Rethinking our relationship with animals

Claire Parkinson, Professor of Culture, Communication and Screen Studies and Co-Director of the Centre for Human Animal Studies

Our relationship with animals goes back thousands of years, with the use of animals as food, companions, workers, entertainers and experimental subjects an integral part of human life.

 Professor Claire Parkinson has spent the past two decades studying the social and cultural importance of animals, bringing together approaches from media, communications, cultural studies and critical animal studies, to produce unique research that is contributing to the way we view and treat animals.

“The work on anthropomorphism has had an impact on advocacy messaging, particularly regarding chickens and aquatic animals, who are killed in the largest numbers, yet are typically harder to evoke public sympathy for.”

Claire Parkinson, Professor of Culture, Communication and Screen Studies and Co-Director of the Centre for Human Animal Studies

Animals as humans

Anthropomorphism, the attributing of human characteristics and emotions to other species, is a well-established theme in popular culture, from Disney characters to the animals in nature programmes.

Professor Parkinson’s research found that anthropomorphism can lead to misunderstandings about species but can also be used by campaigners to develop empathetic connections with animals. As a result, she advised media company Planet Shine, her research was used to inform several promotional films for The Vegan Society, Quorn, and Silentnight, and influenced the marketing and campaign strategies of many other organisations.

Animals as food

Vegan practices have mainstreamed in the UK in recent years but it is still unclear what the best messages are to encourage non-vegans to switch to veganism.

Using her work on anthropomorphism and consumption practices as a base, Professor Parkinson worked with The Vegan Society on an 18-month project, Pathways to Veganism, which looked at the need for clarity around vegan messaging in order to support a transition to veganism.

The study found that non-vegans were more receptive to vegan messages about health and the environment than animal ethics and that family dynamics play a major role in sustaining a vegan lifestyle. Non-vegans also identified with anthropomorphised parent-child animal images and actively disengaged from distressing animal imagery or pro-vegan messages designed to make them feel guilty.

Through her work with The Vegan Society, Professor Parkinson has informed the campaign strategies of numerous businesses, charities and advocacy groups who need to successfully communicate vegan messages to non-vegan audiences. Her recommendations, including incorporating forms of anthropomorphism in messaging, were also used to create a toolkit for advocacy groups and campaigners.

“The ‘Future Normal’ campaign achieved our objective of reaching those who considered themselves to be animal lovers but are not yet vegan, with messages of empathy and compassion. Our campaign film had almost two million views and the website received 78,000 unique visitors during the two months of live activity.”

Research Officer, The Vegan Society

Animals as danger

In the 1980s and 90s, ‘dangerous dogs’ were all over the media, with certain breeds such as Pitbull Terriers and Staffordshire Terriers, regularly reported as the main offenders.

The media storm around ‘dangerous dogs’ reached a peak in 1991 with the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act, making it illegal to breed or own four types of dog in the UK. However, since the legislation came into force, injury and fatality rates from dog attacks have actually increased.

Professor Parkinson has been researching public perceptions of dangerous dogs, dog behaviour and dog risk since 2004 and conducted the first study into media coverage of dog attacks. She claims that ‘stock’ images of dogs used by the media and the government are ambiguous and stigmatise not only certain breeds, but also particular sections of society.

In 2018, she submitted written evidence to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Dangerous Dogs: Breed Specific Legislation Enquiry, which outlined how the legislation was problematic and ineffective. Several of Professor Parkinson’s recommendations were included in the final committee report which led to new government plans to educate children and dog owners and communicate with the public about dog risk.

Our research means that…

People are more aware of issues relating to food and companion animals, as well as those used in exhibitions and entertainment.

Business, charities and advocacy groups have research-based recommendations to inform behaviour change campaigns, particularly around messages targeting non-vegans.

The UK government will develop action plans regarding public education and information about dog safety.

Find out more about Claire Parkinson's research by viewing her profile on Pure
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