Sarah Levenstam Awarded Fulbright-Hays

Sarah Levenstam is a PhD student in the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion. She is the recent recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship.

Levenstam will be pursuing ethnographic, historical, and archival research from April 2024 to March 2025—seven months in India and four months in the UK. Her research follows histories of dogs’ place-making in sites across colonial Calcutta, now Kolkata, intervening in the historiography of late colonial India and British imperialism through the lens of critical animal studies. By historicizing human-dog interactions in Kolkata, she plans to trace continuities and reconfigurations in dogs' status and management within that city's broader transformation as colonial capital, anticolonial nationalist hub, and contemporary city in a postcolonial nation-state. The project will also contribute to an expanding field of animal and environmental histories, 

What led you to this project? How did you arrive at this unique approach which combines the study of colonial and postcolonial India with animal studies?

Levenstam: In late January of 2020, I was in Kolkata, India, meeting with a professor who was generously offering her guidance on a different project. While we were meeting in her home, her dog walked over and rested his chin on my knee, redirecting our conversation from the project at hand to our shared experiences in dog care. I learned that this dog was once a neighborhood street dog, but this professor had taken him in after an injury had made him vulnerable to attacks by other dogs. The professor explained that, as the companion of a dog with the indistinct features shared by the innumerable dogs who live in public spaces across the city, “people often ask, ‘what breed is he?’ and I always reply, ‘well, what breed am I?’”

When I returned from Kolkata to Chicago in early 2020, the pandemic was beginning to spread. With the isolation of quarantine, dog adoptions increased sharply across the country. In Chicago, a local animal rescue organization asked those of us who had fostered dogs previously for help “training” the massive influx of people who had become interested. Despite our social isolation (actually, because of it), I became more connected with the work of this animal rescue organization and the communities, campaigns, and advocacy orbiting it. And I stayed connected with online networks that coordinate care for street dogs in Kolkata, too. Popular English idioms like “Adopt don’t shop!” circulate on social media pages for people in both Kolkata and Chicago who care for and work with dogs—even if dogs seemingly inhabit and traverse these cities very differently.

The question posed by the professor in Kolkata—“Well, what breed am I?”—ridicules the modern institution of dog breeds—a Victorian invention that classed and “refined” dogs by aesthetics and pedigree, and which exemplifies a broader racialized paradigm organized around bloodline, the “purity” of lineage, that is inextricable from histories of British imperial violence and civilizational discourses. By identifying with her beloved dog—I heard this professor saying, in other words, “whatever he is—whatever category he belongs to—I belong there, too.” These sentiments are familiar to me—they resonate with sentiments I’ve heard expressed in animal rescue communities.  In Chicago, I’ve come across countless instances of people connected to animal welfare work who define dogs by their status as “rescues” and subvert the primacy of the category of “breed”—I’ve heard and seen written on t-shirts, bags, and bumper stickers, “Rescued is my favorite breed” along with “my dog rescued me!”

But imperial animal welfare organizations in colonial India would not have recognized these attitudes toward free-roaming dogs. In colonial India, imported pedigree dogs were symbols of social status for the colonial classes, but free-roaming dogs were, to these same pet owners, representations of an unruly and diseased city. It’s clear that colonial humanitarian concern was based on aesthetics and productivity for the empire. In fact, Kolkata, formerly Calcutta was the site of the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals outside the UK—the first British imperial animal welfare institution. The Calcutta SPCA rehashed civilizational narratives that were thinly veiled as concern for animals’ welfare, targeting and policing what it interpreted as “Indian custom,” while circulating racialized stereotypes about Indian people. Any proximity between animals and humans was also fodder for dehumanizing analogies.

Sarah Levenstam with two dogs

With this history in mind, I’m interested in how the themes and meta-narratives that circulate in animal welfare contexts transnationally inform the localized, specific concepts and discourses that could have only come out of this particular city that these dogs and humans navigate together. In these contemporary contexts, what’s the applicability or importance of the taxonomy of dog breeds, and what does pedigree matter? Without the primacy of dog breeds as the rubric to assess the value of dogs, how are dogs assigned value, what kinds of value, in what contexts, and how do dogs themselves accrue certain kinds of value?

Along with my interest in tracing the genealogies of contemporary transnational animal welfare discourses and historicizing international animal welfare work, discussing dog care in networks across Chicago and Kolkata raises questions on a smaller, individual human-dog scale: how do we value dogs? And what does the rubric used to evaluate dogs in various contexts tell us about human structures and social difference

I am inspired by scholarship in critical animal studies and multispecies ethnographies that highlight nonhuman agency, human-animal relationality, and animal ethics. Through my experience pursuing ethnographic fieldwork and fostering dogs with a Chicago animal rescue, I’ve come to recognize how animal welfare work appeals to people with an array of ethical dispositions and political affiliations, some of whom may associate their participation with various social, religious, environmental, and dietary practices; the multiplicity of these commitments among communities and within individuals generates internal contradictions and conflicts that refuse to neatly resolve. I participate in and am fascinated by what Radhika Govindrajan has called the “messy ethics” of writing on and caring for animals.

There is also an abundance of remarkable scholarship on interspecies connected histories; I am especially grateful for the scholars who have taught me so much about imperial projects that have, alongside and against animals, stereotyped, subjugated, and criminalized humans, including Dalit communities in India. If I am studying human-animal relationality under colonialism, I must account for how animals are entangled in human structures that systemically constrain agency and inflict harm across species. Connected human and animal histories, including experiences of subjugation and violence, shouldn’t be presented as analogous, however—especially when “animal cruelty” has long been used as a pretext for racism, dehumanization, and violence against marginalized communities, as the materials I’ve come across in my research can attest. My research on institutions and conversations with people involved in dog care in India, the UK, and the US sparked my interest in contemporary transnational discursive and material flows related to dog care. The ways that people extend human socio-political categories to dogs, draw analogies between humans and dogs, and speak of dogs as kin or neighbors or foreigners, are inextricable from the specific political, social, religious, physical landscapes in which individual human-dog interactions take place.

How has studying the relationship between humans and dogs, as well as humans’ treatment of dogs, allowed you to gain greater insight into colonial and contemporary Indian society and British imperialism?

Levenstam: My upcoming research in India and the UK will offer the opportunity to explore exactly what you’ve asked here more fully! At this point, I’ll note why I feel that tracing animal histories broadly, and dogs specifically, speaks to broader themes in the historiography of British imperialism in India.

How humans and dogs relate in Kolkata, once the colonial capital of British India, is inseparable from histories of imperial animal welfare institutions’ surveillance over human-animal interactions, the systematic dehumanization of people under colonial rule, and the legacy of “colonial humanitarianism” that was wielded as justification for oppression. The SPCA’s activism in India took the form of paternalistic animal protectionism for “moral uplift,” particularly targeting poorer and marginalized Indian workers, and collecting animal cruelty fines from colonial subjects for “mistreating” animals.

However, dogs expose the limits and veneer of colonial animal protectionism. While the SPCA policed the treatment of laboring animals to ensure their productivity for the imperial economy, “unproductive” free-roaming dogs were designated “strays” and routinely culled as pests by colonial authorities. The concept of “stray” itself highlights the empire’s anxious compulsion to categorize and demarcate what’s “out of place”—and to excise what cannot ultimately be ordered or contained.

The colonial management of stray dogs in India was one part of the sweeping British imperial project to constrain and restrict the movement of Indian populations—nonhuman and human. Humans and dogs who were viewed as “out of place” were categorized together as members of “criminal classes,” unruly subjects, mobile nuisances, and potential vectors of disease. In colonial ethnographies representing Indian life to European publics, Indian people were depicted or taxonomized alongside dogs in degrading sketches and vignettes. This extension of identities and attributes from animals to human beings under colonialism is a project of dehumanization that continues today when disenfranchised people are described as “human animals” to deny the reality of unjustifiable violence. In India, “animal cruelty” or mistreatment is a recurrent pretext for Islamophobia and caste prejudice that has culminated in violence against certain communities, especially Dalits and Muslims. Writing on animal studies and imperialism means repeatedly questioning not only human exceptionalism, but, most importantly, exclusionary humanism. Who counts as human in this time and place, who decides, and what does that mean?

Frequently, too, representations of Indian animal handling were taken up as parables for human mastery—meaning, colonial ethnographic accounts would depict Indian people lacking control over or inflicting cruelty on animals close to them, and these narratives were used to validate the intrusion of colonial surveillance and intervention into all areas of people’s lives. Today, interventions from international animal welfare organizations retrace imperial pathways. Sensationalist accounts of practices involving animals reiterate racialized stereotypes and civilizational discourses that measure the “morality” of entire populations—I’ve seen this again and again in ads fundraising for international animal welfare organizations and drumming up support for their campaigns. I follow the work of scholars I admire in interrogating colonial concepts of “innocence,” “cruelty,” and “compassion” that are still pervasive in animal welfare contexts today.

How do you think about religion in your work? 

Levenstam: In my research, I’m continuing to learn about how cosmologies, communities, and ritual practices are shaping dogs’ lives in Kolkata today—and their interactions with humans who shelter, breed and sell, and care for them. The city of Kolkata itself has a vital role to play in my research, including how dogs inhabit its paras, or neighborhoods, that have been shaped by public ritual life and festivities. So, while I’m keeping in mind the symbolic status of dogs in various textual traditions, I’ll be looking to everyday interspecies interactions in the city of Kolkata for insight into how textual traditions are put into practice and how, in turn, these small-scale interactions have the potential to generate broader critical insights in ethics, politics, and textual traditions. I am interested in how moral thought and practices across various Hindu, Muslim, Jain, and other communities shape the kinds of ethical commitments that form between people and dogs in Kolkata.

I’m interested in how religious identity extends beyond humans to non-humans, as well: there are ways in which dogs are taken up in ritual life in Kolkata today that demonstrate how religion and ritual are bound up with how humans care for and make dogs their kin.Speaking to the history of institutions in Kolkata—early European animal welfarists in India, some of whom were missionaries themselves, established the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in India, as an extension of the Royal SPCA in England, exclusively on Christian principles. The founder of the Calcutta SPCA, Colesworthey Grant, wrote about being “called by God” to animal welfare work and created a pamphlet written for children in colonial Calcutta that gave guidance on the “compassionate” treatment of animals that ended with a Hymn and was interspersed with references to “Christian knights” who were determined to “stop cruelty” to animals from a place of “pity” or “mercy.” The “proper” relationship between humans and animals was informed by these animal welfarists’ understanding of a clear boundary between “superior” humans and “common” or “dumb” animals: animals must be righteously defended against cruelty as innocent subjects incapable of speaking for themselves. It was a particular Christian-utilitarian notion of compassion that these animal welfarists wielded to justify the culling of dogs as a form of Christian “compassion” for “suffering” animals. This approach guided European animal welfarists’ paternalistic animal protectionism in British India, and I’m interested in the legacy of this approach in animal welfare institutions in Kolkata today.