Bernard Unti is an historian of the human-animal bond and the senior policy adviser and special assistant to the CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. He recently took the time to answer some questions for me about some of his research and the role that historical research has had and can have for the animal protection movement.
An Interview with Dr. Bernard Unti
What would you say about the importance of research for the animal protection movement? Is it becoming more or less important?
Research is of paramount importance in our current stage of development as a movement, and crucial for a host of goals and objectives. The complexity and scope of certain issues, the necessity for accurate, elegant, and nuanced analysis and discussion, and the high stakes of contemporary debates on animals and their status and treatment all demand more of us in respect to research.
You have a Ph.D. in history and in your research you have studied various aspects of the animal protection movement dating back as far as 1865. How is understanding the history of animal protection beneficial for the animal protection movement?
I grew up with parents involved with the struggles for integration, civil liberties, and the environment for forty years, and they set a premium on intelligent discussion and reflection about those causes and their underpinnings. One of my first history papers in 1976 was about the preservation of hiking pathways in Pennsylvania, an active focus of my father’s during the 1970s. I discovered that the drive to preserve the Appalachian Trail corridor in Pennsylvania was rooted in longstanding debates over preservation, land use, and recreation.
So it was natural for me to go looking for the history of thought and action for animals when I got involved in animal protection in the mid-1980s, and I started haunting rare book shows, antiquarian bookstores, and flea markets in an effort to recover the humane movement’s history, which was mostly forgotten or poorly understood. I strongly believe that history can speak to the present, illuminate and guide our forward progress, and provide crucial insights. A useable past is a source of great inspiration and empowerment. I am proud of my own contributions in this area, and grateful to the friends and colleagues who encouraged and supported me.
You wrote a history of The Humane Society of the United States, Protecting all Animals. Are there other histories of animal protection organizations in the United States? Do you feel it is important for organizations to keep accurate histories?
I’m pleased to see how many organizations are writing up and speaking about their history, and among national organizations, the ASPCA has produced a work of history that is comparable to mine regarding The HSUS. Then there are examples like that of the Animal Welfare Institute, which made available the first fifty years of its journal, which is a tremendous resource. There are a number of professional historians writing about the major organizations, and I am working on a revised edition of Protecting All Animals, and another book about the movement’s early history. I help two or three groups every year with their efforts to secure and make public their institutional archives and records, and within Humane Society University, at The HSUS, we are embarking on a major digital asset archive that will make many important resources available once more. We need to encourage such projects, because they help to create a clear understanding of how change occurs. I have seen instances where targeted institutions cast their evolution in triumphalist terms, without mentioning that the reforms involved came about as a result of a pressure campaign waged by a social movement organization. It’s bad if people don’t have an appreciation of the true drivers of change in a pluralist society.
Please provide an example of how historical understanding of an issue was integrated into your campaigns/programs.
Speaking only to the impact of my own scholarship on the work of The HSUS, the case is pretty strong for the value of history. My Ph.D. work on the origins of the field demonstrated that the undercurrents of cultural change in regard to animals go back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that the humane movement effectively formalized these values. It did not invent them, for they are deeply embedded within our culture.
In Protecting All Animals, my history of The HSUS, I sought to revive the memory of the founding generation, especially Fred Myers, and cast a spotlight on the incredible vision they exhibited for an organization that would tackle the major forms of institutionalized cruelty. I put these far-sighted advocates back onto the map. They shared an inspired vision of a strong, national organization, supported by millions of individuals, and active in public policy, education, investigation, and direct care, that would go after every form of cruelty, wherever and whenever necessary. From that perspective, today’s HSUS, which is so highly focused on puppy mills, the fur trade, factory farming, and other enterprises causing harm to animals, is doing precisely what they would have wanted. We continue to benefit from the surviving essays and speeches of our founders, people like Myers and Robert Chenoweth, which have provided great inspiration and clarity to our senior staff.
The re-articulation of The HSUS’s founding vision in Protecting All Animals was also timely because for five years now, The HSUS has been the subjects of a withering brand attack from a disgusting man, Richard Berman, whose accusations and claims are, to the fullest degree, historically misinformed and misguided. I think it’s fair to say that my work has powerfully shaped the contemporary representational narratives of The HSUS.
Finally, my research has shaped the level of attention and energy The HSUS devotes to the institutionalization of humane concerns within higher education and in particular the fields of veterinary medicine, social work, and education. Whatever good it accomplished, history reveals that the humane movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries failed in its efforts to inscribe its concerns within these disciplines. The diminution of interest concerning the movement in these circles helps to explain how little progress ensued during the middle decades of the twentieth century. We’re making substantial efforts and investments to embed our concerns in a permanent way within veterinary medicine, social work, and higher education now.
You also teach a Humane Education class at Humane Society University. What is the importance of Humane Education in advancing the animal protection movement?
I have taught Humane Education and I wrote an article about it with Bill DeRosa for the State of the Animals series some years ago that is cited a lot and of which I remain proud. It was both history and an assessment of the field as we saw it about ten years ago. I am a great believer in Humane Education, but unfortunately, for various reasons, it’s not getting the resources it should in the current moment. Humane societies under tight budgetary restrictions have a hard time funding the programs. There are some research-based challenges, too. We need more validation studies because in fact, we lack sufficient evidence that humane education actually works. We take it as a faith principle for the most part. That’s true for me and I have a plain opinion on the matter. Every SPCA should have an educator, every major organization should have a coordinator. We all think that humane education is great, but the animal protection movement does not make the necessary investments. There are endowed chairs in veterinary schools in humane ethics. Bob Barker has given millions to law schools for animal law programs. When is the big grant for humane education coming around?
Does the perception of your work as a form of “engaged scholarship” limit or qualify its impact in professional contexts?
I don’t worry greatly about that nowadays because the topic of animal studies is quite normalized within academic contexts and because the notion of scholarly objectivity has become both problematic and dubious these days. I do believe in dispassionate tone and analysis, however. When I wrote my dissertation on nineteenth century animal protection, I went after interpretations of the movement that I thought were hostile, unflattering, or unfair, and I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it. The standing interpretation of the movement in the period I studied is much closer to my view now, so I can afford to be more graceful about it! I don’t bend the historical facts, I interpret them, and I am confident that my work meets the professional standards of my discipline, U.S. History. It’s natural for people to take on the study of topics in which they have a personal interest, and in my presentations I usually describe the manner in which I came to the study of the humane movement’s history, because I think my work provides an interesting example of scholarly drive and problem-solving, given the challenges of identifying and using sources, the placement of animal protection within the broader framework of social reform in the United States, and the treatment of a subject of continuing evolution and discussion – the status and treatment of animals.