Designing playful engagements with animals to find, imagine, or emphasize non-speciesist practices
As part of my PhD project, I started documenting encounters between humans and animals that I find inspiring for non-speciesist thinking. In a recent journal article on Imagining Non-Speciesism, I wrote that if we can speculate about a world that abandons speciesism (here specifically referring to the killing, abuse, exploitation, and oppression of animals), it must mean that some parts of this world exist already. Otherwise, how can we think of it in the first place?
My next question then becomes: where can we find those existing moments of non-speciesism in the world? And consequently, how can these aspects help or inspire us to imagine and speculate about non-speciesist futures? We cannot expect such futures to appear out of nowhere. They need to be actively designed, materialized, and constructed.
New as a Recombination of That Which Already Exists
Since I am trained as an interaction designer, let’s make a short analogy to the field of design to clarify this point further. To use a familiar trope, imagine we want to design a new chair. However, this chair should be unlike any other. It will change the way we sit. It will change the whole concept of comfort. It will be the most comfortable chair ever. But if we want to create such an unfamiliarly comfortable chair, how can we start imagining or designing it? That’s right. By spending a lot of time looking at existing chairs that we particularly like for their comfort and trying to figure out what makes them so comfortable. By looking at comfortable ways of sitting on them, in order to find elements we appreciate and could then use to recombine differently. By rethinking those already existing ideas about comfort in chairs further and finding different forms of inspiration, until something “new” can be designed.
Traces of Less Speciesist Worlds
To me, this is where innovations in the field of design could find methodological connections with other, bigger, or more systemic social changes in the world. And where fields like critical theory and utopian studies could be complemented with a more presence-oriented focus on those already existing aspects that could inspire change.
So over the last few months I started to think about these ideas in relation to non-speciesism. I started to pay specific attention to interactions between animals and humans. Interactions that show some kind of existing potential for non-speciesist thinking. This potential could arise in many different ways. For example, it could involve renegotiation of former boundaries, interactions that are initiated out of compassion for the other, surprising and unexpected behavior that spark empathy, playful encounters, appreciation of differences, or subversion of speciesist norms. My goal was to document these interactions in order to inspire new ideas of what it could mean to live in a non-speciesist world.
One example includes an encounter with a pigeon I experienced last summer. This encounter took place on the town’s square of an Italian village in the Alps. As a common morning routine, together with a friend we were walking towards the main fountain on the square to drink some fresh water. This fountain in particular has four different water outlets in the form of horse- and lion- heads (see image below). However, as soon as we got closer to one of the water outlets, my friend noticed a pigeon that was peacefully sleeping in the sun, on top of one of the statues. “Let’s go to a different outlet”, my friend said, “so we don’t have to wake up the pigeon”.
What could this encounter tell us about sharing spaces with pigeons in urban environments? Why was my friend suddenly so considerate about the life of this peaceful pigeon? How does the design of the fountain encourage this compassionate action? What other elements in urban architecture allow for these kind of considerate encounters? How could urban spaces be designed to encourage more of these less-speciesist negotiations in the future?
I will be documenting these types of encounters – ones that hint towards non-speciesist thinking with animals – during the next months. My goal with this, basically, is to create a collection of chairs. A collection that shows us what kind of less-speciesist encounters already exist, that can inspire new ideas and imaginations about non-speciesism.
So far, my collection involves things like playful interactions with farm sanctuary animals, the appreciation of listening to bird songs in a city park, activities of recognizing oneself in a zoo animal, a surprise encounter with a rattlesnake, and learning how turkeys enjoy to be pet.
A Broader Perspective
Of course, the imagination of non-speciesist thinking does not have to emerge from co-located interactions with animals only. Other kinds of traces of less speciesist worlds exist as well. For example, works of art that serve to subvert our ways of thinking about animals. Or representations of other creatures in different types of media that hint towards utopias for all creatures. Together with Interaction Designer and PhD candidate Erik Sandelin, we started to collect these “snapshots of human de-centred every days” on this website.
Please let us know if you know of anything that could be added to these collections!