Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Historical Animal Geographies at the RGS

Hagenbeck's Tierpark, a revolutionary approach to captive animals, as told by Jan-Erik Steinkrüger. Picture courtesy of

Last week I attended the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society, where I presented in a session called "Historical animal geographies: tracking traces in the archive". The session, which was convened by two geographers from Edinburgh University (Ben Garlick and Julian Baker), was all about the difficulties that geographers interested in animals have when dealing with events in history. This is because most historical sources aren't really interested in the life courses and fates of the animals they touch upon, so archival records of animal lives are always patchy at best.

Many of the presentations talked about different sources for animal geographers who are interested in getting a historical perspective on the human relationship with, or life courses of, long-gone animals. My presentation was one of these, looking at the ways in which we can use cattle society herd books to tell the geographical stories of cattle moving around the world and how their lives, environments and physical characteristics have changed over time. Unusually for me, I did the presentation as a Powerpoint, which means I can't now share it online. I do however intend to get around to converting it to Prezi and putting it up here and on, so watch this space.

In lieu of that, I'm going to do something I haven't done on this blog before: that is, I'm going to talk about other people's research instead of my own. The entire animal geographies session was so interesting that I'd like to share a little bit about all the presentations I saw, with a link to the people that presented, so any readers interested in animal geographies can learn more about these fascinating stories. So, in no particular order, here are a selection of academic studies of animal geographies that you may find interesting - I know I did.

First off, Ben and Julian who thought up and convened the session. Ben's presentation talked about the reintroduction of Ospreys to Scotland, focusing on the human interventions of nest building. This gave a fascinating example of the intimate ways in which humans and these wild birds interact, plus really interesting revelations about the role of nest building in Osprey culture. Julian's presentation on the other hand looked at the role played by elephants in colonial India, reminding us of the important part played by animals in human politics.

A wide range of animals were covered in the session, including fish. John Clayton of Cardiff University told us the life-and-death story of Clarissa, a record-breaking carp that was caught in the South of England in 1952, then lived out the rest of her life (until the 1970s) in the London Zoo. Another fascinating zoo story came from Jan-Erik Steinkrüger of Bonn University, who explained the Victorian shift from the taxonomic display of zoo animals in cages toward the use of fake panoramas (complete with ha-has and hidden fencing) planned to look like the animals' natural habitat. I have used a picture Jan-Erik shared of perhaps the first of these modern-style zoos, Hagenbeks Tierpark, to illustrate this post.

Edward Cole, from the University of Glasgow, used esoteric journal The Oologists' Record to frame a fascinating talk about the role of egg collecting in early 20th century conservation, and Jana Sprenger of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen went further back in time to talk about the fight against wolves in pre-industrial Germany. Last, but not least, was a charming and interesting paper by Philip Howell from the University of Cambridge about the impact of the blitz on domestic dogs.

As well as these absorbing topics, I'd also like to briefly mention the work of Kelsi Nagy, another Oxford DPhil student. Kelsi didn't present during the session, but I really enjoyed meeting her and chatting about her work - also on cattle. Kelsi runs a blog, World Cowgirl, that is a great read for anyone interested in the role of animals in food production. She's also edited a book (with Phillip David Johnson), Trash Animals, which looks at the natural history of some of our least popular animal companions.

Lots of fascinating sources there, which I hope you enjoy as much as I did!