New Scholars Animal History Recap

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So much has happened since the NiCHE New Scholars discussion on Animal History last May. Who would have known just how relevant the discussions we that day had would become? The initiative to discuss this topic was undertaken by Hannah Palsa, PhD student at Kansas State University. The main objectives of the discussion were, first, to explain to someone who may be skeptical why studying animals in history is important; and second, to reflect on the areas that could still be explored in regard to animal history or the human-animal relationship throughout history. Here, we will go over some of the topics and thoughts which emerged during our discussion.

The ongoing pandemic tinted our discussion in ways which were predictable, but also enriched it in ways we could not foresee. This, in and of itself, is reflective of the results that can be expected from studying animals and human-animal relations in the past: breaking down boundaries, reconceptualizing our vision of the past, and decentralizing the importance of humans to bring attention to other actors and factors such as non-human animals and the environment. A shift in our perspective of past and current events is essential to come up with new questions. We were only just realizing the impact the pandemic would have in North America, but as individuals situated in the present and with all the biases that entails, it had already shifted our way of seeing and thinking about animals. Studying pets, wild animals, and also livestock can demonstrate how some significant and defining components of time periods can quickly change (such as our perception of industrialization and productivity) while others stay the same (some relations to pets remain as strong; pets as family).

Figure 1 Woman and dog at Mount Royal lookout, Montreal, QC, about 1918, M2011., McCord Museum Archives

Hannah brought to our attention how the perception we have of pets changes in times of pandemic. We discussed a possible pet boom, and only now with the temporal distance can we see how spot on this analysis was. The increase in adoption of furry buddies during lockdown seems positive, but it also has another layer: animal shelters easily found homes for abandoned pets, but also remained cautious knowing that, come post-pandemic, many humans would not have the time necessary to care for their adoptees. Humans desirous of getting pets led to our discussion of pet abandonment, but also mistreatment through fear of contacting COVID-19 (incidences of washing pets with rubbing alcohol out of fear, for example, which only causes harm). In this sense, epidemics change our relation to non-human animals as they become emotional buoys for some, and risky vectors of transmission to others. Justin reminded us of photographs floating around the internet of pets wearing masks during the influenza epidemic of 1918; a clear reminder of how humans have also cared for animals as pets during past crises.

Figure 2 Family of six posing in 1918; Dublin Heritage Park & Museum

These reflections don’t only apply to pandemics, however, and I encourage anyone interested to read Michael O’Hagan’s photo essay on prisoners of war and how many of these detainees have turned to pets for both comfort and companionship. Humans turning to non-human friends during isolation is less of a recent phenomenon than we might suppose, with cats and dogs but also wild animals forming bonds with humans (squirrels, gophers, raccoons, skunks, birds as well as bears are all examples O’Hagan writes about).

I shifted our discussion to include livestock, and how COVID-19 is affecting our perception of industrial farming practices. Large meat processing plants and slaughterhouses in Canada and the USA have been publicized in the past year as centres of contagion for COVID-19, which begs reflection on our current societal expectations regarding the availability and consumption of meat. This also led us to think about employees in these industries, their work conditions, and whether our societies value these types of jobs (not to mention those of other front-line workers and grocery store workers). Places where animals are slaughtered, displaced, and often neglected are associated with difficult, less valued jobs (an uneasy but important read on one such outbreak comes via CBC. Regarding the work on the killing floor, the authors of the article write: “This work can be dangerous for employees, as the behavior of a nervous animal is difficult to predict.”). We then discussed small-scale initiatives such as the Petit Abattoir in Quebec and how localized farming initiatives are an interesting alternative to larger-scale agriculture and abattoirs. We, once again, brought up social class and how these initiatives remain available to people who can afford it; there is an increasing pressure on making meat and meat by-products largely available which falls into a pattern of de-valorizing and underpaying which directly affects the working class, their jobs, and, of course, the treatment of farm animals. The pandemic brings to light inequality in these social but also interspecies power relations and exacerbates them in a way which makes them suddenly so visible. General human unease with industrial meat processes and our relation with animals throughout this process is brought to the fore more so than before, showing clearly how there is a human tendency to disappear traces of these processes and, therefore, hide commodified and dying animals (see work by Chris Otter and Andrew Robichaud on the topic).

Figure 3 Cattle on Côte-des-Neiges Road, Montreal, QC, about 1900, McCord Museum Archives

Before the end of our meeting we opened up our discussion to more general questions on animal history and agency. One of the major critiques of animal history is the difficulty to demonstrate/prove animal agency. How can it be defined, and how can historians contribute to this? Is any definitive answer possible? What are the limits of agency? Do plants and objects also have agency? Is agency necessary to have an impact in history? Can non-humans be historicized? Scholars have considered the question in multiple ways, some of which include defining agency in more supple ways and doing animal history as a history from below, demonstrating agency through examples of resistance and rebellion, through interagency, through theories such as the Actor-Network Theory, animal history as body history, movement, interbeing, etc. (see the list of references below for examples). When are we humanizing animals, but also, when are we pushing for human exceptionalism? Meanwhile, scholars such as Joshua Specht propose we simply move beyond the question of agency once and for all and focus not on proving it, but on studying animals as important actors and see where that leads us. Our discussion group also quickly went over several ways historians can learn to read between the lines to better understand how humans can impact non-humans and vice-versa. Although such a short discussion could never encompass everything there is to say on the topic, we came to the conclusion that trying to include non-humans in the study of the past is important to raise new questions, moving as quickly as possible beyond an oft sterile debate, but also to show that humans do not possess complete control over their environment and other living beings, bringing an end to anthropocentric perspectives. A more useful way of seeing our past takes into consideration all types of agency, actors and beings into a more complex meshwork. This makes studying animals in history, in short, definitely worth it.

Portrait of Henri Groulx, ca. 1920, Library and Archives Canada (

Links from NiCHE:
Held Captive: Prisoners of War and Their Pets in Canada during the Second World War
A Reflection on Human-Animal Relations in Light of COVID-19

A non-exhaustive list of references on the topic of animal history and studies, agency, and human-animal relations:
Brantz, Dorothee. Beastly natures: Animals, humans, and the study of history, University of Virginia Press, 2010.
Despret, Vinciane. « From secret agents to interagency », History and Theory, vol. 52, no 4, 2013, p. 29-44.
Eitler, Pascal. « Animal history as body history: four suggestions from a genealogical perspective », Body Politics: Zeitschrift für Körpergeschichte, vol. 2, no 4, 2014, p. 259-274.
Fudge, Erica. « A left-handed blow: Writing the history of animals », Representing animals, 2002, p. 3-18.
Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto : Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. When species meet, Minneapolis [u.a.], University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Hoquet, Thierry. « Animal Individuals: A Plea for a Nominalistic Turn in Animal Studies? », History and Theory, vol. 52, no 4, 2013, p. 68-90.
Hribal, Jason C. « Animals, agency, and class: Writing the history of animals from below », Human Ecology Review, 2007, p. 101-112.
Ingold, Tim. « From trust to domination: An alternative history of human-animal relations », Animals and human society: Changing perspectives, vol. 1, 1994, p. 22.
Kalof, Linda. Looking at animals in human history, Reaktion Books, 2007.
Kalof, Linda. The Oxford handbook of animal studies, 2017.
Kean, Hilda. « Challenges for Historians Writing Animal–Human History: What Is Really Enough? », Anthrozoös, vol. 25, no sup1, 2012, p. s57-s72.
LaCapra, Dominick. History and its limits: Human, animal, violence, Cornell University Press, 2016.
Nance, Susan et al. The Historical Animal, Syracuse University Press, 2015.
Nimmo, Richie. Milk, modernity and the making of the human: purifying the social, Routledge, 2010.
Pearson, Chris. « Dogs, history, and agency », History and Theory, vol. 52, no 4, 2013, p. 128-145.
Pearson, Susan. « Speaking Bodies, Speaking Minds: Animals, Language, History », History and Theory, vol. 52, no 4, 2013, p. 91-108.
Ritvo, Harriet. « History and animal studies », Society and animals, vol. 10, no 4, 2002, p. 403-406.
Shaw, David Gary. « The Torturer’s Horse: Agency and Animals in History », History and Theory, vol. 52, no 4, 2013, p. 146-167.
Shaw, David Gary. « A Way with Animals », History and Theory, vol. 52, no 4, 2013, p. 1-12.
Specht, Joshua. « Animal history after its triumph: unexpected animals, evolutionary approaches, and the animal lens », History Compass, vol. 14, no 7, 2016, p. 326-336.

Feature image: Cattle on Côte-des-Neiges Road, Montreal, QC, about 1900
Wallis & Shepherd, MP-0000.27.69, McCord Museum Archives

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Catherine Paulin

Catherine is a PhD student at l’Université de Montréal. She studies environmental history and human/animal relations in the 19th-20th centuries in Montreal. Catherine est doctorante à l’Université de Montréal. Elle étudie l’histoire environnementale et les relations humains/animaux aux 19e-20e siècles à Montréal.

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