The War Animals Project

image credit Australian War Memorial
image credit Australian War Memorial


Introduced in London in 2004, artist David Backhouse’s
Animals in War memorial is comprised of four freestanding statues – two mules, one horse, and one dog. This well-received and moving sculptural tribute honours all the animals who have served alongside British troops over the centuries. In this spirit, the Australian war memorial curated “A is for Animal,” an exhibit of imagery celebrating animals as transport, messengers, or even mascots in WWI, consistent with military uses of animals since domestication. This renewed interest in the role of animals in warfare was likely assistive in making the recent stage and screen adaptations of War Horse (Michael Morpurgo, 1982) commercially successful. Similarly, there has been an increase in children’s experiences of war, or in making historical conflicts relevant to contemporary children through museum exhibits, such as “The Children’s War” and “Once Upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children,” both curated by the Imperial War Museum. Clearly, both war animals and children are having a “moment.”

Yet strangely, these co-evolved interests in non-combatant experiences or observations of armed conflict have no apparent overlap, apart from the inclusion of War Horse in the “Once Upon a Wartime” exhibit. And yet, educationally-motivated exhibits of this nature are largely exempt from ongoing cultural debates around violence and violent imagery in media for children, particularly when considering that these exhibits are often predicated on the “oppositional discourses of trauma and entertainment” (Kofterou 60). More simply, war-themed museum exhibits elicit questions and concerns around the appropriateness of the material – how should war and conflict be represented to children when, prior to WWI, much of the emphasis was on patriotism, empire, and the glory of battle?

In this framework, very little has been written about the intersections of armed conflict and animal bodies, particularly in media for children. Animal suffering has been, since the 19th century, a major catalyst for the animal rights movement, which was largely the result of a major re-thinking of the relationship between humans and animals, and advanced through children’s literature. Novels such as Black Beauty (1877) for example, did not shy away from depictions of violence toward animals, with the goal of making animal suffering morally relevant by highlighting multiple points of kinship  that humans have with animals. Current posthumanist scholarship has similarly re-envisioned the human-animal relationship, undermining the anthropocentric assumption of human superiority over animals by questioning the process by which children are encultured to be human, through works of literature and other media.

This research initiative will examine the role animals play in war-related media in general, as well as the part that animals have played – and continue to play – in media for children.

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