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ASU researcher on rules to guide human interaction with animals

Three adult elephants in a natural habitat.

Photo courtesy Pixabay

December 08, 2022

Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day. By design, it is also International Animal Rights Day.

Animal welfare is a lifelong concern for Megha Budruk, an Arizona State University natural resource social scientist who studies human relationships with nature.

The associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development said she is interested in what unwritten rules exist when humans interact with nature, and what guidelines people should follow to make sure animals are not adversely affected by that interaction.

“How do perceptions of these rules vary by level of experience, region or socio-demographics such as income, education and gender? These are the kinds of questions that I am interested in,” said Budruk, who is also associate dean for faculty affairs at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

According to the National Today website, on Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many organizations and individuals worldwide began advocating for the declaration to apply to animals, National Today said. Exactly 50 years later, on Dec. 10, 1998, an animal rights organization known as Uncaged launched International Animal Rights Day on the premise that humans must “protest, vote or advocate” for animal protection, as animals themselves are unable to do so, according to National Today.

Read on to learn more about Budruk’s background and perspective on her research as the world marks International Animal Rights Day on Saturday.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length or clarity.

Question: How did you become interested in this topic?

Answer: I have always been interested in animals and nature. I grew up in West Africa with a neighbor that had a menagerie of animals in their backyard. I could look out of my bedroom window and watch lion cubs playing in their enclosure or the peacock dancing away in the garden. Occasionally, our neighbor would have an African python tucked up against the wall in her living room. These early and up-close experiences with animals, along with an upbringing that valued nature for its own sake, taught me to view animals as sentient beings. People like Joy Adamson and Dian Fossey, who dedicated their lives to animals, have always inspired me. A few years ago, I was back in Africa on an ASU project and was touring a national park when I struck up a conversation with a pair of wildlife photographers from India who led wildlife photography tours to East Africa. They were nature photographers, but they were smoking in a national park! That conversation made me aware that wildlife photography is growing in popularity in India, and got me interested in what guides people’s behavior in nature during non-extractive activities like photography.

Q: Please share one of your most interesting findings.

A: I am still in the midst of data collection; however, in the process of background research on my study and in talking with wildlife photographers, I was surprised to learn that India has one of the world’s largest number of wildlife photographers (both amateur and professional) with the result that both Nikon and Canon are holding numerous wildlife photography competitions and heavily marketing their products in India.

So while wildlife photography as a hobby and profession is booming in India, there are very few guidelines regarding appropriate behavior when photographing animals. Oftentimes (and not just in India), nests are destroyed, babies and young are disturbed, or sensitive habitats are trampled on in the quest for that perfect photograph.

As I study human relationships with nature, I know the importance of having people experience nature firsthand if we are to get people to care for nature. Yet, on the flip side, human experiences with nature need to happen in a way that humans view animals, and by extension nature, as having rights. This is especially important since animals (nature) do not have a voice.

Q: What impact has International Animal Rights Day had on animal cruelty since the day was established in 1998?

Megha Budruk, associate professor, associate dean, School of Community Resources and Development, Watts College

Megha Budruk, associate dean, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and associate professor, ASU School of Community Resources and Development

A: Most certainly, the establishment of the day has resulted in a greater awareness and discussion that rights historically considered to be “human rights” might well be extended to animals; for example, the right to be treated with dignity and without unnecessary pain and suffering. This has also led to debates on what exactly those rights are and how they affect humans. These debates have implications for many aspects of our lives, including our food, entertainment, medicine and clothing.

Q: What are some actions people can take to advocate for animals/make the world a better place for animals?

A: There is a lot that we can do at an individual level. In the realm of nature-based tourism experiences, I would highly encourage individuals to research wildlife viewing opportunities to ensure that any interactions with animals are not placing the animals in harm’s way.

For instance, elephant rides, although popular among tourists in Asian countries, often occur at the expense of the well-being of the elephants. Instead, up-close encounters with elephants can be had by volunteering at an elephant preserve. Doing so provides an opportunity to contribute to animal welfare rather than being part of the problem.

Similarly, buying animal products that have been certified as not harming an animal ensures that one is part of the solution. Refusing to buy animal products such as ivory or rhino horn (which has more than likely resulted in the death of an animal) is another way that one can advocate for animals. When photographing animals, or experiencing them in nature, doing so in a way that animals and their habitat are not adversely impacted will help tremendously.