Animals in History

I have never been a willing cat owner. As long as I can remember, our family cat-pets have always been involuntary additions, unwanted and dropped off. When there aren’t any no-kill shelters to take them in, and no voluntary kitty adopters to be found, they just kind of stuck around. They’ve always been there, yet I’ve never thought much about them.


After this week’s readings, though, I have more thoughts to think about them, and all other animal life, than I can possibly articulate. And, so, I’ll focus on one area that I find particularly interesting: the idea that the study of animals in history somehow threatens “human” history. And, again, I find myself smiling at the fact that we read this just a week after On Deep History and the Brain.


Throughout our readings this week, I was able to see the historiography of animal studies acting itself out in front of me. The conversation about how and why to study animals was occurring before my eyes, and it was captivating. And, yet, problematic. As Erica Fudge pointed out in her article “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” “The article also—and inseparably—asks us to think about the nature of that being called the human that so frequently goes without comment in historical (as in other humanities) scholarship.” Wow. So much right there. First, I wondered—is history a humanity or a social science? When considering animal studies, in particular, wouldn’t it be more categorized as a social science, given the methodology and auxiliary knowledge necessary to study in this field? Subsequently, I began to wonder—why does the study of animals need to speak to the study of humans? Does a study of Indonesian culture speak to the nature of llama farmers in South America? I suppose in some way it does, in a basic compare-contrast manner. Yet I can’t help but feel that the two are related, yes, yet valuable in their own way. Just the same as the study of the history of homo sapiens sapiens is related to yet distinctly valuable from the study of the history of the ovis canadensis, or bighorn sheep.


Here’s the problem, though—the homo sapiens sapiens are the ones writing the history. As historians continue to balk at “giving voice to” or “letting speak” marginalized groups (based on, for example, sexual orientation), they are actively attempting to do this with an “animal” population. Does the very act of acknowledging or documenting animal agency in part negate its potency?


Likewise, the problem arises of sympathies and similarities. As mentioned in our readings, there is the desire—no matter how valiantly suppressed—to understand animals on a human level. It is a human restriction—a historian cannot empathize with something they are not. And, if they do on some level, it is still a secondary or tertiary empathy that doesn’t appropriately capture the original sensation. Again, as Erica Fudge discussed, despite best intentions, this simply isn’t possible. To me, it makes sense that I can never empathize with the experiences of a bighorn sheep. But I also can never empathize with the experiences of a 17th century Spanish sailor, and yet I might try to make them the subject of my historical study. And so, I have to conclude, as I have all semester, that animal studies is an evolving area that is still methodologically developing, and which deserves its place on the scholarly table. As history becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, such areas of focus will become increasingly important. And I find that exciting.


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

4 Responses to Animals in History

  1. Kate Good

    I think you’re very right about the desire to understand animals on a human level. But as I think about the agency thing, is it possible for us to ever step away from that? Or even our own intrigue about it? I liked your example of the sailor, because we totally try to put in our own interpretations of what they thought, felt, experienced, etc. just like we do with animal agency. And it’s weird to think about that, but I am hopeful as you are about the increasing interdisciplinary direction of history and what it means for the future. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts in class; great post!

  2. I agree, and thanks so much for connecting this week’s animals to last week’s Deep History and the Brain! I especially like your musings about the sailor, which reminds us that our understanding of the “human” is also an evolving conceptual category.

  3. The connection of animal with the reading of last week is impressive. It makes me think of Haraway’s idea about animals: the distinction between animals and human has been canceled, as modern biology makes animals and human both organism. Thus, human and animals are one, and human cannot just dominate animals in the philosophical way because animals are not “others” from human. In this context, animal study will not threaten human history, but the idea of “human” itself changes because now human are not just “human”, they are organism, just like animals.

  4. Claire G.

    Hi Sara,

    I was also pleased that we did this reading after “On Deep History and the Brain,” because integrating animals into the study of history requires interdisciplinarity including psychology and the natural sciences. What do you think about how both week’s readings position people in relation to other beings and forces?

    (Also, I think you were a willing cat owner–you just were just not the only being exercising agency in the situation!)


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