Decentralizing Carer-Stray Cat Interactions in Local Neighborhoods
Author(s): Sena Cucumak, Pinar Apaydin, and Ozge Subasi, Futurewell: CoCreation and Wellbeing Lab, CSSH, Koc University
Case study type: Exploratory case study on a local initiative
Keywords: animal-computer interaction, human-centrism, more-than-human
With an interest into the social interactions of humans and stray cats (non-human animals) in Turkey, we conducted a design fieldwork study for 12 weeks using the Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) framework. First of all, we started to analyze the positions of non-human animals in other disciplines such as sociology (Cerulo, 2009), anthropology (Schroer, 2021), educational practices (Lindgren & Öhman, 2019). A researcher from the human-computer interaction research field, Clara Mancini, published a manifesto in 2011 which described scientific aims, methodological approach, and ethical principles of Animal-computer interaction (ACI) (Mancini, 2011). Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) uses the technology for/with animals by putting animals at the center as users, stakeholders, or contributors (Mancini, 2017).
Our study shows interactants through three engagements: cat-human interaction, human-cat-human interaction, and cat-non-humans (animal) interaction. All actors that seem independent from each other are intertwined circles that affect each other due to taking part in the same network. On this point, ANT acts as a tool to track the ways actors react and abuse the design objects and environments by providing a structure for each actor in the network to be considered on the same ground without division (Yaneva, 2009).
We started our field study by spotting areas where humans and stray cats interact. Sheltering and feeding-related interactions were the most visible ones among the observed interactions. We share a summary from observations, desk research, and chit-chats around the topic of cat shelters. We used observation and chit-chat methods in two different neighborhoods (urban city vs. small province) where the first author has continuous access. We focused on particular living areas of stray cats that include interaction instruments of caregivers, tools, and approaches. Initial actors of our observations were stray cats, human feeders, and the non-human mediums (e.g. cat foods, food containers, cat houses) of this interaction. Later we extended the list of animal actors with dogs, birds, insects. Repeatedly looking into the same locations allowed us to examine closer networks and human-human relationships shaped by the stray cat-human interaction routines. Human actors were whoever interacted with cats in the chosen environments. We also updated our notes and extended our human interactants to invisible others such as opposers of caring, veterinarians, and participants of the feeder community.
The results revealed that most of the time human stakeholders tend to be human-centric in their feeding and caring relations with stray cats. Prioritization of human practices is indicated according to the initial results in this interaction. It is unclear how the observed interactions and objects relate to the cat’s practices, well-being, or comfort in several cases.
Observation of cat shelters as artifacts: Each neighborhood observed included multiple human made cat shelters (cat houses) actively used by cats. In terms of the material preferences of cat houses: wooden, cardboard, polystyrene, plastic versions have been observed in neighborhoods. Some of the shelters look like tiny houses designed for humans. They have doors, windows, and gable roof architecture, the most traditional aspects of a human residence. Other significant examples were cat shelters made from upcycled materials and human trash such as left wheels or shoe cabinets.
Observation of human actions and chit-chat regarding cat shelters: The neighborhood community and municipality decide on the locations of cat houses. Cat houses placed by individuals do not need municipal approval. The cat house providers want to protect stray cats from possible external effects. The most common sites to place the basic needs of animals are street corners, next to trees, parks, in front of houses, and next to garbage containers in streets. The living spaces are decided through human-human interactions.
Observation of cats and feeding practices: Cat foods are placed in various containers such as plastic yogurt cups, plates, waste containers, or directly on the ground; and environments such as parks, street corners, in front of houses, and next to garbage containers. However, since the ecosystem consists of many animals, food is shared sometimes. We have seen that ants, dogs, and birds can benefit from cat food in our observation areas. Some natural hierarchies were observed such as not eating from the same source of food at the same time as other species. If the source is the same, the act of nutrition is performed one by one.
Observation of human actions and chit-chat: The will to feed stray cats far from people leads to placing cat feeding units next to the trash, leading to unhealthy food for cats. On the contrary, the neighbors who do not want the cats to be fed around their doors are in disagreeing with the neighborhood community about the random placement of feeding units. Locations of nutrition practices have been offered to cats side by side in the streets. One of the caregivers said that she does not prefer to leave cat food for a long time because of the ants. Consequently, she was feeding the stray cats with small amounts of food when the cats asked for more of her food. In this dialogue, she did not mention the cat’s preferences or whether cats were disturbed by the existence of ants or other animals on their plate.
Our work showed that continual human domination/privilege in our interactions and academic realms leads to an incomplete understanding of such interactions. In some cases, we observed positively intended practices caused an unexpected adverse outcome due to the lack of communication between species e.g. feeding stray cats on the ground rather than putting the food into a container or vice versa. As we discussed in cat house examples, caregivers/communities may underrepresent the standpoints of animals in various contexts. Existing shelters supply the essential needs of stray cats such as sheltering, sleeping, and feeding; however, the under-researched issue is the core mindset of the community while designing and placing these facilities that contain anthropocentric and anthropomorphic views.
The main purpose of this field study is to prepare the ground in order to include all actors, mediators, intermediaries, and participants into the design process equally. Creating a non-centric environment in society is possible with the help of technology.
Cucumak, S., Apaydın, P., & Subaşı, Ö. (2021). Decentralizing Carer-Stray Cat Interactions in Local Neighborhoods. Short Paper Proceedings of the Workshop on Designing for/with/around Nature: Exploring new frontiers of outdoor-related HCI Co-located with 14th Biannual Conference of the Italian SIGCHI Chapter (CHItaly 2021) (pp. 1-7). From http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-2901/short1.pdf
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