Animals, Agency, and History

I was hoping I would have something profound and poignant to say for my last (maybe?) post. However, as I anticipate good old fashioned Turkey Day tomorrow, I am not feeling too profound and my Thanksgiving break mind is feeling utterly not creative and fully on vacation. Nevertheless, I do feel I can still do an adequate job reflecting on our last set of readings, my favorite readings of the semester. These readings resonated with me especially due to my final paper and historiography project. Indeed, a few of this week’s articles make an appearance within my tracing of World War I animal history and agency history. One in particular, Chris Pearson’s “Dogs, History, and Agency” was especially useful as a framework for my own writing and Pearson does an excellent job weaving together both the history of dogs in World War I and the history of animal agency.

Interestingly, it is one of the last articles I read for this week and that I did not plan to include in my paper that most caught my eye. David Gary Shaw’s “The Torturer’s Horse: Agency and Animals in History” did an excellent job of describing what agency is precisely and I appreciated Shaw’s argument that “Ultimately, historical agency is likely always to involve human beings, but there is also space for animals to act with people” (146). I also enjoyed Susan Pearson’s “Speaking Bodies, Speaking Minds: Animals, Language, History.” This article, though not entirely relevant to my final paper, still proved to be highly interesting. I had never really considered the fact that there have been debates concerning animal language in the past and that many animal protectionists have argued that they are speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. This article contributes to discussions of animal-human relations, a theme I have discovered while researching this past semester: are animals similar to humans? Can they be considered human-like in some aspects? Or are humans and animals distinctly different? Are humans inherently above animals on some sort of energy chain or scale?

This week’s readings also got me thinking about my own thoughts on animal agency for the first time (surprisingly enough). I am honestly not entirely sure how I feel about animal agency, even after all of the reading and researching I have done on the subject. It is incredibly difficult to know what animals are feeling or thinking and what their intentions are. Thus, humans must speculate when it comes to discerning such animal emotions. Nevertheless, I will often look at Robert and think I understand what is going through his little head. And yet, am I simply projecting human-like qualities onto him (anthropomorphism?) Or does he really have agency? Perhaps we will never fully know. Or perhaps historians, working with those outside of their field (including biologists and psychologists, among others) will be able to uncover an adequate answer to the questions surrounding animal agency in the very near future.