#EnvHist Worth Reading: September 2019

Trudy Smith, the wife of the Zoo superintendent and in charge of mammals, with her gorilla Pongo. Channel Island Zoo. Jersey, [ca. 1953-1964]. Credit: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton / Library and Archives Canada.

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Every month I carefully track the most popular and significant environmental history articles, videos, audio, and other items making their way through the online environmental history (#envhist) community. You can read all of our past #EnvHist Worth Reading lists right here. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from September 2019:

1. Gay penguins, medieval heretics, and the place of animals in the history of sexuality

In this Notches post, Tim Wingard explores the history of using animal and “natural” sexuality to support or negate human sexual practices. Wingard begins by looking at the recent use of same-sex penguin parents to support queer parental rights. Though these arguments may seem new, Wingard contends that “the use of animals in debates about human sexual morality is not a new phenomenon, but has been a fundamental part of the history of sexuality.” Wingard explores the use of animal sexuality in debates surrounding vows of celibacy in the fourteenth century. At the core of this argument was that humans were the only animals to participate in same-sex intercourse because they could act against their natural instincts in a way that animals could not. Thus, the use of animal sexuality to support same-sex relationships is a recent event that illustrates the need to closely examine the way in which animals have been involved in the history of sexuality.

2.  Prison, spectacle, refuge

In this Aeon article, Nigel T. Rothfels explores the past and present of zoos and the basic premise that connects the two timeframes: exhibition of animals for human consumption. Rothfels opens the article with a photograph of four children sitting atop a leatherback turtle. The photograph, Rothfels argues, seems to be a part of a crueler past, but is in fact not that far removed from contemporary zoos. “Major zoos and aquaria no longer produce postcards of children riding endangered species, but all kinds of up-close experiences, such as feeding giraffes and petting rays, continue to be offered,” Rothfels writes. Rothfels traces the history of zoos and the way in which they are connected to colonial and capitalist ventures. The centering of human entertainment is the major problem with both historical and modern zoos and the element of their existence that needs to be fully grappled with as they go forward.

3. It’s time to stop lionizing Dian Fossey as a conservation hero

In this article for Lady Science, Michelle A. Rodrigues illuminates the actual legacy of Dian Fossey, famed primatologist, and argues that western society needs to stop treated her as a hero. Rodrigues notes that Fossey’s “active conservation,” agenda, which incorporated torture and kidnapping, was neo-colonial. “When we edit out these details when discussing Fossey’s legacy, with students and with broader audiences, and leave out the human costs of her work, we reinforce an implicitly white, Western model of conservation,” Rodrigues asserts. Rodrigues describes the way in which she used Fossey’s papers in a course, hoping that the students would come to the conclusion that Fossey’s tactics were the wrong way to practice conservation. Instead of treating Fossey as a hero, Rodrigues argues that me must use Fossey’s legacy and those like her to interrogate the cultural and historical forces that have shaped contemporary conservation.

4. North America Has Lost Nearly 3 Billion Birds Since 1970

This Smithsonian.com article by Rachael Lallensack is one of several articles that came out this past month covering a study in the journal Science that reported that North America has lost 2.9 billion birds, or 29 percent, since 1970. This data was gathered by bird watchers and citizen scientists. Grassland birds have suffered the greatest lost and common birds are actually declining more quickly than rarer species. Lallensack notes that “Even invasive or introduced species are faring poorly, suggesting declining species aren’t being replaced by species that do well in human-altered landscapes.” Birds are considered to be an indicator species, which makes these findings all the more alarming. Injecting some hope, Lallensack also discusses some past bird conservation success stories.

5. The Power of Fear in the Thawing Arctic

In this piece, Bathsheba Demuth reflects on her time living in the arctic “bush” and how this time changed her understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world. Tying these experiences together was what Demuth calls “bush fear.” “Fear,” Demuth writies, “was a particularly vital mode of speech, not debilitating but instructive. It was part of what made the bush home, by shocking me into a relationship with the place.” Becoming more intimately connected to the environment around her contributed to Demuth questioning the assumed divide between humanity and nature.


Remember to follow #envhist hashtag and NiCHE (@NiCHE_Canada) on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to keep up with the latest environmental history content.

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Jessica DeWitt is an environmental historian of the American and Canadian environment, editor, and digital communications strategist. She serves as social media editor for NiCHE.

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