Human animal interactions: beyond the guinea pig
How understanding our interactions with other species is improving human health
As humans we tend to think of ourselves as living quite separately from other animals. But throughout history we have not only coexisted alongside other species but in many ways depended on them for our own health and wellbeing.
A new research group has been established by the Charles Perkins Centre to consider the significance of human–animal interactions from a broad and multidisciplinary perspective, in an effort to understand and maximise their positive effects on our health.
We consume other animals as meat and other foods, use them in farming and transport, train them for security and assistance, keep them for companionship and exercise, and study them to improve our understanding of human health and disease.
The diversity of these interactions, and the broad range of academic disciplines within which they traditionally fall, has meant that the overall significance of other species as a salient component of the environment that determines human health has been neglected as a primary focus of research.
The Charles Perkins Centre has established a uniquely multidisciplinary project group that will study this important topic from across disciplines and research facilities, both within and beyond the University of Sydney.
The group, led by Professor David Raubenheimer, will expand the traditional model of human health to encompass our interactions with other species and the effects these have on our health. Specific areas of enquiry will include integrating best practice in human and animal medicine; measuring the health benefits of pet ownership; investigating the shared environmental factors that drive the correlation between obesity in pets and their owners; critically assessing the practice of animal-based research into human health; and examining the ethics of using other species for our own health benefits.
Professor Raubenheimer says the group’s collaborative approach will be of benefit to both humans and other species: “This approach can help to solve a range of problems, from conservation of endangered species to optimising diets for healthy ageing and addressing human obesity and cardiovascular disease.”
Importantly, he adds, it will also train the current generation of students in the mindset of cross-disciplinary research. “For the next generation of researchers, this will be the norm, not the aspiration or exception.”
The project leader
Professor David Raubenheimer is a leading nutritional ecologist who examines the causes and consequences of food selection on health outcomes in both humans and animals. His studies of insects, fish, birds and mammals have already helped to develop new approached to human nutrition-related problems, such as the dietary causes of obesity.
“Reproduction, predator avoidance, population growth and decline, health and ecology are all underpinned by nutrition,” he explains.
Professor Raubenheimer is also a strong advocate of the interdisciplinary approach of the Charles Perkins Centre.
“Solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems lie at the interface between conventional academic disciplines. The richly interdisciplinary environment of the Charles Perkins Centre provides unprecedented opportunity for experts to overreach their subject and find solutions that have to date evaded our best efforts. There is nothing else like it currently in existence in terms of its breadth of focus and potential to bring the world’s best together to work collaboratively on the problems of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“At the Charles Perkins Centre the cross-disciplinary potential of nutritional ecology will be realised in one of the world’s finest multidisciplinary research centres.”