of findings regarding the significance of child-animal relationships and the self-other relations more broadly. While there is not enough room here to summarize each of his developmentally significant findings, a few stand out as particularly relevant for the project at hand. First, Myers presents several examples of child-animal interactions that display children’s ability to recognize animals as possessing unique and significantly different minds, developing what is known as a “theory of mind.” Theory of mind “holds that people have beliefs and desires, which can lead to intentions and actions, and which interact with situations in the real world and with emotions in the self” (Myers, 2007, p. 101). In essence, theory of mind is the ability to recognize subjective and affective states in other beings. Recent cognitive and consciousness studies indicate that theory of mind is present in varying degrees in humans, primates, and possibly other animals and may be attributed to the possession of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are unique in that they “fire” as a result of both action and observation:

They constitute, therefore, a specific neural system matching action observation and execution. The observed action produces in the observer’s premotor cortex an activation pattern resembling that occurring when the observer actively executes the same action. (Gallese, 2001, p. 36)

We experience the effects of mirror neuron activation when we witness others being injured and reach for our own uninjured body part; the effect is similar when witnessing others act in ways that reveal a particular emotional response. It is possible that mirror neurons are actually at the root of some empathic understanding (Gallese, 2001). Children articulating a theory of mind regarding animals challenge the outdated Cartesian notion that animals are merely instinctual beings. Myers reveals that while children tended to attribute wants and desires to animals rather than more complex thoughts, the foundation for further development is laid in early childhood (2007).
Myers also emphasizes the interaction between theory of mind and children’s development of language use. He describes several examples of children speaking to animals or speaking about animal language. One particularly interesting conclusion Myers makes is that children both make assumptions about animals’ ability to recognize their intentions through verbal communication – typically through high-pitched, upward inflected questions – and that children can distinguish between their own use of language and the animals’ modes of communication. Myers shares an interaction between the classroom teacher and the children during a visit with a dog as evidence:

Mr. Grier: “If I’m up in my apartment and he’s out in this park by himself, I’ve got to know when to go get him, right, when he’s ready to come in. So you know what he does?” A child barks. Mr. Grier: “Exactly, who said that?” Ms. Tanner and Drew indicate it was Joe. Mr. Grier: “exactly, I’ll be up in my apartment, maybe reading or something, and I’ll hear from outside ‘Woof, woof woof’ just a couple of times, and that means he’s waiting right by the door outside and he’s ready to come on.” (2007, p. 112)

Myers interprets 5-year-old Joe’s barking as evidence that Joe recognizes the meaning conveyed by the dog’s communicative action. Language use around animals shifts according to the contexts, moods, and desires of the children, revealing shifting experiences of self-awareness and relationality in a more-than-human. According to Myers, “language is essential in making us the creature that connects” (2007, p. 91). Myers’ description of humans as the creature that connects belies a humanistic, psychological tendency to differentiate between humans and animals on the basis of some cognitive capacity, including language use (Calarco, 2008). David Abram, drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s exploration of the embodiment of language, suggests that language is not just a matter of grammar or speech but is embodied:

In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty had begun to work out a notion of human language as a profoundly carnal phenomenon, rooted in our sensorial experience of each other and the world. (1996, p. 74)

Abram further suggests that language and meaning emerge within a sensory, affective world of embodied encounter with others and even with entire landscapes. Understanding language in this way reveals that humans are one of the many social beings who make connections, both within and across species boundaries.
The highlight of Myers’ study is perhaps his exploration of various intersubjective experiences and states. Intersubjectivity is multiply defined, but through outlining the phenomenological work of Edmund Husserl, David Abram concludes that intersubjectivity is, at heart, the experience of specific phenomena “by a multiplicity of sensing subjects” (1996, p. 38). Such shared experiences can be embodied, cognitive, imaginative, theoretical, and even affective or emotional. Myers outlines several modes of shared experience that he observed between children and animals to varying degrees, notably the sharing of affects (interaffectivity), shared attention, and shared intentionality. When different animals were brought into the classroom, Myers described the children’s behaviors as often aligned with the vitality affects of the animal: a hyper monkey entered the classroom and the children became hyper, a turtle’s presence made the children move slowly and even take the hunched over shape of a turtle in its shell, and so on. He notes that these “vitality affects” may have been unconscious on some level, but that children were often actively interpreting an animal’s behavior as representative of her emotions and intentions (2007). While he warns that little evidence was found in his studies to suggest that animals aligned their own affects or intentions with the children’s, Myers does acknowledge the possibility and suggests that children and adults may actually learn to interpret animal actions interaffectively. He provides the example of animals “liking” children:

The turtle crawls toward Dawn, who declares: “He likes me.” Mr. Lloyd: “He likes you? He’s going to crawl right under you there, huh?” Dawn backs up, spreads her knees on floor, and laughs. (Myers, 2007, p. 93)

Myers’ work reveals a promising foundation for a shift in developmental focus on child-animal relationships, one that takes animal agency and children’s animality as a starting point. It is important to recognize the interplay of cognitive, linguistic, and embodied developments in the real and imagined relational spaces of childhood to obtain a larger picture of children’s experiences, without predetermining what children “ought” to become as adults. Following in similar footsteps as Edith Cobb (1959) and John Livingston (1994), Myers draws attention to the ecological and intersubjective contexts of childhood. The rational, dispassionate, apex adult that epigenetic models of development portray as the endpoint of proper child development are so often removed from the more-than-human world. Models of development built on relational, ecological concepts offer new possibilities for thinking about not only childhood but the human animal’s place in various contexts (Code, 2006).

As indicated in the previous section, many studies of child-animal relationships tend to focus on the impacts of those bonds on children’s cognitive, emotional, and moral development, with little consideration to the agency, well-being, or subjective experiences of the animals themselves. This is a common trend within much academic literature, one that has become the focus of human-animal studies (HAS) and anthrozoology. These interdisciplinary fields have risen in popularity among academics in fields as diverse as ethology, literary studies, science and technology studies, education, philosophy, political studies, and sociology (DeMello, 2010). We use the phrase human-animal studies broadly, to cover a wide range of scholars who may choose to label their work as “posthumanist,” “post-Cartesian,” “critical,” or otherwise (see Castricano, 2009; DeMello, 2010; Wolfe, 2010).

Like others in human-animal studies, we espouse the post-Cartesian view that the oppressive dualisms of mind/body, human/animal, and culture/nature are both deeply embedded within Western culture (Plumwood, 2002) and also work to create unnecessary separations, suffering, and loss. Many of our colleagues in human-animal studies and environmental studies have developed strong research orientations toward what they see as a problematic and violent understanding of animals within their various research projects and publications (Castricano, 2009). Traci Warkentin, for example, articulates an approach that is rooted in phenomenological biology and ecological psychology for exploring human-whale interactions. Drawing in particular on the work of Jakob von Uexküll, Warkentin (2007) suggests that it is possible to imaginatively envision another being’s sensory lifeworld – including the sights, sounds, scents, flavors, textures, and even their sense of time. Uexküll’s famous concept of the umwelt – translated as “environment” or, more roughly, “surrounding world” – was radical in that it extended the possibility of worldhood and multiple realities to all living things. According to Uexküll, no singular being’s reality is more truthful or accurate than another’s; they are different yet complementary. This ontological coupling of animal being with environment is the foundation of an umwelt, the closed perceptual world of an individual organism. Uexküll’s most famous example is that of the tick, an organism that can lie for years in an almost catatonic state until it perceives the scent of mammalian blood, when it will then drop down for a meal. Our perceptual worlds do not overlap; our reliance upon vision and sound is perhaps nonsensical to the tick. Its perceptual capacity for smelling blood and sensing body heat is largely unknown to humans. A tick’s umwelt can be imagined, but never truly known or experienced, yet it is no less materially present in the world and “real” (Evernden, 1993; Warkentin, 2007).

Interspecies Ethics Within Children’s Embodied Experiences

Recently, while watching a young seated child of 9 months exuberantly kicking his feet in every direction and simultaneously dancing his hands in the air as he made numerous sounds, Leesa was struck by the child’s enthralled embodiment and the surrounding adults’ enchantment. This was a scene of delight, especially when the child paused suddenly, looked down at his leaping feet, seemed surprised, stopped moving, and simply watched his feet as if to wonder whose they were. To be in awe about one’s own bodily extensions and expressions into the world is part of childhood development. This child had dogs wandering underfoot, dogs with active legs and feet. For a child to discover their own feet and then see the feet of a dog (or cat or squirrel, etc.) gives them the opportunity to witness the similarities and differences across physical forms and functions of legs, feet, and movement. Is it possible that children’s discovery of their own bodies is abetted by seeing other animals’ bodies?

Individuals are not alive alone. We are embedded in relationships with humans and a multitude of other species, daily. Searching for a nonviolent ethics (from a humanistic perspective), Judith Butler (2004) discusses a “common human vulnerability, one that emerges with life itself” (31) and that calls forth our collective responsibilities to each other. Butler carefully questions how some humans are made unhuman and their lives made unreal and how violence accompanies that unreality (2004, p. 33). To extend Butler’s notion, for example, to the lives of animals in the animal-industrial complex is not unthinkable; indeed, Stanescu (2012) has done just that. The critical questioning of the wholly autonomous self is necessary to understand the circulation of recognition and reciprocity in social lives. As Butler acknowledges, “I am not fully known to myself, because part of what I am is the enigmatic traces of others” (46). These others need not be human others only. Although, her life’s work is from a humanistic standpoint, Butler has recognized the importance of human-animal relationships (Stanescu, 2012). Butler asks us: “Is there a way that we might struggle for autonomy in many spheres, yet also consider the demands that are imposed upon us by living in a world of beings who are, by definition, physically dependent on one another, physically vulnerable to one another?” (2004, 27). When Leesa asked a 10-year-old about nature, they replied: “Nature is the same as people sort of. If people think they have the right to kill animals then they have the right to kill people, and it shouldn’t be either one.” In Butler’s argument that all bodies are differently and inequitably vulnerable, we are reminded of children and animal’s corporeal vulnerability and (inter)dependence, and we agree with both the 10-year-old child above and with Butler that we have a communal responsibility for the interdependence of our physical, emotional lives.

Key to Butler’s response is her description of “recognizability,” a Hegelian concept which she defines as “the more general conditions that prepare or shape a subject for recognition – the general terms, conventions, and norms “act” in their own way, crafting a living being into a recognizable subject, though not without errancy or, indeed, unanticipated results” (Butler, 2009, p. 5). Butler’s descriptions align with a wider sense that others have meaningful lives, worthy of recognition. She provides an epistemic framework that echoes the animal rights philosopher Tom Regan’s (1983) notion of moral subjects – including certain “higher” animals – as being “subjects of a life.” Regan’s metaphysical argument for animal rights suggests that beings capable of individual beliefs, desires, and a sense of self that extends both into the past and into the future are “subjects of a life” and hence deserve moral recognition. The children in our studies often recognize that this is the case and often express those observations while describing death, pain, and suffering of other creatures. Thirteen-year old Neville provides such a perspective, when asked about his thoughts about animals:

Neville: … if we were just to call them [animals] like, an object, I don’t think that would be um, too specific to them, I think they should be… all animals should be called like, uh, have feelings and, um, really to show you um, not to like, because yeah I have a microphone and a watch and, they’re things (I: Yeah) I mean, a cat, I mean, living animals aren’t (I: Yeah) if you know what I’m saying?

For Neville, this recognition of the vitality of other animals separates them from the world of “mere” objects. His description was particularly tied to various discussions about animal suffering and his experiences with the death of a cat.
Why might recognition of animals’ lives and subjectivity coincide with the witnessing of their suffering or death? Butler (2004) claims that human beings’ fundamental relationality and existential awareness of vulnerability leads to the possibility of recognizing others’ lives as “precarious.” Butler describes precariousness as built upon affective apprehension of life’s fundamental relationality, the fact that we emerge from social conditions and attachments. This affective knowledge surfaces in the experience and expression of grief:

It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you?… What grief displays… is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control. (Butler, 2004, pp. 22–23, emphasis ours)

Is it possible then to recognize precariousness in other kinds of beings? While Butler maintains an anthropocentric focus, concerned with how human lives are subject to the production of normative frames, she does acknowledge briefly that precariousness is “a condition that links human and non-human animals” (2009, p. 13). Butler has been criticized for establishing a line of inquiry and argument that maintains and reinforces the primacy of “humanness” (Iveson, 2012), but we suggest that Butler’s arguments encourage a hermeneutic, phenomenological line of inquiry into the experience and meaning of interspecies relationality. In previous work, Joshua argues that mutuality and intersubjectivity between humans and more-than-human animals – and perhaps even landscapes – often leads to a sense of narrativity experienced in relational spaces between subjects (Russell, 2016). This phenomenon, referred to as “animal narrativity,” acknowledges that other beings’ lives are often perceived as stories both in and of themselves, but even more significantly, that other life stories converge and diverge with our own personal histories or those of our wider communities.

Children have provided us with various narratives, anecdotes, and descriptions highlighting the potential for recognizing other animals as having meaningful lives that are interdependent with human being(s) and subject to the same conditions of life. Building on Butler’s descriptions of recognizability and precariousness, we argue that the children often recognize vulnerability in their relationships with animals in several, mutually significant ways. During research interviews with Joshua, several children described euthanasia as a responsible choice made by members of the family out of care and concern for their pet’s perceived suffering. One child even referred to prolonging a cat’s perceived suffering as “animal cruelty.” Extending Butler’s terms, companion animal lives become “grievable” because of what is profoundly shared with others: space, time, bodily awareness and touch, and shared affects such as care, love, joy, and even sorrow. The children we have worked with throughout our studies seem to recognize precariousness as a shared state of existence among all living things and that personally significant relationships are the locus of the most deeply felt ethical and emotional connections. Children may recognize that part of the pain of losing a pet, for example, comes from a lost connection within a wider set of relations among family, friends, and other animals. As a result of one being’s death, the structure of the community left behind can become significantly altered.

Yet ethical challenges persist, and through our conversations with children, we are often reminded about the complexities of sharing lives and worlds with other animals. Children have expressed difficulties in recognizing the vastness of loss, death, and suffering felt by other animals around the world. This was encapsulated in Sabrina’s interview with Joshua about animal death:

Sabrina: I feel like pets is different because you have like, a connection with them and like specific people will like, be sad about it and stuff, but I try not to think about like, the animals that are killed for food and stuff and then (p) then like the wild and stuff you don’t really notice as much when they’re killed because you don’t really watch them die or anything and so then you kind of, its like not the same because you don’t really think about it. You don’t really like notice, cuz I’m sure there’s like lots of animals who have died like, really recently, like in the past hour or something but you just like don’t, you don’t know cuz you don’t know specifically each animal.

Sabrina’s thoughts about all of the unseen, unknown animal deaths echo ecological feminist’s concerns about the invisibility of individual animal suffering.

Conclusion: Toward an Interspecies Pedagogy of Conviviality

Charles Darwin (1936) understood the coextension of humans with other animals as a lineage of bodily and emotional similarities. Darwin was and is still reviled for suggesting the animality of human beings. Yet, many children are cognizant of their animalness. A grade five student told Leesa that they knew they were an animal because: “I’m alive. Because we live, eat, breath and grow and we’re alive and if you do that you’re either a plant or an animal and we’re certainly not plants, so we’re animals” (#111, 2002). In his nursery school research, Myers (2007) outlined how children felt vital and alive with other animals, and this was demonstrated in their actions. In a beautiful example, one young girl who enjoyed watching the classroom doves and was intrigued by flight was videotaped gesturing, moving, and dancing silently in from of the doves (Myers, 2007). Myers believed that the animal’s subjective qualities confirmed the child’s own sense of self, deepened the child’s self-other differentiation, and created special symbolism from the shared animacy. Myers identified four core traits of relatedness exhibited between children and animals: (1) agency, animals move on their own; (2) coherence, animals are each experienced as an organized whole; (3) affectivity, animals show emotions; and (4) continuity, animals exist over time. These traits of relatedness offer a stark contrast to human exceptionalism, reinforce Darwin’s hunches, and give educators tangible teachable moments to work with.

Critical animal studies scholars, like Helena Pedersen (2010), have interrogated the lack of curricular attention to animal lives in public schools, despite student interest. Previously, philosopher Anthony Weston (2004) went so far as to call for deschooling environmental education, urging teachers to go against the patterns of the dominant culture and to examine the permeability of the human/other-than-human boundary beyond the classroom walls. Weston was drawing on Ivan Illich’s ideas about how schools reproduce the established order of society and treat learning as a commodity to be produced for the benefit of an elite – instead of the learner’s “inalienable right to learn what he likes rather than what is useful to someone else” (Illich,1973, p. 2). Illich railed against schools that “made teachers into administrators of programs of manpower (sic) capitalization through directed, planned, behavioural changes” while tying students into “unending consumption and dependence” (1973, p. 20). Illich believed in “the social structure necessary to facilitate learning, to encourage independence and interrelationship and to overcome alienation” (1973, p. 22). Despite, lively critiques of Illich’s gender politics and his albeit humanist interests, we find his focus on capitalist systems of schooling and the importance of interrelationships vital to pedagogies of childhoodnature and animal relationality.

Conscious throughout his work of natural limits and scales, Illich envisioned: “A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to tools of the community” (1985, p. 12). Tools for Illich had a very broad meaning, as he maintained “schools were losing their claim to be effective tools to provide education” (1985, p. 8). Illich (1985) chose the term “conviviality to designate the opposite of industrial productivity” (people being much more than plain consumers) and for it “to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment,” and he believed “conviviality was an individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value” (p. 11). Recognizing the agency and interconnectedness of emotional lives, one of Leesa’s grade five students said: “If my Dad or Mom is in a bad mood he (the dog) runs away from them, jumps a fence.” We would like to jump over the fence of anthropocentrism in childhood animal relations. To learn and teach from such an ethical, convivial standpoint – children in creative conversation with each other and their animal environments, realizing their interdependence – is a vision worth realizing on our collective pedagogical horizon.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Animal Behavior, Ecology, and ConservationCanisius CollegeBuffaloUSA
  2. 2.Faculty of Environmental StudiesYork UniversityTorontoCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Pauliina Rautio
    • 1
  • Tracy Young
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of EducationUniversity of OuluOuluFinland
  2. 2.Swinbourne UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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