Review of Bonnell and Kheraj, Traces of the Animal Past

Scroll this

Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj, eds., Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2022. 419 pgs. ISBN: 9781773853840

Reviewed by Dan Vandersommers

cover of the book "Traces of the Animal Past" which features a painting of cows laying in a field with two people in the background. They are in a prairie landscape.

Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj’s Traces of the Animal Past is a crucial addition to the field of animal history. The book focuses on the methodological challenges faced by practitioners of animal history in particular, but as its editors note, these obstacles are similar to “the challenges that all historians face when trying to interpret and understand historical actors through the scant records and evidence left behind” (9). Animal history (like many historical movements that have arisen from the ‘cultural turn’) is a recuperative, revisionist, and liberatory project. The lessons learned across this volume are applicable to all subfields of historical research because, at its heart, the book is about interrogating archives, reading sources against the grain, and seeing important actors that have been excluded from dominant narratives.

The volume originated in a two-day, 2018 conference hosted by the Archives of Ontario, and its nineteen contributors include many leading names across animal history. The chapters are arranged within five sections, focused loosely on different methodological themes. Traced through this loose structure are topical strands concerning agency, anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, and interdisciplinarity. Also, across the volume, authors insert themselves directly into their writing. The chapters are not intended to be “historical case studies, per se, but metanarratives of the animal historian and their subjects” (5). This quality makes the volume rich, reflexive, and – at times – moving and inspirational. Rather than summarize the chapters (the editors do so on pages 11-14), this review will highlight five significant interventions, while also encouraging readers to explore on their own the intricacies of each chapter.

First, a chapter by Kheraj and another by Andrew Robichaud together present a cutting-edge pairing about digital-historical methods for the subfield of “urban animal history.” Kheraj’s discussion of “playing” and ad hoc experimentation as method (270, 286) and Robichaud’s reflection on the “iterative process” of data visualization (295) showcase the artistic, non-teleological approaches necessary for compelling digital practices appropriate for locating animals across cities and their networks. These chapters demonstrate how digital research can “remove documents from their historical [anthropocentric] logic” (284) as well as how, in the case of San Francisco and Toronto, urban-animal cartographies become layered (literally, stacked upon each other). Complementing these two chapters, Susan Nance’s chapter employs digital records to uncover histories of greyhound breeding and racing in North America since 1990. Her chapter interrogates how biases are encoded into sets of digital records and emphasizes the “fragility” of digital sources, conveying a sense of urgency:  Historians must study online archives before they are gone forever! And it communicates the invaluable lesson that careful, patient, and ambitious reading of digital sources, even of “seemingly ephemeral or trivial” data, can uncover priceless historical texture (108).

Colour photograph of a grizzly track in red mud.
Grizzly Bear Track, photograph by Jim Peaco courtesy of Yellowstone National Park, November 2008, Catalog # 19621d.

Second, Colleen Campbell and Tina Loo’s chapter extends the digital-GIS universe (in this case, locational data tracking for grizzlies) to the on-the-ground lived experiences of following grizzly “tracks,” literal and figurative. This chapter is a profoundly innovative, emotionally evocative, and theoretically nuanced exploration of the “entanglements” that connect humans and animals. From wildlife studies to animal biography, this chapter will teach scholars and students across the field that “thinking about” is always inseparable from “thinking with,” breathing vivid life into a lesson long-established in feminist animal studies.

Third, if the academic field of History has historically been a tradition of erasure, then animal history helps historians see how the resultant ignorance is socially constructed and the systemic not-knowing maintained across time. Joanna Dean’s chapter examines “how or why we don’t know” by studying how guinea pigs and the industry of “cavy ranching” were made invisible within laboratories (176, 180). Dean’s heuristic of agnotology is immensely useful, providing a framework (and a language) that can centre those who were/are relegated from systems of knowledge while also paying attention to the circumstances of individuals themselves. Dean’s contribution employs an approach of feminist science studies within the context of the “history of laboratory animals” subfield. The inspiring prose and attentiveness to socio-cultural context points the way to an intersectional terrain where a subversive historical recuperative project can meet the posthumanist toolkit established especially within critical animal studies.

Fourth, since the 1980s, animal historians have chosen to study some species – horses, dogs, whales, bison – over others. Prioritized species either have a greater presence in traditional archives due to their cultural-economic value or to their “charismatic” status as precious symbols in sacred imaginaries. However, all nonhuman species – from corals and yaks to deer and ducks – possess crucial histories, entangled with human societies. Two chapters underscore the importance of the burgeoning subfield of “insect history.” Bonnell’s piece analyzes honeybees as “workers” in the production of honey, rather than as merely “resources.” Using environmental history, Bonnell extends the subfield of the “history of animal labour” (which prioritizes animals like equines, oxen, and elephants) to the always-seen-yet-usually-ignored honeybees and their historically “situated knowledge” of foraging. Catherine McNeur’s chapter offers a very different “insect history” that contributes to the literature on nineteenth-century American women of science by triangulating wheat flies, egg-laying, botanical anatomy; the sexist politics of taxonomy and knowledge production; and the entomologist Margaretta Hare Morris, who was literally erased from the history of science by her male contemporaries.

Black and white photograph with a lawn and several white boxes scattered across it. A two story white house is in the background, behind a hedge and fence.
Apiary at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, William James Topley. Topley Studios. Library and Archives Canada, PA-027724.

Fifth, Sandra Swart’s chapter is perhaps one of the most innovative methodological essays written for the field in the past decade. Swart posits poetically, “Thinking about animals is a historiographical imperative. Thinking with them is a methodological possibility. But thinking like them is hard” (24). In an enthralling “horsetory” about takhi, the wild horses of Mongolian steppes, Swart weaves anthropological fieldwork, oral histories that centre Indigenous knowledge, findings from the natural sciences, and cutting-edge transdisciplinary frameworks in embodiment studies to explore the horizons and limits of decolonizing animal histories at their best. Swart’s chapter reads as a call-to-action:  “The art of being a historian is knowing exactly how far to go and then going just a little further” (22). Animal histories are certainly about animals, but perhaps these histories can also centre their voices too! This chapter is a must-read for scholars of animal studies as well as for any historians who teach classes about research, methods, or historiographical theory.

The book’s chapters are each inspiring, approaching historical animals – dolphins, pigs, antelope, rabbits, to name a few – from a vast range of methodologies. Of course, no volume can accomplish everything, especially for a rapidly expanding field. Bonnell and Kheraj are forthright about the lacunae within the anthology. They acknowledge that “valuable methodologies” forged in “literary studies, critical theory, discourse analysis, and environmental humanities” do not appear in this book (11). I would further add zooarchaeology, posthumanism, animal geography, historical legal studies, food studies, and critical race/ethnicity studies to this list. The collection prioritizes the recent past, as opposed to paleolithic, ancient, medieval, and early modern pasts. And there is much greater focus on North America than on other parts of the world (though Ritvo, Jørgensen, Wakild, and Swart’s contributions bring in other regions).

J. Keri Cronin points out in her chapter that art history is animal history. Pigments were literally composed from animal bodies— Indian Yellow from cow urine, Tyranian Purple from shellfish, and red pigments from myriad insects. Paint brushes were fashioned with hairs, paints made from eggs, parchments carved from skins, and photographic materials created from animal bones (340). And certainly (human) art almost always depicts nonhuman countenances in some way, shape, or form. This simple observation holds true for all areas of history, for all historical subjects and narratives in/about all times and places, and for all the constructs used to depict the past. At the end of the day, the capital letter A is merely the horned face of an ox or bull turned 180 degrees. And “we” are (always) turtles all the way down.

Left: The Proto-Siniatic letter that gave us the Latin “A.” Wikimedia Commons. Right: “How the Earth was Regarded in Old times”, The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 10, part dated March 1877, pp. 542-53, page 544.

Feature Image: W.J Moore, [Seagulls in flight], 192-, Major Matthews Collection, W.J. Moore Cirkut negatives, City of Vancouver Archives.
The following two tabs change content below.

Daniel Vandersommers

Latest posts by Daniel Vandersommers (see all)

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.