Conversation Series: Courtney Plante, social psychologist

Conversation Series: Courtney Plante, social psychologist

“The fandom represents a safe space for this sort of identity exploration and play. When everyone is a fantasy-themed character, it reduces the level of self-consciousness a person may feel – after all, if the person you’re talking to represents themselves as a walking, talking blue cat, it’s pretty hard for them to mock or ridicule you for your self-expression.” — Courtney Plante.

Furry fans are fond of anthropomorphic animals—animal characters with human characteristics such as speech, clothing, and upright stance: think Bugs Bunny or Tony the Tiger. In addition to celebrating art and literature featuring anthropomorphic animals, many furry fans take on a furry persona, or fursona, for roleplay purposes. Some furry fans enhance their animal identity play with costumes called fursuits. The world’s largest furry convention, Anthrocon, brings well over six thousand furry fans to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to celebrate and act out their animal alter egos.

In the past, high-profile articles and TV shows grossly misrepresented the furry fandom as a cabal of sexually “deviant” and socially maladjusted people. Fortunately, journalists who care about fact-checking have since corrected the record on furry fans, and published research by psychologists and other academics has greatly improved our understanding of the fandom.

Few writers can speak with more authority on the furry fandom than I can. While researching for Animal People, I’ve attended several furry conventions, including Anthrocon, Further Confusion, and Midwest Fur Fest, respectively the first, second, and third largest gatherings for furry fans in the nation.

More than anything, I was struck by the strong sense of friendly and open community at these events: the furry fandom is a place where anyone, young or old, can drop the often-exhausting pretense of “faking good” for the assessments of others and come more or less as they are. I lost count of how many attendees spontaneously told me that furry fans are “some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”

That’s no accident, according to Courtney Plante, a social psychologist who studies self and identity within fantasy contexts such as furry fandom. I visited with Plante to talk about how furry fandom isn’t just fun and games; participation can come with real benefits to the fans involved:

Brown: Furry fans are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. What are some of the misconceptions your research has shown to be false?

Plante: Furries are, first and foremost, fans. People are fans of all sorts of things—music, literary genres, or sports, to name just a few. Furries happen to be fans of art, stories, and media that feature anthropomorphic animal characters (e.g., Zootopia, Redwall, Pokémon). Unfortunately, anthropomorphism, as a concept, is a broad and abstract thing to be a fan of (moreso than a single, concrete series such as Harry Potter). As such, many people misunderstand what furries actually are and, more often than not, rely on misconceptions propagated by the media or online.

There are, broadly speaking, three popular misconceptions about what furries are. The first is that furries are defined as people who wear “fursuits”—elaborate, mascot-style animal outfits. While it’s true that some furries’ interest in anthropomorphic animals manifests as an interest in fursuiting (analogous to anime fans who cosplay), only 25% of furries actually owns a fursuit. Limiting the definition of “furry” to “those who wear fursuits” would be like limiting the definition of “football fan” to “those who paint their faces with their team’s colors”.

A second common misconception is that furry is a fetish, and that furries are motivated primarily by a sexual attraction to anthropomorphic content. This assumption conflates the mixing of people’s interests and their naturally-occurring sex drive with a fetishistic interest in something. To illustrate: a person who likes cars and who also likes attractive-looking people will probably also enjoy pictures of an attractive-looking person on a fancy car. Similarly, a person who enjoys science fiction and who has a healthy sexual interest may enjoy an erotic scene in their favorite sci-fi novel. We wouldn’t describe these people as having a “car fetish” or a “sci-fi” fetish, nor would we assume that the former wants to have sex with the car while the latter wants to have sex with aliens. While there is furry-themed erotica (as there is erotica in nearly any fandom), research shows that furries enjoy furry artwork and stories regardless of sexual content. What’s more, fewer than 5% of furries say that their interest in furry is driven exclusively by an interest in sex – something uncharacteristic of a fetish group.

A final misconception is the belief that furries are people who self-identify as animals. This misconception likely stems from the prevalence of fursonas, furry-themed avatars that members of the fandom create to represent themselves to other furries online or in-person. While more than 95% of furries represent themselves in the fandom through a fursona, most furries do not consider themselves to be non-human animals. While self-identifying as an animal is not a defining feature of the furry fandom, it is a defining feature of a related group, therians, who, research has shown, do self-identify with non-human animals in a predominantly spiritual or psychological way (e.g., an animal spirit guide, the spirit of an animal trapped in a human body). In other words, those who define furries as “people who identify with animals” are conflating the definition of furries and therians, two distinct, but somewhat overlapping groups.

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Furry fans of all ages engage in animal identity play with the help of artwork, literature, and costuming. Contributed illustration.
Pretending and fantasy play are often framed as harmful, juvenile, or escapist. However, your research suggests that furry fans are mobilizing their fursonas as a self-improvement strategy. Tell me some more about that!

Our research on fursonas has consistently shown that furries project a lot onto their fursonas; most fursonas could be summed up as “like me, but a little better.” Which raises the question of what happens when a person creates a fantasy-themed ideal representation of themselves. In isolation, it’s unlikely this avatar would have any effect. However, furries interact with other furries—online and in person—through their fursonas. As such, furries get practice “being” these ideal selves, which get validated when others interact with them as their fursonas. So a person who considers themselves to be shy and introverted that interacts with others as a confident and gregarious fursona will, over time, start to build up experience being extraverted. This experience, as well as any social skills they may have learned along the way, may cause aspects of this ideal self to become internalized, leading furries, over time, to become more like their fursonas.

It’s important to note that the fandom represents a safe space for this sort of identity exploration and play. When everyone is a fantasy-themed character, it reduces the level of self-consciousness a person may feel—after all, if the person you’re talking to represents themselves as a walking, talking, blue cat, it’s pretty hard for them to mock or ridicule you for your self-expression. In a similar manner, we suspect that this safe and inclusive environment may also facilitate identity expression and formation in people struggling to come out or come to terms with a stigmatized aspects of their identity (e.g., non-heterosexual, transgender).

I’m curious about why an animal identity might be more desirable for this type of role-play than a human identity. What draws furry fans to role-play idealized anthropomorphic animals rather than idealized human characters? And do you have any insights into why the vast majority of fursonas are based on charismatic megafauna such as wolves and tigers?

When it comes to the question of “why furry,” we haven’t really found a simple answer, and it’s unlikely we ever will. As it’s sometimes put in the furry fandom, there are as many reasons for a person to be a furry as there are furries. In the end, it may simply come down to a matter of aesthetic—some people prefer science fiction over fantasy, some people prefer anime over western style animation, and some people prefer stories that involve anthropomorphic characters over those that involve human characters. Research has shown that the reasons for these interests are idiosyncratic, and include specific events (e.g., marveling at seeing a powerful lion at a zoo for the first time), lifelong interest (e.g., “I’ve just always liked cats”), social connections (e.g., “My dog is my best friend”), or inspiration (e.g., “I saw a moving piece of artwork”). To be sure, people roleplay and identify with all sorts of characters (e.g., anime characters in the anime fandom, alien characters in science fiction fandom)—furries just happen to prefer anthropomorphic animal characters.

As for why particular fursona species are more popular (e.g., wolves, foxes, dogs, cats), this is likely a product of the centrality of these particular species in our culture. Dogs and cats represent the most popular pets, and are thus the non-human animal species people are most likely to encounter and form close relationships with in-person. Wolves and foxes, on the other hand, permeate the stories we tell (e.g., foxes in Disney’s Robin Hood, stories about werewolves), our spiritual beliefs (e.g., Japanese kitsune or wolves as Native American spirit guides), and even our language (e.g., “foxy”, “lone wolf”). Given that we compare and contrast ourselves with animals as a way of understanding our place in this world, it makes sense that the species that come up the most often are also the most likely to be represented in furry activities.

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Furry fans at Anthrocon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Meg Brown.
The furry fandom is rather unique among fandoms in that furry fans tend to self-generate their own original characters as opposed to admiring or cosplaying someone else’s original character. Are there any equivalents to the fursona in other fandoms?

One of the distinct features of the furry fandom is its relatively decentralized nature. Unlike other fandoms (e.g., Star Wars, Harry Potter), where one or a few people own the exclusive rights to the content and get to dictate what constitutes “official” canon, the furry fandom generally lacks this sort of hierarchical organization. There is no “official” governing body in the furry fandom—no one person or group gets to decide what species are acceptable or what content should or should not be considered furry. And, given this lack of organization around one or several main bodies of work, furries are generally left to create their own content. Most furries create their own unique characters (rather than cosplaying as an existing character, as is common in the anime, video game, or science fiction fandom), and content in the furry fandom is largely comprised of hundreds or thousands of small, independent artists, writers, musicians, and fursuit builders.

The closest I can think of to an analogue for the furries and their fursonas comes from the live-action roleplaying (LARP) community. In this community, people take on the identity of a fantasy-themed character (e.g., a medieval knight or a sorceress) and interact with one another online and at live events in-character. As far as I know, these characters may be inspired by existing literature or historical figures, but are largely the product of the players themselves.

I had a very active fantasy life as a child, which nearly always involved pretending to be an animal (usually a talking, sapient horse or dog). I think this kind of play has some similarities to furry fandom: the animal identities I took on were idealized as well as recurrent in that I wasn’t pretending to be just any horse but a specific equine character that I invented. The kind of daydreaming or fantasizing I do now is very different: I’m usually daydreaming about my writing, trying to solve a plot problem or attempt to get into my characters’ heads. 
Are there differences in how adult furry fans engage in animal identity play as opposed to how children do it?

I would argue that most furries (and, indeed, most people) share with you similar childhood fantasy experiences—pretending the family pet can talk to you, imagining yourself as a jungle animal, or fantasizing about owning a dragon or other mythical creature. And, I suspect, many adults, if they were honest with themselves, would admit that they still find such fantasies interesting to entertain (if the continued popularity of stories, movies, and tv shows involving werewolves, dragons, and talking animals geared toward adults is any indication). The difference between children and adults has to do with social norms. As a society, we’ve deemed it acceptable for children to openly entertain such fantasy activities, but we generally frown upon adults for expressing these flights of fantasy outside of particular contexts—typically fantasies generated by others (e.g., books, movies, video games).

While we haven’t explicitly studied it yet, I believe that the sorts of fantasy activities furries engage in are largely an extension of the same fantasy activities most people engaged in as a child. The only difference is that furries may “go against the grain” by doing so as an adult, entertaining fantasies and more actively expressing them than we generally deep acceptable in adults. Indeed, our studies suggest that, compared to non-furries, furries more frequently engage in fantasy activities and, when they do, those activities tend to be more vivid and more unrealistic—though it should be noted that furries are no more likely than non-furries to be delusional or to be unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. In other words, the distinction may be that furries are people who don’t develop the inhibition toward flights of fantasy or the restrictions on fantasy activities that many adults seem to have, although this remains to be more systematically tested in future research.

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Not just for furry fans: Pittsburgh residents and visitors often stop by Anthrocon for a glimpse–and pictures–of fans in costume. Photo by Meg Brown.
How would you respond to folks who might not take this kind of research seriously? For example, what gains can be had from studying the furry fandom?

It would easy to trivialize or dismiss the IARP’s research on furries as trivial or too specific to be of practical, general value. However, it’s worth noting that many of our findings in the furry fandom have implications or applications for the average person as well. In one paper, for example, we studied the benefits of participating in the furry fandom for the well-being of individual furries, despite the fact that the fandom is, itself, somewhat stigmatized. Our findings suggest that despite the stigma associated with being a furry, fandom members benefited from fandom participation and disclosing their identity to others around them, which has implications for members of other groups with concealable stigmatized identities (e.g., LGBTQ).

Other work, such as the work we’ve done suggesting the potential benefit of fursonas, could be narrowly construed as idiosyncratic or specific to furries. However, given that our lives increasingly involve the creation of idealized versions of ourselves (e.g., online dating profiles, social media, Second Life, online computer games), it may be possible to apply these findings to the general population. I suspect, for example, that the benefits a furry may get from interacting with others as their fursona would be comparable to those of a person on Second Life who similarly interacts with others through their online avatar. In this context, the more we learn about furries, the more we may learn about people in general.

Finally, some of the recent work we’ve done with furries and therians has focused on the issue of concern for animal welfare. While psychologists have long known that anthropomorphizing non-human entities is one way to increase people’s moral concern for them (e.g., a monkey with a human-like expression), comparatively little work has tested another mechanism—seeing ourselves as more like animals. By understanding how these processes operate within furries and therians and how they are associated with concern for animal welfare, we may learn a new way to increase the average person’s felt compassion and concern for non-human animals.

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Courtney Plante. Contributed photo.

Courtney Plante, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Iowa State University. His work, which began as a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, involves self and identity processes in fantasy contexts. This work has led him to study the effects of media on thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, the functions that fantasy activities fulfill for people, and the impact of participating in a fantasy-themed fan community. This final interest most notably involves the co-founding of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, a group of social scientists who study members of the furry fandom. Dr. Plante is also a furry himself, going by the name “Nuka” in the fandom. You can follow FurScience on Facebook and on Twitter @furscience.

The Animals and Culture Conversation Series invites guest contributors for conversations on interesting, unique, controversial, or little-known perspectives on human-animal interactions, striving to represent a wide variety of viewpoints on human-nonhuman encounters for the benefit of scholars and casual readers alike. Are you (or do you know) someone I should interview for this series? Don’t hesitate to contact me and tell me what you know!

What Zootopia teaches us—and doesn’t—about discrimination

What Zootopia teaches us—and doesn’t—about discrimination

Disney’s box office hit Zootopia offers a surprisingly smart and timely critique of racism, sexism, workplace discrimination, and police profiling, subtly yet effectively delivered by a cast of anthropomorphic animals: at one point, a rabbit condescendingly calls a member of another species “articulate.” In another awkward moment, a fox, overcome by curiosity about a fur type different than his own, touches a sheep without her permission.

Eye-popping animation and on-point humor makes Zootopia a particularly fun romp, as does its stellar cast: Ginnifer Goodwin stars as rabbit police officer Judy Hopps, Jason Bateman voices vulpine trickster Nick Wilde, Idris Elba intimidates as bovine antagonist Chief Bogo, Tommy Chong yucks it up as an affable yoga-loving yak, and Shakira cameos as pop star Gazelle. The film even sneaks in a married same-sex couple, which is sure to anger critics of interspecies same-sex marriages (whoever they are).

The first half of the film was so good that the second part has a hard time measuring up, and there were a couple of points during the latter half of the film where the storyline didn’t hang together quite as tightly as it should, but I’m not going to dwell on that because if you’re going to see a film about a talking bunny police officer, you probably aren’t the kind of person who wants to quibble about plotline realism. Me, neither.

It’s too early to tell what impact this film might have on human-animal relationships and our concept of animals in the imagination, although Chinese sources report a sharp increase in demand for fennec foxes as pets in that country, prompting concern that the film’s depiction of foxes as cute and cuddly may cause naive moviegoers to seek them out as pets, negatively affecting conservation efforts in the fox’s native territory.

A problematic message

While I enjoyed Zootopia, I found one aspect of the film to be slightly disturbing: The premise of the film hinges on the notion that animals have evolved beyond their “savage” habits, allowing rabbits to live safely among foxes, lions, and other predators.

Part of what’s problematic about this message is that it frames predators as “savage” and ruthless killers when in reality, predators kill prey animals not because predators are savage but because that is their ecological niche and they cannot survive any other way. In an op-ed for High Country News, Kim Todd points out that framing predators as savage no-account killers justified the deliberate extirpation of species such as wolves, bears, and mountain lions from the American West:

And the lesson from these efforts to create a real-life Zootopia? Predators matter. And what matters is their biology, their teeth and the blood that gets shed. It’s a lesson many in the West have learned as carnivores struggle to make a comeback: We ignore wildlife ecology at our peril. The issue of how to respond still roils many communities, but everyone can agree that waiting for meat-eaters to evolve to prefer kale isn’t the solution.”

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Zootopia offers a surprisingly smart and timely critique of racism, sexism, workplace discrimination, and police profiling. Copyright 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The film also seems to imply that discrimination is always bad. Discrimination frequently refers to systems of inequality or inequity such as racism and sexism. But the word “discriminate” also refers to one’s ability to recognize distinctions. To be discriminating—to be able to make fine distinctions—helps one to be careful and thoughtful in one’s decision-making process. Definitely not a bad thing!

Zootopia effectively mobilized its own brand of speciesism to satirize and draw attention to the problems inherent in sexism, racism, and police profiling. But while there is no legitimate reason to discriminate between people based on skin color (for example), there can be legitimate reasons to discriminate between different species (after giving them equal moral consideration to begin with, of course). Racism is not objectionable merely because it is discriminatory but because racists discriminate for morally irrelevant reasons. That is why racism is objectionable: on top of being profoundly harmful, racism is unjustifiable.

Yet other forms of discrimination do not, upon closer examination, appear to be based on morally irrelevant factors. For example, the superficially speciesist idea that house cats make good household companions but mountain lions do not: the lion’s difficult-to-meet needs and far greater capacity for inflicting bodily harm are morally relevant to the issue of whether or not this species should be kept as companion animals.

Legitimizing a recurring myth?

In its overt and verbalized message that biology can be so easily—and completely—overcome by socialization and environment, Zootopia also seems to legitimize a recurring myth among dog guardians: that a dog’s temperament and behavior results entirely from training and upbringing, with no role played by biology or breeding. In reality, unlike the process by which humans naturally evolved widely-varying skin colors, facial features, and hair types, our selective breeding practices for domestic animals have been carried out deliberately, with a profound and intentional impact on our dogs’ health, behavior, and suitability for various roles.

And what may appear to be a morally irrelevant issue (such as breed or type) can be connected to morally relevant characteristics (such as a very high activity level or a difficult-to-maintain coat) that can and do interfere with a given person’s ability to care for that particular type of dog and meet his or her needs. Failing to place the “right” dogs with the “right” people can put dogs at risk of neglect, relinquishment, or worse.

Despite the mountains of evidence against it, the “it’s all in how they’re raised” myth continues to be attractive because people want very much to believe that we are in control: otherwise, the bootstraps narrative wouldn’t be so pervasive. Perhaps that’s why this myth seems to be a particularly attractive belief among Americans: this narrative was part of our national mythos long before we applied it to our dogs.

Therein lies the challenge of teaching young people and ourselves about discrimination: learning when to discriminate, as well as when not to.

I went to a taxidermy competition. Here’s what I saw.

I went to a taxidermy competition. Here’s what I saw.

I recently attended the 2016 Minnesota Taxidermy Guild competition, held at Sugar Lake Lodge in Cohasset. I went along at the invitation of my friend and professional taxidermist Katie Crowley of Diamond Dust Taxidermy and Art in Duluth. Minnesota boasts a strong hunting tradition and a huge number of hunters, so it’s no surprise that this state is also home to several of the nation’s top taxidermists. The competition drew dozens of taxidermists from Minnesota and neighboring states for competition at the novice, professional, and master levels.

I feel conflicted about taxidermy. Most of the animals used for taxidermy mounts were deliberately killed, often for recreation, although of course it’s possible to perform taxidermy using only animals that died of natural or accidental causes. I know at least one professional taxidermist who only works with animals who died natural or accidental deaths.

Nonetheless, I was struck by the artistry and the tremendous degree of anatomical knowledge taxidermists need to shine in these competitions. Seeing these incredibly lifelike and undeniably artistic mounts blows any stereotypes about taxidermists being an unintelligent, boorish bunch straight out of the water, and regardless of how one feels about taxidermy itself, it’s difficult to argue that taxidermists aren’t passionate about animals: it takes years of careful study to advance to the masters division, and creating mounts for competition involves many hours of work.

Stiff competition

Taxidermy is well suited to competition: unlike other forms of art, where quality is subjective, taxidermists always have a real life standard to measure up to. Judges compare each mount to the animal’s living counterparts: the goal of taxidermy competition is to create a mount that’s as lifelike as possible, indistinguishable from a living animal in every aspect except for life itself.

Judges inspect each mount with flashlights and dental mirrors, examining every part of the mount from nose to tail. Judging mammal mounts, for example, involves dozens of criteria including correct coloration of the septum and inner nose, accurate inner ear anatomy, and correctness of the anus and sex organs. Each competitor receives a detailed critique of his or her mount. Receiving detailed feedback from master taxidermists is considered by many taxidermists to be the most valuable aspect of competition.

White-tailed deer, a popular target for hunting in Minnesota, absolutely dominated the competition, but the show also featured black bears, coyotes, and other mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and even some exotic and non-native species. Many of the mounts placed a strong emphasis on depicting animals in natural poses re-enacting imagined moments of their lives: a coyote scratching an itch, a buck giving the flehmen response to a scent lure, wolves greeting one another muzzle to muzzle. In this way, taxidermists seem to be thinking of—and trying to represent—animals as individuals with lives of their own, which is something that surprised me.

Uncomfortable questions

But some mounts depicted moments of violence or death, raising uncomfortable questions: one particularly ironic mount depicted a red fox evading a trap, though of course the fox used in the mount had probably been “successfully” trapped and killed. Another mount featured a captive deer being attacked by an alligator. And not all mounts are supposed to look alive: “dead mounts,” meant to resemble a hunter’s freshly-killed quarry, are a particularly popular choice for waterfowl. One dead mount at the show featured a mallard hung by his foot on a panel of barnwood; another depicted a shot goose laying on a camouflage gear bag, surrounded by habitat, a goose call, shotgun shells, and other objects meant to evoke a day spent goose hunting.

The competition featured seminars on topics ranging from wildlife law to the finishing work on white-tailed deer mounts to how to create “dead” mounts of small mammals as props for mounts of predators. Several taxidermy supply vendors were on site, including one gentleman who creates artificial rocks, water, and icicles for zoos, museums, and other attractions. The competition boasted its own social life, too: an awards banquet, a live auction of supplies and hunting equipment, and a wine tasting.

For more information about taxidermy, read my recent essay, “The Resurrection Trade” at Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. You can also view photos of each of the mounts at the competition.

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Conversation Series: Lupa, creator, the Tarot of Bones

Conversation Series: Lupa, creator, the Tarot of Bones

“I wanted to expand the interpretations of the cards beyond a strictly human sphere.” — Lupa.

Commonly associated with the occult, tarot cards first appeared in Europe during the late 14th century for game play and divination. Beginning in the 18th century, tarot cards became quite popular for divinationand continue to be used for this purpose today. While the cards sometimes incorporate animal imagery and symbolism, few decks focus exclusively on nonhuman animal iconography.

The Tarot of Bones will be a notable exception. Animal skulls and bones figure prominently in the cards’ illustrations, and The Tarot of Bones blends familiar animal symbolism and iconography with natural history facts and a sometimes unexpected view of animal habits and lives.

The Tarot of Bones creator Lupa is an author, artist and citizen naturalist who splits her time between Portland, Oregon and Long Beach, Washington. She is the author of several books on nature spirituality. She also works with animal hides and bones to create everything from fur headdresses to bone and moss assemblages. She has a Master’s degree in counseling psychology with a certificate in ecopsychology and is a certified Wilderness First Responder. She created The Tarot of Bones using eco-friendly materials: “My goal is to save [reclaimed materials] from the waste stream and give them a fresh start as part of a meaningful, beautiful piece of art,” she said. “As with all of my artwork and other creations, a portion of the revenue made from the Tarot of Bones will be donated to nonprofit organizations that help protect wildlife and their habitats.”

I visited with Lupa to talk about The Tarot of Bones, what draws her to animal bones as an art medium, and how she selected a design and meaning for each card.

Brown: What inspired you to create the Tarot of Bones and what do you hope to communicate with this project?

Lupa: I’ve been creating artwork with animal remains for almost twenty years, and I’ve taken my work in a number of different directions. In the past few years I’ve really been enjoying creating assemblages. I had a piece in a tarot-themed art show at a local gallery in October of 2014, and after an evening surrounded by beautiful works of art, I felt inspired to create my own deck.

The tarot is a really fascinating set of symbols; each of the 78 cards has historical meanings associated with it, but they’re also all open to interpretation by the individual. The Major Arcana are considered to be more powerful archetypal cards that have more weight in a tarot reading. The infamous Death card doesn’t have to mean physical death, but generally communicates some significant change in one’s life—often a good one! The Minor Arcana, on the other hand, are more common, everyday experiences in a human life; the Three of Wands may represent travel, while the Two of Swords signifies conflict.

With the Tarot of Bones I used animal bones as my art medium, mixed in with other natural materials. The Major Arcana have complete animal skulls in their assemblages, while the Court Cards of the Minor Arcana (like the Queen of Swords and Page of Wands) have animal skulls without their mandibles. The rest of the Minor Arcana, such as the Two of Cups or Ten of Wands, have different sorts of bones—ribs for Cups, vertebrae for Pentacles, legs and foot bones for Wands, and teeth and jaws for Swords.

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“Judgement,” assemblage by Lupa. Contributed photo.
What draws you to bones as objects of beauty and fascination?

They’re the structure of a vertebrate animal. We can see the general shape of a creature by looking at the outermost layer of it, whether that’s fur or feather or scale, but to really appreciate how the animal is put together you have to go deeper. Musculature tells us some; it literally fleshes the animal out. But the skeleton is the scaffolding upon which all else is built, and it dictates the basic form. Across all vertebrates you have the same quadreped structure (even if some or all limbs have been lost in certain animals). But it’s adapted differently in each species.

One of the reasons I love comparative anatomy is studying how the same structure—a mandible, for example—can look so different in two species because it’s performing specialized tasks in each. The mandible of a warthog is much more robust than that of a rattlesnake and performs different jobs—digging and chewing rather than grasping—but they all started with the same structure that was originally derived from the frontmost gill arch in a fish ancestor millions of years ago.

How did you determine which species to assign to which card and how did this process affect your design choices?

Before, during and after creating each assemblage I meditated with the totem of the animal I wanted to incorporate into the card, and with the spirit of the card itself. This way I was able to combine the two into one artistic expression—art for me is a deeply spiritual act. Before I started creating the assemblages I created a list of what animal skulls I wanted to use for the Major Arcana and Court Cards, and there were only a couple of changes to this, usually due to certain animal skulls not being available, even in replica form. I originally wanted the Tower card, which symbolizes destruction and everything falling apart, to be represented by a piranha skull, but it was impossible to find one. So I ended up using a European starling skull—an invasive species in the US—instead, since it often brings great disharmony to an ecosystem.

I wanted to expand the interpretations of the cards beyond a strictly human sphere. Other animals experience a lot of the same things Homo sapiens does. One of my favorite examples of this is the Hermit card. Traditionally it can refer to a time of productive solitude, either in meditation or other contemplation, or resting after a lot of social activity, or even time away from the world to take on more creative efforts without interruption. The female hornbill walls herself up in a hollow in a tree when it’s time to lay her eggs; she and her mate wall up the opening with mud until there’s only a tiny opening just big enough for him to pass food to her, and her to expel waste. She stays there for weeks while she lays and hatches the eggs and cares for the young. She’s so committed to this that she even sheds all her flight feathers. But at the end she breaks out, flying with a new set of feathers, and followed by her newly fledging young. A very productive solitude indeed!

As to design specifics, I took some cues from the Rider-Waite-Smith, which is the most popular and classic tarot deck in use today, but I added a lot of personal flair. Part of the challenge is that the Rider-Waite-Smith has human figures in almost all the cards, and sometimes it’s tough to translate what they’re doing over into bones. The Six of Pentacles, for example, shows a man dressed in very nice clothing and giving money to another person. It’s supposed to signify the sharing of wealth. But how to do that with bones? I ended up taking six deer vertebrae and arranging them in a circle so that they looked like a series of small animals moving out from the center. Since the vertebrae represent pentacles (and therefore money) I thought it portrayed wealth moving out from its source into the world.

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“Devil,” assemblage by Lupa. Contributed photo.
I’m intrigued by your descriptions of how you assigned a certain species for each Tarot card: Some species-card pairings “make sense” in terms of that animal’s ecological niche, behavior, and the mythology surrounding them but others, like your choice of the African lion for the Devil card, seem counterintuitive. Tell me about a favorite counterintuitive species-card pairing and why you chose it:

The Devil is actually a great example. Most people look at lions favorably. Yet in the places in Africa where they live they’re feared, because they’re still a threat to livestock (and, less commonly, humans). And while they have the reputation of being great hunters, they actually frequently steal kills from spotted hyenas, which themselves are even better hunters than the lions much of the time. Lions are real bullies, and the males will kill hyenas just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Male lions that take over a pride also kill the young of the previous pride male so that the females go back into estrus sooner. They’re really not noble creatures, and they’re ruled by desires and instinctual drives which can lead them into destructive behaviors. So the lion as Devil is a reminder that each of us, no matter how seemingly noble, still has to balance out the better angels of our nature with the deeper, more primal violence inside.

Tell me about your favorite assemblage from the project. What makes it a favorite and what were the challenges and considerations you confronted when making it?

I love the Magician, and it’s the one piece I’m keeping for myself. It features a corn snake skeleton in an Ouroboros circle, biting its own tail. The skeleton is surrounded by the raw materials of nature—moss, stones, shells, and the like. I wanted to symbolize the Magician’s ability to draw on the world around him to create new things, in the same way I was making use of natural materials to create the assemblages. It’s probably the closest to my ideal style of assemblage of any card in the deck. I didn’t want to make them all look alike, though, so each has its own personality. But the Magician is definitely my favorite.

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“Magician,” assemblage by Lupa. Contributed photo.
Obviously, everyone has different personal rules and ethics for using animals or animal products. What were some of the ethical considerations affecting how you acquired your materials and how you put together your assemblages?

My biggest concern was legalities. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t supporting the trafficking of protected wildlife. So in some cases I used resin replica skulls, such as the replica sloth skull for the Hanged Man card. I got the vast majority of my skulls from three bone dealers that I’ve been working with for several years that I know don’t support poaching and other questionable practices.

Beyond the bones, I used secondhand items for the backboards for all the pieces, ranging from old cutting boards to decorative wooden plaques. The Wheel is the most unique—a tiny replica hummingbird skull perches on a sand dollar I got at a thrift store. A lot of the acrylic paint and other materials I used are also secondhand.

The Animals and Culture Conversation Series invites guest contributors for conversations on interesting, unique, controversial, or little-known perspectives on human-animal interactions, striving to represent a wide variety of viewpoints on human-nonhuman encounters for the benefit of scholars and casual readers alike.  Are you (or do you know) someone I should interview for this series? Don’t hesitate to contact me and tell me what you know!

Writing about Humans and Animals: The Four Responsibilities

Writing about Humans and Animals: The Four Responsibilities

Writing about human relationships with nonhuman animals presents unique challenges and saddles writers with unique responsibilities. We must juggle many competing interests, balancing our obligations to our readers, to our human and nonhuman subjects, and to ourselves.

When I first entered the environmental writing MFA program at Iowa State University, I was accustomed to writing in a rather overbearing and judgmental tone. As a lifelong animal advocate, much of what I knew about how humans relate to animals made me angry and that anger fueled my nonfiction writing. “You always cook with cayenne pepper,” a colleague said—putting it rather mildly—in an early workshop.

I realized midway through my first semester that I needed to make a choice: I could either advocate for a cause in the fiery and absolutist language I was accustomed to, or I could be trusted as a journalist. As an advocate, I could single-mindedly press for the agenda I favor, but approaching my reportage with an agenda already in mind meant that I would likely lose credibility among those who did not agree with me. But an accountable journalist whose primary agenda is fact can be trusted even by people who don’t necessarily agree with their personal views. In that spirit, I’ve committed myself to exploring complex and divisive animal issues with as much trust and transparency as possible, and I’ve worked hard to revise my communication style into one that invites readers to come to their own conclusions.

I’ve developed this approach to address the responsibilities writers have toward our readers, toward our human and animal subjects, and toward ourselves.

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Halter class at the 2016 Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show. Balancing our obligations to our human and nonhuman subjects is one of the greatest challenges scholars and writers face. Photo by Meg Brown.

Responsibility to our readers: Flannery O’Connor noted that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.” As a nonfiction writer, I have two obligations: to tell an interesting story and to tell the truth. As Hal Herzog notes in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, it is difficult to think straight about animals and separate facts from feelings. While exploring the relationships between humans and nonhumans, I often encounter narratives that, while entertaining, heartwarming, or effective at promoting a certain viewpoint, are ultimately inaccurate.

I often find myself in the position of being “that guy”—the skeptic, the bringdown, the one who dashes off to Snopes.com, the one who “ruins” a cute story or popular narrative by questioning its accuracy. It’s not fun to let folks down by telling them that cute viral kangaroo story probably isn’t so cute after all, or that those lions probably weren’t actually gay, or that there have in fact been credible reports of deadly wolf attacks on humans. Nonetheless, people need and deserve accurate, credible information even if it doesn’t support the narrative they like, the one that suits my agenda, or the one that’s easiest to tell. A big part of being accountable to my readers involves telling them things they may not like to hear.

That’s part of treating readers like the thinking, curious grown-ups they generally are. Rather than telling them what to think or do (which is what I used to do), I strive to present my readers with interesting and relevant information, some of which may be quite contradictory, and allow them the freedom to come to their own conclusions. Herzog has noted that “spin” in scientific publications is a major problem in human-animal interaction science. While I’m not a scientist, as a nonfiction writer, I am primarily concerned with discovering and disseminating facts, and thus I feel compelled to do away with “spin” in my own storytelling. I know it’s not possible to eliminate bias, but I do try to restrain it in the interest of being trustworthy and nuanced in my reportage.

Responsibility to humans: Despite the callousness, cruelty, and ignorance with which humans often treat nonhumans, I firmly believe that every person has an inherent right to be represented accurately and sensitively, and to have some input on how they are represented. Though I may strongly disagree with some of the people whose voices appear in my work, I strive to treat my human subjects not as tools to trap into voicing my own agenda, but as people who deserve space to tell their own stories, even if that introduces complexity into the narrative. The complex is difficult to write, but it’s far more interesting to read. Complex ideas have long lives in the curiosity and conversations they provoke long after readers finish the book.

The problem of telling other people how they really feel and what they really mean is quite common in discourse about human-animal issues, particularly within opposing interests and divisive topics. For example, pit bull advocates often refer to breed-specific legislation (BSL) proponents as “anti-dog” activists. But even a cursory examination of BSL proponents’ own arguments reveals that many of them have dogs and are not truly “anti-dog” but pro-BSL, often giving arguably “pro-dog” reasons for this position (such as a desire to prevent unnecessary euthanasia).

I strongly believe that writers should allow individuals and organizations to name and represent themselves, at least to some extent, and allow people and groups to speak for themselves when describing their goals and motivations as opposed to battling straw men or putting words in others’ mouths for the sake of propping up our own agendas.

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Because animal interests are so frequently obscured, it is even more important that writers directly confront their interests, even when these are at odds with human interests. Photo by Meg Brown.

Responsibility to nonhumans: While it’s important for me to be sensitive to my human subjects, at the same time, it’s undeniable that human practices frequently and inarguably inflict harm on nonhumans. Trophy hunters, for example, often claim that trophy hunting helps sustain wildlife populations by giving game animals and their habitats economic value they wouldn’t have otherwise. This may be true in some cases, but it would be irresponsible for me as a writer to obscure the suffering and death of the individuals killed by hunters or the potential for trophy hunting to adversely affect an entire species.

My decision to include these considerations in a piece about trophy hunting may displease trophy hunters, but animals cannot advocate for themselves and our decisions about how to treat animals proceed largely without them having a place at the table. Presenting and advancing nonhuman interests in my writing is one small way to confront the animals and their interests in our discourse about them.

Responsibility to ourselves: While my writing approach is predominantly affected by the obligations I feel to others, I also constantly struggle to report on human-animal issues without compromising my own ethics. We all have our own moral compass and our own set of “rules” for how (or whether) to interact with animals. Breaking our own rules brings us pain in the form of guilt and self-doubt.

Because so much of the reporting I do is immersive in nature, I’m often confronted with difficult choices about when and how to perform my research. It can be surprisingly difficult to get as far inside a controversial animal topic as I can without violating my internal moral code: While researching the exotic pet trade for Animal People, I attended exotic animal auctions even though I had to pay to get into these events and my payment undoubtedly helped to sustain what I feel is an industry rife with unethical practices. I’m glad I attended these auctions and learned a lot from them, but I still feel torn about my decision to do so. In this case, I believe that the ends—a chance to report accurately from inside a rarely-seen world—justified my choice to pay my way into these auctions even though my payments also help to sustain them.

Adhering to my own personal rules is important to me, so I am constantly calculating and recalculating the costs and benefits of my research and writing practices on humans and animals alike.

Conversation Series: Katie Crowley, taxidermist

Conversation Series: Katie Crowley, taxidermist

“I’d like the public to be more aware of the phenomenal quality of the traditional taxidermy done for competition these days, as well as the increasing quality of commercial taxidermy. It’s a far cry from the shoddy old mounts of the past, and on par with the best museum work.” — Katie Crowley.

To kick off the Animals and Culture Conversation Series, I’ve invited taxidermist and sculptor Katie Crowley of Diamond Dust Taxidermy and Art to talk about taxidermy as an art form, common misconceptions about taxidermy, and the future of taxidermy in a world facing an extinction crisis. Last year, Katie welcomed me into her studio for a behind-the-scenes photo shoot, so be sure to visit the gallery for an up-close look at a real working taxidermy studio. I’ll also be joining Katie as she competes at the Minnesota Taxidermy Guild’s 2016 competition in Cohasset from April 14-17.

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Coyote mount, Diamond Dust Taxidermy and Art. Contributed photo.
Brown: Many people who love animals would have a hard time understanding how someone who loves animals could be a taxidermist. They might also view the process as disrespectful. How do you reconcile your love of animals with the fact that—for now, anyway—performing taxidermy requires dead animals, and arguably objectifies them?

Crowley: I see the process as something I do out of respect for the animal, not the other way around. I do love animals, but wild animals aren’t house pets, and I respect them on their own terms. I love everything about white-tailed deer, including hunting them, eating them, studying their anatomy, and mounting their skins. I understand that nature isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, and hunting and death are part of nature. Regulated hunting by humans, using science-based wildlife management, can be hugely beneficial to conservation. I choose to mount those animals taken by people as a tribute to the animal and the hunt, and try to do a beautiful and accurate mount that honors that animal’s life. Any ideas of “respect” in taxidermy are for people, anyway. The animal is dead, it doesn’t care. Even alive, it has no such concept.

How does performing taxidermy allow you to communicate the deep relationship you have with animals and the natural world?

This is the question that I’ve been having the hardest time putting into words. Taxidermy does allow me to communicate that. I can put all my love of and knowledge of animals and the outdoors into each mount, and then share that mount with others.

Tell me about the most difficult parts of the mounting process and the knowledge you need to make it look right:

Doing crappy taxidermy is pretty easy, but doing really excellent work isn’t. A good taxidermist needs to know animal anatomy and behavior and have 2-D and 3-D reference. Artistic ability is also needed to make a mount a real work of art, capturing that live look of the animals and designing a composition for the mounts and any panels, bases, or habitat. The hardest part for me personally is getting the skin to cooperate. It’s a natural material and there’s some unpredictability with that. The skin needs to be preserved properly, then the manikin needs to fit the skin, everything needs to be put in the right place, and it needs to dry with minimal shrinkage.

You’re a woman working in an industry that continues to be dominated by men. Do you encounter much sexism because of that?

I haven’t had any issues within the taxidermy community itself. There are a lot of young women interested in taxidermy these days, and as long as you’re serious about doing a good job, the men in the industry seem happy to have you there contributing to the art. I’ve gotten plenty of strange reactions from non-taxidermists, who seem surprised that a women would be interested in taxidermy. I don’t think it’s surprising at all. Why wouldn’t we be interested?

You’ve argued that the general public has a poor understanding of what taxidermy is about and how it is performed. What would you like people to appreciate and understand about the taxidermy process and the aesthetics behind it?

Most of the general public (non-hunters), especially young urban folks, seem more familiar with rogue taxidermy than good-quality traditional taxidermy. Traditional taxidermy is viewed as a smoke-stained, ugly old mount hanging in a bar, or something that rednecks do. Rogue taxidermy is viewed as a trendy new art form, and when people hear that I do taxidermy, they ask me about making conceptual taxidermy art sculptures, or oddities like mounted animals dressed in clothes. They don’t generally ask about what I really do, which is make high-quality, lifelike mounts of the animals, often with natural habitat included in the design. I’d like the public to be more aware of the phenomenal quality of the traditional taxidermy done for competition these days, as well as the increasing quality of commercial taxidermy. It’s a far cry from the shoddy old mounts of the past, and on par with the best museum work. I haven’t seen anything close to the same quality done with the rogue taxidermy that is trendy at the moment. Well done traditional taxidermy is fine wildlife art, not novelty or kitsch.

Taxidermy seems to be facing an uncertain future: evidence suggests that a sixth mass extinction event poses an imminent threat to global wildlife populations, meaning that there will be far fewer animals to use for this purpose. Yet new technology makes taxidermy even easier to do, and technological advancements (for example, animatronics) may allow mounted animals to be far more “real” than they have ever been before. How do you see taxidermy fitting into the future, and what do you think taxidermy will look like, twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now?

I don’t think taxidermy as it’s currently being done is very well suited for animatronics. Right now we have a skin that dries hard, glued down to a manikin. Unless the process substantially changes, mounts aren’t going to do much moving around. Synthetic re-creations work much better with animatronics.

I would guess that the future of taxidermy might involve more computer-aided design and 3-D printing if it becomes affordable enough. And who knows what other new technology might come along.

Even with fewer wild animals to mount in a mass extinction event, if people wanted to keep doing taxidermy, they could turn to domesticated animals or possibly remaining wild animals in fenced preserves. That would be a pretty sad thing. Taxidermy may not be commercially viable in that case. I hope that people limit their population growth and learn to live sustainably so that we can preserve our wildlife and wild places. In terms of climate change, we may already be too late.

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Deer mount, Diamond Dust Taxidermy and Art. Contributed photo.

The Animals and Culture Conversation Series invites guest contributors for conversations on interesting, unique, controversial, or little-known perspectives on human-animal interactions, striving to represent a wide variety of viewpoints on human-nonhuman encounters for the benefit of scholars and casual readers alike.  Are you (or do you know) someone I should interview for this series? Don’t hesitate to contact me and tell me what you know!

The Resurrection Trade

The Resurrection Trade

I’m pleased to announce that my essay “The Resurrection Trade” has won Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment’s annual Notes from the Field nonfiction prize. Guest judge Alison Hawthorne Deming described it as “a truly superb and fascinating essay about the art of taxidermy and our changing relationship with the animal world.” I am beyond thrilled that one of my favorite authors had such high praise for my work!

Here’s a brief excerpt. Be sure to visit the photo series as well!

“The Denver Museum of Nature and Science boasts one of the best taxidermy displays in the nation. These dioramas are the very same ones my mother, as a little girl, gazed upon when she visited the museum for school field trips. When I stroll through these venerable dimly lit halls, she is the younger person. I feel as though I am traveling back in time: these little girls with their faces pressed close to the glass, gazing onto recreated wildlife scenes—any one of them could be my mother.

Maybe that’s because the animals themselves are forever locked in time. A bull elk lifts his antlers in a graceful but incomplete gesture. Two arctic wolves size up a musk ox in a permanent standoff. Near them, a multicolored pack of glassed-in gray wolves stares into indefinite distance suggested by a mural of snowy foothills. Creatures that died decades ago infinitely re-enact imagined moments of their lives, as if permitted to do so by the same slip of space-time that might allow me to see my mother’s childhood self.

The legendary Jonas brothers (Coloman, John, and Guy, not Paul, Joseph, and Nicholas) oversaw the creation of some of these mounts. In 1908, they launched the nation’s first large-scale taxidermy supply business in Denver. The Jonas firm also contributed mounts to the nation’s mecca of taxidermy, the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The rooftop of the Jonas Brothers building near 10th and Broadway still bears its grandiose 1920s-era neon sign, and imposing sculptures of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and owls still adorn its lofty corners. The building was home, for a time, to a nightclub called The Serengeti.

Denver is home to another legend in taxidermy: the Buckhorn Exchange restaurant. The Buckhorn opened in 1893 and has hosted the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Roy Rogers, and Charlton Heston. Tourists flock to the Buckhorn for Rocky Mountain oysters and elk sausage, bison burgers and ostrich steaks. They dine with a menagerie of faded, yellowed taxidermy mounts crowding the walls. It’s hard not to imagine the animals as another set of employees, their departed bodies on the other side of the wall—a bored zebra resting a hoof, a coyote stifling a yawn—and when the show is over, they divide their tips and go home.

These are the two faces of taxidermy: austere nostalgia, vulgar kitsch. Taxidermy, the unlikeliest art form, seems increasingly out of place in a society ever more inclined to treat animals as friends and family and not objects and curiosities. Which is why it’s so surprising that taxidermy is hipper than ever: American taxidermy associations are growing in membership and an increasing number of curious artistic types are taking taxidermy classes and building their own collections of mounted animals.

But in a world facing its sixth mass extinction, how will taxidermy survive?”