Lesley A. Sharp


On her book Animal Ethos: The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science

Cover Interview of May 15, 2019

The wide angle

I’ve long been interested in the moral underpinnings of human life on collective (shared) and personal (private) levels of experience.  Indeed, the “ethics” of everyday life—or what Gregory Bateson referenced as ethos—is a foundational concern within anthropology. The discipline boasts robust analytic and methodological approaches to the inherent messiness of human life, and over the past two decades I have investigated how a range of involved parties think through and respond to the moral challenges of human organ transfer, highly experimental visions of organ replacement, and, most recently, animal science. These are complex, specialized, and hierarchical worlds. Much of my work is driven by the premise that answers lie not solely with a few elite specialists (for instance, surgeons, who perform transplant surgeries, or the principle investigators in labs), but with a host of still other—though often unrecognized—experts. Within laboratories, they range from postdoctoral students to undergraduate interns, lab-based veterinarians and veterinary assistants, and lab animal caretakers to the technicians who clean animals’ cages. All parties are engaged in the daily moral project of animal science, and Animal Ethos is an effort to disentangle a range of behaviors, emotions, and responses to the everyday aspects of human-animal encounters in such realms.

For example, as a medical anthropologist, I am especially interested in how codified rules regarding “animal welfare,” which spans such key domains as animal housing practices, feeding procedures, and breeding, culling, and killing, translate into daily regimens of “care” in domains where interspecies encounters are inescapable. The volume Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms (2010, Transcript-Verlag) edited by Annemarie Mol, Ingunn Moser, and Jeanette Pols, has proved revelatory because of the editors’ insistence that “care” be employed analytically and across species. I’m especially interested in the emotional consequences of working with animals on a daily basis, or what I reference as the “sentimental structures” of affective laboratory labor. Although lab science is rife with taboos that prohibit emotional attachment (for instance, in many labs, animals are deliberately numbered and not named in efforts to objectify them), labs are replete with eclectic practices that defy these taboos and that signify emotional attachment not as aberrant but widespread, ranging from the subversive to the mundane. Such practices enable one to witness an unfolding of how moral thought is put into action, and thereby transform the ethos of knowledge production in experimental work. I emphasize here that this is a creative domain marked by serendipitous responses that exemplify efforts to “think outside the box.” In some instances, these efforts can prove transformative to animal well-being, looping back to reconfirm one’s personal moral core; other parties openly defy regulations, as evidenced in ongoing efforts either to memorialize dead animals or to rescue still other creatures from euthanasia by adopting them out to the public; at still other moments, if we attend to the moral histories that inform animal welfare, we encounter fascinating and, sometimes, peculiar efforts to enrich animals’ lives, perhaps best illustrated by the widespread insistence that non-human primates, like humans, are avid television viewers.