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Why Animals? Introducing “Animal Metropolis”

We’ve invited the editors of the six new titles in the Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press to introduce the book they’ve edited. In this post, Joanna Dean, Darcy Ingram, and Christabelle Sethna introduce Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Canada, forthcoming January 2017.

Each editor of Animal Metropolis came to this collection along a different path: am1Christabelle from feminist history, Darcy from work on wildlife conservation, and Joanna from research into city trees. The outcome was truly a collaboration. Here we reflect on what brought each of us to the project.

Christabelle Sethna

Several years ago I began paying more attention to the presence of animals in Canadian cities. Pampered pooches and temperamental tabbies were already familiar as pets and companion animals. But there were also errant raccoons that regularly upturned compost bins, crows that dive-bombed unsuspecting pedestrians and bears, cougars, and deer that showed up unannounced in backyards and parking lots every now and then. Not to mention a wide array of animal motifs, shapes and images on lampshades, coat hooks, salad plates, brooches and socks available in chic boutiques or quirky art markets. And let’s not forget the display of downtown public art, from Calgary’s cows and Toronto’s moose to the giant spider looming outside Ottawa’s National Gallery.

These observations coincided with a constellation of academic influences. Donna Haraway was always a staple for me as a scholar who cut her teeth on feminist history. So was Carol J. Adams, Josephine Donovan and Londa Schiebinger. Doing my own research on the use of plant and animal reproduction to teach children about human sexuality; designing courses in anti-racism and anti-colonialism; and meeting students and colleagues involved in environmental activism, anti-globalization protest, queer politics and Indigenous rights has inspired me deeply, as has the more recent work of Bruce Erickson, Catriona Sandilands, Maneesha Deckha and Myra Hird. Eager to do “something” on animals, I contacted Darcy Ingram in May 2012, who in turn communicated with Joanna Dean. Once Heather Hillsburg, then a doctoral student, suggested “urban animals” as a thematic hook, that something metamorphosed slowly but surely into an edited collection entitled Animal Metropolis; Histories of Urban Human-Animal Relations in Canada We settled upon Mary Anne Barkhouse’s provocative sculpture, “Sovereign,” for the cover to signal the porous boundary between the wild and the urban. I hope this collection sparks a much-needed and multi-faceted conversation among scholars from a variety of disciplines about the co-existence of human and non-human animals in cities.

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Darcy Ingram

For me, this is in many ways a project long overdue, in that I began collecting the materials on animals that I’m working with now nearly twenty years ago, while an undergraduate student studying the history of Montreal with Brian Young. As many of his former students will attest, Brian turned us into active historians by pushing us out into the world, beyond university libraries or museums to dig around in church basements, cemetery archives, and the shelves of long-forgotten institutions that still had a foothold in that city. We learned to be attentive to the existence of the historical record everywhere it might be found – indoors and outdoors, in streets and in buildings, in monuments and in parks. In my case, it was a combination of alertness, chance, and an interest in the relationship of civil society institutions to evolving patterns of governance (which I can only articulate in hindsight) that led me to the archives of the Canadian SPCA. Those materials are now held at the McCord Museum in Montreal. At the time, however, their home was a set of shelves in the office of the society’s director. To the great credit of that institution, they had survived many moves in the 130 years that had passed since the society’s formation in 1869, and remained surprising intact. They revealed a world of human-animal relations that was so rich, so complex, and so surprising that I’ve been working on or around them ever since – first by trying to make sense of the Canadian SPCA’s relationship to wildlife conservation, later by examining the thorough dependence of that institution on the support of the city’s foxhunters, and most recently by working to unpack the role of it and similar institutions in the development of state legislation, policy, and enforcement practices.

Reflecting on the seemingly bizarre ways in which we humans have thought about animals in the past, and discovering the various reasons behind those thoughts and the practices to which they are connected, ends up highlighting the even more bizarre ways in which we think and live about them today. At some level, I think that all of the chapters in this collection speak to these and similar tensions between the past and the present, between humans and animals, and between what makes sense and what, if we look closely, might not.

Joanna Dean

Like so many good things in academia, my interest in animal history came to me from one of my students. Amanda Sauermann noticed that Emily Carr loved animals, and wondered why we never talked about it.  She wrote a research paper on Carr’s sheepdogs, and went on to write a fabulous MA thesis on the policing and showing of dogs in the city: “Regulating and representing vagrant curs and purebred dogs in Toronto, 1867-1910.”( Available here.) In 2009, she helped me put together a course on animal history. I have never stopped teaching it, and I learn something new every year from my argumentative and idealistic students.

I have also learned from the many animals in my life. Horses have taught me a lesson or two about interspecies communication. An elusive otter taught me to watch, and wait, and read the ephemeral archive of scat, slides, and tracks. Raising modern broiler fowl alongside heritage hens taught me how we have altered the bodies and minds of the animals we rely upon for food. Even more disturbing was the moment when I found myself in the chicken coop, feeling a living leg, and salivating.

Considering animals destabilized my notion of what it is to be human. I think differently now about agency, sentience and consciousness, and this has changed the way I approach environmental history, and how I think about the history of street trees.  If the human is no longer the norm, then a new register of possibilities opens up, and trees are no longer objects in a man made landscape, but unruly players in a much more interesting multispecies city.

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