strange places: finding companion animals in shelters and in cemeteries

Urban Companion Animals
Reading List
1. Homeless women’s vices on incorporating companion animals into shelter services. 2011, Jennifer Labreque & Chrstine A. Waslh, 79-96
2.  The emergence of “pets as family” and the socio-historical development of pet funerals in Japan. 2009, Elmber Veldkamp, 333-346
3. The meaning of American pet cemetery gravestones. Stanley Brandes, 2009, 99-118
4. Geographies of more-than-human homes and cultures. In Placing Animals: An introduction to the geography of human-animal relations

This week the scope of my readings crossed between the planes of living and mortality, relating to the phenomenon of urban companion animal keeping.  I wanted to pursue a different approach to understanding this practice within the urbanscape rather than the typical socio-historical approach that looks to pet-keeping as an elitist pursuit. This week my investation takes me to the experience of the homeless, specifically women as well as the morbid side of pet-keeping, the practices of disposing of loved animals bodies.

My first reading approaches this topic generally, from understanding geographies of more-than human homes and cultures.  The argument they forward in terms of keeping animals in the home is in chorus with a book published in 1984 by Yi-Fuan called “Dominance and affection: The making of pets and keeping animals in our home” that proposes animals residing in residential spaces is contingent on power and politics. In that pet-keeping represents an epitome case of humans wanting to control the nonhuman world. Yi-Fuan highlights three ways in which this is accomplished: controlling reproduction, genetically manipulating their bodies and phenotypically.

Approaching pet-keeping from this perspective casts a dark shadow on why we have extended our compassion circle to include animals reflecting of very humancentric and capitalist senses. However, this argument can be challenged from many angles whether it is a matter of factoring in more the human-animal bonds witnessed or differing socio-political and ethnic identities of the humans that let animals into their lives in very intimate ways. Reweaving an animal geographer’s approach to companion animal keeping, the importance of exploring particular settings of these relationships allows for a nuanced understanding of particular places which is the concept at the heart of any geographical approach.

The first article I read that deeply challenges the conceptualization that disposable income is a key ingredient in pet-keeping comes from narratives of homeless women across Canada. The researchers, Jennifer Labrecque and Christine Walsh took a very admirable approach to this issue as they are both involved in social work and wanted to make the strongest case possible as to why shelters should be inclusive towards animals. Within the urban city, homelessness is extremely palpable and unfortunately a common experience. Studies since the 1995 have presented the well-founded narrative of homeless people refusing a place in a shelter based on the fact that they were asked to leave their animals behind or take them to the local animal shelter to most likely never be re-connected.

Homeless women in urban settings across Canada were the chosen demographics for numerous reasons. Firstly, became they represent the majority of homeless people plus the additional burdens from the family they have while experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness. Perhaps the most important reason for them being the chosen demographics for this study is the well-known fact that women often come from abusive homes that also have animals dwelling with them experience the worry that their abusive partner will also take aim at their animals. Therefore, women will consider the livlihoods and well-being of others, including animals, before decisions are made. Acting in consternation for others is an incredibly important element to be factored into the design of shelters.

This pioneering research confirmed that homeless women become homeless due to leaving toxic domestic homes as well as experiencing deep sense of poverty that occur for numerous reasons. Significantly, the research highlighted five re-occuring thematic categories from the interviewed women’s narratives. Homeless women in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver all mentioned animals as integral to their lives based on the companionship, acceptance, sense of responsibility, salubrious relationships, and safety that companion animals offer on the streets.

One point I found particular heart-wrenching is that from the pool of women interviewed, one out of five said that they have been sexually assaulted or had violence inflected on them while living on the streets. These women drew an immediate connection to having companion dogs with them to provide them with potential safety and protection while living on the streets. Considering this, and a lapse of social services looking out for homeless women, this is an incredibly important feature of their experience often overlooked. Homeless women’s incorporation of companion animals on the streets challenges several narratives within the city that simplistically state companion animals come with the territory of being financially stable. Keeping animals in our dwellings is by no means limited to middle-class stable homes as often put and there is an entirely different and complex spaces that need to be prioritized in research to gain a truer understanding of companion animals in the city that has been lost on service providers, academia and society at large.

I shall now take a turn for the more morbid side of companion animal keeping by looking at ways in which urban dwellers dispose or intern their animals. Personally, I feel very opinionated towards the existence of cemeteries within the western world as our practices have been the most permanent and wasteful in terms of land consumption. My initial thoughts are that pet cemeteries are another capitalistic enterprise, however comparing two articles one from the United States and the other from Japan I was challenged. Moreover, like human cemeteries, animal cemeteries are amazing repositories of changing attitudes towards animals as the attitudes are inscribed in the markers providing a rich material cultural database. Another reason pet cemeteries are important is that they are permanent fixtures in the urban landscape. At times when certain lands are inscribed with particular meaning and membership, seeing animal cemeteries creep up in major urban cities speaks loudly to how animals are transgressing the nature and culture binary. Pet cemeteries should be understood not necessarily as an anthropomorphic whim, but rather a redrawing of the moral community and a fusing of the approximate treatment and proximity of dead animals and dead people.

The first article I read comes from the United States, titled “The meaning of American pet cemetery gravestones” by Stanley Brandes in 2009. Brandes investigated the Hartsdale cemetery in New York City, founded by a veterinarian Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1896 when one of his patients asked to bury her beloved pet in his apple orchard. Eventually, more clients asked and Dr. Johnson and his business partners established it as a corporation in 1914, which is the necessary step in establishing a permanent public cemetery. Today, the cemetery remains open to internments with over 70,000 animals and as of 2009, 20 cremated humans. Brandes studied the gravestones using methods that have been used by archaeologists in the past finding three trends in terms of what was engraved on the gravestones. It appears that post World War Two, human names, endearments of kinship and an enhanced emphasis on religious and ethnic identities were bestowed onto pets and written in permanency at their final resting place. Brandes argues that pet cemeteries are chiefly an urban phenomenon, which is corroborated by the article by Elmber Veldkamp most likely due to urban waste rules.

The above research does not answer why post World War Two was significant, however, the article coming from Veldkamp entitled “The emergence of “pets as family” and the socio-historical development of pet funerals in Japan” finds this juncture in time critical in changing views of how companion animals are disposed of.  People in Japan have been known to intern their loved pets and have marked off cemeteries for them in temples since the early 1500’s. Japan, being predominantly Buddhist has a long and rich history of sutra’s and rituals designated for dead animals. Looking into folklore, one sees practices such as post-humanist care being done towards dogs for example with the belief that it would secure a safe and healthy childbirth as dogs were believed to have mastered childbirth of their own species.

However, Veldmap argues a change in attitudes towards disposing of dead animals occurred in the early 1910’s due to an American influence that preferred a permanent fixed place for animals to be interned rather than the scattering of ashes as what happened before. This shift saw urban Japanese having to decide between discarding their animals into the trash or cemetery rather than allowing the deceased animal to naturally decay at the temple. Western influences of urban sanitary concerns affected how Japanese people conduct funerary arrangements for animals. Unfortunately, this shift has also impacted how animals are seen. At one point in time, conducting funerary rituals was directly connected to the well-being of animal souls and today it appears the practices are more so about human convenience and a display of affluence. Urban Japanese dwellers used to provide continuous care towards their animals resting place but now with the cemetery being a fixed feature in the landscape it is less common to do so as they consider the animal no longer needing maintience and ritual offerings whether tangible or not to secure them long-life in the otherworld.

This week I grappled with less-obvious places and lives companion animals live within the urbanscape. Revealing these complex relationships challenges the typical approach to companion animals as understood as a relationship limited by ones income or even residence. It also raises important questions of: can companion animals be homeless? Is there a moral obligation for animal right’s advocates to interfere and remove animals from these situations? I disagree whole heartedly preferring this phenomenon as an access point to understanding different relationships and spaces animals can occupy within the city, for example a shelter shared with humans. Recognizing both need care for in times of struggle is an opening of the compassion circle beyond speciesism and moves into rejecting classist notions and deeming particular people as more entitled to certain relationships. I value this as it presents an argument strong enough that we can better comprehend  co-existing with animals in an inclusive sense challenging these relationships as limited to a privileged group of people.


About Stephanie

My name is Stephanie and this began as a blog for a course about Feminist Animal Liberation/Rights (toggling between the two) and my first steps into critical animal studies. The class is complete but I am going to keep this blog to continue the conversation and document future thoughts. I am a MSc student at Concordia University in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment where I study concepts such as: pest animals, environmental governance, biopolitics, urban spaces, domination, invasive species ..etc.. all within the frameworks of feminism (this encompassess a LOT), anarchist principles, post-colonial studies, critical animal studies, veganism, political palates/food accessibility and critical geography. I hope to one day also study animals in the tourist industry (a major interest of mine, that I am sidelining for the time being) such as the now-famous albino squirrels in Toronto. A little bit more about me, I co-habit with the most beautiful ginger lion named Burzum and elderbull Clementine, they both teach me daily. I am an animal liberationist and social justice activist, and plan to one day start a feminist collective/bookstore/resource/sanctuary for all beings/ space with my favourite person Sonmin.
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One Response to strange places: finding companion animals in shelters and in cemeteries

  1. Pingback: ‘Modern Family’ episode filmed on iPhone | Herntelo Multi Media Latest World news

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