Humanism Encaged: The American Zoo, 1887-1917

Daniel VandersommersDaniel Vandersommers is 2017-2018 Consortium NEH Postdoctoral Fellow and is Teaching Assistant Professor at the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities at Ball State University.

This year as an NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine has been quite productive. I completed two essays, “Narrating Animal History from the Crags: A Turn-of-the-Century Tale about Mountain Sheep, Resistance, and a Nation” in the Journal of American Studies, and “The Sectionalism of the National Zoo: Animals, Language, Politics” for a special forthcoming forum of Environmental History, concerning animal studies and the American Civil War. Both of these pieces were made possible through research conducted in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. More significantly, my Consortium fellowship has allowed me to complete the research for my first academic monograph, Humanism Encaged: The American Zoo, 1887-1917, and complete a forthcoming interdisciplinary edited volume, titled Zoo Studies: A New Humanities. You can read more about these books below. 
1. Humanism Encaged: The American Zoo, 1887-1917
Charles Darwin shocked scientists with his 1859 publication On the Origin of Species by showing how all life emerged from a common ancestor. Darwin’s classic alone, however, does not explain why by the end of the century increasing numbers of Americans rethought their relationships with the animal world. To understand this phenomenon, we must look elsewhere. Between 1890 and 1920, as intellectuals debated Darwinism, zoological parks appeared suddenly at the heart of every major American city, captivating tens of millions of visitors. Darwin’s theory of evolution inspired scientists and philosophers to theorize about humans and animals. Public zoos allowed the multitudes to experience daily the similarities between the human world and the animal kingdom.
Upon entering the zoo, Americans saw the world’s exotic species for the first time—their long necks, sharp teeth, bright colors, gargantuan sizes, ivory extremities, spots, scales, and stripes. Yet, more significantly, some Americans, knowingly or not, listened to these animals. They learned to take animals seriously as they interacted with them along zoo walkways. Zoo animals led human zoogoers in surprising directions—to the halls of Congress and policymaking, to the exhibits of museums, to global trade networks, to the birth of the airplane, to conservation politics, to the formation of primatology, to tuberculosis outbreaks and preventative medicine, to the rise of animal rights discourses, and to the genesis of ecology. Zoos, in turn, ushered animals themselves into the heart of American politics, print culture, environmentalism, ethics, medicine, and science. All of this, together, composed an influential and heterogenous popular zoology, born in and through the public zoo.
Zoological parks encouraged visitors to approach real animals on their own terms. In so doing, zoos placed humanism on display, where the limits of anthropocentrism could be scrutinized, reinforced, or challenged by a zoogoing populace. Zoological parks at the turn of the century prepared the way for later environmental, conservation, and animal rights movements. They prepared the way for later cultural entanglements with the life sciences, like the Scopes Monkey Trial. Zoological parks functioned as theaters that first demonstrated simple lessons about animals that would capture the attention of the ever-expanding and ever-specializing body of scholars devoted to the study of life. And zoological parks, in many ways ironically, became the first public tutorials in post-humanist thinking. Researched at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and fifteen other institutions, this book tells the story of how a zoo—by encaging humanism, through the bodies of animals on display—transformed the way that its zoogoers thought about humans, animals, environments, and science.
2. Zoo Studies: A New Humanities, coedited with Tracy McDonald
This edited volume, forthcoming with McGill-Queens University Press, originated from the best papers created for an intensive workshop I hosted with Tracy McDonald, entitled “Zoo Studies and a New Humanities,” in December 2016. The volume contains highly original scholarship that works together to create new ways of seeing and thinking about zoological parks, animals, and captivity.
Over the last decade, as a result of the emergence of environmental and animal studies, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, theorists, literature scholars, and historians around the world have begun to establish the global significance of zoological parks past and present. These individuals, however, have been isolated from one another. Not only were they separated by institutional borders and disciplinary boundaries, they were partitioned by oceans and landmasses as well. Although by 2016, a body of recently-published monographs, articles, and dissertations formed a nascent “interdisciplinary zoo studies,” there had been no galvanizing event, conference, or meeting for its founders to discuss priorities, work through frameworks, and share research and theory. There was no collaborative text or edited collection to give shape and direction to zoo studies. Zoo Studies: A New Humanities changed this situation, examining zoological parks as analytic tools for reconceptualizing the arts and humanities in the midst of the "animal turn."
For the academic audience, the collection’s interdisciplinary focus means it will be of interest to scholars studying history, philosophy, aesthetics, dance, animal studies, environmental studies, science and technology studies, cultural studies, and zoological science. Scholars and graduate students will find this book wide-ranging and original. Undergraduates will find this book, as an introductory look into zoos, a breath of fresh air—strange, thought-provoking, relatable, and different than the typical academic collection. At the same time, they will find this book troubling and challenging. Zoo Studies: A New Humanities will be suitable for multiple audiences. Its arguments will reach scholarly audiences. Its prose will reach college-student readerships.
The authors within the collection are experts in social, cultural, military, and environmental history, environmental philosophy, aesthetics, ecocriticism, animal studies, gender and sexuality studies, visual studies, English literature, dance and choreography, and science and technology studies. Despite this intimidating spectrum, the chapters are remarkably well-written, accessible, and interconnected. Readers could pick up the book and read it from start to finish or pick and choose the areas that interest them. The book is organized chronologically and moves from less to more abstract considerations, although all chapters embrace elements of both evidence-based thinking and theoretical frameworks and analyses. 
Zoo Studies: A New Humanities will emerge into a world that is wild about zoos. On a global scale, yearly attendance figures are estimated at around 675 million. In the United States alone, zoos contribute almost $20 billion to the GDP every year. Zoos are not only one of our world’s most popular cultural institutions, but they represent a profitable global industry that spans six continents.
Daniel Vandersommers