Animals & Other Forms of Oppression

Little Bird

A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (2/4)

In my previous post I discussed the term speciesism and questioned what a non-speciesist approach in my research could mean. In this post I will suggest how we could use theories from other forms of oppression to think about our relationships with animals.


The term intersectionality refers to overlapping systems of oppression, discrimination, and domination, which are all interlinked. In other words, this theory invites us to think about how things like racism, sexism, classism, and speciesism are connected: they exist on the same premises, they are built on each other, and they are influencing each other.

In her 1988 book The Dreaded Comparison, Marjorie Spiegel illustrates a range of startling similarities between human and animal slavery. Comparing speciesism with racism might sound insulting at first, but then we see the examples: removing children from their parents, similar means of transporting, the unhealthy living conditions, the hunting down of escaped individuals, experimentation on their bodies, and the list goes on.


But the similarities between different forms of oppression do not stop there. If we look at systems of oppression based on gender (particularly regarding women), we see that in a patriarchal society both “animals, and women are objectified, hunted, invaded, colonised, owned, consumed, and forced to yield and produce” (Collard, 1988).

Furthermore, we can see that these different forms of oppression are interrelated and not separable. Meaning that the stereotypical image of the oppressor and the oppressed is shared between things like gender, race, or class. Some examples:

  • Trophy hunters are most often white males that aim to shoot the biggest animal, which is usually a male (Kalof and Fitzgerald, 2003);
  • Most meat and farm animals are females, while most butchers and farmers are males (Calvo, 2008);
  • 84-98% of the animal cruelty cases in the US are committed by men (Herzog, 2011);
  • Farm animals are usually bred specifically according to characteristics like docile, affectionate, good mothers, and dependent, which are often assigned to value women too (ibid);
  • Farming and butchering labour are usually considered as jobs for a lower class in western society and the culture of meat eating is deeply entangled in manifestations of class and privilege. (Here you can find a more elaborate essay on this topic)

Please note that these are statements related to extreme engagements with animal oppression. In society we can also find numerous examples that contradict with these stereotypes. However the most important insight for me here is that the more we break down different forms of oppression and their relationships with each other, the more we see this:

“Any oppression helps to prop up other forms of oppression. This is why it is vital to link oppressions in our minds, to look for the common, shared aspects, and fight against them as one, rather than prioritising victim’s suffering (the ‘either-or’ pitfall). For when we prioritise we are in effect becoming one with the oppressor. We are deciding that one individual or group is more important than another, deciding that one individual’s pain is ‘less important’ than that of the next.” (Spiegel, 1996, p.30).

In other words, if you are against the oppression of human beings, it becomes particularly appropriate and important to extend the field of concern to animals (Selby, 1995). Or perhaps as philosopher Albert Schweitzer noted (including my adaptation): “Until he [we] extends the circle of his compassion to include all living things, man [we] will not himself find peace.” (Schweitzer, 1987, originally published in 1923). I would even go as far as saying that in this logic, it becomes a paradox to say that you are against things like racism or sexism, while putting a burger in your mouth. Yes, I just said that out loud and I mean it.

Anyway… what does this have to do with my research?

I think that if we wish to aim for a non-speciesist approach and aspire to improve animal welfare with our own research, we should position our discussions in the same field of critical theory that has informed other forms of oppression. Since the topic of oppression is widely discussed and researched across disciplines, existing insights are very relevant in finding answers to some of the questions we raise and can help to advance our field.

While looking at animals, play, and technology in specific, we could regard how fields like games studies, human computer interaction, or design based research have critically engaged with the topic of oppression in the past (for example through fields like critical games/design, serious games, speculative design, and design fiction) and how they aim to contribute to a better future for the oppressed. Additionally, if the aim of our research is to include animals in our research in order to figure out what sort of design artefact they would want, it might help to learn from existing projects that similarly aim to give a voice to ‘the oppressed’ in other contexts. You can find some interesting examples here, herehere, here, here, here and here.

In the next post I will discuss more about providing the animal with their own agency, a voice that we can listen to.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our trip to Helsinki in the fall of 2014, where we met some beautiful city-animals.


Collard, A. (1988). Rape of the Wild. Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth, Women’s Press, 1.

Herzog, H. (2011). Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Kalof, L., and Firzgerald, A. (2003). Reading the trophy: Exploring the display of dead animals in hunting magazines. Visual Studies, 18(2), p. 112-122.

Schweitzer, A. (1987). The Philosophy of Civilization. (Translation of Kulturphilosophie). New York, NY: Prometheurs Books.

Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books.

Spiegel, M. (1996). The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York, NY: Mirror Books. In Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books

The First International Congress on Animal Human Computer Interaction

On the 11th of November, the Advanced Computer Entertainment (ACE’14) Conference took place in Funchal (Madeira) hosting the first international conference on Animal Computer Interaction (ACI). Unlike previous ACI gatherings, this one played host to a mixing pot of ideas and frameworks which aimed to put formats into a currently sparse and often exploratory area of animals within computer technology.

Unfortunately I could not attend this congress myself, because I was part of a panel and presenting a paper at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference in Istanbul. Luckily my friend and researcher with common interest Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas was going to present her work in Madeira and agreed on presenting my paper as well. She wrote this blog post as a summary of the congress.

The themes of the congress were mostly dog driven but did also play homage to apes and cats. This blog post will map the questions raised during this conference to help give a more indulgent representation of the day with the references given.


Heli Väätäjä. Animal Welfare as a Design Goal in Technology Mediated Human-Animal Interaction – Opportunities with Haptics

Heli skillfully presented a paper which contained a framework for measuring interaction in ACI with animal welfare as a design goal. The framework included synchronization, awareness and input/outputs to name a few measurements. This interaction was haptic based with questions raised on what stimuli a dog would prefer. Another key question raised during the discussion of the paper was what is animal welfare and if it is an animal ‘feeling good’ how can this be measured?

As designers within ACI we do not have that functionality to simply ask the end-user for an evaluation and with the standards of animal welfare ranging vastly in diffracting contexts, this paper frames key points of thought for any dog designer dealing with haptic interaction.

Claire Micklin. DogTracker: A Mobile App Engaging Citizens and Officials in Addressing the Stray Dog Crisis

Claire presented a conceptual idea for a mobile app which allowed citizens to photography and possibly geomap a stray dog’s locational data in order to create a heat-map of the stray’s movements. The idea of long range RFID tags (300ft) feasibility within this study was also discussed along with collective ownership. The idea of collective ownership over strays is a debatable one as many academics within the conference argued it could encourage a lack of responsibility and result in the dog not receiving the best possible care. This ideology did however allow the culture of the local populous which was studied fit the dog rather than vice versa as it did not force the community to change.

A key argument against this app being open source would be that while this app could generate heat-maps to allow people to help the dogs it could also do the contradictory and allow those who did not like dogs to harm them. For this reason the availability of the data crowd sourced was discussed.

Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas and Janet C. Read. Who Is Really In the Centre Of Dog Computer Interaction?

Ilyena presented an article on creating more dog-centered interaction with questions being raised around the differences in dog-centered and human-centered interaction in ACI and ultimately who they benefited. This was done by splitting the interaction into Humanization (making the animal fit the human model), Domestication (value for human and animal) and Playful with a sliding scale on animal to human benefits.

While this paper was quite open to discussion it was noted that it can be hard to define playful behaviour without preconceptions and while the paper aimed to grasp a big ideology it could maybe by only fitting this model into certain contexts this can be answered.  However it did open up important question in ACI: Who is in the center of design in ACI?

Patricia Pons, Javier Jaen and Alejandro Catala. Animal Ludens: Building Intelligent Playful Environments for Animals

Patricia presented a paper aiming to model features of interactive environments with their benefits and faults using measurements such as human participants, control and single/multipurpose activities. This paper presented a much indiscriminate outlook on ACI which the authors planned to use in later studies. The key question that arose within this research: do animals like games? While currently there is no form of consent the common understanding of consent in ACI appears to be non-participation, with many ACI researchers allowing the animals to simply walk away and show no interest in the interaction.

Sarah Ritvo and Robert Allison. Challenges Related to Nonhuman Animal-Computer Interaction: Usability and ‘Liking’

Sarah presented a touch-screen interface split in half to allow apes (orangutans) to choose to listen to 30 seconds of music (country) or listen to silence to try and understand if apes like music. The interaction was done through a stylus in the animal’s zoo and found the animals often preferred silence. The authors also tried more natural animal sounds and video but this only lead to the animals being scared which the researcher speculated was to do with their unnatural environment.

Emphasis of the research was put on cost benefit analysis of ACI work with the author wanting to develop generalized guidelines for animal interactions with specific animal concerns. Inquiries were raised on how these guidelines aim to be gathered and if in fact you could create rules for all animals.

Michelle Westerlaken and Stefano Gualeni. Grounded Zoomorphism: an evaluation methodology for ACI design 

The authors presented their work on a new method of evaluating interactions of ACI with a playful artifact using Felino, a tablet game that aims to provide play for both cats and humans. Their method relies on a Grounded Theory approach and aims at guiding design and research in ACI in a way that is better focused on the experience and needs of the animals interacting with playful, digital artefacts. While Felino is still within early developments, they started to implement iterations that the authors found, such as a parallel in cats curiosity at hidden items on screen and off screen and choices in size/colour of playful artifacts.

Inquiries were raised on the relationship effect between the changes made and iterations but this could not be answered yet at such an early stage within the research.

PANEL “Animal Human Computer Interaction – The Future”

After the presentations there was a panel discussion on where the organizers (Oskar, Clara and Yoram) discussed what direction they see ACI going and why they are interested in ACI. After this, a discussion was held on how to advance ACI as a community as currently it is a very niche area presented within various conferences. It was decided that a facebook group was going to be made allowing researchers to keep in touch:


Thank you very much Ilyena for writing this post! It seems like you all had a very interesting and productive day in Madeira.

Digitally mediated human-animal interaction with Sphero

I recently discovered a nice playful example of an artefact that could function as a digital mediator between human-animal interaction: Sphero. A durable robotic ball that you can control from a smartphone or tablet (supported on both Android and IOS). This video shortly explains it:

It already offers a large amount of functions and entertainment (think about gaming, light, music, and augmented reality apps) Sphero is engineered so developers can create applications themselves with the Full API and Mobile SDK for IOS and Android. This makes is specifically suitable for innovation in playful human-animal interaction. Furthermore, it could facilitate the development of prototypes for further research towards digitally mediated human-animal interaction.

Some fan-made and Sphero videos already show how Sphero evokes the curiosity and playfulness of cats, dogs, and yes, to some extent even bunnies:

(uploaded by Sphero official Youtube channel)

(uploaded by d2looo)

(uploaded by Sphero official Youtube channel)

Inter-Species Play

One of the main elements I established in my research so far is that many animals (including humans) play. I emphasized that this is always a free and voluntary activity since we can never force an animal to play. It is therefore a very suitable concept to embrace when we want to design technical artefacts that facilitate human-animal play.

Next to this, it is discovered that animals use certain signals to communicate their intention to play so that the invited animal does not confuse playful behaviour with actions such as fighting or mating, which show overlapping types of behaviour (such as biting, mounting, or producing certain sounds). A very clear example of this is the play bow we can observe in social play among dogs. However, according to Pierce and Bekoff (2009), the social lives of animals have evolved many examples of communicative signals that help getting along with each other and remain close and generally peaceful relationships. In animal play this includes signals such as self-handicapping, where the animal compromises its behaviour patterns or role-reversing by, for example, a dominant animal that makes dramatic roll over on its back.

According to the same article of Pierce and Bekoff (2009) there are four basic aspects in animal play: “Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you’re wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play.”

The question I am interested in at this point is how play between different animal species (including humans) can be facilitated. How could we communicate playful intentions according to the rules that make social play possible in inter-species interactions? What are the rules? And which animal species are most suitable in this case?

When looking at inter-species play, for example in the videos below, we can observe that, next to all the cuteness, in many occasions play interaction and communication of signals between different animals seem to be understood well enough to continue playing. Play facilitates a mutual understanding due to the shared interaction and response to signs, cues, and behaviour which allows specific species to understand others up to a level that enables them to perform playful activities together. This is exactly what we need for the successful design of playful technical artefacts for human-animal interaction.


(Image by _tar0_)

Human-Animal Interaction Through the Internet

This video on the CNN website shows how the website visitors of a Californian animal shelter can remotely interact with kittens through the internet. The application allows its users to remotely move objects in the kittens’ shelter and real-time video is provided so that the human being can see how the kittens respond to their actions. What is great about this project is that Best Friend Animal Society reported that the cat adoptions HAVE MORE THAN DOUBLED after setting up this technology.

Another, slightly older research that focused on remote human-animal interaction includes the Poultry Internet – Mixed Reality Lab project carried out in Singapore. This study proposes and tests a cybernetics system that uses mobile and internet technology to allow human-animal interaction including both visualization and tactile sensation of real objects. The chicken in this video is wearing a hap-tic jacket, and the human is able to interact with the animal by touching a pet-doll object containing sensors, which are transferred to the hap-tic jacket in the form of vibrations. In other words: if the human touches the pet-doll object, the animal feels vibrations through the jacket. Interesting to me in this case is that the tested chickens in a preference experiments chose the room in which the vibrations were activated in 73% of the cases over a room without the activated jacket.

Next to these two examples, there are other technological artefacts that allow for remote human-animal interaction, such as dog GPS tracking products, webcam streams for a variety of wildlife, or the Pig Chase project also referred to in another post on this blog.

The most remarkable thing to me in this case is that all the examples mentioned above allow for human-animal interaction that is initially activated, stimulated, and operated solely by the human being. This results in a type of one-way communication in which the human-being is in control and decides when and how the interaction takes place. However, the results of both projects in the videos above (higher adoption rate and positive preference studies) seem promising for both the human being and the animal.

(Image by Eva Touloupidou)


I created this blog to provide you, the (hopefully) interested reader, with more insights on the research project I’m working on in the area of technologically mediated animal interaction. More information about me, Michelle Westerlaken, as well as more information about the research topic that captured my interest can be found in the menu on top of this page.

On this blog I’d like to share existing projects, theories, and any other relevant or inspiring information and thereby create a collection of interesting material that is, according to me, worth sharing.

My purpose is to continue research in the area of digitally mediated animal interaction. If you have any advice, contacts, or opportunities that could be interesting for me, please contact me via email or follow me on Twitter (@colombinary).