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Learning from “humanimals”: Exploring diverse rabbit-human relationships in animal care settings

Learning from “humanimals”: Exploring diverse rabbit-human relationships in animal care settings

by Melvin Chan

Melvin Chan. Photo credit: Nadia Beyzaei.

Research on human-animal interactions has grown dramatically in recent decades, and educators and researchers alike are increasingly interested in how animals might enhance learning and teaching. Examples of such “animal-assisted education” include reading to dogs to improve reading performance, and performing tasks in the presence of dogs to foster development of cognitive skills, stress reduction, and treating mental health conditions.

My master’s research mapped the literature on how universal programs (i.e., meant for everyone) that incorporate human-animal interactions can be used to promote the social and emotional competencies of children and youth. A number of mechanisms have been proposed to explain why these interventions might work, including physiological relaxation, increased motivation, and social support/companionship. Although there may be demonstrable outcomes associated with human-animal interactions in educational settings, animals remain positioned as objects and are frequently viewed as tools or adjuncts to teaching—often with minimal attention to their well-being and subjectivity. The outcomes of this kind of education are focused on humans: cultivating human empathy for animals, teaching humans about how to properly care for animals, fostering respect and compassion for animals.

Domesticated European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Photo credit: Melvin Chan.

Where are the animals’ voices in this research? Do the animals want to be part of the programs and how are they benefiting? Both how we understand our relationships with animals and how we interact with animals are questions shaped by broader understandings of what it means to live on this planet. In other words, peoples from cultures all over the world have created their own ways of interacting and living with animals (e.g., Billy-Ray Belcourt discusses how Indigenous oral traditions are ignored in discourses on animals). It is not so much about coming up with ‘new’ ideas about how to learn-teach with animals than about seeing the pluriversal possibilities that already exist. My PhD research seeks to centre animal experiences and explore how humans and animals can convivially be together. I ask: (i) How do animals and humans co-shape interactions and learning-teaching experiences? and (ii) How do institutional (e.g., racial, colonial) and affective dynamics structure the ways in which animals and humans interact and learn-teach with each other?

I take domesticated European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) as my focal species because rabbits are gaining prominence as pets, consumed as food, seen as mythological figures, used as experimental animals, and sometimes considered to be wildlife or invasive species (e.g., in the Province of British Columbia where most of my research will take place). The various roles that rabbits occupy in human imaginaries make rabbits ideal for exploring the diverse ways in which they are culturally perceived and what human beings can learn-teach with rabbits and vice versa. Moreover, much research focuses on human relationships with cats and dogs as companion animals, and little scholarship examines rabbit-human relationships. I investigate my research questions in three animal care settings: the animal shelter, the rabbit rescue, and the veterinary school. Animal shelters are organizations that care for rabbits in addition to other species. They were created originally as pounds in colonial towns and have amassed a number of functions including humane education, adoption of unwanted animals, reunification of lost pets with their owners, investigation of animal cruelty, and animal advocacy.

A British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA) animal shelter. Photo credit: BC SPCA / Province of British Columbia (flickr).

Rabbit rescues—in contrast to animal shelters—are often smaller organizations that focus exclusively on pet rabbits, with some also caring for feral rabbits (e.g., Rabbitat’s Abandoned Rabbits project). Given their histories and contemporary roles, animal shelters and rabbit rescues provide unique contexts for uncovering rabbit-human relationships. Veterinary schools are training sites for veterinarians and veterinary technicians who (eventually) provide medical care to rabbits, yet veterinary students often receive little instruction on rabbit medicine. Including the veterinary school in my project will provide insight into how veterinary workers approach learning-teaching with and about rabbits. To achieve my goals, I will observe rabbits (ethology) and rabbit-human interactions, interview (human) participants, as well as collect and analyze documents that guide rabbit-human interactions (e.g., individual animal files, animal handling guidelines and protocols, animal management plans, educational curricula).

Disrupting the power imbalances between humans and rabbits offers insight into the complex and entangled lives of rabbits and humans so that we can critically assess how we learn-teach with diverse others whereby all beings are understood as making contributions. By also investigating and decentering the institutional (racial, colonial) and affective dynamics of rabbit-human relationships and interactions, I ultimately seek to imagine and create flourishing and equitable multispecies futures that are accountable to the worldviews and practices of marginalized peoples and animals themselves.


Melvin Chan is a PhD student in Environmental Studies in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, supervised by Dr. Leesa Fawcett. His committee members are Dr. Muna-Udbi Ali and Dr. Alice Hovorka. He holds two degrees from The University of British Columbia: a bachelor’s degree in integrated sciences (neurobiology, genetics, and linguistics) and a master’s degree in human development, learning, and culture. Melvin has a decade of experience in animal shelters, where he held a variety of volunteer and staff positions. Focusing on the settings of the animal shelter, animal rescue, and veterinary school, his PhD research explores how humans can learn-teach with rabbits in mutual and interdependent relationships and how these processes and relationships are shaped by coloniality and affective dynamics. Melvin is supported by a Canada Graduate Scholarship – Doctoral.