Thursday, May 9, 2013

Forging a path in animal welfare studies: an interview with Suzy Thomson

Suzi Thomson (not related to interviewee Owen Thomson, although of all the blogs in the known universe, isn't it bizarro that two people with matching surnames were interviewed in the same week) worked with the University of Sydney to tailor a unique study program as she works toward a career in shelter management. 

Tell us a bit about yourself?

In February '06 while I was living in Montreal during a year of aimless travelling through North America, it simply dawned on me one evening that a career in animal welfare was perfect for me. The sensation was both revelation and a groaning 'duh'. I had always wanted to work with animals (as a child I wanted to be a vet and as a teenager, a marine biologist), but somehow I had lost that somewhere along the way. When I came back to Australia later that year I first volunteered and then later worked at the local shelter as an animal attendant. I loved that job even though it was mostly about poo.

But I hated seeing animals put down that I felt were rehomed-able and I was unimpressed by the attitudes of management (towards a lot of things). After several months, I nearly quit, disheartened. Instead I decided that as I was sure I could do better than they, and from that point on have been working towards gaining skills I felt would be appropriate for a shelter manager.

You are interested in animal welfare. What about the welfare of animals really fires you up?

Umm. J'accuse. I don't know. Honestly. Where do I begin? I probably should just not begin.

The first offence I experienced was made by my fifth grade teacher 'correcting' us that grammatically animals are 'its' rather than 'he's’ and 'she's’. I'm still not over it (I am also, still really bad at grammar). The place of animals as 'things' rather than 'beings'. The slow and begrudging way which science and society have moved on this.

I find it absurd that Darwin's theory of evolution was taken up so fervently but for so long the fact that this theory actually makes us a kind of animal, sharing many attributes with other species, and they with us, was glossed over.

That there has been a burden of proof to show that animals do possess similar qualities to humans such as sensitivity to pain or emotion or intelligence seems to be the default position. In light of Darwin's theory, I cannot see why. The man himself said that we differ in degree rather than in kind. 

Even when these capacities in animals are accepted which they now mostly are, we are still subject to rather offensive arguments the 'degree' of capacity and the consequent 'value' of the animal in question, tied in with a justification to harm. How many times must I hear that it is okay to do (some degree of) harm an animal based on the fact that it is less intelligent than a person? But ask if it's okay for an intelligent person to apply the same (mis)treatment to a person of less intelligence and all of a sudden the response changes. The principle involved in the question is the same. Superior intelligence is either an excuse for mistreatment or it is not. In a logical moral argument it cannot be applied contextually.

The excuses made about 'necessity' of use in, agriculture, medical research and so forth. When a moral position is claimed that we must (injuriously) test on animals to achieve medical advances to benefit people, I get super tooshy-la-la. To hurt animals, who stand no chance of benefiting from the testing which is performed upon them, to (prospectively) help a separate (already privileged) group…how is that a moral argument? You hurt one group to help out another. That's not moral, that's an 'ism'. 

And it really offends me that people have the consumer choice to choose products with very low levels of welfare. In short, everything offends me.

When you enrolled in your current program there wasn't anything that really fit your requirements. How did you carve your current path and where is it heading?

Yeah, there was no degree and also no clear path, so I have attempted to make it up! I approached various universities enquiring about any potential options. Most proved a dead end, but Clive Phillips at UQ was kind and helpful, offering a potential honours program. However, after meeting Jann Merchant (vet science post-grad coordinator at USyd) I eventually chose Sydney. Thanks to her efforts to provide a degree program for my apparently obscure chosen career path, I have managed to find a place in an excellent, broadranging degree at Sydney where I have basically been given the freedom to study whatever interests me.

In terms of career moves in my attempts to 'construct' myself a path towards shelter management, I have sought out professional skills I thought were relevant. At the time I had decided to pursue it I was already working as an animal attendant, but no-one learns much in these types of roles and so I went off to qualify as a vet nurse to give me basic medical knowledge and then went onto an administrative role (at Sydney Uni's Vet Teaching Hospital). This has probably given me the qualifications for an assistant shelter management position but these positions don't seem to turn up much, although straight out management ones do. Slightly frustratingly, I am now stuck in the notorious management paradox, where I need management experience to get my first management job. To get over the hurdle, I'm now considering applying for a volunteer position as a shelter manager overseas (such as a 6 month stint at Thailand's Baan Unraak shelter) in order to get the management experience I need.

So, I hope my current path is heading me towards shelter management…but like other aspects of life, it's a bumpy road and it may have a fork or two in it.

Can you tell us about any animals in your life (or experiences) that influenced you to pursue this path?

Baby, I was born this way, just took me 25 years to figure it out.

Any suggestions as to how we could all do welfare better?

I think everyone knows something they could do better, just make the choice to do it, whatever seems manageable. Start small, go from there.


  1. Wow Suzy, that's awesome.
    I am really in awe of your dedication, especially in creating a career path! particularly one that is so important, but thankless in many respects (and incredibly fulfilling in many others).
    I've kinda made up mine but not really. Trying to get into wildlife conservation as a vet has turned out to be more difficult than I had originally expected as the two don't really mesh much (?#)#*%* I don't know why either), but after many abortive starts - am sorta kinda on my way too.
    Well done!

    1. Thanks Esther! Good luck with wildlife conservation --- when it doesn't work out like you planned please know that you're not alone - I'm here in the same boat with you! And then just keep bloody trying...there are many failures on that twisty road to success. Suzi


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