The New York Times reported yesterday that the latest burgeoning field of academic focus is something called “animal studies.” What, you might ask, is animal studies?

The courses are part of the growing, but still undefined, field of animal studies. So far, according to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the field includes “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.” Art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, religion — there are animals in all of them.

The field builds partly on a long history of scientific research that has blurred the once-sharp distinction between humans and other animals. Other species have been shown to have aspects of language, tool use, even the roots of morality. It also grows out of a field called cultural studies, in which the academy has turned its attention over the years to ignored and marginalized humans.

And who or what might have sparked this new field’s existence? Why philosophers, of course!

The most direct influence may have come from philosophy. Peter Singer’s 1975 book “Animal Liberation” was a landmark in arguing against killing, eating and experimenting on animals. He questioned how humans could exclude animals from moral consideration, how they could justify causing animals pain.

Lori Gruen, head of the philosophy department at Wesleyan and coordinator of the summer fellowship program in animal studies there, said one of the major questions in philosophy was “Who should we direct our moral interest to?” Thirty years ago, she said, animals were at the margins of philosophical discussions of ethics; now “the animal question is right in the center of ethical discussion.”

Right where it should be.

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