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  • Between Species: Science and Subjectivity
  • Barbara Smuts (bio)

Every now and then, I look deep into my dogs’ eyes and ask, “Who are you?” Usually the answer is a tail wag or a pointed glance at the cookie jar. But every now and then, they will get serious and stare back at me intently, as if to say, “Well, who are you?”

Perhaps my dogs have been conferring with Donna Haraway, who understands that “Beings do not pre-exist their relatings.”1 Safi, Bahati, and Tex are who they are because of who I am, and conversely, I am who I am because of them. Our relationships are a perpetual improvisational dance,2 co-created and emergent, simultaneously reflecting who we are and bringing into being who we will become. As Donna describes in her essay “Encounters with Companion Species: Entangling Dogs, Baboons, Philosophers, and Biologists” in this volume, how I think about social relationships, both within and between species, began to change during my fieldwork with wild chimpanzees, dolphins, and especially baboons.3 Living [End Page 115] with these animals, I discovered acutely sensitive social beings who would form trusting relationships with humans when approached with humility and respect.4 Subsequently, I took a break from field-work, adopted a dog, Safi, and became intrigued by the relationships she developed with other dogs. Eventually, my students and I systematically examined social relationships among dogs by analyzing hundreds of hours of videotaped interactions among local dogs, including my own.5 Subsequently, I adopted two more dogs, and research on these dogs and others continues.

Although my research on dogs resembles the work I and many others have conducted on wild animals (e.g., similar theoretical underpinnings and ways of collecting and analyzing data), it differs radically from field research in one important way: I have close personal relationships with many of the dogs we observe, including, of course, with my own. This puts me (and my students, whose dogs also participate in the research) in the unusual position of experiencing our subjects in two very different ways: from the “outside, objective” perspective of a scientist, and the “inside, subjective” perspective of a human interacting daily with beloved companions.

In Western culture, the “objective” and “subjective” perspectives are viewed as different and often competing approaches to determining what is real and true.6 Ever since I began studying animal social behavior, however, I have wondered what might happen if we reconfigured this rigid demarcation. In particular, I am interested in how intersubjective experiences (i.e., experiences arising through interactions between subjects) might inform the study of social relationships, and how the scientific study of social relationships might influence the way we think about our interactions with others and thereby alter intersubjective experience. Here, I will focus on the latter [End Page 116] direction of influence; I address the former elsewhere.7 I begin by illustrating how general knowledge of canine behavior and specific observations of my dog, Safi, helped me to understand and nurture my relationship with her.

Safi was the first dog I adopted after living with wild animals. I assumed that she, like the wild animals I’d studied, was an acutely sensitive social being capable of sharing communication with a human. I approached Safi as a wise and innovative co-creator of our relationship. I did not think of myself as her owner or “master,” and I assumed that when resolving differences, we would meet halfway, rather than expecting her to always do what I wanted. I envisioned our relationship unfolding spontaneously, with minimal predetermined constraints or expectations. Although I wasn’t sure exactly how to do this, it didn’t matter, because Safi showed the way.

When we first met, Safi was an eight-month-old German Shepherd mix, a physically imposing animal with thick, black fur, erect ears, and a powerful, muscular body heading toward an adult weight of eighty-five pounds. From the beginning, everyone who met her, canine and human, seemed to experience her as an exceptionally compelling presence—the sort of being who makes heads turn wherever she goes. She also possessed a strong will and a confident and adaptable personality.

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pp. 115-126
Launched on MUSE
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