Brock Prof. asks: Animals do a lot for us, what should we do for them?

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Brock Associate Professor of Labour Studies, Dr. Kendra Coulter, wants you to know how much animals do for us. Her recently published article, first in The Conversation and later in the National Post, focused on the issue of ‘beast of burden’ and the concept of service animals.

“Much like people, today’s animals are less likely to be used for manual labour, and are more often employed in service work. They assist with law enforcement, and even sniff out endangered species, smuggled goods and insect infestations,” wrote Coulter. She also detailed a number of other jobs we use animals for, including comfort animals, guide dogs, and even dogs who warn their owners about the potential onset of a seizure.

“Animals are using an intricate combination of their physical, intellectual and emotional abilities in their work for us,” wrote Coulter. “Academic research is beginning to reveal the depth and breadth of the cognitive skills, emotional lives and cultural practices of animals of all sizes. When working for us, many animals engage in nuanced communication, they control or suppress their feelings to behave appropriately, and actively assess people and complex environments.”

Coulter also notes that this evolution in the way we interact with animals and the jobs they do for us has changed the way we look at them. Humans are more likely now to see animals not just as ‘beasts of burden,’ but rather as complex, thinking and feeling creatures.

Coulter questions the place of animals in our food chain and the living conditions of animals used for consumption. How, she asks, do we reconcile that position of some animals with our affection and personification of others? Coulter notes that there are more than 700 million farm animals in Canada whose lives are often short and unhappy. She suggests an analysis of current labour laws and the application of compassion in our assignment of tasks to the animals that continue to work with us.

“Clearly the world of work is changing for people and animals alike, and it is challenging our conventional ideas and approaches,” wrote Coulter. “As a result, we ought to harness the potential of solidarity and reciprocity in our relationships, as well as in our political arenas.”

In 2016, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith put forward a private member’s bill in an attempt to update Canada’s animal cruelty laws. The bill was shot down in its second reading with a vote of 198 to 84 in a joint effort by Conservatives and Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet.

The defeat has been chalked up to the potential for changes in the criminal code that would drastically lower the bar for criminal charges to be laid, including the suggestion that it might outlaw certain religious practices such as the kosher killing of animals for human consumption. Canada’s animal cruelty laws remain mostly unchanged since 1892; charges relating to them rarely result in jail time. According to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies there were over 103,000 investigations carried out by local Humane Societies or SPCAs in 2014.

In addition to her position as Associate Professor in the department of Labour Studies, Professor Coulter is also the Chancellor’s chair for research excellence, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists, for which she was chosen last year. Her studies focus on the labour of animals and how we work with them, including a survey released in January of this year concerning the working conditions of people in Canada’s equine industries. The survey, open to those who have worked in, who are currently working in, or who own or operate horse stables in Ontario, will “contribute to a larger pool of data for Dr. Coulter’s research on humane jobs.” Coulter aims to improve the working lives of humans and animals through her research.

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