From an Animal Shelter Towards a Professorship in Anthrozoology: An Unusual Career Path
Marie-Jose Enders-Slegers, PhD, is a professor in anthrozoology at the Faculty of Psychology, Open University Heerlen, the Netherlands. She is a clinical and health psychologist, and her field of interest is the humananimal bond and animal-assisted interventions in health care and education. She is currently serving as the President of IAHAIO—International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organizations.
It never ever crossed my mind that I would eventually have a career as a professor in anthrozoology—yet, at 68 years of age, that is exactly what happened. I’m still very grateful for this opportunity, and thankful to the open mind of the dean and rector of the Open University in the Netherlands and the organization AAIZOO (Animal Assisted Interventions in Care, Research and Education) that created an endowed chair position.
Born in 1945, and growing up in a family with six children, it was not at all natural or expected that I would go to a gymnasium (preparatory high school). Yet, that is what I wanted to do. I was the oldest, a girl, and destined to help my mother in the household. It would be my two brothers who would have the chance to study. In those days, where I am from, men were expected to achieve outside the home, while women were expected to become mothers and spouses—so advanced education for women was not necessary. And yes, after attending a school (lyceum) for girls, I learned how to run a household and took some beginning level jobs (as a dental assistant, an assistant in a language laboratory, a secretary in a psychiatric hospital and a secretary of the Director in a general hospital). I worked at these jobs until I met my husband, a medical doctor, and married at the age of 24. My life then was all about marriage, raising my three children and assisting my husband in his office, day and night. My family also consisted of two dogs, three cats, two horses and chickens. We had a very busy social life, yet, for me, my life was not satisfying; I was not happy with the limited roles I was asked to play. I wanted to be more than the wife of, the mother of, the assistant of—I wanted to be myself.
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When I was 40 I changed my life. I passed exams to be admitted to a university and since there was a huge problem of stray dogs in my village, I founded a shelter for abandoned animals. I enjoyed studying clinical and health psychology and excelled, although my life at that time was extremely challenging as I worked to keep all the different balls in the air: taking care of the family, helping in the medical practice of my husband, fulfilling social duties, working in the shelter as chair and as volunteer, and studying. Yet, I was drawn to do even more. Being in the shelter and experiencing the sad animals and the grief and sorrow of the elderly people who had to abandon these animals broke my heart. It drove me to get involved in the Regional Animal Protection Movement—first by becoming a board member and later president of the National Animal Protection Movement—working to implement changes in animal shelters and in the way we treat animals.
I managed to get my drs. (masters) degree in 1990 and was immediately appointed at the University of Utrecht. I had to promise that 1 would continue towards a PhD, however, in my own time, alongside my work as assistant professor. This I did, and I chose to research the influence of dogs and cats on the quality of life of the elderly. Having experienced in the shelter how the forced abandonment of pets impacted the elderly who had to move to a home for the elderly or a nursing home, drove my desire to investigate the meaning of pets for the elderly and try to bring about some change. That was quite a challenge. The topic I wanted to study was not taken seriously. Only one professor, Dr. M. van Son, my supervisor, believed in the value of my research. My colleagues, at times, spoke disparaging about my research, ‘Studying the human-animal bond, is that science?’
During the ten years that I worked on my thesis (in my free time) I attended nearly all conferences of ISAZ (International Society of Anthro-zoology), became a board member of the American Humane Association (two terms) and participated in IAHAIO (International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organizations) Conferences. All of these experiences broadened my vision about what was happening in the world in the field of human-animal interactions/bond (HAI/B). It was great to meet and work with so many bright people, passionate about our field, all of whom were working hard to establish a solid body of HAI/B knowledge. One key lesson I learned was that only by transparency, sharing and working together (researchers and practitioners) can we enhance and strengthen the field, a message I express as the current president of IAHAIO.
In addition, I founded organizations in the Netherlands to professionalize the field, to address the link between animal abuse and domestic violence, and help support the development of researchers and professionals in the field. In 2013 I started to work as a professor at the Open University; Faculty Psychology, and I currently supervise 12 PhD students—all working in the marvelous field of anthrozoology.
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This career path has been (and still is) a life of hard work and long days (often 7am to 9pm). however, it brings me so much pleasure and satisfaction. It is a great reward to witness, at the end of my career, the success of my endeavors and see my research taken seriously—thereby fostering positive changes for the well-being of both people and animals.