scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Ideas | Amy Crawford

Why is history always about humans?

Rafael Favoretto for the Boston Globe

In the second half of the 19th century, elephants were the main attraction of the many traveling circuses that toured the United States and Canada. For a time, there was no brighter star than Jumbo, who was billed by hype-master P.T. Barnum as “the biggest elephant in the world.”

Born in northern Africa in 1861, Jumbo was orphaned by ivory hunters and eventually brought to the London Zoo, where children paid to ride on his back and Queen Victoria herself reportedly became a fan. As he grew into adulthood, Jumbo began to rebel against his trainers, and zoo officials made the controversial decision to sell him to Barnum, who brought the pachyderm to America in chains and cast him in the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Jumbo met a tragic end: Hit by a train in 1885, just three years after crossing the Atlantic, he continued his circus career as a mounted skeleton and taxidermied hide. But by the end of his brief life, he had already made his mark on history as the first transatlantic animal celebrity — setting precedent for the fame of modern creatures like Koko, the “talking” gorilla, whose death in California in June was mourned around the world.


“Jumbo is an elephant that so many people know about or have heard of, and he’s also an extreme version of a story that was happening at the time,” says Susan Nance, a historian at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Her 2015 monograph, “Animal Modernity: Jumbo the Elephant and the Human Dilemma,” argued that the phenomenon of celebrity animals has helped distract humans from the ways in which we cause our fellow creatures to suffer. She is part of a new and growing wave of historians working to incorporate animals into the story of our shared past.

“For many centuries history was written to be a record of human stories and human triumphs,’” says Nance, who in addition to circuses has also written about the history of horse racing and rodeos. “But I understand history to be an approximation of the past of all species. We’re all sort of in it together.”


As recently as a decade ago, most historians might have considered animals a niche interest. Today, however, Nance’s approach has become much more than a sideshow. Animal history has in fact grown into a major subfield, with articles published in prestigious journals, classes taught at dozens of top universities, and a new Animal History Museum in development outside Los Angeles. In June, the Animal History Group’s Summer Conference, held at King’s College London, featured talks on England’s 1850s hippo fad and conflicts between humans and crocodiles throughout the ages. The influential French historian Eric Baratay recently published a collection of biographies of eminent animals, including Bummer and Lazarus, stray dogs who made their living killing rats in 19th century San Francisco. At the other end of the charisma spectrum are the subjects of “Pests in the City.” In this well-received book, University of Maryland scholar Dawn Day Biehler took the point of view of a colony of bedbugs, and a fly buzzing around a privy, to make arguments about how class shaped public health and housing policy in the 20th century.

As historians turn their attention to zoo animals, dairy cows, exotic pets, urban squirrels, and even the insects that share our homes, they are also shedding new light on what it means to be human.


* * *

What many call the recent “animal turn” in history has actually been several decades in the making. Influenced by social forces like the labor movement, feminism, and the struggle for civil rights, 20th-century historians gradually broadened their vision beyond the old themes of politics and war to include a fuller range of humanity. At the same time, cultural history — an interest in the everyday lives of people in the past — began to supplant the idea of a grand narrative. And since animals have always shared our daily lives (whether as food, labor-saving technology, predators, pets, or entertainment), animal history eventually came to seem a natural extension of both these trends.

“It seems clear to me that, if the reason you write history is to understand the past,” says MIT history professor Harriet Ritvo, “then the past is as varied as the present, and to understand it fully you need to know it from as many perspectives as possible.” Ritvo is widely acknowledged as a pioneer in animal history. Her 1987 book, “The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age,” included chapters about champion cattle breeding, dog shows, rabies panics, and zoos during the 19th century. One of the first serious treatments of animals as historical subjects in their own right, it came out at a time when, as Ritvo later wrote in a paper for the journal Environmental History, “the mention of an animal-related research topic [was] likely to provoke surprise and amusement.” Now, as evidenced in part by the profusion of animal topics in that and other academic journals, animals have joined the mainstream.

“I’m sure there are people who still think it’s weird, or trivial, but I don’t run into them,” Ritvo says with a laugh.

Of course, uncovering the history of animals presents different challenges than human history; incapable of leaving their own written records, animals often appear only briefly in human accounts.

“One boon for doing animal history recently has been the digitization of massive amounts of historical documents,” notes Etienne Benson, a University of Pennsylvania historian (and former student of Ritvo’s) whose surprising 2013 paper about eastern gray squirrels, published in the Journal of American History, caught the interest of animal fans outside the academy. As Benson discovered, squirrels — once known primarily as shy forest-dwellers — only became the ubiquitous urbanites we know today thanks to their deliberate introduction as picturesque park features in cities like Boston and Philadelphia after the Civil War. The rodents’ back story was there, in publications ranging from Harvard Graduates’ Magazine to the annual Report of the Director of the Central Park Menagerie, but piecing it together meant adopting a new approach to archival research.


“If you go looking for articles titled ‘The Introduction of Squirrels to American Cities in the Late 19th Century,’ you’re not going to find a lot, because squirrels were pretty marginal,” Benson explains. “A lot of the sources I used for the squirrel article involved finding very brief, very minor mentions, maybe five paragraphs down, or five pages in. Keyword searches are actually making it possible to find these little tiny hints and mentions, and to reconstruct a story about animals from there.”

In addition to tidbits in newspapers and magazines, other useful traces of animals in the historical record include studbooks, or catalogs of breeding stock; the annals of veterinary schools; agricultural registers; zoo advertising; and records of natural history museums, which amassed vast taxidermy collections during the 19th century. Historians at Stanford used city directories to create an interactive map of animal-related businesses in San Francisco in the 19th century. Organizers of an upcoming conference on “Maritime Animals” are calling on scholars to comb historical sailors’ and passengers’ diaries for accounts of ships’ mascots, onboard vermin, and encounters with animals on the high seas.


But when a subject is nonverbal, the written record cannot tell the whole story, and animal history also owes a debt to recent developments in various scientific fields. DNA, for example, has shed light on hunting patterns and the spread of zoonotic diseases, while the developing science of animal cognition and behavior can help us understand how animals in the past might have experienced and reacted to their conditions — without resorting to projecting human sensibilities onto them.

“These are creatures that have totally other ways of seeing the world,” Benson says, noting that animal historians must strike a delicate balance between the extremes of ventriloquism — imagining they speak for their mute subjects — and dismissing animals’ perspective as unknowable. “My approach to the dilemma is to say these are historical beings — they live at particular times and places, and the quality of their lives was shaped by those times and places. To be a squirrel in Boston in 1900 is different than being a squirrel in Philadelphia in 2018. So if you say, ‘Here’s an animal that has these needs, and that seems to pursue these goals, and that encountered an environment that produced these opportunities and offered these challenges, that’s enough. I leave it to the reader to make the leap of sympathy and identification.”

* * *

Despite the pains animal historians may take to avoid projecting human feelings onto non-humans, many acknowledge that their discipline is an emotional one — and that rethinking our historical relationship with our fellow creatures is important for the present, as well. We now live in the Anthropocene Epoch, an era when humanity’s impact on the planet has become impossible to ignore. According to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, as many as 150 species go extinct every day, most due to human-related causes like habitat loss and climate change. Beneath the rise of animal history may lie the understanding, elusive as it was for most of our own history, that humans are but one of many animals sharing the fate of a finite Earth, and that what we do — and have done — to animals has broad implications for our future, as well.

“I consider myself a whistleblower — I am out to tell the stories that people want to forget about, that they want to cover up,” Nance says. “For any group to get their justice, they need to have their history written. My hope is that if we understand what animals have done and coped with in the past, that we will think about what we do in the future with a little more clarity.”

The story of Jumbo the elephant and his captive conspecifics is one that many people might have preferred to forget about, as the harsh discipline, poor conditions, and exploitation these creatures faced does not exactly reflect well on our forefathers. And new realizations about elephant behavior have led to grim insights into how these animals may have experienced their conditions; for example, the rhythmic rocking or swaying that captive elephants like Jumbo displayed was not really a charming “dance” — as promoters and zookeepers led the public to believe — but an abnormal behavior the creatures only adopted to deal with boredom and frustration in confined spaces.

“We can’t say, ‘We know this elephant was sad,’” Nance says, “but this was an elephant struggling to cope with a difficult situation.”

It may not redeem the historical plight of Jumbo and his contemporaries, but our greater understanding of elephants’ suffering has led to change. In 2016, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus — heirs to Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” — allowed its remaining elephants to retire to a sanctuary in Florida. Executives chalked up the move to a “mood shift,” explaining that crowds had become uncomfortable with seeing pachyderms perform. Humans’ shared history with animals may not always be one of progress. But the circus elephants’ retirement is one case, at least, where understanding history may have helped us to rectify the sins of the past.

Amy Crawford is a writer living in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.