Animal fans: Toward a multispecies fan studies

C. Lee Harrington

Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, United States

[0.1] Abstract—In an exploration of the potential for (and implications of) animal fans—not human fans of animals but nonhuman animals as fans—situated in ongoing debates about the personhood of nonhuman species, I suggest ways that the animal turn taking place in the humanities and social sciences might affect fan studies. I focus on four characteristics associated with both human fans and nonhuman animals: culture, emotionality, sociality, and capacity for creative play.

[0.2] Keywords—Anthropomorphism; Nonhuman; Personhood

Harrington, C. Lee. 2019. "Animal Fans: Toward a Multispecies Fan Studies." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fan studies has recently expanded its analytic lens to include a broad(er) range of fan communities including queer fans, fans of color, fans with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged fans (note 1). This study expands that lens even further to explore the possibility of nonhuman animals as fans. There is a long history of scholarship on animal celebrities, and the emergence of the furry fandom (alongside other fannish developments) has motivated scholars to explore the relationship between animals and fans, but fan studies has yet to examine the possibilities of animals as fans. Situated in ongoing debates about the personhood of nonhuman species and focusing on four characteristics associated with both human fans and nonhuman animals—culture, emotionality, sociality, and capacity for creative play—I suggest ways that the animal turn taking place in the humanities and social sciences might impact fan studies (note 2).

[1.2] This study was inspired by two recent publications and an oft-cited question posed by Henry Jenkins in 2007. The first article that had me pondering the possibility of animal fans is Ruth A. Deller's (2018) discussion of ethics in fan studies research. In an examination of human subject (IRB) protocol, she comments in a footnote, "I am assuming that very few fan studies researchers will work with animals" (138). The second article is Alan McKee's (2018) discussion of pornography consumers as fans, namely his argument that since fan studies is the study of agentic cultural consumption (509), porn consumers should be thought of as fan culture participants. This led me to explore debates within animal studies on the agency (among other qualities) of nonhuman animals and the potential implications for fan scholars. These two articles in combination brought me back to Henry Jenkins's (2007) widely discussed question about the future of fandom: "as fandom becomes such an elastic category, one starts to wonder—who isn't a fan? What doesn't constitute fan culture?" (364). In short, I question whether there are qualities and practices of nonhuman species that make it reasonable for us to argue the possibility of animals as fans—potentially both textual and object fans, presumably affirmational rather than transformative fans. Or does this possibility stretch the elasticity of fan studies beyond a reasonable point?

[1.3] The practice of anthropomorphism provides important contextual background to my research interests. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman animals and is represented throughout the history of popular media, from Aesop's fables to animated TV cartoons to fantasy fiction to gaming avatars (e.g., Strike 2017). Moreover, "The reflexive assumption that animals are like us […] is not confined to popular culture. From Aristotle to Darwin down to the present, naturalists have credited bees with monarchies, ants with honesty, and dogs with tender consciences, all on the basis of firsthand observation" (Daston and Mitman 2004, 1). The rise of modern science in the early nineteenth century led to a decline of anthropomorphism for reasons both historical and methodological (how can humans know what animals are thinking and feeling?) and by the late twentieth century, "the default assumption that other species thought and felt as humans did seemed lazy, a failure of scientific ingenuity to formulate and test alternative hypotheses" (3). Contemporary critiques of anthropomorphism are based in morality: "to imagine that animals think like humans or to cast animals in human roles is a form of self-centered narcissism: one looks outward to their world and sees only one's own reflection mirrored therein" (3–4). However, resurgent debates about the personhood of nonhumans and the animal turn within the academy raise new questions about the value of anthropomorphism.

[1.4] I discuss personhood and the animal turn in the following section. In an effort to bring relevant literatures together in dialogue, subsequent sections explore animals as celebrities and animals and/as fans. In the conclusion of this necessarily speculative essay, I offer thoughts on the potential elasticity of fan studies. I note that the meaning(s) of the terms human and animal, the potential personhood of other species, and the animal turn itself are hotly debated across the academy. I am unable to do justice to these debates—indeed, I suspect my presentation of the debates is itself open to contestation given the rapidly unfolding nature of this conversation. My goal is simply to lay the groundwork for consideration of a multispecies fan studies.

2. The personhood of nonhumans and the animal turn in academia

[2.1] Scholarly arguments for the personhood of nonhumans are relevant to the possibility of animal fans since they inherently draw linkages between human and (other) animals' behaviors and experiences. Contemporary arguments for the personhood of nonhumans are rooted in the belief that a false human/animal binary has been constructed solely to lay claim to human exceptionalism: "The 'human' and 'animal' are mutually constituting concepts: the superiority and entitlement of the first depends upon the inferiority and subordination of the second" (Varsava 2014, 521). Over time, personhood became rooted in the presence or acquisition of certain qualities such as language, intellectual capacity, development of secondary emotions, and self-awareness (see Midgley 1986). There are, however, numerous precedents of calling nonhumans persons, including the personhood of God and angels (DeGrazia 2005, 41), the case of "corporate bodies such as cities or colleges," which can count as persons for legal purposes (Midgley 53), and "certain imaginary nonhuman beings" including Spock, the extraterrestrial E.T., and "the speaking, encultured apes of The Planet of the Apes" (DeGrazia 2005, 41). British law has sometimes held animals responsible for their behavior, which makes them liable for committing crimes (Mills 2017, 151), and animals have been considered potential witnesses in modern criminal trials (Bryan 2017). Perhaps most engagingly, and speaking to questions surrounding contemporary celebrification, animal selfies are now in vogue after Naruto, a macaque, gained unexpected fame for taking the world's first monkey selfie (Slotkin 2017).

[2.2] Legal debate over Naruto's selfie is important in efforts by animal rights activists to expand legal rights for nonhumans (note 3). Under current US law, one is either a person or a thing, with no third option available. "If you are a person, you have the capacity for rights, including the right to habeas corpus relief, which protects you from unlawful confinement. If you are a thing, you do not have the capacity for rights" (Sebo 2018). Activists argue that under these limited options, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales should be considered persons on the basis of "evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience" ( As a point of comparison, several countries have granted rights to river watersheds and designated forests, and the city of Toledo, Ohio, recently passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which "establishes the huge lake as a person and grants it the legal rights that a human being or corporation would have" (Guardian 2019). These ongoing debates over who or what constitutes a person have helped generate the "animalisation of the academy" (Mills 2017, 12) within the humanities and social sciences.

[2.3] Multispecies scholarship now appears in a wide range of disciplines including film and television studies, feminist studies, cultural/literary studies, legal studies, philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, and sociology (Wilkie 2015), and reflects growing interest in "animals as subjects rather than objects, in animals as parts of human society rather than just symbols of it, and in human interactions and relationships with animals rather than simply human representations of animals" (Knight 2005, 1; emphasis in original).

[2.4] Media scholars are raising innovative questions about the taken-for-granted emphasis on the term human in humanities, exploring new implications of a posthumanist or nonhumanist perspective. For example, Pick and Narraway's (2013) Screening Nature attempts to write nature back into film studies by "exposing the field to ecological thinking not as an exclusive substream or strand, but absorbing every aspect of the study and understanding of film" (1–2). Pick (2015) subsequently revisits John Berger's classic essay "Why Look at Animals?" (1980) by engaging novel questions of looking and seeing (and not-looking and not-seeing) regarding film animals in an age of mass surveillance. Mills (2017) takes a TV studies perspective in arguing that TV "endumbs" animals as both voiceless and stupid, "disregard[ing] animals' subjectivity and instead offer[ing] them up as objects that are interesting only insomuch as they conform to human understandings, and uses, of animals" (211). Ultimately rejecting the term humanities, Mills proposes "animalities" as replacement and suggests that TV studies is a good starting point for establishing the animalities given the field's longstanding "concerns about exclusion, drawing on a politics attuned to social power" (229). Fan studies is similarly concerned with such politics.

[2.5] My own discipline of sociology was late in joining the animal turn, facing a comparable challenge as the humanities in that sociology is widely understood as the study of human groups and societies. In recent years, however, sociologists engaged in multispecies scholarship have explored problematics central to the discipline, including the acceptable content of sociological inquiry, the permissibility of advocacy-oriented sociology, and the admissibility of nonhuman animal advocacy to advocacy-oriented sociology (Peggs 2013; Cudworth 2016). Sociologists have focused particular interest on linkages between speciesism and other interlocking systems of power including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism. For example, Nibert (2003) reconsiders the term "minority group" in terms of human-animal relations, Peggs focuses on "sociological engagement with the material reality of Others who are non-human animals" (601), and Wilkie (2015) aims to "animalise the sociological imagination" and "sociologise" human-animal studies (323) (note 4). Bridging emergent multispecies scholarship is an interest in fundamentally new questions related to power, oppression, exploitation, liberation, dignity, object versus subject identities and relations, and public versus private domains.

[2.6] This section has reviewed contemporary research on the personhood of nonhuman animals and the animal turn within academia. In an effort to bring extant celebrity and fan studies scholarship on animals into conversation with my current project, in the following sections I review work on celebrity animals as well as animals and fans before shifting to my core focus of animals as fans. The goal is to examine the current treatment (and potential futures) of nonhuman species and human-animal relationships in these related fields.

3. Animal celebrities

[3.1] While the idea of celebrity is typically associated with humans, there is a long history of animal stars dating back at least to the 1500s (Hutchinson 2014). The contemporary appeal of animals' celebrity is rooted in their apparent authenticity. In contrast to humans' ability to misrepresent themselves, animals "wear the badge of authenticity that is held to be so important for credible image-management; there is never any question as to whether or not they are 'being themselves'" (Blewitt 2013, 117). Scholars debate whether animals vary in this capacity. For example, O'Meara (2014) draws a distinction between dog and cat videos on YouTube, arguing that while dog videos "are marked by a mode of performance" wherein "the dogs seem to present self-consciously for the camera," cat videos are marked by a seeming unselfconsciousness "associated with privacy, intimacy, naivety and, increasingly, with impossibility." This unselfconsciousness is key to the global popularity of cat videos, according to O'Meara, since it "offers viewers the prospect that it is possible to live without the gaze of surveillance." In contrast, Giles (2013) argues that any notion of animal personality (on-screen or off) is merely an anthropomorphic projection by humans (116). Claiming that "the less species-appropriate the behaviour, the greater the chances of celebrification" (118), Giles counters O'Meara's proposed connection of animal celebrity to species authenticity.

[3.2] Working toward a taxonomy of animal celebrity, Giles (2013) proposes four broad categories: (1) anthropomorphic, or animals who have human qualities attributed to them; (2) promotional, which "involves captive animals which have been the subject of a news story and have subsequently generated a fan following"; (3) freak, or animals celebrated for their freakishness; and (4) celebrity pets (118–19). Giles aims to rethink our overall understanding of celebrity through a consideration of nonhuman species, thus linking contemporary celebrity studies to the animal turn. This research trajectory joins film studies' long attunement to animals' on-screen performances (e.g. as laborers), with TV scholars only recently questioning "what happens to thinking about television if animals are attended to, if we take seriously thinking about what it means to consider living beings beyond the human?" (Mills 2017, 2).

[3.3] As Giles (2013) notes, the twenty-first-century escalation of animal celebrity is inextricably tied to the rise of consumer spending on pets. Ninety-four percent of US pet owners see pets as part of their family, and 80 percent report treating pets as surrogate children (Arenofsky 2017). Americans' spending on pets is projected to be $100 billion by 2020 and the industry as a whole is considered recession-resistant because of (1) the multigenerational appeal of pets; (2) growing evidence for a correlation between pet ownership and human health; (3) global expansion of pet ownership; (4) the spread of pet parenting noted above; and (5) a growing pet celebrity culture (Arenofsky). These factors have contributed to now ubiquitous petworking, or the efforts of human cultural intermediaries operating social networks for animals: Instagram accounts, YouTube videos, Twitter feeds, and so on (e.g., Hutchinson 2014). As such, modern celebrity studies' embracement of multispecies scholarship seems well on its way, but as discussed below, the status within fan studies is less clear.

4. Animals and/as fans

[4.1] There is growing scholarly interest in animals and fans as a result of the centrality in popular media of animated cartoons, fantasy art and literature, anime, cosplay, avatars, sport team mascots, puppetry, and perhaps most of all the emergence of the furry fandom in the mid-1980s (note 5). For reasons of space constraints this section focuses solely on furry studies and I adopt Strike's (2017) definitions:

[4.2] A furry human is anyone with an above-average interest in anthropomorphic characters, whether or not they consider themselves furry—or have even heard of the fandom […]. A furry animal is any animal with any human characteristics, no matter what its origin: entertainment, mythology, advertising, kids' books or adult literature. To put it simply, Furry is about the idea of animals—what they represent in our minds. (4; emphasis in original)

[4.3] As these definitions imply, some furries share an interest in both anthropomorphism (seeing animals as having human traits) and zoomorphism (seeing humans as having animal traits) (Gerbasi et al. 2008; Strike 2017). Studies into furry identities by the Furscience research collective (note 6) have generated interesting findings albeit contested within animal studies. For example, an early survey of furries attending a convention found that 25 percent said "yes" to the questions "do you consider yourself to be less than 100% human?" and "if you could become 0% human, would you?," leading the research team to suggest a possible parallel to gender identity disorder (Gerbasi et al. 2008, 197). This study was subsequently critiqued from an animal studies perspective for its design, its objectives, and "its utilization of gender identity disorder [while ignoring its controversial history] as a foundation for species identity disorder" (Probyn-Rapsey 2011, 295). What kind of foundation might gender disorder provide? How would species identity disorder be diagnosed and/or treated?

[4.4] Treatment for gender identity disorder can include limiting opportunities for cross-dressing, positive reinforcement of the gender of the "body," and encouraging play with same-sex friends. Might species identity disorder treatment follow a similar pattern, including, perhaps, redirecting a child's attention away from cross-dressing as an animal, limiting the influence of humanimal creatures liked stuffed toys, companion species, Disney characters, and the characters on Sesame Street, as well as Arthur, Skippy, the Muppets, Angelina Ballerina, and Olivia? (Probyn-Rapsey 2011, 298)

[4.5] Moreover, Gerbasi's (2008) study explicitly defined furries but did not define humans, leading Probyn-Rapsey (2011) to argue that "the 'problem' the researchers identify might not lie with furries who identify as 'less than 100% human'; the problem may lie more broadly in the regulatory fictions around what constitutes the 'properly human' subject" (299).

[4.6] Furscience's research into therians also complicates debates within animal studies over the human/animal binary—its perpetuation and its dismantlement, depending on one's perspective. Therians are a small (20 percent) subset of furries with a "spiritual connection with animals, belief in an animal spirit guide, or the belief that they are the reincarnation of an animal spirit" (Roberts et al. 2015, 535). A Furscience study investigating furries' relationship with nonhuman animals found that to "the extent a person likes animals, they may be more likely to anthropomorphize them" whereas those who "spiritually connected to animals did not anthropomorphize them" and for those "whose connection to animals involved identifying as an animal, there was an inclination not to anthropomorphize but to zoomorphize animals, seeing them as particularly distinct from humans" (Roberts et al. 543). As with much multispecies research, this trajectory of fan studies aims for a social justice orientation with the finding that both anthropomorphizing nonhuman animals and identifying oneself as nonhuman is associated with greater concern for animal wellbeing (Plante et al. 2018, 174) (note 7). Within animal studies, which has historically critiqued anthropomorphism for reasons discussed earlier, the empathic potential of the practice is under renewed debate. For example, Weil (2010) suggests that "the turn to ethics in animal studies has brought a new focus on […] anthropomorphism, regarded not only as a problem but also as a potentially productive critical tool that has similarities to empathy within recent historical research" (15). From this perspective, our awareness that "we're not the only sentient creature with feelings" comes with "enormous responsibility and obligation to treat other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion, and love" (Bekoff 2007, xxi).

[4.7] However, other scholars argue that such "anthropo-insistence" enables rather than dismantles the human/animal binary. For example, Varsava (2014) agrees that "it is simply in the best interest of animals to be perceived and represented as more human than animal" (526; emphasis deleted) but goes on to note that animals' "ethical consideration, or lack thereof, depends upon how they measure up in terms of the human. To this extent, both the anthropodeniers and the anthropo-insisters (no matter how animal-friendly their intentions) underwrite the human/animal binary" (526). In short, animals and fans research exists in uneasy relationship with animal studies, as each scholarly pursuit wrestles mostly independently with questions about the humanness of humans, the personhood of nonhumans, and the rewards versus pitfalls of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. Below, I turn to a consideration of the possibility of nonhuman animals as fans, ultimately suggesting the potential for fan studies to join the animal turn in embracing multispecies scholarship.

[4.8] Let me state up-front as someone who has been engaged in (human) fan studies for decades that I'm not wholly convinced we could or should move in this direction, but I do think we should consider its promise and implications for our field. In his advocacy for pornography consumers to be seen as fans, McKee (2018) argues that if fan studies is the study of agentic cultural consumption, then porn consumers meet that criteria in that their practices align with well-established fan activities: namely, fans like to collect, fans like to taxonomize, fans argue about quality, and fans build community (510). I adopt McKee's approach by making four related arguments about the fannish potential of (at least some) nonhuman species on the basis of scientific establishment of animal culture, emotionality, sociality, and creative play, all considered central elements of contemporary human fandom.

[4.9] Given that participatory culture has been a core assumption of fandom since the publication of Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers (1992), findings on animal culture are a lead consideration. Laland and Hoppitt (2003) note, "Define culture one way and it is the exclusive province of human beings; another way, and a multitude of species are deemed worthy of the accolade" (150). Adopting a broad definition that "Cultures are those group-typical behavior patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially learned and transmitted information" (151), the authors acknowledge that deciding which animals have culture is fraught with complications. If only "hard experimental evidence" is taken into consideration, the answer is "humans plus a handful of species of birds, one or two whales, and two species of fish" (151). But if a broader range of evidence is taken into consideration on the basis of knowledge of "animal social learning, observations of natural behavior of animals, intuition, and the laws of probability," the answer might be that "many hundreds of species" have culture (151).

[4.10] For example, a seminal meta-analysis of chimpanzees, capturing an accumulated 151 years of scientific observation, emphasizes the same parameters of culture noted above (social learning and information transmission) and finds that "39 different behavior patterns, including tool usage, grooming and courtship behaviours, are customary or habitual in some communities" (Whiten et al. 1999, 682). Similar diversity in behavior "consistent with a cultural explanation" has been found in other primates including orangutans and capuchins (Laland and Hoppitt 2003, 152). In the context of avians, there is "considerable empirical evidence" that vocal signals represent communicative culture; such evidence has been found in Black-capped chickadees, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Chaffinches, European starlings, House finches, Saddlebacks, Stripe-back wrens, Village Indigobirds, Wood thrushes, Yellow-rumped caciques, and "different populations and subspecies of White-crowned sparrows" (Freeberg 2000, 180–81). Moving underwater, the song patterns of Humpback whales depend on where they live, with populations in different regions singing different songs. In one study, the song of whales in the Pacific Ocean was "replaced rapidly and completely [by] the introduction of only a small number of 'foreign' singers" (Noad et al. 2000), and an eleven-year study of multiple populations of Humpback whales in the South Pacific allowed scientists to "document the rapid and repeated horizontal cultural transmission of multiple song types at the population level" (Garland et al. 2011, 687): "Two types of song change […] occurred in this ocean basin. The first was progressive cultural evolution in which songs changed from one type to another within each population. The second type of song change […] involved rapid replacement of a cultural trait, in which a novel song type appeared in each population and rapidly replaced the existing song type. [This represents] culturally driven change at a vast scale" (688).

[4.11] Song changes in both whales and avians are considered by scientists a form of cultural evolution "whereby changes in songs are passed among individuals by learning and accumulate over time" (Noad et al. 2000). Drawing a point of comparison between this body of literature and media (music) fandom, consider a project such as Rap Map in ATLMaps—much as the field of ethology examines the evolutionary history, development, and adaptation of animal behaviors (McFarland 1982), Rap Map is designed to explore "how Metro Atlanta has influenced not just the artists that call the city home but a whole genre of music by spatializing that impact" and aims to "show the significance of music as a source for an aural history of cities and towns" ( Chimpanzees and birds and whales thus join rap fans (and TV fans and gaming fans and so on) in the acquisition and cultural/spatial transmission of knowledge and behavior.

[4.12] Research on animal emotionality is also crucial to the possibility of animal fans since it is widely accepted that fandom stems from affective investments in favored texts and objects. While those of us who live with cats and dogs and hamsters and so on "know firsthand that animals have feelings—It's a no-brainer" (Bekoff 2007, xx), the emotionality of nonhumans remains controversial among scientists, who agree that a wide range of nonhumans experience primary emotions such as anger, sadness, joy, pain, fear, and disgust (Demoulin 2004, 72), but disagree about the presence of secondary emotions such as shame, guilt, or love (note 8). Scientists' skepticism rests in the following: "From a theoretical perspective it is claimed that self-consciousness is necessary for the emergence of secondary emotions, and from an empirical perspective there is thought to be little evidence for self-consciousness in most animals" (Morris, Doe, and Godsell 2008, 4–5).

[4.13] Despite the skepticism, laypersons, pet owners, and numerous scientists who work closely with nonhumans argue for the full range of human emotions in (at least some) animal species. For example, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a psychologist and primatologist who has conducted foundational research with bonobos, reports that "There are few feelings the apes do not share with us, except perhaps self-hatred. They certainly experience and express exuberance, joy, guilt, remorse, disdain, disbelief, awe, sadness, wonder, tenderness, loyalty, anger, distrust and love" (quoted in Mason and McCarthy 1994, 17). Moreover, pet owners with "years of interactive experience with their animals" report that cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and birds feel "sadness, anxiety, surprise, anger, curiosity, interest, affection, joy and fear," with most dog and horse owners also reporting "a restricted range of secondary emotions (jealousy and guilt in dogs, jealousy and pride in horses) at levels comparable with primary emotions" (Morris, Doe, and Godsell 2008, 12). Revisiting the methodological critique of anthropomorphism noted earlier, while we may be uncomfortable concluding that human love or guilt is the same as the love or guilt felt by a rat, a cat, or even a bonobo, there is "no universally accepted scientific proof of human feelings. What one person feels is never entirely available to another" (Mason and McCarthy 37; emphasis deleted). As Bekoff (2007) puts it, "Dogs are happy, not 'happy' […] the truth is simply that a dog has rich emotional and cognitive experiences of the dog kind" (9, 15; emphasis in original).

[4.14] With culture and emotionality of certain animal species now recognized within the scientific community, animal sociality is our next consideration—or, as McKee (2018) frames it in the context of porn consumers, their community-building potential. In my own recent scholarship (Harrington and Bielby 2018), I argued that the solitary, private, perhaps solely internally identified human fan still counts as a fan, but I acknowledge that twenty-first-century fandom is more widely understood by my peers as a mostly online networked practice. I presume most animals spend little or no time online, but the scientific literature on nonhumans is "more and more speckled with the language of sociality: cooperation, fairness, reciprocity, empathy, trust, consolation, altruism" (Pierce and Bekoff 2012, 124). For example, prosocial behavior in primates is well established, with primates engaging in "consolation behavior, conflict resolution, coalition building, retribution and punishment for cheaters or free-loaders" (126) (that certainly resonates with human fandom), and speaking to the question of self-awareness in nonhumans, DeGrazia (2005) argues that mammals have social self-awareness: "an awareness of how they fit into group structures, the expectations that come with their positions in the group, what may happen if they act against those expectations, and so on" (42; see also Bekoff 2007) (note 9). According to noted animal rights scholar Mary Midgley (1986), this hardwired sociality justifies the personhood of (at least some) nonhumans—thus perhaps further justifying their fannish potential: "What makes creatures our fellow beings, entitled to basic consideration, is surely not intellectual capacity but emotional fellowship. And if we ask what powers can justify a higher claim, bringing some creatures nearer to the degree of consideration which is due to humans, those that seem to be most relevant are sensibility, social and emotional complexity of the kind which is expressed by the formation of deep, subtle and lasting relationships" (60). While animals have long facilitated human sociality, as anyone at a dog park can attest, scientific research increasingly recognizes the inherent sociality of multiple nonhuman species.

[4.15] My final reflection is on animals' creative play, another foundational basis of human fandom in both affective (e.g., Hills 2002) and material (e.g., Heljakka 2013) forms. The scientific literature is clear that numerous species of nonhumans play for fun as well as function, and the neurochemical changes that render play enjoyable are shared by both humans and animals (Bekoff 2007, 56). Play among juvenile nonhumans has well-established developmental functions, but its purpose goes beyond that and is clearly beyond that for adult animals (Hall 1998). Some animals play in solitude whereas others seem to enjoy social play. Some animals engage in object play, and this can be seen in animals that aren't known to play with other animals (Mason and McCarthy 1994, 150). In the absence of human-manufactured toys, "domestic, captive and wild animals may use a variety of tools such as sticks, rocks, leaves, fruit, feathers, dead prey animals and even items of discarded bric-a-brac to play with" (Hall 1998, 45). Object play has been observed in a wide range of nonhumans including elephants, spotted hyenas, bears, leopards, hooded crows, Komodo dragons, dolphins, beluga whales, lions, gorillas, and chimpanzees (Mason and McCarthy 148, 150). Perhaps most intriguingly from a fan studies perspective, some species engage in imaginary play both alone and with others (Patterson and Gordon 1993), and the artistic creativity of certain animals is widely publicized—the paintings and drawings of animals in captivity as well as the (intentional? unintentional?) monkey selfie mentioned earlier. "The boredom or leisure of captivity must be considered as a motivating factor for all such animals, yet it is interesting that [some] appear to find the act of drawing or painting rewarding in itself" (Mason and McCarthy 198). Consistent with the animal turn in academia, these findings raise ethical implications for humans: given the playfulness of nonhumans, "Must we change our relationships with them? Have we obligations to them?" (Mason and McCarthy 215). These questions are relevant to future fan studies scholarship on or with nonhumans (e.g., Deller 2018).

[4.16] This section has explored four foundational aspects of human fandom—culture, emotionality, sociality, and play—and suggested that their shared presence among some species of nonhuman animals raises the possibility of a multispecies fan studies. Below, I explore implications of that possibility.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] I have aimed to sketch a pathway toward the joining of fan studies to the animal turn taking place in the humanities and social sciences. A multispecies fan studies raises obvious questions, most notably the question of animals as fans of what, exactly. Clearly nonhumans are not engaged with popular media texts and objects to the same extent as humans, although that is arguably an open research question and there is tantalizing evidence to the contrary. For example, consider anecdotal data on long-lasting animal-object relationships (e.g., which clearly evokes scholarship on (human) object fandom and reminds us that fandom exists in concrete practices and artifacts (Rehak 2014, ¶ 1.1). The cited web page features then and now photos of cats and dogs who have "Loved the Same Toy Since Forever," with some of the now photos featuring objects tattered beyond recognition. The page reminds me of Mark Nixon's wonderful portraiture book Much Loved (2013), a celebration of people's lifelong attachments with cherished stuffed animals that have been "loved to bits" (in Nixon's words), and resonates with fan studies scholarship on aging, human development, and the life course (Harrington and Bielby 2010). For example, just as humans mature and develop over time, dog personalities have been found to differ by age (Chopik and Weaver 2019), thus potentially reshaping and re-reshaping enduring relationships between canines and their favorite toys (note 10). Or consider the launch of DOGTV in 2009, a 24/7 digital TV channel supported by the Humane Society to provide "dog-friendly programming scientifically developed to provide the right company for dogs when left alone. Through years of research with some of the world's top pet experts, special content was created to meet specific attributes of a dog's sense of vision and hearing and supports their natural behavior patterns. The result: a confident, happy dog, who's less likely to develop stress, separation anxiety or other related problems" (

[5.2] Employing a team including scientists, animal trainers, and pet psychologists, DOGTV's website hosts a blog of "canine enrichment" entries such as "2018's Best Actors Were Animals" and "How to Teach Your Dog to Watch DOGTV" (, thus facilitating animal celebrification as well as animals as fans. Finally, consider Rachel Mayeri, an artist working at the intersections of science and art who was commissioned in 2011 to make original videos for chimpanzees in captivity. Her resulting project, titled Primate Cinema, makes videos for baboons, squirrel monkeys, chimpanzees, and humans. In one video she questions "What would a cinema for squirrel monkeys look like? What do they like to watch?" An experiment with the monkeys, whose attention span is seconds long, revealed one of their favorites to be a sequence of a mouse running—so, squirrel monkeys as fans of mice? Of action movies? Mayeri's conclusion that "Humans and monkeys may both be interested in television because it's a good way to learn about complexities of social life from a safe distance" ( might be reframed within fan studies by focusing on textual or narrative content of human versus animal fan favorites.

[5.3] While evidence of animals' engagement with textual and object fandom is provocative but perhaps scarce (again, an open research question), we might expand our thinking of animals as fans in context of the perspective on fandom as the primary mode of engagement with our twenty-first-century cultural and political (and natural?) landscapes. In their discussion of three waves of fan studies, Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington (2007) argued that third-wave scholarship positions fandom as part of the fabric of everyday life: "Studies of fan audiences help us to understand and meet challenges far beyond the realm of popular culture because they tell us something about the way in which we relate to those around us […]. Perhaps the most important contribution of contemporary research into fan audiences thus lies in furthering our understanding of how we form emotional bonds with ourselves and others in a modern, mediated world" (10; see updated discussion in Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2017).

[5.4] Treating animals seriously as one type of emotional relationship "we form with ourselves and others in a modern, mediated world" opens the door to a multispecies fan studies. Other questions to be considered before fan studies embraces multispecies scholarship include which species might be welcomed under an expanded fannish umbrella (chimpanzees? dolphins? cats? flies?) and, as noted, reconsideration of the ethics of empirical fan scholarship (Deller 2018).

[5.5] Perhaps the most central question is whether a multispecies approach stretches the elasticity of fan studies too far—"who isn't a fan? What doesn't constitute fan culture?" (Jenkins 2007, 364). In large part Jenkins was critiquing scholars' persistent interest in fan psychologies, but he goes on to caution that "As fandom becomes part of the normal way that creative industries operate, then fandom may cease to function as a meaningful category of cultural analysis" (364). However, the last decade of fan studies, including scholars' direct engagement with his provocation, seems to have tempered this cautionary note. Indeed, Jenkins (2014) subsequently acknowledged that mapping fan subjectivities remains an important scholarly project, a point resonating perhaps unexpectedly with animal scholars' insistence that we take animal subjectivities and human-animal relations more seriously (Knight 2005). Moreover, much as fandom becoming "part of the normal way that the creative industries operate" has not decimated fan studies but actually energized it, so too have other studies been energized: film studies by "rediscover[ing] what is surely most visible about film: its entanglements in the world it shoots, edits and projects" (Pick and Narraway 2013, 2); celebrity studies by considering whether it is possible that animals "allow us to see the operation of the celebrity system untroubled by any phenomenological considerations" (Giles 2013, 116); and TV studies by questioning "what happens to thinking about television if animals are attended to" (Mills 2017, 2). Following this latter question, what happens to thinking about fans and fandoms if we embrace multispecies scholarship? What do we gain and what do we lose?

6. Notes

1. For example, see Transformative Works and Cultures special issues on queer female fandom (no. 24, 2017) and on fans and fandoms of color in (no. 29, 2019); Ellcessor (2018) explores fans and disabilities, and Geraghty (2018) examines fans and socioeconomic class.

2. Lamerichs (2018) explores the role of nonhumans in fandom through a different lens than mine here. Speculating on the future of fandom, she focuses on disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data. Her forecast predicts two essential aspects of future fandom: "we will share participatory culture with nonhuman entities; we will celebrate creative products created by nonhuman entities" (¶ 2.4).

3. After the dispute began, the US Copyright Office added "a photograph taken by a monkey" as an item that cannot be copyrighted (neither can artwork by elephants; Slotkin 2017).

4. The sociological imagination is a classic concept developed in the late 1950s referring to the ability to see links between individual circumstances and larger social structures. Human-animal studies is devoted to examining, understanding, and evaluating the relationships between humans and other animals (Wilkie 2015, 326).

5. For an illustrated chronology of furry fandom see Patten (2012); for full-length discussion of the origins and development of the fandom in the United States, see Strike (2017).

6. According to their website, "Furscience is the public face of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP), a multidisciplinary team of scientists studying the furry fandom. Asking psychological, anthropological, and sociological questions, our team examines furry culture to help both furries and non-furries better understand the furry community" (

7. Strike (2017) elaborates as follows: "And there's a lot more reasons why furs identify with animals on a deeper level: a growing awareness of how a ravaged environment threatens everyone […] and a way to distance ourselves from the humans who seem intent on destroying the planet; a sense of kinship with the natural world springing from alternative spiritual beliefs; and scientific research revealing animals are far more intelligent—and genetically linked to us far more closely—than we had previously imagined" (12).

8. Explains biologist Mark Bekoff (2007), primary emotions are inborn and require no conscious thought. In contrast, "Secondary emotions are not automatic: they are processed in the brain, and the individual thinks about them and considers what to do about them" (8).

9. For arguments supporting the self-awareness of nonhumans see Patterson and Gordon (1993), DeGrazia (2005), Bekoff (2007), Irvine (2007), and Morris, Doe, and Godsell (2008).

10. Intriguingly, this research further suggests that "exposure to current cultural phenomena (e.g. social media, a culture of egotism) or broader generational/cultural changes in humans" might also affect dogs, implying that as human fandom changes so too might canine fandom (Chopik and Weaver 2019, 24).

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