Animal History: The Final Frontier?

This image is the same as the issue cover, children feed an elephant at a zoo.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Susan Nance

Animal history is one of the hottest and most controversial subfields in academia and in trade publishing today, although many people may not really understand what it is. In this essay, I explain the origins and development of the subfield, its interdisciplinary nature, strategies and topics, and the important questions animal history raises for all of us. To be clear, animal history is not a kind of sentimental animal story, nor an attempt to explain animals’ “points of view” or imagine them as a human-style minority group. It is not an account of human ideas about and uses of animals, although that history is an important building block of the field. While it can include the biographies of famous animals like Seabiscuit, Nim Chimpsky, or various presidential pet dogs, animal history seeks to account for the countless anonymous animals in our past. And, even though animal history includes some feel-good stories, much of animal history is difficult and even embarrassing to humanity. Of course, historians do not shy away from the shocking or regrettable aspects of the past, but document them so that we may learn from them. The question is: Are we ready for what we may find out, especially when we live in a place and time when so many of us are squeamish about seeing how the sausage gets made, both literally and figuratively?

Animal history is a methodologically and politically challenging type of historical research that attempts to approximate the past as it occurred for other species on the planet without overstepping what is knowable. It requires some radical interdisciplinarity—the willingness to draw (potentially) from fields ranging from philosophy to veterinary medicine to find principles or theories with which to read historical sources for evidence. Since a handful of formative studies put animals on our historical radar about twenty years ago, animal history has ballooned, and many historians are turning to it as “side projects” to dissertations, or as a second book project after pursuing more conventional topics and methodologies.

Collectively the field asks: Considering the impending environmental crises we find on the planet today, are we prepared to let go of the idea that “history” is primarily a record of human agency and instead see it as an approximation of the collective past of all species? Some historians and readers find that idea deeply unsettling. This may be, in part, since animal history asks us to consider the degree to which being “human” means being the supreme species on the planet. Some worry that to give equal historical standing to animals that were hunted, exterminated, exploited, or forced to endure suffering for our comfort (imagine the millions of nineteenth-century workhorses or twentieth-century sows confined to farrowing crates) is to question our uniqueness and right to do as we wish on earth. At its most unsettling, animal history is really about what it has meant to be human through our interaction with other species and perhaps make a change in the future.

This is very challenging research. Yet it is exactly the challenge that has drawn so many people into this growing field. There are many puzzles to solve when writing about nonhumans, and one must be strategic and imaginative to complete that research. To clarify, let me explain the various approaches to animal history and the history of the subfield.

Imagine an academic spectrum. On one end we find philosophy and cultural studies, followed by literature and the social sciences, including political science, anthropology and geography, and perhaps law. Beyond that we might place psychology, environmental science, biology and, on the far end, agricultural science and veterinary medicine. Animal history can reside anywhere along that spectrum, depending upon the interdisciplinary research used to interpret the historical record.

In the beginning, however, animal history was a traditional, empirical practice of documenting human uses of animals, especially by animal breeders and traders. Early histories such as John H. Wallace’s The Horse of America in His Derivation, History, and Development (1897) or James McDonald and James Sinclair’s History of Hereford Cattle (1886) were expressions of the interest in tracking animal lineage and form, which was an expression of the nineteenth-century idea of livestock “improvement.”

A century later academic historians began documenting many of the same animals—and their owners—to explain and contextualize that culture of “improvement.” Margaret Derry’s books on historical horse and cattle breeding in North America explained breeding as the result of an urge to manage and control nature in a market economy. For the English case, in The Platypus and the Mermaid (1998) Harriet Ritvo, a historian of science, demonstrated that nineteenth-century taxonomy and the scientific acceptance of the concept of species was a project to understand, organize, categorize, and better exploit animalkind and to define English identity in the process. Recently, horses have come to dominate the new histories of North American industrialization such as Clay McShane and Joel Tarr’s Horse in the City (2007) and Ann Greene’s Horses at Work (2008), which emphasize industrialization’s reliance on animals.

These analyses of human uses of animals helped people think about the history of our ideas about animals. Certainly, the two are interdependent. The classic line from Claude Lévi-Strauss is that animals are “good to think” with. That is, they deserve examination since they are vehicles for human culture and politics. For instance, why did America’s founding fathers find it an insult to be called a “puppy” by a rival? Or consider what it meant to slaves to be equated to “livestock.” Our thinking about animals has defined what it means to be human, and people used ideas about animals to express identities of being a man, woman, wealthy, poor, citizen, slave, child, or of a particular ethnicity or region.

The historical work on animals-as-ideas draws from early studies of animal symbolism and anthropological work on animal iconography and mythology and, especially in the last two decades, the interdisciplinary field known as animal studies. Anchored in philosophy, literature, and media studies, animal studies examines human thinking about and representations of animals. Histories in this vein include art histories that analyze animals in painting, sculpture, photography, and the moving image. The “Animal” book series (Reaktion Books) features several dozen wonderful and instructive titles, each organized around the history of a particular type of animal: Camel, Horse, Cockroach, Ape, Eel, and so on. They demonstrate how the historical uses of and ideas about animals informed one another over space and time.

There are also histories of zoos and taxidermy, such as Rachel Poliquin’s beautifully illustrated book on “stuffed” animal art, The Breathless Zoo (2012), Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan’s analysis of animal imagery in postcards, Beauty and the Beast (2010), and Jennifer Price’s Flight Maps (1999). All of these explain how and why Americans have used animal bodies to tell stories about themselves in different times and places. Also important are the always readable biographies of noted naturalists and zoo managers such as Gregory Dehler’s new volume on William Temple Hornaday, The Most Defiant Devil (2013) and Jay Kirk’s volume, Kingdom Under Glass (2011), on noted gorilla conservationist and preserver of the hide of Jumbo the elephant, Carl Akeley. Those works draw less from animal studies theory, instead situating these men in historical contexts to show how, through the capture and display of animals for the public, modern Americans came to understand extinction, conservation, wildness, nature, race, and humankind’s supposedly supreme role on the planet.

As we travel down the spectrum of animal history, the next stop is histories of human-animal relationships, where the classic American text is Virginia Anderson’s book, Creatures of Empire (2006), which documents how the independent action of livestock helped colonize North America. Anderson examined colonial records and found pigs who ransacked Indian corn plantations, and horses, cattle, and fowl who likewise followed their own instincts to unknowingly help settlers control the colonial landscape. These are some of the most intriguing historical moments, caused by miscommunication between people and animals. Animal history is also replete with cases where events took an unexpected turn due to the fact that animals live in parallel realities shaped by their own priorities, instincts, and experiences, which people have always struggled to understand and control.

A person stands next to a dog curled up in a ball outside

Dogs have always been central to American domestic life, but the kinds of dogs people have chosen to keep has changed dramatically over the last century

Likewise, the histories of pet keeping and wild animal migrations in Katherine Grier’s Pets in America (2006) and Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars (2013) chronicle how particular animals in specific times and places adapted to—even exploited—human habitats and became permanent parts of human life. These types of studies draw on diaries, advertising, newspapers, training manuals, photography, and crucial scientific work on animal cognition and behavior that explain how and why many species have prospered by adapting to our environments, be they Gilded Age dogs or post-war suburban deer.

A growing number of studies are informed by new sociological and anthropological work on how people and animals interact, broadly known as Anthrozoology. In my own research on nineteenth-century circuses, I employed Anthrozoological research explaining how people and horses shape one another’s behavior in a given context. Those ideas, combined with scientific literature on elephant behavior, cognition, and social development helped me see in old memoirs and newspaper articles evidence of how elephants and humans in the circuses drove one another’s behavior, creating patterns that could be happy, but were usually stressful or even deadly.

Importantly, animals have no dedicated archives and cannot write their own biographies or memoirs. All of our archives, libraries, and museums are designed to capture records of human activity and thought. Consequently, animal history requires looking for traces of animals in historical sources that were usually created for very different purposes. When I began working this way, it was transformative. Before, had I looked at a photograph of a man loading an elephant into a turn-of-the-century railcar, I would have analyzed it for information about the man’s ethnicity, economic status, the location of the photo, and other good social and business history details. Now I do that, but first I look at the elephant and ask: How long was the elephant in the railcar? What temperature was it? Was there any food or water for him? Did his feet hurt from foot disease caused by standing in his own urine? Were any people inside that tiny space with him? Did anyone get injured that day, elephant or human?

Moving on down our animal-history spectrum, we find an approach to animal history closely related to environmental history and the history of veterinary medicine. Again, consider that when reading or writing about other people in the past, we assume quite a bit in interpreting their sources and stories since we share human-ness with them. We probably assume too much in many cases. The divide between historian and historical subject cannot be ignored in animal studies. One must think about how to interpret historical reports of animal behavior to understand what those animals’ lives were like.

Researchers working on wild animals are prominent in this mode, and often employ natural history, ethology, wildlife management, and other scientific research on historical or contemporary populations or species in order to understand the behaviors of historical creatures. Jon Coleman’s book, Vicious (2006), on conflict between people and wolves (overwhelmingly instigated by people) since the colonial era employs studies of wolf behavior. He is able to explain why, unlike the coyote, wolves inadvertently provoked human attacks and were unable to adapt to human activities to survive. Similar studies of extinction and wildlife management such as Andrew Isenberg’s well-known study, The Destruction of the Bison (2000), or Etienne Benson’s history of scientific technologies for tracking wild animals, Wired Wilderness (2010), work with one foot in the sciences and indicate that animal historians must go the extra mile to get to know historical animals as living, historically contingent beings with their own behaviors, senses, and goals.

A cattle drive!

Do food animals have histories as individuals? As historians, are we ready to face it?

Lastly, there is the history of animals we have eaten. By and large, the histories of food production focus on animals as parts of an agricultural or industrial system (mirroring the scientific literature closely). There are many histories of meat, milk, eggs, and fish as products. Yet often the living animals who were everywhere present in these histories are not central to the resultant stories of mass production, scientific efficiency, mass marketing, and consumer culture. What would the history of food look like if we wrote about food animals as historically-contingent individuals? For instance, we might investigate what it was like to be a beef cow in, say, 1885 or 1965, and investigate where she lived; how many pregnancies she had; how her calves were removed from her; whether she had mastitis and the historical moment in veterinary medicine; government regulation and beef prices in which she lived; and when and how she was born and died. Animals did not willingly participate in this human-animal interaction and we are all complicit in this history. Perhaps that is why this last topic is still a bit of a third rail in animal history, although probably not for long

I would argue that the total past of animals is important on its own terms and intrinsically valuable. Yet it is still a niche subfield. Other than a 2008 panel on animals as actors in the American past that I organized for the OAH conference in New York City, the history of animals does not feature much at our annual meetings, which seems still overwhelmingly concerned with human stories and politics. The bulk of new animal history research appears at animal studies conferences or at the yearly meetings of the American Society for Environmental History or Agricultural History Society. To some, it may seem that animal history is not important, since human troubles and politics abound. Still, our study of the past is not a zero sum game. I follow the old animal studies and animal welfare science truism that what happens to animals happens to people, so in studying animals’ lives we will learn about humanity, too. To extract animals from our telling of the past is a choice, and increasingly a highly political one that ignores our interdependence with other species on the planet and with one another.

And, as with many aspects of the past, there are only some elements of the nonhuman past that are available to historians. Animal historians are hard at work, finding new sources and modes of analysis that allow us to account for the animals, who are always present in every moment of the past. The researchers working on the animal history do not all emerge from a single political perspective (say, animal rights versus welfarist versus utilitarian), nor need they. There is much too much work yet to be done and to require some kind of ethical purity test that might exclude researchers or readers seems counterproductive. Animal history is about diversity and inclusion, whether of species or perspectives.


Susan Nance is Professor of U.S. History at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She is the editor of The Historical Animal (2015) and has also authored various works including Animal Modernity: Jumbo the Elephant and the Human Dilemma (2015) and Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and Business in the American Circus (2013).