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Q & A with Teya Brooks Pribac, author of Enter the Animal

Photo of the heads of Teya and Orpheus-Pumpkin, the sheep. Teya is holding her book Enter the Animal with a photo of sheep's head on the cover. The book obscures most of Teya's head, leaving eyes and the arm visible.

Teya Brooks Pribac, PhD, is an independent scholar and multidisciplinary artist. In Enter the Animal, she examines academic and popular discourse on animals’ experiences of grief and spirituality. (Photo of Teya and Orpheus-Pumpkin from the author's archives).

What inspired your interest in nonhuman animal grief and spirituality?

Both topics were somewhat accidental. I wanted to learn more about the phenomenon of speciesism (oppression based on one’s species) and consequent calls for nonhuman animal liberation. I figured a formal research project would give me both the necessary focus and amplitude, and that hopefully at the end of it I would have attained more structured knowledge and a better understanding of the issues involved. I enrolled in a PhD program and settled on grief.

Then one day sitting in the paddock with my rescued sheep I found myself wondering whether they too encounter phenomena that their brains can’t automatically assimilate using existing mental patterns. I had been reading about this topic in relation to humans and the experience of awe. We normally process sensory stimuli quite automatically and ascribe it to a known category. For example, if you’re walking through a forest your brain will automatically recognise those tall things left and right as trees; you don’t have to stop and evaluate them to work out what they are. Sometimes we encounter things that don’t fit any known pattern, and that’s when we may experience awe. Given that other animals’ brains work in a similar way, as research suggests, it made sense to think that they can find themselves in situations that may lead to the experience of awe. So I started to think in that direction (not as part of my research initially).  

Teya, a woman wearing black t-shirt, dark trousers and white trainers is sitting in a woden chair surrounded by three sheep and a dog.
Teya and her non-human animal family. Photo by David Brooks.

The central focus of Enter the Animal is that nonhuman animals can experience grief and other abstract ‘human’ emotions. How did you come to this conclusion and what implications does it have for society moving forward? 

I found the whole thing a bit intimidating at first. Most of our (Western) thought-history is based on separation from other animals. Even when trying to work out whether other animals have something that we have (for example, basic consciousness or grief experiences) we have tended to begin with a focus on (assumed) differences. Added to this is the expectation, in academia, that one will know what anyone else has ever said on the topic, which is fair enough, but in most cases they too would have prioritised differences, or started with those, and then gotten lost a lot of the time, just like you are in danger of becoming lost in that world of abstraction and division – ‘reading yourself stupid’, as my partner would say, citing Schopenhauer – and of forgetting that what you’d set off to do is look for commonalities.

I was fortunate that by the time I began my research the wind of change had started to blow. In the past 10 years in particular, a lot has been done across disciplines to dismantle the myth of human exclusivism. For grief specifically, familiarising myself with attachment theory was critical. Attachment theory applies across species, and once we understand the potency of attachment relations we learn to appreciate the potential psycho-biological impact of loss for humans but also for other animals, certainly all mammals and birds, and probably more widely. This is the level that researchers of human grief are also trying to get to. We’ve been pulled too much into interpretative worlds. Human-style considerations can certainly add nuances to the experience, but the experience itself – grief and other subjective experiences – are possible because of organismic properties that we share with other animals, in short: because we are animals, not in spite of the fact that we are animals.

Implications for our human society? First, we all breathe a deep sigh of relief. Certainly it couldn’t have been pleasant for people to have to pretend that nonhuman animals are not sentient or that they didn’t know whether they were sentient. Failure to do so could have cost them jobs and reputations. Now that we are free of that burden we can at last turn to active explorations of ways of living that will minimise our impact on the rest of life, because, as Dr Ferdowsian, a medical doctor working with victims of violence, reminds us: if we tolerate violence towards any sentient being, none of us is safe. I think deep inside we all know this.

In Chapter 1 you mention the system justification theory in relation to the treatment of nonhuman animals, specifically within the meat industry. That because of the emergence of the ‘pasture to plate’ ethos, the continued physical and mental suffering of farmed animals can be glossed over and ignored. Do you think it’s possible to eat and enjoy meat while also truly caring about the wellbeing of nonhuman animals? 

I think we can get pretty close, but no, never quite there.

We live in a complex world; it is impossible for us to trace the impact of every single choice we make. We simply have to trust others to various extents. So we make compromises and try to minimise the risk of our trust being abused by remaining alert and informed. We can get a bit annoyed when someone points out that, for example, some brand we like is involved in unethical conduct. We’d prefer not to know – our first inclination may be to shoot the messenger – but what this person or group is really doing is helping us preserve our right to ‘not be a perpetrator’. This is a powerful concept that Boyer, Scotton and Wayne highlight and that we perhaps don’t think about often enough.

I believe that most of us are good people, we think of ourselves as moral, and we’d like to do the right thing. When it comes to doing the right thing in relation to other-than-human animals we have to overcome a major obstacle: we’ve been conditioned to think of them as inferior and as food, and our considerations of their wellbeing tend to reflect this bias. We rarely, for example, question our right to take their life.

Now that slaughter has been removed from public view, and we have the luxury to avoid witnessing it, we also rarely stop to consider what actually goes on at the slaughterhouse. We tend to think that things are regulated, that all is right. Thinking otherwise could hurt and make us feel powerless, but we are not powerless and things are not alright – they are not alright for the nonhumans killed and they are not alright for the human killers either; mounting evidence shows the huge psychological impact on these individuals and their entire communities. Taking the life of a sentient being is not as easy as taking a package containing their body parts off a supermarket shelf. 

Generally speaking, so-called animal husbandry (be it for meat, milk, eggs, wool, skins or other products) is first and foremost a business, it operates for profit. When animal wellbeing and profit clash (which is inevitable), profit will be prioritised.

We could envision an ‘ideal’ setting where animals would have plenty of space to roam free, enjoy good food, veterinary care and meaningful friendships with others. Surely, the animals would be happier here than on a typical contemporary farm, but we still end up killing them and killing is a violent act towards the individual killed and those who are left behind in grief. If we take nonhuman animals’ emotions seriously – and we should, because they are no less intense than ours – then no, there’s no way we can simultaneously care and kill. It’s also elitist and selfish. This practice would yield a very small amount of flesh and only a fraction of the human population would be able to afford it. In our world, where hunger and malnutrition run rampant and where clean water and air have become a privilege, we should concentrate our efforts on genuine, all-level sustainability, which is what true visionaries are already doing, and which normally excludes animal products.

Others have suggested that we should start hunting and consuming wild animals, that this would be more ethical. In this case too we’d have to find a way of justifying the emotional pain (grief etc.) our actions would cause, and given the number of wild animal left in the world, we’d probably eat them up within a day or so. This is another issue that most humans are unaware of, but of all the birds on the planet, only a third are wild birds, the rest are farmed (chickens, turkeys, etc.), and of all mammals living today only 5 percent are wild, 36 percent are human and 59 percent are farmed mammals (pigs, cows, sheep, etc.).

These are disturbing figures. We need a new master narrative. 

Another major takeaway from Enter the Animal is the concept that nonhuman animals are capable of spirituality. How do you define spirituality, and what is the value of recognising that nonhuman animals are/can be spiritual beings?  

I make a distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion includes a strong cognitive closure or interpretative component, whereas I view spirituality as an affective opening. It’s the capacity to communicate with agencies in our environment, where agent refers to anything that is able to ‘speak’ to us, that affects us, regardless of whether this thing has independent agency or not.

This is a more immediate, direct level of experience, of relating, that I believe comes very naturally to us animals because we are intrinsically relational creatures. We may not spend much time thinking about it but our bodies are in continuous communication with perceived agencies. From conception (and way before we are able to analyse any of this) we interact with them – the womb is not a vacuum, it’s full of sounds and other (organic and less organic) nutrients that will influence if and how we grow. Later on we develop the ability to think, imagine, contextualise and other cognitive manoeuvres, but despite all this we retain the capacity to be in the world and communicate with it on this implicit, immediate level.

I’m starting to believe that it’s a propensity, perhaps even a need, rather than just a capacity, that it has significant value for our psycho-physical wellbeing, and that forcing a sensory desert onto animals (either by confining them as we often do in captivity or by destroying the habitat of free-living animals) may be causing a lot more pain and damage than we realise.

When considering the ability of nonhuman animals to experience grief and spirituality, are all animals equal? And more broadly within animal rights, do you think some nonhuman animals do/should hold a privileged position over others? For example, should we care more about the wellbeing of dogs and chickens instead of spiders and bats?   

The term animal encompasses an array of species with a variety of capacities, most of which we are still learning about. What we have been discovering about plant life may also pose a challenge to this arbitrariness, but I don’t really see any of this as a problem, and I certainly see no reason to use it as an excuse to continue to consume everyone, as some humans are trying to do.

Life is fluid and there will always be liminal cases. One of the most amazing things about plants is their capacity for regeneration. There is regeneration in the animal world too, we all have that capacity – think of your skin – and in some animals this capacity is very pronounced: some can regenerate whole limbs and even heads, but that’s clearly not the case for those animals we consume and otherwise systematically exploit on a large scale.

Veganism is sometimes criticised for being too radical. Veganism and the entire animal rights movement in the West were a response to what humans were experiencing before the whole animal agriculture operation was removed from public view. There was a strong animal welfare movement in the 19th century here in Australia, the US and Europe, sprung out of compassion for pigs and hens and others that are very similar to humans in all sorts of ways and that were exploited specifically for human need and greed. Having a blanket ‘prohibition’ on the use of animals made more sense for what they were trying to achieve compared to sorting species into categories of (presumed) levels of sentience. The contemporary movement has inherited this framework and I still think it makes sense for practical reasons, but we’re also discovering amazing things about other animals, including invertebrates. Bees, for example, can be pessimistic or optimistic: when they are stressed, they are more likely to judge a neutral stimulus negatively and vice versa, just like we are.

In relation to grief and spirituality, I believe that the type of embodied spirituality that I talk about applies across animal species. Grief as the experience of loss in an intersubjective context may be more limited but we just don’t know. For a long time we considered reptiles as solitary, love-less, instinct-driven machines but now it turns out that they too make friends, look after each other’s children, etc. A lot of animals are very social creatures. I have no idea what goes on in an ant colony on a personal level (do Mary Ant and Jane Ant like each other or do they hang out together just because ...?), but why assume that nothing does?

I think we could do with a change of attitude for starters. We tend to view care and caring as a type of sacrifice and then set unnecessary limitations for ourselves and worry that the world is going to consume us if we open up to it a little bit more than some ‘authority’ at some point told us it was safe to do. In reality, caring is a gift we give to ourselves (along with the target receiver), and when we stop caring about the limits of caring, we may realise that we are not as poor as we’d thought we were.

Could you tell us about Henry, and your other non-human family members?

Cover of Enter the Animal featuring the face of Henry, the sheep.

Henry from the book cover is the oldest of our four rescued sheep; he’s about 11 years old. He’s always been very easy-going and playful but tends to get a little blue and pensive when it rains. That portrait was taken on a rainy day.

They all like eating leaves from trees and bushes; the other three sheep stand on their hind legs and compete to see who can reach higher. Henry has never mastered the technique of standing on two legs, but he’s developed his own tricks. For example, when he manages to grab the tip of a branch with his mouth (sometimes because someone else has pulled the branch down), he then very carefully slides it under his chin, and then starts moving his head slowly up the branch, eating the leaves on the way. Others eventually learnt this strategy from him and seem to really appreciate it, especially now that they are getting older, and while the spirit of adventure is still well and alive, the body is starting to lag behind.

These are currently the only (domestic) non-human animals living with us on a permanent basis. Charlie, our dog, passed away just over a year ago. You can learn more about all of us in The Grass Library. There is quite a bit of wildlife living here too: there’s a family of magpies, there’s a rabbit that comes to play with the sheep every day – the rabbit and Jason, one of our sheep, have a particularly close relationship; there are several generations of wood ducks, many of whom grew up here around our pond; a black snake residing in the swamp, among others. Then there’s the occasional temporary resident. The latest was Oscar, an orphaned baby goat a Sydney family found abandoned on their trip through the outback in the first week of the new year. We looked after him for a few days, then a sanctuary offered him a permanent home. It was incredibly hard to let him go but in the long run it was the best thing for him.

A photo of a paddock with Teya walking, a small white dog is jumping in front of her. She is surrounded by three sheep.
Teja and her nonhuman animal family. Photo by David Brooks.