‘Brain and Barn’ Experiences for ACBS160 Students

Nov. 27, 2023

ACBS160 Human and Animal Interrelationships, co-taught by Drs. Dieter and Netzin Steklis, invites students to consider how the mind, behavior, and biology of both humans and domestic animals was changed by the domestication process—that is, the evolution of symbiotic mutualisms between humans and particular domesticated species. More commonly appreciated are changes in the domesticated animal, such as reduced body size and aggressive temperament, or increased productivity, but much less often considered are changes in the biology and behavior of the human domesticator.

The evolution of lactose tolerance in dairying societies is perhaps the best-known example of the human-cow symbiosis, some 10,000 years in the making. But there is also good evidence that over the millennia human emotion and cognition were shaped by the sustained, regular interactions with a diversity of domestic and wild animals. A significant part of the course covers this evidence, which includes a dive into brain anatomy and physiology.

Many students have little familiarity with such seemingly technical neurobiology, and the majority have never seen, let alone, touched a human brain. This semester, held a special “meet your brain” after-class session for all interested in donning rubber gloves to hold and marvel at a formalin-soaked human brain! The many ‘wows” and questions indicated that this was a valuable and unforgettable experience.

This ’brain encounter’ was followed up in October with the much anticipated once a semester ‘Animal Encounters’ event. A variety of domesticated animals are brought to the UA mall by TRAK (Therapeutic Ranch for Animals and Kids), giving students (and usually many passersby) the opportunity to interact with the very animals they have learned about in class. Students have loads of fun, but they are also asked to take a photo with an animal of their choice and to reflect briefly on what they have learned about that animal. They publish this animal selfie with a factoid to social media to educate their e-friends. A special plus for all is the relaxation and stress reduction experienced from cuddling with the friendly barn animals, be it chicken, goat, or sheep. Overall, a welcome treat and lasting educational experience.

Dr. Netzin Steklis standing with horse and two students
Dr. Netzin Steklis talks with students while they experience the ‘Animal Encounters’ event.