Center explores ties that bind people, animals

Like most animal lovers, when James Serpell thinks about the stray dogs of Taiwan or Philadelphia’s own canine abuse problem, he gets upset. As director of Penn’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, a multi-disciplinary research center within the School of Veterinary Medicine, he gets to explore the root causes and work toward solutions. Doing research on how animals fare in their relationships with people is a big part of the center’s mission. It also looks at the other side of the equation—how people are affected by their interaction with animals.

The center has a practical side, too, running pet loss counseling sessions, as well as pet care workshops in schools and therapeutic pet visitation sessions at Ronald McDonald House. Periodic scholarly conferences bring together experts from different disciplines to discuss issues such as gender differences in animal cruelty (women, it seems, are nicer to their pets), animal welfare in the poultry industry, the hunting debate and the role of animals in healing adolescent emotional problems—the topic of the most recent conference this past March. Current areas of research include behavioral development in guide dogs and urban animal cruelty.

Serpell, who is also a professor of humane ethics and animal welfare in the Vet School, resurrected the center in 1997. Originally established almost 20 years earlier, it had languished over the years, running out of both money and energy. When Serpell took it over, he felt confident it would garner interest and support because of what he sees as a “sea change” in our attitude to animals over the last few decades.

“ Education is a factor,” said Serpell. “So is the way that animals are represented in the media. A lot of people nowadays know more about the behavior of gorillas than they know about the behavior of their neighbors because they see it on the Discovery Channel. And that kind of familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds concern and empathy and all the rest of it.”

Initially, Serpell, a transplanted Brit, had hoped to secure more funding for farm animal welfare, which he sees as a major issue in terms of the sheer number of animals involved and the treatment they receive. “Having come from Europe, where it is a very big issue, it was very strange coming here and finding it’s almost a taboo topic.” Serpell sees hope for the future, though, as he gets increasing feedback that the agricultural community “would like us to offer them advice on how to cope with this new trend shift in public opinion.”

The work of the center has a decidedly canine bent, not that Serpell is unconcerned about cat welfare. That’s just not where the research funding is right now. Given the chance, Serpell says he would like to do a study on feline house soiling. “If there are simple interventions you could institute that would reduce it, that would have a big impact on cat welfare.”

Serpell is closely involved with all the center’s research projects, and some have proved particularly disturbing, such as the research trip he took to Taiwan in 1995 to find out why stray dogs were proliferating at such an alarming rate. “The place was awash with dogs, just herds of famished dogs,” said Serpell, who attributes the epidemic to a cultural aversion to euthanasia and neutering. “There was every breed you could conceive of in a terrible state and really no infrastructure to deal with it. It was one of the awful experiences of my life.”

The “tremendous amount of positive feedback” he receives for the center’s outreach and educational projects pleases Serpell, though he’s astute enough to sense the possibility of a backlash against the current concern for animals. “There are a lot of people who are starting to get upset about how affectionate people are with animals and starting to deplore the amount of money people are spending on their pets. There’s starting to be a feeling that maybe this has all gone too far. It will be interesting to see where it goes in the next decade.”

Originally published on April 29, 2004