Zoobiquity: Three’s Company

Entering the Francis Parker Auditorium once again, I was excited to hear Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers open up about the experiences that led them to write the extremely influential and insightful book, Zoobiquity. Having read the book, I expected a lot from this experience: I was hoping to learn more about their way of thinking; discover details that are impossible to capture in a 300 page book; hear a more scientific and technical explanation of the conditions tested and surgeries performed; and be able to actually see some images and footage of their work. Though my last expectation was met, although upsettingly so with a slideshow of approximately 10 images, I left the presentation generally dissatisfied.

The time frame for the discussion was limited, and yet other speakers managed to fit their presentations and lectures into that time frame. When I had seen Neil Shubin, he managed to explain many mind-boggling concepts in approximately 45 minutes. He had only a few props- the podium, his powerpoint, and a microphone- that merely served to amplify the one voice that mattered, his voice. For Zoobiquity, a sense of casualness and lack of clarity and simplicity prevailed. Even the stage was set differently. The same screen hung against the blackness, but everything else gave off a different ambiance. A couch and comfortable-looking chair, set around a little coffee table decorated with cups of water and a single laptop, created a more casual and less captivating atmosphere. I felt like I was watching three women having a conversation at a Starbucks.

The presentation was also set in a discussion format. In an attempt to balance the two women and create better dialogue, Gwen Mcsai was brought in as a sort of everyman to voice questions the audience could relate to. Mcsai, however, ended up harming the presentation instead of making it accessible and engaging. Her questions focused mainly on content from the first chapter of the book, and her jokes and comments were nothing more than a distraction from the intellectual ideas that were supposed to be discussed. I recall her cracking jokes about animals getting drunk, their sexual exploits, and the struggles of being parents to adolescents for both animals and humans. She would even interrupt one of the invited guests, only to make an insignificant comment or give a more “dumbed down” version of what the speakers were trying to explain. Her attempt to build a bridge between a more general audience (not all doctors or vets) and these two brilliant women failed by diluting anything Natterson-Horowitz or Bowers would try to say. She wasted the limited time those women had to discuss very complex and extensive findings.

Despite being thwarted by a third party, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers managed to get across some really fascinating points throughout the discussion. They discussed aspects of their process in writing Zoobiquity, as well as the actual findings. For example, Natterson-Horowitz brought up the hierarchy that exists amongst doctors, and the difficulty many open-minded doctors and vets face in trying to collaborate and engage other members of the medical community. This played a huge role in attempting to collaborate and create open dialogue between the two fields of science. Bowers brought up the “larger picture” of their work- that it revealed to her and hopefully could show others that we are “part of this wider network of life on Earth.” They also mentioned a sort of comfort that could be found in their work. Cutters, other self-harmers, or people with certain mental illnesses face a lot of stigma and are often told that their behavior is unnatural and wrong. In the discussion, the women mentioned that other animals self harm, and have issues with substance abuse, and exhibit anxiety. This gave me a sense of comfort, in that animals and creatures not touched by human society still reflect these problems that were previously seen as cultural and social rather than truly biological and natural.

If only Zoobiquity’s presentation had been like the other two lectures I had seen at the Chicago Humanities Festival. There is so much to be said about the connection between humans and other animals, and so much to be discussed about the extent and implications of that connection. The two authors skimmed the surface as they mentioned cancer, and how studying it in dogs- who live in our domestic environment- and lactating cows-who go through a process similar to women in that respect-can be more informative than studying typical lab animals. This is just once facet of the many connections that can be made between their studies and human medicine. Had they been given the chance to create their own presentation, and cut out the jokes and the petty comments that proliferated their discussion, perhaps the Zoobiquity event would have met, and surpassed, my expectation of learning something truly complex and profound.


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