Episode 4 – Kim Kelly

In this episode we talk with Kim Kelly who is a medical anthropologist working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Human Ecology. Kim shares her story about her start in medical anthropology and discusses her focus on the animal-human bond. Kim also explains the studies she and others in the field are looking at and what she finds interesting about her research.

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In today’s program, we’re talking with Kim Kelly. Kim Kelly is a medical anthropologist working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Human Ecology. Her research focuses broadly on animal-human interactions and bringing science to bare on how animals are deeply important for one another’s health and well-being.  As a scholar activist, she believes that evidence-based research is crucial for the work of animal advocates. It can provide the foundation for best practices in animal welfare, and the necessary data to fight for animal rights at local, state, national, and even international levels. Kim designs and implements research projects aimed at providing translational data that could be used to develop real world interventions and programs to improve inter-specie relationships.

Hey, Kim, welcome to the program. Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. Yes. So tell us a little bit about you. I mean, you’ve got quite an interesting story.

Well, thank you. Yes. You know, I’ve come to this work, sort of roundabout. I did a number of things working in the nonprofit industry, doing global clinical trials for neglected diseases and tropical diseases for a number of years. I became interested in how we think about an operationalized science from a humanistic perspective through doing that. I ended up going to graduate school to get my PhD in medical anthropology so that I could delve deeper into those sorts of issues. As I was in graduate school… I think as happens to a lot of people because you’re really in a very transitory period of your life during graduate school, like many people, I ended up using that background to do something almost… I wouldn’t say completely different, but very different from what I had intended to go and do. I ended up looking at, sort of more about the human-animal bond. I started this through looking at the use of animals and humans in clinical trials. Looking at animal bodies as proxies for human bodies in biomedicine. That morphed into a much more interest in the human-animal bond. That’s how I then came to do the work that I do, lending my expertise and experience around clinical trials and trying to develop evidence-based data from these investigations to the animal-human bond. So that’s what I’m doing nowadays.

Wow, that is quite a lot. So let’s break it down a little bit. Medical anthropology or medical anthropologist, what does that go? What does that study? What do you do in that?

Anthropology is a very broad and general field, and it’s the study of humans, of human society. Within anthropology, you can study any number of things. You can study cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and all of those different branches.  Some of them have sub-branches.  On one of the sub-branches of biological and cultural anthropology is medical anthropology. The study of medical anthropology is the study of human, medical, and health systems. It is how humans have come to develop systems and the things that they’ve done over a millennia to heal themselves from disease and illness, but also in terms of keeping themselves healthy. People who are medical anthropologists study everything from Ayurvedic medical systems in India to cross-border cancer patients in the United States to oral health in Appalachia, to all kinds of issues.

Okay. So from that and your love of animals you took a different track.

I did, but not completely divergent from medical anthropology because there is a really strong, burgeoning field developing right now around our understanding of the connections between animals and humans, and how animals and humans can heal one another.

Yes, so talk more about that. That’s what’s so fascinating about this is somebody that started out and kind of more of a medical focus. Now you’re studying the animal-human bond.

Yes, I am. I believe that there’s more to the animal-human bond than just the fact that furry critters make us feel good. We know there’s evidence and scientists are starting to put this together more and more when you look at oxytocin effects, when you look at blood pressure, and some of these things that are a little bit more that have been… a little bit, the evidence is a little stronger around those things. There’s those of us who understand the body as more of a whole system from the whole system’s perspective. When you think about the body and nature and our connections with the planet, animals, ourselves, and with other species, be they humans, be they non-human species you start to think about connections on a deeper level and start to understand that this is a complex network. Trying to understand where we’re impacting one another’s health that you could do that with any drug you always want to understand. Okay, what is a mechanistic system by which this drug is impacting the body that it’s having this effect. Well, the same thing is with animals. You want to try and understand a little bit deeper what’s actually going on in this animal-human bond. Once you know where that is coming from, you can see how it interplay with other systems in the body, how it’s affecting other things that are going on with you, be they biological or more psychological, and those kinds of things. From there, once we have this basis, this knowledge, which we’re not there yet, we’re really working on developing much more data, much more evidence-based data on this sort of thing. That’s when you can then take it forward and you can say to hospitals, doctors, or insurance companies, you know, we have this evidence, now it’s time to actually implement and make policy changes in terms of how we treat humans in terms of how we interact with animals, those sorts of things. What I’m talking about there is, you know, big dream of mine. I guess if you wanted to call it that, a big picture thinking would be having enough evidence that shows that you know animals going to hospitals or, you know, horses, helping children with autism or, you know, helping kids in other ways. Having enough data, parents can actually get those therapies for their children. You can get some of those things offset by insurance companies because they see the benefit of them. There’s evidence-based data and they’re willing now to pay for that.

Yes, that’s definitely the ultimate. It sounds like there’s a lot of studies and a lot of areas going on in this. Maybe you can give people a little bit of perspective as to the number of studies that go on and how that works.

Yes. It’s a little bit difficult to quantify the number of studies that are going on right now. There are studies going on all over the country. Right now, the field of researchers are pretty collegiate people. We’re all at the forefront of trying to understand a little bit about where we… We have a basis of knowledge and everybody is taking it in their own direction into their own niche. For example, there’s people that are working on autism and looking at small animals versus large animals, like farm small animals being gerbils or rabbits going all the way up to horses.  We know not every animal-human dyad is going to have the same experience that another animal-human dyad would. It’s just like people and that’s again it gets back to that complex network. It’s not just animals are a complex system. Humans are a complex system. When you put the two together, you can really have a whole number of dynamics. Digressing a little bit, you have people who are studying autism, you have people that are studying injuries and how animals can help us heal. A lot of work right now doing looking at animals and PTSD, especially in veterans coming home from war. There’s people looking at this oxytocin effect with animals and dogs, that sort of connection between humans and dogs and what happens there. Some of these are more animal-assisted therapy. It’s what we call AAT. They actually take sort of a riding therapy for horses, for example, or something different. They’re actually looking at that animal-assisted therapy, whether it be a horse or a therapy dog for a veteran, that sort of thing. They’ll look at that intervention and try and assess the impact of that intervention and their effectiveness. There are other people like myself and my colleagues were we’re trying to understand more of these biological underpinnings. We’ve started to look at things like the microbiome, and what’s happening in your gut with the millions and trillions of bacteria that are on and in your body. If there’s any connection there, as well as with the HPA access. Let’s see, in immune system, there’s a lot of thinking right now that animals have a strong impact on our immune system. It comes from the hygiene hypothesis and the old friends hypothesis. Basically it’s that we moved away a lot and modern societies from bugs from those bacteria, those microbes that we used to have when we were closer living, sort of closer to the environment. As modern society advances, we have much more hyper clean environments. What we’re actually seeing is that being dirty, having exposure to animals, mud, feces, and those kinds of things are really good for you in many ways. We’re trying to look at whether or not those kinds of things and the impact of animals on those microbes might actually be a place where we can boost modern humans living in urban environments. We can boost their health and their immune systems.

This is all so fascinating. Is most of this work thing being done at the university level? How is this taking place?

It’s not. I mean it is, but there’s also a lot that’s not being done at the university level. I think, one of the things that’s very exciting about this is that there’s a lot of folks that are doing things small-scale grants that you can find and so people are doing it on their own to try and look at this effectiveness, whether they be little nonprofits or nursing homes that are doing it themselves, whatever it might be. There are some places in the United States where there are some interesting things going on in terms of academia, in the university environment.  There are places like… Tufts University has a center. Denver University, on their social work system, has a really interesting program there.  Maggie O’Haire, I think she’s at Purdue or she might be at Indiana University, actually I can’t remember, but they’re doing really interesting things. Also my colleagues down at the University of Arizona, where I got my Ph.D., are doing some really interesting things down there on dog cognition, as is Duke University. So there’s a lot of different things going on and ways that people are looking at this. It’s such a broad and open field. It’s very, very exciting.

Yes, that’s really cool. I know myself and for others that are listening the positive effect that our animals have on us. But even just to know that somebody is actually studying, that’s scientifically so it’s not just me thinking my dog makes me feel better. Somebody’s actually looking into the positive effects it has on health.

Right. Exactly. The part of it is that there’s a lot of criticism. You can go on the Internet right now, and you could you could just type in “benefits of animals in health” and you’ll find people very, very educated, very smart, and very articulate people who have spent lifetimes looking at this data, who are not sure that this benefit of animals to humans is really there. And who have really said, “You know, there’s problems with this research, the designs of these research studies. There’s a lot of things that need to be done better in order for me to be convinced on this”. I think those voices are very important to have in this fields because they push us to do better science.

Yes, that’s a really good point. You always seem to see, you know, point and counterpoint. You hear about these studies, and then someone else will come out with an alternative study. That must be sometimes frustrating too. How does that help motivate you to keep doing what you’re doing?

Yes, I would say, for me, it’s beyond frustrating. I know it’s very hard sometimes to see those kinds of critiques. Yet, it’s like that old Chinese proverb “You have to fall down eight times and get up nine”. If you just give up because somebody says that this isn’t going to happen, or your data’s flawed in this way, I think you have to remember why you’re doing this. This is a point I actually want to make very crystal clear to your listeners.  I don’t know how other people feel about this, but for myself going into this field and the work that I do even though I’m an anthropologist, it’s not necessarily for me, all about the people. I think that it’s very critical to think about the animal in this. I mean, this is not a pill. This is not a device. You’re taking another sentient being, putting it into a therapy program, or is expected to help a human where you’re looking for it to help that human. At the end of the day, what I’m trying to do with my work is show that animals are beneficial to humans so that we can start to treat animals better in our society. I keep that at the forefront when I see all of this sort of thing. That’s always at the forefront of my mind. For me, this is who I’m doing this work for.

Yes. That’s really cool. Tell us some stories or some things that have really just fascinated you. That you, while you’ve been researching this. Maybe something that stood out.

I think one of the things that has really stood out to me is that I guess there’s two things. One that I would say the most is that there’s a lot of thinking right now. Older individuals…  and I think this is an important point to make, as America moves into baby boomers, more baby boomers are getting to the age of late 60s to early 70s.  They’re empty nesting, not having animals, and children or grandchildren are moving away. There’s a lot of doctors now. There’s a lot of medical personnel that are telling people that animals could be dangerous, they can be great, but they can also be dangerous for you. You could fall, trip over that animal, hurt yourself, they’re an expense, and they could make you sick if you have some immune-compromised system. I think that there’s a lot of people in the geriatric field, who are geriatricians or whatnot believe and have bought into this notion that people who are older don’t want animals. I could not have been more surprised. Being an anthropologist, when we did our study in Arizona, I went around to many people. I ask them what they think are going to be challenges for us to enroll in our study of older people. They all said that anybody who is off this age frame and who wants a dog already has a dog. Most people in this age range don’t want a dog. I’m never going to be able to find the people to be in the study, and that couldn’t have been more untrue. We enrolled in the study, and in a week, people just called me left and right. I was turning people down because I filled the study so quickly. What I found is that older people do want animals in their lives, especially dogs and cats. What they’re afraid of is not knowing how to take care of that animal and not having the support. I think one of the greatest things that we can do as a society, as our society ages is to develop programs like humane societies and other animal organizations where there’s a support system in place to help older people become animal stewards or competitive to adopt animal companions. There are many number of ways that can be done. Another critical piece of that is that older people understand how important it is to be loved and to have connections with others. They’re more likely… I don’t have any data on this but this is just my own experiential evidence. They’re more likely to adopt those harder to adopt animals. Those older animals that we’re always trying to find homes for. I think this is a real opportunity. It is something that surprised me in my work. I think it’s a real opportunity for the animal welfare community.

Yes, very interesting. So if somebody wanted to get into this field, where do they even begin? How do you go about doing this?

That’s a great question. Medical anthropology probably isn’t where I wouldn’t tell people to start. Don’t do what you did, okay. It’s a little bit harder. Psychology is actually a place where a lot of this work is being done, I think for natural reasons. I also think that we do need more medical doctors that are willing to look at these things. I think kids, young folks who are looking at medical school as an option there’s a lot of different places that are taking this track a little bit more as well as nurses. I think for the younger groups, those would be the places that I might suggest that people start. I would encourage anybody that has an interest in this to start volunteering. There’s almost always programs at hospitals. There are humane societies that are looking at these kinds of things, connecting animals and humans and then this sort of thing. I think just start looking around in your community and places because most likely there is something going on near you in this arena.

That’s really cool. I feel like we could talk about this stuff for hours Kim. It’s such a vast field, and there’s so much yet to be discovered. What’s next for you?

What’s next for me is this summer we here at the University of Wisconsin are enrolling in a study called FAARM – it’s F-A-A-R-M.  Its Farms, Animals, and Adolescence Reinforcing the Microbiome. We’re working with Heartland Farm Sanctuary which is in Verona. We’re enrolling 40 children who are coming out to their camp during the summer. We’re going to be looking at their microbiome after they have been at the camp for a period of time. We’re going to be looking at their psychosocial well-being as well to look at whether or not there’s any changes in their microbiome which might be suggestive that the FAARM is playing a role in increasing those beneficial bacteria that we know have a really strong impact on immune function, on a psychosocial well-being, and a number of factors that are important for development. We’re also looking at whether or not their attitudes towards the farm animals change and if so, how they change.

Interesting. How are you selecting the kids to participate in this?

Well, they’ll be self-selected. They have to be already enrolled at the camp. They have to be there for one, two, or three weeks during the four-week period. We’ve sent out information to all the kids that are participating in the campus summer, and we’re in the process of contacting them and seeing if they’re interested in being in the study.

That’s really cool. Well, we’ll have to have you back after you complete the study just to hear about the stories and some of the things you might have learned. Yes, I would love that. I would love that.

Is there anything else you wanted to share with us today?

You know, I think the only thing and I probably came across. I think the only thing that’s really important for me to say is that, first and forthright, I see myself as an activist, and activists come in all different shapes and sizes. This is something that I’m really starting to hone in on for myself.  I just want to point out that everyone who’s in this field of animal-human interaction, I would consider you a part of that as well as your listeners, to some degree, an activist. For me, my activism comes through my research. I sort of view myself as a scholar-activist. I think whatever role you play in this fields in general, always keep in mind who you’re doing it for. It helps us to be able to do those difficult work along with the really exciting work. I think that’s just the main thing that I wanted to point out, that maybe I wasn’t able to say.

Yes, well, thank you for sharing. As I said, it’s so fascinating. I feel like we could talk about this stuff for hours and I’m sure people, if they want to reach out to you, you would be more than happy to help provide them more information. So, thank you. Thank you very much for talking with us today. We look forward to talking you again after the summer study and see how that turned out.

Thank you. Me too. I’m really excited to see what happens. I’ll be more than happy to share that with your listeners. Thanks, Kim. You bet.

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