Skip to main content

The Human and the Animal

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tisch College supports the work of Veterinary School professor Megan Mueller, an expert on human-animal interaction.


After fire, music, and language, but before agriculture, cities, and writing, there were dogs. While the specifics of the domestication of dogs by early humans are much debated, it is entirely plain that for the whole of recorded history, and much of pre-history, our lives have been shared with and shaped by the animals we keep.

After dogs came sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, cats, chickens, donkeys, ducks, horses, and many others. In addition to mammals, humans have tamed insects like honey bees and silkworms, song and ornamental birds, fish, frogs, lizards, and even leeches.  Animals and their products provide us with food, clothing, transportation, labor, fertilizer, medicine, research, sport, and companionship.  Until very recently however, little academic study had been done on the role animals play in human development, particularly child development.

One of the leaders of a new generation of researchers exploring this connection is Megan Kiely Mueller, A08, G10, G13. Having recently completed her Ph.D. at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development (IARYD) in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, next month Mueller will become a research assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and will work with faculty at the Center for Animals and Public Policy.  The position has been newly created with seed funding from Tisch College and a matching grant from Pfizer Animal Health, Inc., now Zoetis.

“Active citizenship is about paying more than lip service,” said Mueller.  “I am committed to research that has direct applications in aiding families, and creating systems that allow them to thrive.  People are deeply connected to their animals and feel passionately about them.  We get excited and want to be involved with animals.  My job is to do good science, and I always want to remember the context in which that happens.  Human-animal interaction is a forward-thinking, inter-disciplinary field, and Tufts is leading the way for all universities.”

Mueller’s own passion for animals led her to examine the roles they play in human health and positive development for children, families, and communities.  When she was a doctoral research assistant, she contributed to the IARYD’s  4-H Study of Positive Youth Development.

“Megan is at the cusp of emerging interest in the social and behavioral sciences in human-animal interaction,” said professor Richard M. Lerner, interim chair of the child development department and director of the IARYD.  “Arguably, she is already the nation’s leader in bringing a developmental perspective to the field. Before Megan, no one in youth development was actively engaged in research on this connection. There were book chapters and articles, but not from a developmental perspective.”

During the Spring 2013 semester, Mueller co-taught a new course with Professor Lerner:  Human-Animal Interaction in Childhood and Adolescence, focused on integrative research and applications.  Students formulated a unique statement of a problem in the field, reviewed the existing literature, and crafted a proposal for a project that would yield insight into a potential solution.

“We had guest speakers from the Cummings School, the School of Medicine, and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy,” said Mueller.  “The course addressed animal welfare, ethics, animal assisted therapies, infectious diseases, child development and pediatrics, and animals in education.  The nature of the subject is highly interdisciplinary, and the students came from many different fields and generated a lot of really great ideas and projects.”

Mueller will bring that same broad view and interdisciplinary approach to her position at the Cummings School.  There she will play a critical role in supporting active citizenship across the institution, helping the school push the boundaries of its engaged research.

“Tisch College is committed to infusing active citizenship across all Tufts schools and developing unique solutions that meet each school’s needs” said Nancy Wilson, dean ad interim of Tisch College.  “At the medical school we provided support for a Community Service Learning coordinator because that was their priority need for advancing active citizenship development for their students. At the Cummings School, Dean Deborah Kochevar and I worked together to pinpoint their priority need, which is  to support their active citizenship research agenda.  Additional research support in this area can be very helpful for the broader research agenda at the school, and for increasing the school’s impact on human and animal public policy.”

Among Mueller’s research projects will be a collaboration with the Military Child Education Coalition.  Working with children from both military and civilian families, she and her colleagues will examine the roles animals can play in providing stable social support in early adolescence.

“At the Cummings School, we are dedicated to the idea that the health of humans, animals, and the ecosystems we share are all inter-related and mutually supporting,” said Dr. Deborah Kochevar, dean of the Cummings School.  “Human-animal interactions are the cornerstone of this approach.  Megan is doing the kind of research that allows us to be evidence based – to say that it’s not just a feeling that humans and animals are good for each other, we can prove it and it makes tangible differences in people’s lives.”

Mueller is deeply interested in how animals function in communities. She will be working with the school’s existing community outreach programs and a potential project at the Tufts Medical Center’s Floating Hospital for Children’s Center for Youth Wellness that explores using animals to teach kids about nutrition and obesity.

“Animal case studies are the best hook for getting and keeping children engaged with this material,” said Mueller.  “The same concepts apply for them as they do for people.  So, for example, we can follow a dog on his weight loss journey, and that communicates ideas about exercise and healthy eating in ways that are less personal and less threatening.”