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Choreographing human-companion animal relationships: Structures, discourse & agency

Zoei Sutton
Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, with over 63% of households including at least one species of companion animal. These relationships have been linked to many benefits for humans—from better health outcomes, to social lubrication, and a constant source of unconditional love: valuable in a world otherwise known for fragile social bonds. However, for the thousands of rejected animal companions displaced and/or euthanised each year, relationships with humans can be far from positive. Existing scholarship highlights a need for research that better captures the complexities of creating and maintaining these relationships, which are often neither wholly ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. This thesis seeks to address this, in part, by creating space for nonhuman participation in an attempt to render elements of their lived experience visible, and move away from research that solely privileges the human participants’ voices.  Drawing on 30 qualitative interviews and in-home observations of humans and ‘their’ animal companions, this thesis argues that human-companion animal relationships are inescapably based an asymmetrical division of power, but are socio-spatially constructed in a way that makes them appear otherwise. Extending the scope of the research to include non-canine species highlights the manner in which animals ‘become’ pet, and the extent to which relations with companion animals are shaped by external ideas around species and petness. Through intentional de-centring of the human within the household, and creating space for animal agency, human participants demonstrated some capacity to resist anthropocentric approaches to pet keeping. But, whilst these measures undoubtedly impact on the material reality of ‘their’ companions, they do not extend so far as to challenge broader anthroparchal structures, which consistently position human interests as paramount over those of the environment and other animals. I argue that by examining human-companion animal relationships through a critical, socio-spatial lens, we arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the asymmetrical power dynamic and navigations of inter-species relations. Furthermore, this approach facilitates the critical analysis of companion animals’ lived experiences, moving beyond the affective gaze of the human to look at the broader material conditions which are crucial to understanding these complex and often contradictory relationships.
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