The Animals’ Guide to History: A Conversation with Stephanie Rutherford and Shari Wilcox

Colorful portion of a map of Kansas City, with icons of buildings and red lines drawn on it to mark different routes of animals and humans.

“You’re never more than five feet from a spider.” That possibly apocryphal adage is not a cause for concern for geographers Stephanie Rutherford and Shari Wilcox, but instead a call to pay more attention to the animals around us. Their new collection, Historical Animal Geographies, compiles essays from scholars working in diverse fields, from Geography and History to International Studies and Environmental Design, who share this commitment to acknowledging the multispecies and more-than-human collectives that surround us every day.

a green, curlicued book cover with the title Historical Animal Geographies in a band across the middle of the coverWhether tackling earthworms or elephants, the essays in Historical Animal Geographies trace how animals have contributed to our histories, helped shape the boundaries of our cities and nations, and sometimes rebelled against the spaces and roles allotted for them.

I spoke with Dr. Stephanie Rutherford and Dr. Shari Wilcox on July 25, 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin at the WSUM 91.7 FM studio. We discussed how animals intervene in spaces and stories that may seem exclusive to humans, why these multispecies communities deserve more attention from academics, and what scholars in animal studies and environmental studies can and should do to connect their research with political advocacy.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Laura Perry: Your recent edited collection, Historical Animal Geographies, brings together a wide range of approaches to human animal relationships that all have something in common: the idea that in order to understand encounters between humans, animals, and their environment, we have to study both the places and the times in which these happen. Could you speak to what understanding of human-animal relationships we gain from studying both the geographical and the historical context?

Stephanie Rutherford holds a large poster of a howling wolf and points to it

Stephanie Rutherford. Image courtesy of Stephanie Rutherford.

Stephanie Rutherford: Shari and I are both geographers, and so we’re both fairly comfortable with geographical analysis, but our work is also historical. For a long time, until the advent of environmental history, history didn’t allow for the possibility that there could be actors that weren’t human, whereas I think geography, at least in the way we practice it, starts from the assumption that the land shapes us in fundamental ways. While humans don’t leave the land untouched, neither does it leave us untouched. The inclusion of geography into historical analysis on animals disrupts this tendency to think about nature as static, as passive, as unchanging. Including the geographical perspective allows for an enhanced understanding of who gets to be the actors in the historical narrative. It’s not just people who shape the course of events in a nation, or a city; it’s actually the assemblage of humans and nonhumans that come together to make a place. And that’s fundamentally a geographical question. So, we are interested in putting those two together in thinking about how might animals figure into the bigger story we tell about the world.

Shari Wilcox: As geographers we’re often taught that, and we teach, that place matters. That’s one of the corner stones within academic geography. In environmental history sometimes we lose track of the importance of place, and how much that context matters to both animal and human actors in ways that alter and affect and shape their lives. With this volume we wanted to write back in the importance of geography to history and to animal studies.

SR: It’s also the case that a lot of the interesting work, at least from my perspective, in geography that considers animals has been contemporary. So the volume was an invitation, as well, to geographers to think historically to produce robust work on animals.

LP: And that’s something the collection really bears out—that ways of looking at animals and humans and their relationships are made fuller and better by taking time and place into account. And also, if we think about history and geography, neither is ever exclusively about time or about place, so some of what you’re doing is highlighting that. In Chris Philo and Ian MacLachlan’s essay in this collection, “The Strange Case of the Missing Slaughterhouse Geographies,” they, like detectives, investigate the absence of slaughterhouses from academic studies of animal geographies. I’d love to hear from you both what, if any, absences you notice in animal studies and related scholarship that you think should be addressed. What should we be thinking about more? What do you wish people were writing about?

Shari Wilcox stands with a large statue of a jaguar carved from black stone

Shari Wilcox. Image courtesy of Shari Wilcox.

SW: There is a bias in animal studies and animal geographies towards mammals. There are a number of theories as to why we seem so drawn to mammals, and perhaps we are writing about animals that we identify the most with, sort of like kin. They’re also charismatic. Even animals that are not traditionally considered charismatic species, that are large or particularly attractive to the human eye, still have a certain charisma to them. So, there’s largely a bias towards mammalian species in the scholarship. But that is changing. We have Camilla Royle’s chapter on Darwin and earthworms that is a beautiful example of fantastic scholarship about a non-charismatic species, about that species’ own homemaking and landscape level alterations to habitats done through the work of many. I am also interested in seeing us continue to push scholarship about labeling species as natives and non-natives. There is a lot of interesting language around species and belonging—for example, nativity and invasiveness—and in the Anthropocene these concepts are slippery and changing rapidly, about who belongs where when.

LP: Another question that the topic of slaughterhouses raised for me is the overlap between those who study animals and those who advocate for animal welfare. This is perhaps a question especially relevant for fields like animal studies and environmental studies where many of the researchers have political and personal commitments that are closely tied to the subjects they study. Do either of you view research as connected with advocacy, and how do you navigate that?

All research is politics; it’s just politics by other means.

SR: All research is politics; it’s just politics by other means. It matters to me, in a fundamental way, how these matters turn out. I don’t write about wolves in an abstract way. What I want to do is shift policy, and I think that if we know the history of the ways of thinking about wolves, for instance, then we are better equipped to make decisions that are about mutual flourishing today. In a broad sense our job in the world is to learn how to love across difference, and that difference to me is both human and nonhuman. So all of the scholarship that I engage in tries to answer the question: what does love and mutual flourishing look like in this place and at this time? And what are the conditions of possibility to make that happen? For me, you can’t separate out scholarship and advocacy.

SW: I have a background working on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist, where I worked representing the interest of different environmental non-profits a decade ago. I’m always thinking, how are we generating evidence that can help to inform policy that can help to change hearts? I often think that science is drawing the lines and those of us in the environmental humanities (or the humanities in general) are helping to color in-between. We’re helping to make the case for why this matters, and we do that partially through our scholarship. We need to communicate and write in very clear ways, and we need to define the stakes in ways that the general public want to read and can understand, and policy makers can read and understand. Of course, these are challenging times and so advocacy is looking a little different these days. Personally, I’ve started to enfold advocacy into my research methods. I am behind one of the Facebook groups advocating for ocelots on the US-Mexico border called Viva La Ocelot. We provide a number of scientific articles as well as a number of different events that people can attend to advocate on behalf of this small mammal in that space. I’m just starting out with it, and I’m interested in seeing where it will go as a new way of being a scholar-advocate.

Featured image: Portion of an 1890 map by GM Hopkins with overlays of known locations of horse fountains, horse trolley routes, the Humane Society headquarters, and fire stations, available in the Kansas City Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections. Image appears in Julie Urbanik‘s essay in Historical Animal Geographies, “Kansas City: the morphology of an American zoöpolis through film.”

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Stephanie Rutherford is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment at Trent University. Her research inhabits the intersections among the environmental humanities, animal geographies and posthumanism. Stephanie is finishing a book on the history of wolves in Canada, the co-editor of Historical Animal Geographies (Routledge, 2018), and is also the author of Governing the Wild: Ecotours of Power (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Website. Contact.

Shari Wilcox is Associate Director of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Broadly, her research focuses on the co-constituted relationships between humans and predatory mammalian species through space and time. She is the co-editor of Historical Animal Geographies (Routledge, 2018) and is currently at work on her first monograph, Jaguars of Empire: Natural History in the New World (University of North Carolina Press, under contract). Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “The Potential for Peril Built into San Francisco” (December 2017). Website. Contact.

Laura Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a graduate associate at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research focuses on animals and suburban development in twentieth-century American literature. Her recent contributions to Edge Effects include “What Dogs Can Teach Us About Justice: A Conversation with Colin Dayan” (March 2018) and “In Annihilation, the Revolution Will Not Be Human” (February 2018). Twitter. Contact.