CHAIRE: Exploring The Animal/Human Bond

Story by Yiannis Sarris | Photos by Taylor Luntz and Sherrie Whaley

“We have a presence on the website and social media, but as far as a ‘physical location,’ our physical location is actually many locations. All the community partners and researchers involved all have physical locations.”

The opioid epidemic continues to ravage our state and country. But, a new program out of The Ohio State University is using animals to help the indirect victims of the scourge—children. 

The Center for Human-Animal Interactions Research and Education (CHAIRE) plans to use therapy dogs with children whose families have been affected by opioid use. The dogs will provide emotional support and help the youngsters cope with what they’ve endured.

CHAIRE is a new initiative devoted to expanding our knowledge of the relationship between people, animals and the environments they co-exist within.

Despite being called a “center,” CHAIRE is actually more of a program or even a virtual center, said Kelly George, assistant professor of animal sciences and co-director of CHAIRE.

Outside of their main campus office in 102 Animal Sciences Building, CHAIRE is more of a series of collaborations among researchers, members of the community, students and professors.   

It’s a mixture of research projects, classes and opportunities to interact with and learn about animals in four focus areas: welfare and behavior, conservation, companionship and zooeyia. 

Jack Hanna and members of the Franklin County Sheriff's Office K-9 Therapy Unit.Welfare and behavior focuses on how animals interact with each other, humans and the environments around them—as well as the well-being of the animals themselves. Conservation concerns itself with the effects of human actions, and how it affects wildlife and ecosystems. Companionship refers to the social benefits humans achieve through interactions with animals, in addition to benefits to the animals themselves. Finally, zooeyia refers to how people can benefit physically and mentally from interacting with animals.

Each focus area is distinct, yet “they are inherently interrelated” George said. “We see lots of crossing over from researchers, to thinking about the way we present education materials, to community partners.” 

One example of this is a collaboration between CHAIRE and The Columbus Zoo.

“The Columbus Zoo needs to be concerned about welfare while also considering conservation, companionship and health benefits,” George said. Currently, a number of research projects are underway with the zoo. 

Collaboration can be seen not only between focus areas but between colleges as well. 

The most prominent example of cross-college collaboration is CHAIRE’s groundbreaking Opioid Initiative, which saw collaboration between the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Social Work and the College of Nursing. Athens County Children Services is also involved as a community partner.  

“The idea is that we want to be proactive in recognizing indirect victims of this conflict. We want to figure out how to help them cope with new stressors in their life,” George said. 

CHAIRE hopes that this initial study with therapy dogs will show positive effects, and that these effects can be extrapolated onto a larger scale. 

“We want to quantify the effects of having animals involved in therapy sessions,” George said. If the study goes well, Ohioans can expect to see this innovative solution spread well beyond Athens County, possibly even into their own neighborhoods.

Beyond the Opioid Initiative, CHAIRE is also working on many other research projects, particularly with the Columbus Zoo. One project involves putting in place a new set of rules on caring for animals in zoos, using cheetahs as a case study to see how these rules affect the animals.

Brittany Fischer, a graduate student who is also program coordinator of CHAIRE, is conducting the research for her master’s program. 

“I’m looking at each individual cheetah and measuring their welfare and also focusing on the bond between the zoo staff and animals,” explained Fischer.

Such studies highlight one of the most unique features about CHAIRE—the wide range of animals that are of interest. While the Department of Animal Sciences has traditionally focused on livestock and farm animals, CHAIRE has an interest in a multitude of species: anything from rats to elephants to dolphins and everything in between. 

“The exciting thing that CHAIRE brings is that we are focused on so many different species” Fischer said. “Our goal is to address research questions that cater to everyone’s different interests.”

A Columbus Zoo cheetah greets guests at CHAIRE's first annual fundraiser. Fischer is pursuing a graduate degree in animal sciences with a specialization in human-animal interactions through CHAIRE. The center is also home to an undergraduate minor in human-animal interactions. Students involved in either program have opportunities to learn and interact with animals, conduct research and go on field trips (both locally and abroad) to experience human-animal interactions. 

One example of student research is that of Nicole Lorig, who conducted a study on the effect classical music has on pigs. Lorig found that classical music, such as Mozart’s Divertimento No. 7, decreased instances of aggression between pigs.

Such passion for learning and researching human-animal interactions is what pushed George to create CHAIRE.

“I wanted to start reaching out to people with a similar interest. It happened organically, and eventually I went to my boss and just said, ‘I have this idea,’” George said.

The chair of the Department of Animal Sciences at the time, Henry Zerby, was extremely supportive. 

“I have yet to receive a negative response. That tells me that there are so many people interested in the relationship with animals. It tells me that we are onto something here,” said George.

John Foltz, the current chair of the Department of Animal Sciences, believes CHAIRE is especially relevant at a time when human and animal interactions are at their highest and most complex.

“Society’s interaction with animals is incredibly complicated. It’s a continuum from raising them for food all the way to being our best friend, such as a dog who has been part of the family for 20 years. The whole range of how we deal with them as a society is what CHAIRE is hoping to shed some light on,” Foltz said.

“Animals make our lives richer. The companionship they give is tangible and we are doing a lot more research in that area,” he said. “CHAIRE puts us squarely in the center of being relevant to society and how we interact with animals.”

Jack HannaThis positive interaction was showcased on Sept. 19 at CHAIRE’s first annual fundraiser.

Held on campus, the event was keynoted by Jack Hanna, or “Jungle Jack” as many know him. Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and one of the most notable animal experts in the United States, stressed the importance of a center like CHAIRE and how with animals, there is always something new to discover. 

In addition to food and speakers, potential donors had the opportunity to interact with a variety of Columbus Zoo animals including a sloth, an African penguin, a cheetah, a red-tailed hawk, a yellow Labrador cheetah companion, an echidna and more. Therapy dogs from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Therapy K-9 Unit also attended the fundraiser. 

As George said: “Animals are such a significant part of everyone’s lives. I believe there is an innate belief we need to connect with other species, and recognition that we need to understand that connection better.”  

To learn more about CHAIRE and what those involved with the center are doing to better understand the connection between humans and animals, visit chaire.osu.edu.