The animal-rights movement graduates into an academic field
The Humane Society of the United States has branched out to create a university, offering bachelor's and master's degrees since 2009 which can be earned in person or online.
Special to The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Moody octopuses, altruistic bats and honeybees that vote are academic fodder for newest university in Washington, D.C.
On a recent, rainy Wednesday evening, 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 (HSU), 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 catalogs, including "Understanding the Human-Animal Bond" and "Sociology of Animal Abuse."
Presiding over the Wednesday class as chairman of HSU's animal studies department is Jonathan Balcombe, 53, who holds 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.
Two students sit at a table with Balcombe: Jesse Grimes, 27, who works in information technology for a government contractor, and Kristin Lamoureux, 39, a professor of tourism at George Washington University who rescues boxer dogs in her spare time.
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."
The American animal-rights movement has officially been under way 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.
"Students today are very keen on doing something beneficial," he adds. "They care about animals, and I have emails 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. These degrees equip students for careers in fields such as animal-sanctuary management, animal therapy and zoo design.
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.
Capitalizing on void
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."
Dara 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," says Kenneth Shapiro, ASI's executive director. "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.
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 bachelor's of science 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."