Are humans animals?

To me, this question seems ridiculous – of COURSE we are animals! We eat, we defecate, we procreate. Surey there is no room for doubt? Yet there are still many people who would flatly deny that humans are still part of the animal kingdom.

Today I was reading a piece by Dominick LaCapra, who reflects on the desire, evident throughout human history, to separate ourselves from the animal, when I suddenly recalled an argument I’d had, on this very topic, with a high school English teacher 20 years ago. She flatly refused to accept that human beings were animals – I think for her it was a matter of semantics, and the connotation of “animal” was one characterised by concepts of beastliness and degradation, in the way that someone might casually say that “so-and-so is no better than an animal.” I still remember how upset she was by my assertion that humans were animals – and I did not mean it in the beastly sense, but in a (undeniably!) biological one.

LaCapra questions this insistence on a distinction between human and animal, and the motivations that underlie this “misguided quest for a kind of holy grail”. [1] Further, he questions whether humanism has always required an “other” against which to project negatively. As post-modernism has increasingly given voice to women and non-European/colonised peoples, animals remain the last bastion of otherness – what LaCapra describes as “the residual repository of projective alienation or radical otherness.” [2]

The ascription of animalistic characteristics – the same ones I believe my English teacher was calling to mind – often equates to a denigration. LaCapra points out that those very behaviours, negatively perceived as animalistic or beastial – such as victimisation, torture, and genocide – are in fact distinctly human in their performance. [3] Conversely, many positive descriptions of animals have humanity as their reference point – for example, the lion being constructed as ‘the King of the beasts’.

In many ways, human beings, and what it means to be human, is constructed against the animal.[4] But is the apparently insurmountable gap between human and non-human animals real, or simply another anthropocentric human construct? According to Thomas Suddendorf, scientific evidence indicates that homo sapiens occupied the planet simultaneously to other hominids, including h. erectus, h. neanderthalensis, and the Florensis and Denisova hominids. Suddendorf argues that it is because all these other hominids have been rendered extinct that the chasm between human and animal is seemingly so great. More disturbingly, he believes that these extinctions were caused, at least in part, through the deliberate actions of homo sapiens, and draws a link between those early acts of genocide and the current human campaign, which appears to be leading inexorably to the extinction of the great apes.[5]

This idea is, frankly, rather depressing. While Suddendorf still considers us (humans) to be part of the animal kingdom, he appears to accept without question the anthropocentric assumption that “there is something extra special about us: After all, we are the ones running the zoos.” [6]  For Suddendorf (and I think for the majority of people), humanity is the acme of evolution. What would happen were we to deconstruct this anthropocentric viewpoint, and completely re-frame it? LaCapra cites a National Geographic feature where Clive Wynne is quoted as saying that intelligence is “a bush, not a single-trunk tree with a line leading only to us.” [7]

Perhaps if we viewed ourselves within that paradigm, part of an inter-related web of life, we might create a world that more closely resembled it. To me, the explanation offered by Suddendorf for the “gap” between human and non-human animals, while scientifically plausible, is also embedded within the type of anthropocentric assumptions that see our dominance – and subsequent destruction – of the planet as inevitable.


[1] LaCapra, Dominic. History and its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, 150.

[2] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 152.

[3] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 156.

[4] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 155.

[5] Suddendorf, Thomas. “//,plusone/rt=j/sv=1/d=1/ed=1/am=AQ/rs=AGLTcCOKQ3rum35Kog6sSccqiw7h7RGu7A/t=zcms/cb=gapi.loaded_2 sets us apart from the animals?” Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National, Friday 7 March 2014. Transcript and audio available at

[6] Suddendorf, “What sets us apart”.

[7] Cited in LaCapra, History and its Limits, 154 (footnote 7).

Object lessons

As regular readers would be aware, part of my PhD research involves a survey of museum objects that are made from parts of the horse. It seems a strange idiosyncrasy of our love of this animal, that when those who are highly prized pass on their remains are often fashioned into objects, which subsequently enter our museums and galleries.

This is particularly true with racehorses, and Phar Lap is perhaps the best known example, with his mounted hide at the Melbourne Museum, his heart on display at the National Museum of Australia, and his skeleton at Te Papa Tongarewa, in New Zealand. But there are many other such objects, and recently my survey turned up another intriguing example. Part of the Museum of Old and New Art State Collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, these two candlesticks are quite astonishing, both for their fine craftsmanship, and their provenance.

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The long straight stem of these candlesticks is not made from the usual silver or other metal, but comes from the cannon (or metacarpal) bones of a nineteenth-century racehorse named Quiz. The remainder is made from turned Huon pine, a timber unique to Tasmania. According to the website 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930, the ‘mouldings and incisions [are] typical of smaller turned artefacts of the nineteenth century. [They] reference the mouldings and details of classical architecture.’ [1]

The underside of one of the candlesticks is inscribed in black ink with the text ‘Canon bones of the horse Quiz the Property of Mr W.H. Mence who was killed on the Brighton racecourse whilst running in the Town plate’. This inscription is grammatically ambiguous, and from an animal studies perspective begs the question, was it the canon bones, or the horse himself, who are here referred to as ‘the property’ of Mence?

The 1854 Hobart Town Plate was a weight-for-age race, meaning horses carried a certain weight according to their age – in this case, three-year-olds carried seven stone 12 pounds (50kg), four-year-olds carried eight stone 12 pounds (56 kg), etc, up to horses aged six and over, who had to carry nine stone 10 pounds (61.6 kilos!). The race was contested over a distance of 4 miles – that is almost six and a half kilometers, a huge distance. Quiz, being described as ‘aged’ (ie he was over six years old) [2], had to carry the full weight.

There were only three horses running, and the accident that led to Quiz’s death was apparently caused when the horse of one of the spectators, a Mr Waters, took off with him on board and joined the field. The horse and rider contacted Quiz, and, it was reported by both The Courier and the Colonial Times, Quiz was killed instantly [3]. This fact William Mence, the stallion’s owner and jockey*, was quick to correct. Writing to The Courier, Mence states that, following the contact between Quiz and Waters’ horse, ‘I was thrown into the air with great violence from the buck of that noble animal, who was caught by a gentleman on the ground. I led him from the fatal spot, injured and exhausted as I was, with the blood gushing through his nostrils; with difficulty he reached his stable, and fell down dead. The cause was the bursting of a main artery, which may be more fully explained before a higher tribunal.’ [4] Mence closes his account with the statement that the horse’s death represents a loss to him of over one thousand pounds. [5]

There is no information regarding the process by which Quiz went from racehorse to candlesticks, but in outlining the history of these objects there is speculation that the choice of the canon bones for this purpose was a deliberate one. According to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, ‘[b]ecause the cannon bones bear a considerable part of the horse’s weight while it is in motion, their proportions are important indicators of breeding quality. Both this fact and the size and straightness of the bones may have influenced the decision to commemorate the horse in this unusual way.’ [6]

Those familiar with racing memorabilia will know that the horse hoof inkwell (or pincushion, or ashtray) is a not uncommon form of commemoration, possibly for the same reason as those outlined above – when galloping there is a split second where a horse places all it’s weight on one hoof, hence the symbolic importance of the hoof itself. However, these candlesticks are really quite unique. I can’t help but wonder about their creation, and why Mence (if it was indeed Mence) chose to re-purpose his horse in this way.

There is in such objects the added element of the (very literal) objectification of the horse. In his letter to the editor, Mence emphasizes the monetary value of the horse several times. Quiz’s transition from prized racehorse to idiosychratic decorative arts object/s illustrates the commodification of the horse within society.

The trend for turning animals-into-objects continued well into the twentieth century. This form of commemoration appears to have gone out of favour at the same time as the horse gave way to the automobile. This fact is actually highly significant. While from a contemporary animal studies perspective we might view the re-purposing of an animal into an object as somewhat disrespectful, it is no accident that the practice died out as the ubiquitousness of the horse faded, replaced on the land and in the streets by machines. In this sense, while we may not see it this way today, perhaps the creation of objects such as the candlesticks really was a mark of respect.

* It was not unusual in the colonial period for a horse’s owner to also serve as the jockey when racing.


[1] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015

[2] ‘Brighton Races,’ The Courier 3 November 1854, p. 2.

[3] ibid; ‘Local intelligence: Accident at the races,’ Colonial Times 4 November 1854, p.3.

[4] ‘The death of “Quiz”,’ The Courier 7 November 1854, p.2.

[5] ibid

[6] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015

Pressing the (horse)flesh

The irony of doing a PhD about horses, while not having any actual day-to-day contact with them, has not been lost on me. The act of intellectualising something almost simultaneously disembodies it, and this has been something of a concern. While I wouldn’t situate my research squarely within the animal studies field, this discipline has certainly been influential in shaping my thoughts (and particularly influential on many of the issues discussed on the blog).

Last week I wrote a guest post for the National Museum of Australia (which I encourage you to go on over and read!) reflecting on the fact that Phar Lap was once a flesh-and-blood horse, a fact that seems to be increasingly overlooked as his separate remains become synonymous with his overall social significance. I was wondering how the newly-discovered parts of the heart, which don’t have such a long public history, might disrupt the centrality of the hero-narrative that surrounds Phar Lap. This is a particular possibility now, given the current context in which they are displayed. The Spirited exhibition, in approaching the subject of the horse, has drawn upon the animal studies field. The matter of context is important because, in my view, it is very difficult to separate an object from its exhibitionary context.

I tell you all this as a prelude to announcing that today, for the first time since I started this research, I rode a horse. A fellow graduate student very kindly offered to let me ride her Arabian gelding Spike. He is a gorgeous thing, round and shiny and a chestnut colour, with a white face and the traditional ‘dishing’ and small head that declares his pedigree. For three carrots, he allowed me to reconnect with the sensation of being on horseback as we walked and trotted our way around the sand arena of the Canberra Equestrian Centre. Mostly I remembered how much my body had forgotten, and when I got off I had that bandy-legged, Clint Eastwood feeling that means your inner thigh muscles won’t speak to you again for the rest of the day.

It was a timely reminder that a horse is an animal first and foremost, a flesh-and-blood being whose subjectivity cannot be reduced to the sum of it’s parts, even when you chop up and preserve those parts in a museum. And thank goodness for that!

Performing ‘the horse’

I’ve been reading a bit about museums as performative spaces, particularly in the ways that visitors behave and interact, both with objects and each other. This notion has been borrowed from the French concept of the flaneur. The word apparently translates to mean someone who strolls about, though in the museum (and I think more broadly, in the cultural studies) context, the flaneur is someone who sees and wants to be seen.

It seems that humans are innately performative creatures. I’ve also been reading an interesting book by John Simons on the representation of animals in text (it’s worth noting that this post-structuralist concept of ‘text’ extends beyond the written word, to encompass things like films and exhibitions). He distinguishes human from non-human animals, not through definitions based on physiology or consciousness, but through the idea of performance. Simons claims that:

It is performance that defines and enables us, to some extent and on some occasions, to escape the seemingly overwhelming deterministic influences of history and culture. If we cannot escape them we can, at least, exercise some choice in the nature of our determination, much as prisoners on Death Row in some American states are given the choice of how they wish to be executed.[1]*

In contrast to this, animals do not perform their animalism. Sure they can be taught how to do tricks, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, it might be that an animal that has been trained to perform reinforces this idea – it is performing, both literally and figuratively, a human idea of its animal-ness.

This concept becomes particularly interesting when combined with ideas about anthropomorphism. If, for the sake of this blog post, we accept that we can never really understand the consciousness of a non-human animal, then it might be argued that all animal perfomance is anthropomorphic – ie we are just projecting our own ideas of what the animal is onto the tasks we are asking it to perform.

So in this light, I started considering how ideas of ‘the horse’ might be being performed and borne out in our society. In the discipline of dressage, which has its origins in equestrian war manoevres, the natural gaits and movements of the horse have been refined (or perhaps exaggerated) to a particular set of standard moves. Have a look at this video of Lipizzaner stallions performing for an awe-inspiring demonstration. Showjumping is the same – in fact, every equestrian discipline could be seen as an example of the horse being ‘performed’, and as such could also be demonstrated to be anthropomorphic.

One of the arguments that racing enthusiasts give when the sport is criticised is: ‘But horses love to run – they are just doing what comes naturally.’ I think this reasoning definitely fits within the category of performance as anthropomorphism. We, as naturally perfomative beings, are conceptualising behaviours within a human framework. While the galloping gait is indeed natural (as are many of the prancing and leaping movements of dressage), racing’s comparison to natural behaviour that the horse loves is a bit of a stretch.

This could easily be demonstrated if you removed the jockey/equestrian off the back of any racehorse/dressage horse/showjumper, and observed what happened. The horse would cease galloping/prancing/jumping, thereby ceasing to perform our ideas of the horse. That’s not to say that you wouldn’t find a horse demonstrating any of these behaviours in moments of high spirits, but these acts would remain the horse’s own. The perfomance of ‘the horse’ is revealed only in its interactions with humans.



John Simons, Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2002

* I put forth Simons’ view while recognising that issues of power in a global context are NOT what this is about, and that conceptualising issues of power in human-animal relationships may be the perspective of a particularly privileged group in this historical period – that is, primarily white, western, and middle-class.


Something about Fred

One of the small ways that my research project seeks to enact a shift in thinking about horses is to make their presence visible. This means I will use their names, and gendered pronouns when referring to them, eg “he” or “she” instead of “it” (you will notice that “it” is commonly used when referring to racehorses). With my PhD research, I intend to give each of the once-were-horses objects that I will examine some sort of biography, situating them as animals. This tenet of respect is very important to me, and underpins much of what drove me to follow this line of inquiry in the first place.

So I’d certainly be remiss were I not to tell you about Fred, the ‘cover horse’ and pin-up boy for this blog!

Fred’s human companion (his ‘owner’) is my younger cousin, who’s just turned twenty and started university. Rather than leaving her horse behind on the family farm, though, Fred has joined her at uni. Before that, she had him with her at boarding school, and they have competed at dressage and show-jumping events across the Eastern states. She says, “[Fred] came to school with me and home in holidays and now to uni- I take him everywhere! I’ve spent more time with Fred in the last 4 years than with anyone else in my life  -parents, friends, boyfriend – so he has become a very significant part of my life”.

Fred, whose show name is Fortis, is 16.1 hands high and ten years old. His sire (his father) is a warmblood, while his dam (his mother) is a thoroughbred. Warmblood horses are usually associated with dressage, and thoroughbreds are traditionally bred for racing. In fact, Fred’s mother is an ex-racehorse. I guess she’s one of the ones who got ‘lucky’, and was able to have a life as a brood mare after her racing career ended. I have heard a rumour that her sire won the Melbourne Cup once, but no names have been mentioned.

The photo that appears as this blog’s cover image was taken by my cousin near the south-coast town of Kiama, at sunset, where she took him for an event earlier this year.  When I asked my cousin if she loved Fred, or if he was more like a tool to get her where she wanted to be, equestrian-wise, her answer was so heartfelt that I have to include it in it’s entirety:

I love him to pieces! When you spend so much time with them you definitely develop a strong bond. Equestrian obviously relies majorly on teamwork, so I guess you develop a bond through working as a team and giving back to them for what they have done for you. You can especially see it in cross country when it’s impossible even at the top level to get a perfect distance to every fence but even when you screw it up your horse (not all though!) will pull you out of trouble and do their best to jump it even though they should have stopped. After 4 years together I’ve come to learn Fred’s personality and character, which makes him different to just any horse.

I don’t know how long I will be able to keep him, since it is such an expensive sport that I can’t afford, and people tell me that I can always pick it up again after uni but (as much as I love riding and I will miss it incredibly) I don’t feel the need to pick it up later because I don’t want to just ride, I want to ride Fred! If I didn’t love him so much it would not be as hard to quit. They teach you so much in terms of responsibilities and taking the good with the bad and accepting failure since they have their bad days and their good ones, because no one is perfect, and you feel so proud when you both finally get it right! Fred is such a hard trier, and always listens, and learns relatively quickly what I’m teaching him. He has come so far from where he was when I got him and he has taught me a lot about how to ride better. Every time I even think about when the time comes to sell him, I cry!

Something that my cousin has articulated really well here is that, for her, it’s not just any horse, it’s Fred. Reading her words I was really struck by the sense that she has gotten to know him so well, and it is this that ‘makes him different to just any horse’ for her. I can’t help comparing this bonded and respectful relationship with, for example, what a racehorse is likely to experience; the difference between being a highly valued part of a team, and being a highly valuable asset. No-one has time to get to know a racehorse, as they are ridden by different jockeys at each race meet, trained by a stranger, and most likely owned by a syndicate, rather than a loving individual.

I think there’s more to explore here, but I don’t want my research agenda to hijack what is meant to be simply a post about Fred. So, there you have it – a little something about Fred. Putting a name to the face, so to speak.


Fred and his human companion working together, December 2013 – image courtesy of Pauline Luks