“(Animals) permeate our history and we theirs: tug at the threads and our stories, woven as they are into the same tightly knit tapestry, will not disentwine.”[i]
Animals permeate my personal history. And as such, I love this quote by Brett Walker in Animals and the Intimacy of History. I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s readings and as this is our last post, I am going to take the liberty to draw very personal examples in arguing not only for their agency, but for the existence of specific animal cultures as well. Beyond their own agency and culture, animals have played a significant role in and deeply impacted our family’s history.
I live on a farm. And over the past twenty-five years, I have been intimately connected with animals, most intimately with cows, goats and dogs. Almost everyday I interacted with them and they interacted with me.
When looking at definitions of agency, I like the one purported by Linda Nash and credited to animals by Walker in his piece. By this definition, agency of a person or animal is the “ability to convert ideas into purposeful actions”.[ii] So can animals really do this? I believe they can and do.
My dog, Rosie, is a Great Pyrenees. She’s a big dog but very shy. She only allows my husband and I to pet her. Everyday, I believe she converts ideas into purposeful actions. Let me give you just one example. My neighbor owns chickens. Every night she locks her chickens into a pen to help keep them safe. Often Rosie attends the nightly ritual. One night, after shutting the door to the chicken coup, my neighbor began walking back into her house; however, Rosie started barking up a storm. My neighbor tried to dismiss her and tell her to go home, but Rosie continued barking in the vicinity of the chicken coup door. My neighbor finally turned around and looked back at Rosie only to discover that one of the chickens was still outside the coup. Rosie was desperately trying to tell her. In this example, Rosie converted the idea of a “chicken is in danger” or “a chicken is out of place” or some similar idea (of course I do not know and cannot know her exact idea) in to a purposeful action of barking and yes, communicating, to my neighbor. Rosie showed agency. Rosie showed “intelligence, emotion and purpose”.[iii] What Rosie did is not too different from my yelling at my neighbor that one of the chickens was still out. Other examples would show that Rosie shows agency every day.
I also believe that animals have their own cultures, sometimes heavily influenced by their human caretakers, and sometimes developed on their own. I want to turn to the goats for examples here. Once we gave a goat to a neighbor. Not long after the goat left, the new owners called, said she was sick and they didn’t know what to do. So, we went back and picked her up. She was sick. The new owner had not taken proper care of her and she was very sick. The vets felt she needed to be “put down” but that almost never happens at our farm, because we believe all animals should have a chance to live. My husband, who is the best ‘animal’ nurse I have every met, began working with her. We both attended her around the clock. She recovered and lived to die of old age. The ‘culture’ she encountered on one farm was very different from the ‘culture’ she encountered on another farm. Albeit, those cultures were manmade, they were different and certainly impacted her life.
Animals make their own culture as well. In our goatherd, the dominant goat is a male whether that we raised from a baby. The mother abandoned him shortly after birth and my husband found him cold and almost dead in the evening. He slept on my stomach that night as I fed him about every two hours with a syringe. He lived and actually became a house pet for a few weeks. After we put him in the herd, he grew to be a very tall, dominant leader. Because he is still attached to us, he always comes to the barn when he sees us. And all the other goats follow him. Also, because “buddy” is tame, the other goats in the herd do not often register us as a threat. So, one of the aspects of the culture of our goatherd is a relative “tameness” to humans. “Buddy” is the main driver in this culture.
Animals should always be a part of history. My children’s childhood history is intricately entwined with those of goats and cows and dogs and cats. This just is common sense to me. Animals have agency. They impact our history, and we impact theirs.
I somewhat apologize for a “less than academic” post, but my experiences with animals brought home the point to me that historians need to look at animals and their impact on history and also of our impact on their history. I’m almost positive that had Elizabeth Elsing tried to milk one of our milk goats that my husband would be calling for her punishment not only for stealing our milk but also for upsetting our goat![iv]
[i] Brett L. Walker, “Animals and the Intimacy of History,” History and Theory 52, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 49, doi:10.1111/hith.10687.
[ii] Ibid., 51.
[iii] Chris Pearson, “Dogs, History, and Agency,” History and Theory 52, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 136, doi:10.1111/hith.10683.
[iv] Erica Fudge, “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” History and Theory 52, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 26, doi:10.1111/hith.10682.