Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

Daniel Vandersommers — Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo: Stories from the Animal Archive

In this episode of Perspectives, we speak with Daniel Vandersommers, author of Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo: Stories from the Animal Archive. In this book, Vandersommers shows how zoo animals always ran away from the zoo. This is meant literally—animals escaped frequently—but even more so, figuratively. Living, breathing, historical zoo animals ran away from their cultural constructions, and these constructions ran away from the living bodies they were made to represent. Vandersommers shows that the resulting gaps produced by runaway animals contain concealed, distorted, and erased histories worthy of uncovering.


Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo also demonstrates how the popular zoology fostered by the National Zoo shaped every aspect of American science, culture, and conservation during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Between the 1880s and World War I, as intellectuals debated Darwinism and scientists institutionalized the laboratory, zoological parks suddenly appeared at the heart of nearly every major American city, captivating tens of millions of visitors. Vandersommers follows stories previously hidden within the National Zoo in order to help us reconsider the place of zoos and their inhabitants in the twenty-first century.


Recorded on October 31, 2023.

Closed captioning available on YouTube.


Insights from the Collections
The Consortium's collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of zoology, biology and popular science. See the Consortium search hub to find more.
Materials related to this topic include:
William T. Hornaday papers, 1866-1975, Library of Congress
Report on the Department of Living Animals in the U.S. National Museum, 1889, Smithsonian Institution
National Zoological Park documents, Smithsonian Institution
George Washington Corner papers, 1889-1981, American Philosophical Society
Join a related Working Group for monthly discussions:
Collection Ecologies
Collections and Collecting
Earth and Environmental Sciences
See also work from our fellows:
Barrie Blatchford, Unnatural Selection: Animal Acclimatization, Nation-Building, and the Transformation of American Nature, 1865-1970
Kerri Clement, Wonderland’s Festering Wound: Indigenous Peoples, Animals, and Brucellosis in Twentieth-Century Yellowstone and Montana Borderlands
Alison Laurence, An Unnatural History of Deep Time: Extinct Animals and the Politics of Place in the Modern United States
Whitney Robles, Gathering the Animals: Natural History in America to 1815