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Human – pachyderm relations

2 December 2020

3 minutes to read

Human – pachyderm relations

Michelle Szydlowski is an Anthrozoology PhD candidate in College of Social Sciences and International Studies.  Her current research focuses on captive elephant welfare in the area surrounding Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Michelle is a distance learner, based in the US; she is one of the founding  members of The Anthrozoology Podcast and is a member of University of Exeter’s Exeter Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) working group. Michelle’s PhD is supervised by Dr Tom Rice and Prof Samantha Hurn

Embrace your personal history and use your knowledge and experience to make a difference.


I have wanted to pursue a PhD since around age ten, when a combination of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island and the non-human primate scientists on Planet of the Apes ignited my passion for learning.

While it took me a few extra decades to find time for grad school,  I was thrilled to embark on my fourth trip to Nepal last year to complete my PhD fieldwork.  Studying human-pachyderm relations has been my passion through adulthood, and I was ready to explore these complex relationships via multispecies ethnography.

Conflict and impartiality in research

As an older student with a history in wildlife and biology, I went in with a biological scientist’s mindset—do the interviews, observe the issues, write the paper, and let the thesis do the talking.  I was better able to remain impartial due to prior connections with various stakeholders who hold different concepts of what it means to ‘own’ elephants and ‘save’ rhinos. Respecting the humanity of people on both sides of the issue—and avoiding applying a neocolonial viewpoint—made my fieldwork quite difficult at first. As my research progressed, I found myself in a dilemma—I was feeling quite disturbed by what I was seeing done to pachyderms and other species by both local people and INGOs.  It was apparent that my impartiality was waning.

By the time I returned home, I was conflicted.  I felt academic pressure to present a well-balanced thesis and equally represent both sides, but I felt a personal pressure to take action.  Then I remembered something I read long ago by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.  She called for researchers to be ‘politically committed and morally engaged’ with their subjects (1995:419).  Their ‘field of knowledge’ needed to join in a ‘field of action’ (Scheper-Hughes, 1995: 419).  Scheper-Hughes called for struggle, realizing that one cannot simply sit by while others suffer.  Her quote now lives on the home screen of my computer.

Since my return from Nepal, I have taken on this struggle wholeheartedly. I have accepted the position of board chair for a conservation fund.  I have joined forces with local and international NGOs involved in elephant welfare, spoken to various groups about my experience, and am launching an elephant research information website. This fall, I joined up with other early career researchers to launch The Anthrozoology Podcast as a platform to discuss interspecies relationships in a way that is accessible to academics and non-academics alike.

A fair and balanced thesis

My thesis is still very fair and balanced, as it should be. I still respect all participants as having intrinsic value as living beings, and I am in continuing dialogue with those who ‘own’ endangered animals and am offering support as they navigate complex situations. But instead of approaching my written thesis from the ‘everyone is right’ (and possibly a bit culturally relativistic) standpoint, I now feel free to take on complex issues and deeply examine the way in which humans use and abuse non-human animals. I will continue my advocacy alongside my scholarship.

Don’t be afraid to let your research change you, don’t be afraid to take a stance and by all means follow your heart—even if it means returning to school or becoming an advocate at what some might consider a ‘non-traditional’ age.

Embrace your personal history and use your knowledge and experience to make a difference.


Michelle Szydlowski


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