Education is Key: An Interview with Richard Timmins, DVM
The special connection between humans and nonhuman animals was not a common topic of study when Richard Timmins, DVM attended veterinary school. The focus instead was on training aspiring veterinarians on how to help injured and ill pets and livestock. But, early in his career, Timmins realized the importance of understanding this interaction and decided to devote the bulk of his professional work to sharing his passion and knowledge of the human-animal bond with others. (Image(In a cat cafe in Taiwan.jpg, align=left, 300px, desc=Dr. Richard Timmins) failed - File not found)
In the rural Midwestern United States where he grew up, Timmins was exposed to animals in his community and through his family’s ownership of dogs, horses, and livestock. Animals were always an important part of his life, but the agrarian culture framed his view of animals with a utilitarian perspective. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, Timmins recognized that he was on the wrong career path, and he soon returned to his childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian. He went on to earn his veterinary degree from the University of California, Davis. After graduation, Timmins practiced companion animal medicine and surgery in Springfield and Eugene, Oregon. Although he placed the majority of his attention on “fixing pets,” he became increasingly aware of the unique bond between his clients and their pets.
A Turning Point
A few years into practice, Timmins was approached by a friend who had witnessed the tragic death of his dog. This friend, who happened to have a degree in counseling, was extremely frustrated that none of his friends or acquaintances seemed to understand the depth of his grief. Together, he and Timmins founded a pet loss support group to try to fill this void that faced pet owners who were experiencing the death of their beloved pets. Timmins was surprised to find that few of his colleagues in the veterinary profession seemed to understand the true nature of the human-animal bond. This sparked a realization for Timmins and drove him to dedicate his life to the tackling of a new goal.
“How people feel about their pet is most strongly revealed during a death,” Timmons said, “yet veterinarians were not trained to understand the grieving process and few even recognized the relationship between animals and owners.”
Frustrated in his attempt to find an appropriate academic venue for the study of the human-animal bond, Timmins continued in practice, joining his wife, Dr. Marcia Merryman. But, at the same time, he worked with a pet food company where he managed the veterinary services division. As part of this role, he traveled and lectured about nutrition and the human-animal bond, two areas that he soon discovered were lacking in the majority of veterinarians’ range of expertise. The human-animal bond continued to appear in the pet food industry as owners put just as much emotion and consideration into the selection of food for their pets as they did in the selection of food for their families. Timmins’ work in pet nutrition also brought him into contact with veterinary academicians in both North and South America.
By this time in the latter part of the 20th century, the appreciation of the human-animal bond was growing exponentially throughout society, yet veterinary professionals leading the industry were just beginning to grasp the significance of this relationship. [[Rick and Riley d.jpg, align=right, 250px, desc=Timmins and Riley at UC Davis in front of a memorial for police dogs lost in action.)]]
Center for Animals in Society at the University of California, Davis
Established in 1985, the Center for Animals in Society strived to better the lives and well-being of both humans and animals by taking a practical approach to sharing relevant scientific information. Timmins was selected as the Center’s director in 2003, and under his leadership, the Center supported research into aspects of human-animal relationships and focused on educating veterinary students, veterinarians, and the public about the human-animal bond. Timmins worked with Associate Dean Dr. Don Klingborg to develop one of the first courses in which veterinary students were taught practical skills, including leadership, communication, human-animal bond in health care for pets, and the need to promote animal welfare. Some of the research conducted with the support of the Center for Animals in Society included the study of stress in Search and Rescue dogs, veterinarians’ perception of the client-pet relationship, the impact of using animal models (feathers, skeletons, etc.) on elementary school students’ levels of empathy and respect for animals, the role of pets in a classroom for children with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the impact of reading to dogs on reading comprehension by children in elementary school.
Programs of this nature revealed extraordinary stories of success that propelled Timmins’ and his team’s continued efforts to study the human-animal bond. One such story of a boy diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome has stuck with Timmins and serves as proof that animals play a special role in the lives of humans.
“The young man was often faced with the inability to communicate with his loved ones,” said Timmins. “Every day, the boy would come home from school and take his dog to his bedroom, where he would tell him all about his day and feelings. Then, after that daily routine, he would go downstairs, now able to open up and share with his family. His father felt that is was because of this boy’s relationship with his dog that he was able to communicate with the human members of his family.”
An Education in Anthrozoology
In 2010, Timmins joined the faculty at Carroll College, a small undergraduate school in Helena, Montana, where Dr. Anne Perkins had established a human-animal bond program. Timmins worked with her to develop the first major and minor in Anthrozoology offered in the United States. This unique and hands-on academic program offers students the opportunity to work directly with horses and dogs, learning about the science underlying the human-animal bond. Timmins and his colleagues attempt to provide students with the background necessary to take their interests and turn them into careers that incorporate animals. Previous graduates of the program have secured jobs with humane organizations and established dog training businesses and some have gone on for advanced degrees in counseling with an emphasis on animal-assisted therapy, occupational therapy, psychology, and veterinary medicine.
“It is fascinating to see what we need to offer students so that they can successfully incorporate animals into their careers,” Timmins said.
The study of why and how humans interact with animals and the significance to both forms of life is an area that is gaining importance and appreciation, but Timmins knows that there is much more room for research.
The continued study in the area of anthrozoology will be necessary as new challenges face the industry. The rampantly growing human population and an increase in the cultural preference for animal source protein seen in countries such as China will bring about new challenges and concerns. Difficulties arising from these global changes include climate change and views of animal welfare, both hot topics that often lead to emotionally-charged debate and the pointing of fingers. When studying the impact of these hurdles on human-animal relationships, people need to understand that a scientific approach is essential.(Image(Speaking at Carroll College Anthrozoology graduation 2012.jpg, align=left, 250px, desc=Timmins speaking at the Carroll College Anthrozoology graduation in 2012.) failed - File not found)
Currently, Timmins is in the Republic of Georgia with his wife, a veterinarian who is training Georgian veterinarians how to recognize and cope with emerging and zoonotic diseases. While in Georgia, Timmins is remaining engaged in his own work by focusing on animal welfare and exploring the attitudes that many citizens of the rural country have toward animals. He is also continuing to impact students at Carroll College by teaching a distance learning class on Animal Welfare.
Timmins has also become involved with the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ), an organization dedicated to the scientific study of human-animal interactions. Through this organization, he hopes to develop an educational committee to focus on developing guidelines for teaching the discipline of Anthrozoology, in both undergraduate and graduate schools. Although the discipline is still in its infancy, the area of study is burgeoning internationally and is greatly in need of definition and direction.
“Education is the key,” Timmins said. “I am fortunate to be involved with the study of the interactions between humans and nonhuman animals, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds.”
To find out more about the Anthrozoology program at Carroll College, visit theirwebsite. Dr. Richard Timmins can be reached through email.