Review of Ellis, ed., Calgary: City of Animals

"Roundup," sculpture by Lisa Stewart, July 2000. Photo: Bernard Spragg, 2017.

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Jim Ellis, ed., Calgary: City of Animals. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017. 144 pgs, ISBN 9781552389676

Reviewed by Frederick L. Brown.

Animals human and non-human share the city of Calgary. This richly illustrated volume, through a series of relatively brief essays and photo collections, provides readers multiple views on this shared city. It brings together scholars, artists, and those who work with animals, providing readers the opportunity to trace how these varying perspectives connect with each other and with readers’ own links to non-human animals. The book begins with short essays by five scholars, then presents two essays by writers active in wildlife rehabilitation and conservation, followed by excerpts from Calgary’s biodiversity strategic plan, and ends with essays and images about four artists and a museum display. Each piece, in its own way, calls on readers to imagine and work toward an inclusive city with a place for animals and to achieve an inclusiveness in the humanities and the arts that considers animal perspectives and interests.

The five pieces by scholars all work to decenter urban narratives from the human actors. Historian Susan Nance provides a look behind the scenes at a Calgary institution: the Calgary Stampede, a rodeo which represents “the globalized beef industry’s contribution to the world of entertainment” (12) and symbolizes for many the spirit of Calgary. Nance shows that the Stampede was not only an urban appropriation of rural culture, a symbolic representation of Westerners’ self-image of “unique hardiness and optimism” (21), but an historical reality lived by one particular individual: Greasy Sal. This mare worked as a bucking bronc and grieved the foal she birthed – a foal that Stampede organizers killed to assure that Greasy Sal maintained her bucking temperament. Nance prompts readers thereby to recenter their view of the Stampede on this historical being, with her own concerns beyond the entertainment and symbolic roles she filled.

Cowboy on a Bucking Bronco, Calgary Stampede, 1923. Provincial Archives of Alberta, A14722.

Looking particularly at coyotes, geographer Shelley M. Alexander similarly challenges humans to rethink their self-view as the “central figure in this animal place” (23) and rather to imagine an inclusive city of animals. She calls on readers to imagine not only co-existing but “co-flourishing” with coyotes in the city (27). A careful consideration of the biology of coyotes, she argues, shows that killing is not an effective strategy to managing their presence, because it leads to more pups, less stable packs, and more transient solitary coyotes pursuing “risky behaviours” (29). In short, she argues, humans must re-craft their view that predators have no place in a city.

Literary scholar Angela Waldie describes the monthly Elbow River Bird Survey led by married couple Aileen Pelzer and Gus Yaki. She argues that these efforts at citizen science provide not only valuable data, but also a form of place-making whereby participants gain awareness of the city they share with wild animals. Citizen efforts to comprehend birds, the most visible and abundant wild animals in the city, produce knowledge of local connections to global migration patterns and awareness of changing bird populations over time.

Forty-horse team hauling ten grain wagons through downtown, Calgary Stampede, 1925. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3386805.

Two pieces take a broader look at the national and scholarly context. Historian Sean Kheraj considers how livestock were once an integral part of many Canadian cities. He argues this presence declined due to concerns about public health, class, and ethnic bias, as well as aesthetic judgments. He traces urban livestock from ubiquity, carefully regulated for issues of property and health, to increasing elimination, given technological change, the sources of food and labor, and increased aesthetic discomfort with the presence of animals providing food and labor. Since cities face similar debates today, he suggests that this history can help people think about current regulatory decisions. Communication, media, and film scholar Mohammed Sadeghi Esfahlani presents the broader field of Critical Animal Studies that questions anthropocentrism and meat-eating (carnism). The field calls for activist-scholars to explain the ways that animal oppression underlies capitalism, and the intersectionality of animal oppression and other forms of oppression. He also explores the gaps and limits of this approach, suggesting for instance there may be a certain type of human exceptionalism if we humans “in exception to all other species, commission ourselves with preserving life from death” (52). Still, he points to the importance of even “moderate efforts” (54), such as the overwhelming choice of the vegan option at a recent humanities seminar.

While all the essays in the book cannot be described in a short review, the usefulness of the work is to place these scholarly interventions in conversation with activists working with wildlife rehabilitation and habitat conservation, as well as artists and a museum curator who explore the importance of animals as inspiration and fellow creatures. The book challenges the neat distinctions one might draw among disciplines or among artists, activists, and scholars. It shows not only that animals, human and non-human, might co-flourish in the city, but that those different fields of activity might co-flourish. Seeing a play wherein a squirrel, gopher, and magpie share their views on each other; watching dancers’ movement inspired by cockroaches, caterpillars, and praying mantises; seeing art prints painted by a horse that used a crushed cowboy hat as its brush – all these experiences can build a worldview wherein humans are not the only actors in this city of animals, or in other cities of animals.

Frederick L. Brown is the author of The City is More Than Human: An Animal History of Seattle (University of Washington Press, 2016), which received the Hal K. Rothman Prize for best book in western environmental history from the Western History Association. An independent historian and book indexer based in Seattle, Washington, he received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Washington in 2010. He worked for a decade as an historian with the National Park Service, with which he still works on a contract basis.

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