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Sharon Merz

I am an anthropology consultant for an international NGO called SIL. SIL works with minority communities to promote their language and culture. I have been based in northwestern Benin since 2002, but also work in the wider region. I grew up surrounded by animals and from my first days in Africa I’ve been interested in how people interact with animals. When I did my MA at Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, the course I found the most interesting was Dr Samantha Hurn’s “Human-Animal Interactions in Anthropological Perspective”. So when she encouraged me to go on and do a PhD, I quickly decided I wanted to do it on this topic. I’d already learnt a lot about human–animal interactions in northwestern Benin, especially with regard to how people relate to their totem animals (such as the crocodile) and interact with their “family” (domestic) animals. My other academic interests and areas of research include death studies, cryptozoology, the impact of Christianity and linguistics. I am also an amateur ornithologist.

My Anthropology PhD research centred on human–animal relations amongst the Bebelibe people of northwestern Benin, West Africa, with a particular focus on totemic relationships. Generally, many anthropologists draw on semiotics (the study, use and interpretation of signs and symbols) for their analysis. “Others” – whether human or nonhuman – together with their ontological experiences, are thus interpreted in terms of what they signify for the “self” as a symbol, icon or index. I questioned whether semiotics can adequately explain how people understand their relationship with totem animals and animals more generally. I also investigated the wider implications for the study of human–animal relationships more generally.

Academic bodies:

Fellow with the Royal Anthropological Institute

Member of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth

Member of the Anthropology Department, SIL International