Wesleyan University Professor Kari Weil (Courtesy of Kari Weil)

Wesleyan Professor Tackles Human Hierarchies with the Aid of Animals

After Dr. Kari Weil earned tenure at Wake Forest University, she decided it was time to get herself a horse.

Weil thought she might never get married, and saw this as another way of falling in love. She had fond memories of family trips to Michigan as a child, where she would ride, without a helmet, through the surrounding woods. She named her horse Cacahuète, the French word for “peanut,” because the horse was the color of peanut butter. 

Weil eventually did marry, and she moved to California to be with her husband, bringing Cacahuète with her. She taught at several other universities before landing her current post at Wesleyan University, where she has taught courses in French and European literature, feminist theory and animal studies for the past 13 years. Her husband is the president of Wesleyan. And while she no longer has a horse of her own, horses continue to be a critical part of her research and her most recent book focuses on the relationship between humans and horses in 19th-century France.  

Weil’s academic path was not a straight one. She started out with feminist theory. It was the 1970s. The field of women’s studies was brand new. The idea of looking at history from a woman’s perspective excited her.

Then, a curious fact took her research in a new direction. While studying 19th-century France, Weil uncovered a regulation which said that women were only allowed to ride horses sidesaddle. “They had to get legal permission to wear breeches,” she explained, so that they could straddle the horse. Being a rider herself, Weil was curious. She began to dig deeper.

Once again, Weil chose to pioneer in a new field—animal studies would not develop as a discipline until the early 2000s, and it wouldn’t be offered as course by colleges for another decade. But Weil’s research shows that the field isn’t limited to the relationship between humans and animals. It’s a window into human society as a whole, from racism to public policy to the myths we perpetuate about domination.   

Take the current pandemic. Weil sees the Coronavirus as the result of people not recognizing the close relationship that humans have with animals.

“For so long, we’ve thought that we can just remain separate from them and that our lives don’t depend upon them,” she said. “And yet we now see so many instances in which our mistreatment and mishandling of both the environment and of other species has had severe effects.”

Weil hopes the experience will convince the public to take responsibility for the damage done to the environment.

“I think we’re at a crucial moment where at least some are beginning to understand that our invasions of habitats and our ways of treating and selling and collecting certain animals have had a real devastation on the environment, but also on our health and on the health of animals.” 

Weil said that working at Wesleyan has given her the freedom to explore questions that matter to her. She also loves working with the students.

Last semester, she participated in a think tank with three of her students. “It was wonderful,” she said. “We felt like we were on the same level. We were all trying to figure out things.” In class, she exposes students to a wide range of literature and philosophy surrounding animal ethics, challenging them to consider different points of view.  

Questions about the relationship between humans and animals harken back to the Bible, Weil said, when humans are charged both to rule over the animals and to care for them. At least in the case of horses, a mindset of domination has prevailed.

Weil explained that since the time of Plato, riding horses was viewed as the purview of powerful, upper-class white men. “There’s a long history of … who gets to be part of the symbol of being on horseback, the power that comes with it.” 

According to Weil, that power dynamic persists today. There are no statues of women on horseback. And because horses are expensive to keep, equestrian sports are dominated by the wealthy.

But there are also efforts to change this. Weil mentioned Brianna Noble, a Black woman who rode her horse at the head of a Black Lives Matter parade in Oakland, California, on June 1. Weil sees this as “changing the narrative of who gets to ride.” Noble also runs an equestrian business, Mulatto Meadows, which sponsors a project giving minority children the opportunity to ride horses. 

And horses aren’t the only animals dear to Weil.

She has had dogs since college, as well as cats for a while, and a guinea pig that belonged to her daughter. Her current puppy, a Labrador named Lola, clamors constantly for her attention. Weil says that animals of different species can work well together; they can be very protective of one another. This is very different from what most people would expect.  

According to Weil, the inferior view of animals also contributed to the development of racism. In 19th-century France, the word for “race” and the word for “breed” was the same, and so “a kind of hierarchy of race and hierarchy of breed would develop that were mutually influential,” said Weil.

“I think even our, you know, the ways that our language calls some people brutes or bitches … we have a way of animalizing others and usually that animalizing is a way of saying they’re less gifted.”

Weil is also fascinated by questions of who “belongs” on a piece of land — conquerors who have exterminated animal species have also barred or attempted to bar certain groups, such as Native Americans or Mexicans, from living on land the settlers have decided to take for themselves.  

Words like “race,” “breed” and “belonging” reveal some of the problems with human language.

“I find language often to be the ways in which we deceive ourselves,” said Weil. She encourages us to consider the equally powerful — sometimes more powerful — ways in which animals communicate.

“Animals don’t have our language, but they certainly communicate. They communicate with us. We don’t always understand them. That’s our weakness, not theirs,” she added, “They’re often better at understanding us and knowing us than we are knowing ourselves.”

According to Weil, animals communicate through body language, eye contact and physical touch, which can be important ways to reach people who have experienced trauma.

“Talk therapy doesn’t always work. Sometimes the words aren’t enough … to heal the body.” Horse therapy, Weil said, can be helpful for children who are on the autism spectrum or struggle with verbal expression. “They can express themselves in another way, and find both control and power and trust and love.” 

There are individuals, so-called “animal abolitionists,” who argue that domesticating animals is wrong, that we shouldn’t ride horses or keep dogs or cats as pets. Although Weil doesn’t agree, she has strong feelings about certain ways that capitalism influences the way we treat animals.

“I will do whatever it takes to not support factory farms and industrial slaughter,” she said, “I find that absolutely despicable.” She believes that a way to counteract these things is to expose them. Few people are aware of what goes on in the slaughterhouses, and there are laws prohibiting people from taking photographs inside.

Weil decided a long time ago to become vegetarian. 

She believes in establishing “real, meaningful relationships” with each of the animals she cares for. “You realize that they have different temperaments and different characters and different needs, and that you learn from them.” 

Weil tries to show her students the value of empathy and breaking down old hierarchies that separate animals from humans, and humans from other humans. She wants them to recognize instead that we are dependent both on animals and on other human beings. This isn’t a bad thing, she said.

When Weil moved east to work at Wesleyan, she had to leave Cacahuète behind. She was too old to make the journey. “I found a lovely retirement place for her with hills and streams to run and wade through,” said Weil in an email. The horse died not long after.

These days, she rides a big, handsome chestnut horse named Theo, who belongs to a woman she knows in Massachusetts.

“I think we have to learn to accept and even appreciate our interdependency and our role in the livelihood of the planet,” she said. “There’s labor involved in that, and it’s also an unpaid labor, but it’s an important one.”  

Dr. Weil’s latest book, Precarious Partners: Horses and Their Humans in Nineteenth-Century France, is available through the University of Chicago Press.

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