An HAI Love Story: A Couple Collaborates as Teachers and Researchers Exploring Our Connection to Animals

Dieter and Netzin Steklis

Dieter Steklis, PhD, is a professor in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences at the University of Arizona, with an affiliated faculty appointment in psychology, Program in Ethology and Evolutionary Psychology. Dieter has also held several leadership positions in the private not-for-profit sector and conducts research (in collaboration with his wife Netzin Steklis) on mountain gorilla behavior and conservation.

Netzin Steklis, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences at the University of Arizona. Netzin has studied a variety of nonhuman primates in captive and wild settings, in particular the ecology, social behavior, and conservation of wild mountain gorillas in Rwanda. She has co-developed and teaches courses with her husband (Dr. H. Dieter Steklis), including Human and Animal Interrelationships, animal ethology and ethics, and primate captive management and welfare.

This is a story of a scientist couple brought together by their love of animals. Our complementary backgrounds and professional training make us a strong multidisciplinary couple. Netzin has degrees and training in anthropology, biology and primatology, ecology and evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology. Dieter’s degrees and training comprise biological anthropology; primatology, comparative anatomy, behavioral biology, and neurobiology. We pursued primatology independently, with both of us studying primates in the wild, and Dieter adding considerable experimental laboratory work (hormone and neurobiological studies) working with several monkey species. It’s no accident that we met at a primatology conference and sealed our destiny together.

Our long-term, shared interests in animals naturally led us to our present involvement in the HAI (human-animal interaction) field. Although each of us concentrated on primate research, we explored the interdisciplinary aspects of primatology—animal behavior, ecology, and evolutionary-comparative studies (traditionally known as ethology) of a variety of mammals. The HAI

54 Dieter and Netzin Steklis field by its nature is interdisciplinary, attracting scientists from diverse disciplines (e.g., clinical psychology, animal behavior, zoology, anthropology) to form collaborative research teams. This realization led to our founding in 2014 of the Human-Animal Interaction Research Initiative (HAIRI) at the University of Arizona as a way to attract students and faculty from different university departments to collaborate on HAI research.

Our group’s HAI research projects cover a broad range of topics. For brevity; we’ll describe the projects in terms of questions each project tries to answer. For example: Does dog ownership among the elderly lower inflammation and improve health? Do therapy' dog visits to an Intensive Care Unit reduce stress among nursing staff? How has our long evolutionary history' together with both domesticated and wild animals shaped our psychology and theirs? Are human attitudes and feelings toward other animals predictable from human personality or do they comprise a distinct component of human psychology? Each of these projects brings together experts from several disciplines.

We are professors at the University' of Arizona, which means that a good portion of each day is spent teaching; the rest is spent working with students and faculty colleagues on our research projects. We are fortunate in that we have been able to design our own courses and co-teach them as a couple. For example, we built an introductory level course called “Human and Animal Interrelationships” that covers the history of the myriad relationships between humans and various nonhuman animal species and how particular kinds of human-animal relationships (e.g., domesticated, prey, predator, pets) have over time changed both humans and animals biologically', psychologically, and culturally'. We stress how certain domesticated animals, such as dogs and horses, crucially influenced the course of human evolution and the course of civilization.

Importantly', our teaching and scholarship is driven by our passion for understanding and working with animals, and so we take every opportunity' to spend time observing and studying animals. At home, this includes our own animals (which over the years have included dogs, horses, chickens, cockatiels, hamsters, and chameleons), but we also get away' frequently to observe and study' wild animals, such as monkeys, chimps, and gorillas in Rwanda, Africa, as well as wolves and ravens. These experiences refuel our passion and continue to shape our thinking and the content of our teaching and research.

After reading all this, you may well think, “Wow, this is the dream job!” Not so fast. Like any job or career, there are challenges and downsides. For one, academic positions are few and highly competitive, and they require an advanced degree (at least a master’s) and often a record of established and promising scholarship, research, and publication. This means investing heavily' in time and money resources up front in the hope of a later pay'off. And if y'ou do get an academic position, be prepared for continued long dedicated hours of work. In our experience, workday's are neither 8 hours

An HAI Love Story 55 long, nor do they exclude weekdays or holidays. In other words, our “work” naturally permeates our personal lives. We joke that our “dates” as a married couple are long intellectual discussions over a glass of wine about some animal related news story or new research project. For some, this kind of life with no clear separation between work and home life may be understandably stressful and unacceptable, even if the work fully engages one’s passion and interests. This is important to know about yourself before entering the HAI field through an academic career rather than being surprised by it. Fortunately, this is not a conflict for us, probably because our seemingly endless curiosity about the animal world attracted us to the profession and quite naturally shaped how we spend our time professionally and personally (even though we like to complain about being overworked and underpaid). On the plus side, we feel personally fulfilled because we have made it a rule to include our children in all our professional activities, and because through our teaching and research, we can help to improve human relationships to other animals, especially by enhancing the welfare of animals in our care (e.g., factory-farmed animals, zoo animals). HAI is a relatively new and growing field, with many and diverse career opportunities, that can be entered from multiple degree programs and disciplines (e.g., go to this publication to see which HAI career best fits you: Erdman, P., LaFollette, M.K., Steklis, N.G., Steklis, H.D., Germone, M.M., and Kogan, L. Guide to Human-Animal Interaction Education. Human Animal Interaction Bulletin 6:37-46, 2018).

 
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