Animal Encounters: Series Introduction

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This essay by Heather Green and Caroline Abbott is the introductory post for the NiCHE series Animal Encounters. You can read all posts in this series here.

Everyone has animal stories. Our encounters with animals are entangled with our respective lives and experiences both within and beyond the archive. The stories which emerge from those meetings are subjective – they fall upon a spectrum of perception which ranges from adoration to fear, from companion to nemesis. Our cultural perceptions of animals are fluid – an animal historically perceived of as a (so-called) pest can later see conservation protections (and vice versa). The historiography of environmental history – classics like Tina Loo’s States of Nature (2007), Jennifer Price’s Flight Maps (2000), Jon T. Coleman’s Vicious (2004), and more recent works like Animal Metropolis (2017) – has done excellently at helping us better learn the long and complex history of human-animal relationships. New collections like Traces of the Animal Past (2022) and works like Stephanie Rutherford’s Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin (2022) firm existing foundations, delve into methodologies of animal history, and pose important questions of their own. 

Teaching animal history is one of the most enjoyable topics each semester. Students perk up a little more, pay slightly better attention, and seem more eager to share their thoughts in class discussions. They all have opinions on the matter, their own tales to tell, their own Good Boys to share photos of. But more than surface interest and enjoyment, studying animal history is an exercise in methodological thinking. Encounters with historical animals inform, disrupt, re-shape, and entirely alter our expectations as scholars, as well as our understanding of academic discussions. They challenge students (of all stages) to ask: how do we know what we know about animals in the past? How has this knowledge changed over time? How can we center the animal when studying history? It is possible to study animal history without humans present? These, and many, more nuanced methodological questions, lie at the heart of this series.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is home to a herd of microchipped American Buffalo / American Bison. The herd has “right of way” on the park’s popular “Wildlife Drive.” This Bull Bison thought Isabelle Gapp, Caroline Abbott and Nathanial Cooper were curious animals (he isn’t wrong) and wanted to learn more before deciding it was safe to move on with his herd. Photograph Caroline Abbott, May 2024.

As historians, we all have animal stories (just ask Caroline and Isabelle Gapp about this Bison sometime). And, as historians, we also have questions. It was these animal stories and our related queries that brought us together and germinated the idea for this series. In June of 2023 while attending the NEAR-EH workshop in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, we found ourselves sharing stories about animals: within the structure of the workshop discussions themselves, but especially informally. During a group field trip to PEI National Park, as we meandered through the parabolic dunes at Greenwich Beach, Caroline told Heather about an archival encounter with an American Black Bear which had profoundly changed her thinking. During a museum visit earlier that year, Caroline wondered how long it would take to tell the story of every Bear in the collection (knowing full well this was idealistic). She categorized a list of digitized specimen data and approached the first Bear. Over one year later, she is (happily) still working on that first Bear and deeply engrossed in the story and thought lines to which the Bear’s path led. 

One chance encounter with an animal (albeit in a setting most people might not expect such an encounter to occur) led to another. Heather had her own stories about “finding” animals within the records of the Yukon Archives:  finds which had led to a fascinating project examining sport hunting and tourism, but in which the animals were not centered. As she examined photographic collections, Heather continued to notice dozens of unique photos from Dawson City: alongside hundreds of photos of Sled Dogs were dozens of companion Dogs — Dogs proudly posed on chairs, on front porches, or with their families. This ignited Heather’s interest, and with it, a new project trying to uncover more information about Yukon Dogs beyond Sled Dogs. Others revealed more stories: Edward MacDonald shared the story of the last Black Bear on Prince Edward Island, and Sean Cox shared his unexpected meeting with “Jenny Moose,” conversations which brought further inspiration.

Our view from the boardwalk. Parabolic Dunes. Prince Edward Island National Park field trip, NEAR-EH. Photograph Caroline Abbott, June 2023.

There were commonalities across our wildly disparate encounters. Both Caroline’s encounter with the Bear and Heather’s encounter with the Yukon Dogs led to a “hunt,” of sorts, for details, context, and with it, a series of challenges and new questions. Were we now, in some ways, hunting? What is our relationship to animal extractivism? Thinking about the Bears, the Dogs, the Moose (and a few Coyotes), we shared varied and rewarding discussions with our group about expectations, perceptions, and effort of conducting research that allows us to learn about the lives of historical animals and the nonhuman. By the end of a day spent at the Greenwhich Dunes, we had agreed to propose a roundtable for the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) where we could convene to think more about these entanglements — and invite our community to do the same.

Much to our delight, there was no dearth in animal encounters at this year’s gathering of the ASEH in Denver, Colorado, and we were thrilled with the response to what began as such a natural conversation. At our roundtable, “Animal Encounters in the Archive,” we convened to discuss the animals (broadly conceived) with whose historical being we had become acquainted through our archival work. The colleagues with whom we shared that space were others with whom such encounters had inspired new thinking: Sean Cox, Isabelle Gapp, and Javier González Cortes also shared their stories with the room, and together, the challenges, promise, and nuanced emotions those experiences engender came to light. The discussions which emerged reflected the ways that historical animals push environmental historians to better serve the histories they study (and the animal actors within them). The historical animal (not unlike the Bison Herd of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge) is not always easily corralled into arenas of expected action and environment. Our push to engage our community in broader conversation than the question and answer period could allow led us to the Animal Encounters series

European Starlings (likely in group movement for their semi-local summer migration to Rocky Mountain National Park) juxtaposed the movement of the Buffalo / Bison Herd’s movement below. Unlike the Buffalo, European Starlings are often categorized as invasive or “pest” species by governing bodies in both the United States and Canada. Where Buffalo conservation entangles with American nationalism, so does hatred for Starlings. See: Mark V. Barrow Jr.’s chapter, “Nationalism, Nostalgia, and the Campaign to Save the Bison” in Nature’s Ghosts (2009). Photograph Caroline Abbott, May 2024.

We are delighted to introduce the scope of essays which will continue so many of the vital conversations our earlier  questions approached. The essays included in this series reveal a diverse breadth of personal encounters with historical animals across archival methodologies, each of which will engage our original questions in significant ways. The strong variety of species represented — from Fish and Insects to Bears and Reptiles — is matched by a diverse range of contributors bringing unique perspectives to the fore. From independent scholars to emeritus faculty, the ecologies and approaches covered within this series speak as strongly to the ubiquity of animal encounters in the archive as to the promise of approaches which consider the individuality of those encounters. 

Contributors to this series will turn their focus to the challenge and necessity of regarding animals encountered in archive and research as individual, historical actors — an approach which significantly alters the way we perceive and write history, and calls into focus the limits of our ability to do so as writers. To this end, we are very excited to share that the animal histories included in this series will be the inaugural wave of animal histories added to the interactive map and database of the Animal Narrative, Identity, Microhistory and Archive Atlas (Anima), a GIS project Caroline conceived of as a space for the stories of animal lives. Administered by Caroline in collaboration with Jessica DeWitt, this inaugural data set will improve Anima’s efforts to explore the establishment of an accessible, easily-navigable database of animal histories which (like the essay series) regards animals as historical individuals and aims to center their experience of environmental history.

“Do Not Approach Fence.” European Starlings. Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. Denver, Colorado. Photograph Caroline Abbott, May 2024.

Heather and Caroline are excited to share more about their research journeys in the series, in trying to uncover the lives of some specific Pups and Bears alike. But we are most excited to bring this series to NiCHE readers throughout the summer and early autumn of 2024. We look forward to the many interesting conversations which our contributors will inspire, and to learning with the histories they serve!

Animal Encounters will be published on The Otter through the summer and early autumn of 2024.

Header image: Being watched. Estes Park, Colorado. May 2024. Caroline Abbott.
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Caroline Abbott

Caroline is a recent graduate of Glasgow University (M.Res. 2019) with interests in the intersections of other-than-human histories, print, gender and environment in the long nineteenth century. She is managed by a small gray rescue Manx and a formerly-feral house panther.

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