Animals. Sometimes we consider them our best friends and other times we experiment on them, mass produce them for food, use them for entertainment, and encroach on their habitats.

This “dualism” will be the topic of the 29th Brown Symposium to be held at Southwestern University March 5-6. The symposium is titled “Who Do We Think We Are?!”

“We have a tendency to look upon animals as ‘them’ and humans as ‘us,’” says conference organizer Laura Hobgood-Oster, chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Southwestern. “But in reality we are all animals and all inexorably interconnected.”

Hobgood-Oster says the conference will take a new look at our relationship with animals from a variety of perspectives, including the scientific, legal, ethical and religious.

She says the conference topic is timely because of our growing reliance on mass-produced animals for food. Most of the livestock and poultry we eat today are raised in confined feedlots or tiny cages known as CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. “Factory farming is arguably the cruelest interaction humans have had with animals,” Hobgood-Oster says.

Human actions such as logging and overfishing also are contributing to the extinction of many animal species. According to the World Conservation Union, human actions are causing animal species to become extinct at a rate 100 to 1,000 times greater than normal.

In addition, more than 1 million animals a year (excluding rats and mice) are used for research in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In many cases, these animals are subjected to pain without adequate pain relief. Hobgood-Oster notes that much of this research is for cosmetic purposes, not medical research.

Speakers participating in the symposium include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker; Marc Bekoff, a professor of biology at the University of Colorado – Boulder and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; Ines Talamantez, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Paul Waldau, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Tufts has the only veterinary school in the country that does not do research on live animals unless they are already sick or injured.

Although best known for her novels such as The Color Purple, many of Walker’s recent essays address the relationship between humans and other species. Her presentation is titled “An Afternoon with Alice Walker.”

Bekoff, who is the author of a forthcoming book titled The Emotional Lives of Animals, will give a talk titled “Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues: Happy Hounds, Pissy Baboons and Ecstatic Elephants.”

Talamantez, who focuses on nature and animals in Native American traditions, will give a talk titled “This Is Who I Am: Blessing and Curse.”

Waldau specializes in the comparative study of religion and animals as well as legal systems and their evolving view of animals. He will conclude the symposium with a talk titled “A Species of Humility – The Animal Invitation to Be Our Fuller Selves.”

The symposium also will include an art exhibition organized by Southwestern University Professor of Art Star Varner. The exhibition is titled “Measured Strokes, Spontaneous Beasts: Paintings by Sarah Canright and Melissa W. Miller.” Canright and Miller are nationally acclaimed artists whose works have been in prestigious museum exhibitions and have garnered attention from the most influential art critics and publications including The New York Times, Art in America and Art Forum. Canright turns her intense observation of her dog’s momentary gestures into serene, contemplative paintings of elegant lines and minimal color that create a sense of timelessness. In Miller’s allegorical paintings, natural, supernatural and anthropomorphic animals function as metaphors for human relationships and situations.

Also, on the evening of March 5, there will be a viewing of a 2002 documentary by Sarita Siegel titled “The Disenchanted Forest.” The documentary focuses on orphaned orangutans that are rehabilitated and returned to their rainforest home in Borneo. Hundreds of orangutans in southeast Asia have been threatened by the destruction of their habitat and the illegal pet trade. The film will be shown at 9 p.m. in Olin 105.

“I hope this symposium will remind us that, while we are different from other animal species, that does mean that humans have the right to destroy them or to use them in inhumane ways,” Hobgood-Oster says. “Rather, we need to learn how we can live with them and learn from them.”

The symposium is free and open to the public. All the lectures will be held in the Corbin J. Robertson Center. For more information, visit or call 512-863-1669.


Related News & Events