Studying the Human–Animal Bond
American Humane Endowed Chair Kevin Morris is improving animal and human welfare through rigorous research
Although the MSW students weren’t what drew Kevin Morris to the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) five years ago as a scholar-in-residence, they’ve been a big part of his reason for staying on as a research associate professor and director of research at the school’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC).
“The part of this job that I have grown to love the most is working with students, mentoring students in research and seeing them grow,” says Morris, who has been appointed the American Humane Endowed Chair at GSSW. “The students who have worked with me — and still work with me — are some of the most talented researchers I’ve worked with in any environment.”
That’s high praise coming from a scholar of Morris’s caliber. His pedigree includes a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry and more than 20 years in preclinical and clinical cancer research before he switched his focus to research related to the human–animal bond.
Morris’s interest in human–animal connections was sparked while he was running clinical trials of a new radiation treatment for advanced cancer. His two German shepherd dogs were often present while patients were being treated in a large, loud prototype machine. On a day when he had left the dogs at home, a patient who had been responding to treatment abruptly refused.
“When I asked why, she said Roma and Buck made her feel safe while she was in the machine,” Morris recalls. “They lowered her anxiety and allowed her to stay in the machine and be treated. That really impacted me.”
Morris shifted his focus to “trying to understand how to improve animal welfare and the human–animal bond through more rigorous research,” first at the Animal Assistance Foundation, then at IHAC, where he oversees research in two primary areas: animals in therapeutic environments and animals in communities.
Under Morris’ leadership, IHAC’s research portfolio continues to expand — ranging from identifying best practices for prison dog training programs, to examining community-level impacts of animal welfare policies, to understanding the effects of animal-, horticultural- and natural-environment-based interventions for youth. Through study of The Humane Society of the United States Pets for Life program, for instance, “We now have much greater understanding of the significance of animal well-being and welfare as a protective factor for community resilience,” says IHAC Executive Director Philip Tedeschi. “Those connections have largely not been studied before. They’re difficult to study — there are lots of variables. It takes an expert and a really creative and advanced researcher to do that.”
Morris involves MSW students in every aspect of that work. Currently, 63 MSW student interns work across IHAC’s two research labs under direction of research associates Sloane Hawes and Erin Flynn, who both graduated from GSSW in 2017 with MSWs and certificates in Animal-Assisted Social Work.
“Kevin really reignited my interest and love for research,” says Flynn, a former ecology and conservation researcher who now manages studies related to therapeutic human-animal interactions. “He puts a lot of trust in students’ ability to figure things out and never underestimates what people can accomplish when they’re given the freedom to explore.”
“He sits alongside his students and brings them along with him,” adds Hawes, who manages work related to animals in communities. Students participate in everything from data cleaning to writing manuscripts, and although Morris maintains an unwavering commitment to academic and research rigor, students rise to meet the high expectations.
“Kevin has brought students into the real-life application of these projects. Internships can otherwise feel somewhat artificial, but that’s not the case for IHAC,” Tedeschi says. “These are real-life projects with policy, legislative or clinical implications and applications that students are part of informing, designing and implementing.”
Most programs studying human–animal interactions are connected to veterinary medicine, but at IHAC the work is attached to a social science agenda, and ultimately, a social justice agenda.
“We’ve identified a number of really profound impacts of animals on people, and vice versa. Our work has focused on the intersections between animals and the same marginalized and underserved communities that are the focus of social work,” says Morris. “These intersections are an important perspective in trying to improve outcomes within these populations.”
“As a field, we are really in need of strong evidence to support what we know intuitively are beneficial ideas,” Tedeschi notes. “Kevin brought his experience doing clinical trials to the questions of whether animals can improve human health and has started a critical discussion about the inextricable connection between people and animals in many types of settings.”
Social work is expanding its understanding of concepts such as person-in-environment to include nonhuman animals in social and ecological systems, Tedeschi adds. “That’s the kind of evidentiary support coming out of Kevin’s research agenda. It is going to change the field of social work.”