Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

Monkeys, Marsupials and Emus on Superbowl Sunday: A Salon with Sy Montgomery and Dale Peterson

Posted by lisagbrown on February 7, 2010

While the rest of Boston was glued to Superbowl Sunday TV, a small group of animal-minded individuals gathered in the brick annex of Newtonville Books to chat with authors Sy Montgomery (Walking with the Great Apes) and Dale Peterson (Elephant Reflections). The Pen/New England event wasn’t a typical book reading. In fact, no one even cracked open a book. Instead, the two authors casually entertained the group with stories of how they began writing about animals. And when that was through, the group of us stood sipping wine and eating cheese, chatting up the charmingly humble authors in the tradition of an old fashioned “salon.”

Dale shared a story about how he used to do carpentry for Steve Jobs in the 80’s, and how he found his voice while travelling the world in pursuit of the 10 most endangered primates. Sy extolled her love of Emus, and explained the depression she endured when she left her six-month stint in the outback of Australia. Even though both Dale and Sy have books coming out soon, neither read passages from their books. Instead, they shared a little of themselves: their writing process, their personal relationships with animals, and their experiences with publishers. “When you can’t believe in yourself, and I often can’t, you can believe in the animals you apprentice yourself to,” explained Sy.


Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Conservation, Extinction, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Photography, Primates, Representations, Theory | Leave a Comment »

Blitzen Trapper Embrace Their Inner Wolf

Posted by lisagbrown on November 24, 2009

On Blitzen Trapper’s new album Furr, the band draws on the storytelling tradition of shapeshifters: humans and animals who can shift between forms. The band embraces their inner wolf on the title track, “Furr.” Read the fantastic lyrics below:


Yeah, when I was only 17,
I could hear the angels whispering
So I droned into the words and
wondered aimlessly about till
I heard my mother shouting through the fog
It turned out to be the howling of a dog
or a wolf to be exact.
The sound sent shivers down my back
but I was drawn into the pack.
And before long, they allowed me
to join in and sing their song.
So from the cliffs and highest hill, yeah
we would gladly get our fill,
howling endlessly and shrilly at the dawn.
And I lost the taste for judging right from wrong.
For my flesh had turned to fur, yeah
And my thoughts, they surely were turned to
instinct and obedience to God.

You can wear your fur
like the river on fire.
But you better be sure
if you’re makin’ God a liar.
I’m a rattlesnake, babe,
I’m like fuel on fire.
So if you’re gonna’ get made,
don’t be afraid of what you’ve learned.

On the day that I turned 23,
I was curled up underneath a dogwood tree.
When suddenly a girl
with skin the color of a pearl,
wandered aimlessly,
but she didn’t seem to see.
She was listenin’ for the angels just like me.
So I stood and looked about.
I brushed the leaves off of my snout.
And then I heard my mother shouting through the trees.
You should have seen that girl go shaky at the knees.
So I took her by the arm
we settled down upon a farm.
And raised our children up as
gently as you please.

And now my fur has turned to skin.
And I’ve been quickly ushered in
to a world that I confess I do not know.
But I still dream of running careless through the snow.
An’ through the howlin’ winds that blow,
across the ancient distant flow,
it fill our bodies up like water till we know.

You can wear your fur
like the river on fire.
But you better be sure
if you’re makin’ God a liar.
I’m a rattlesnake, babe,
I’m like fuel on fire.
So if you’re gonna’ get made,
don’t be afraid of what you’ve learned.

Listen to the song on Blitzen Trapper’s website

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Dogs, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Music, Representations | Leave a Comment »

An Interview with Writer Charles Siebert about His New Book, The Wauchula Woods Accord

Posted by lisagbrown on June 22, 2009


Charles Siebert has made his name as the New York Times Magazine animal writer. In the past several years he has written articles about animal shelters, elephant culture, chimp behavior, and humans’ relationship with the natural world. He has also written several books about animals and nature (for a complete bibliography of Siebert’s work, click here).

Now, Siebert adds to his impressive body of work with the book The Wauchula Woods Accord, in which he explores the lives of retired chimps living in America. Siebert takes us on a coast to coast trip as he visits a number of sanctuaries and zoos that house former chimp actors (and retired medical research subjects, as well). Building upon carefully compiled scientific, historical, biographical and cultural research, Siebert paints a vivid portrait of a species in crisis. In a style that has become Siebert’s signature, he ties this story together through the lens of his own personal experiences, and encourages his readers to see these animals as he sees them: as “primatological doppelganger[s]” of ourselves.

Perhaps most compelling is his relationship with Roger, a chimp who takes an immediate liking to Siebert, and whom Siebert is convinced he met at some point in his life. The quiet and profound friendship that grows between them fuels this book, as much as it fuels Siebert’s desire to see these apes living lives more befitting such intelligent, sensitive beings.

Recently, Siebert very graciously answered my questions about his relationship with Roger, and about his new book.

Animal Inventory: Much of the time you and Roger spend together you simply stare at each other. And yet, it seems that much occurs between you in the course of your endless gazing. At one point you say, “You can learn a lot, I’ve found, from just daring to remain within a chimpanzee’s stare. Far more than you can from a fellow human’s (p 5).” How so? What do you think was happening between you two during those times?

Charles Siebert: The very dynamic, if overtly static, process of daring to stay within another animal’s gaze (especially one as close to us in body and mind as the chimpanzee) is one of escaping the relentless keeper of human consciousness; a process of getting past my restrictive and seemingly exclusive identity as a human and thus throwing open the doors on all the other creatures that I know myself to be, or to once have been, biologically, evolutionarily, and intuitively. That all may sound like some horrible mish-mash of Walt Whitman, Transcendentalism and Buddhism, but there it is. I often feel I’m traveling in place when I look into an animal’s eyes, whereas with another human one has to get past all the self-conscious and pre-possessive entanglements that obtain your own brain. I’m not saying that the inscrutable muteness of an animal and its otherness allows me to endlessly project my thoughts and ideas and will upon them. I’m saying that animals allow me to divest myself of all those things and, to paraphrase Emerson, resign myself to the common biology that breathes through all beings and accompany that.

9780609804681AI: I thought a lot about your book Angus as I was reading Wauchula Woods – mostly because of the contrast in how you communicate animal sentience in each. In Angus, you write the book as a memoir from your dog’s point of view. In Wauchula Woods, you rely on observation, context and history. The circumstances – not to mention the species – in each book are quite different, but did you ever consider writing Roger’s story from his point of view?

CS: In Angus I was more or less operating on the premise that (and now I’m channeling Bogart in Casablanca) it is not an anthropomorphizer that I mind so much, it’s a cut-rate one. All I know is that I kept trying to write that book from my point of view, but the writing seemed horribly bland and flat. And then one day this voice came into my head that sounded to me like the essence of the spirit of Angus: daring, edgy, all attitude and aggression. As the book opens, he’s lying there at the edge of the woods, near death from a coyote attack, and so the sense I try to instill in the reader is that the actual Angus has been somehow transformed by the experience of the attack into a suddenly far more sentient, knowing rendition of his former self, a kind of wry Rilkean dog angel, hovering somewhere between life and death, and seeing both of those anew. With The Wauchula Woods Accord I knew I already had in Roger such an advanced intelligence (and this is based on neurological research into the chimp brain, not anthropomorphic conjecture) that to attempt to write the story from his point of view would have resulted in the very bathos and cartoonishness that I decry in the book with regard to our typical treatment of our nearest biological relative. Thus, it seemed to me the simple and often stark juxtaposition of my expressed thoughts and emotions with Roger’s unspoken ones, would be far more powerful.

AI: You posit that, despite the cages that usually restrict nonhuman apes, humans are “by far the more imprisoned species (p 44).” Can you explain what you mean by this?

pppCS: Well, this goes back to the relentless keeper’s consciousness, and the awkward and often beastly ways in which our own self-awareness causes us to behave, the very need we have, for example, to take a creature like Roger and dress him up as a cellist in an all-chimp orchestra at Ringling Bros., or to simply put him and any number of other creatures behind bars in order to stare at them. I think we do such things, on one level at least, because we’re lonely. We sense that we’re at once a part of, and apart from, other animals and so we want to bring them into our context as coerced companions, ongoing, living glosses on who we are. It’s a primal urge in its own right. Our brain’s added neurons, the ones that allow for our so called higher cognitive functions, are also what give us that sense of isolation from the rest of being. Why, we’ve long wondered, are we the only ones who can turn around and call all other things names? This sense of isolation is, of course, at the heart of all creation mythology, the notion that we humans went astray somewhere, committed some sin and so got ourselves expelled from the rest of nature. But as I say someplace in the book, we were never expelled from anywhere. We walked out: the first upright forays toward new environments and challenges that our earliest primate ancestor made, new environments and challenges that spurred, in turn, the growth of those same added neurons that have since contributed to our sense of isolation. Still, one great source of absolution—and I use that theurgically tinted word in the context of the above creation mythology rap—is now being offered to us by of all things science. More and more studies of other animals—fellow primates like Roger, elephants, whales, dolphins, and certain species of birds—are revealing that they, too, possess in varying measures many of the same highly specialized neurons and attendant behaviors, such as communication skills, social interactions, tool use and cultural transmission of knowledge, that we once thought to be exclusive to us humans. We are not alone after all. We just have no way, at present at least, to speak other creatures’ languages.

AI: In the course of your book you often suggest that our fraught relationship with chimps is partly due to how they remind us of the animality we deny in ourselves. Can you envision a way for humans to accept our own animality? What would that look like? And do you think that chimp welfare is dependent on our ability to accept our animality?

CS: Hmmm, I ponder that one often. One answer, I believe, and it may be somewhat pie-in-the sky, both literally and figuratively, is that if we humans could, in our ongoing need to apprehend the infinite and the spiritual nature of our existence, could learn to redirect our gazes downward rather than skyward, if we could come to better know and embrace the billions of years of biology that it took to go from the one common ancestor of all life to life as it is today in its myriad of forms, we would discover that the infinite, somewhat paradoxically, inheres in the minutae of all life’s making. “God”, in that sense, truly is in the details. I think we as a species are either far too oblivious or dismissive of the wonders of the actual story of life’s emergence. Science doesn’t dispel our wonder. It merely reinvents it. As for how such a new embrace of our own animality and common biology would affect the fate of other species such as chimps, I suppose I could quote the very words of The Wauchula Woods Accord that Roger and I arrive at by the end of our time together: “The degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures, and for that matter, one another will be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are.”

AI: At one point you explain, “Science has obviated anthropomorphism – the crime of projecting our stories upon the animals – by, of all things, repeatedly pointing out to us just how uncomfortably close to our stories so many aspects of theirs actually are (p 134).” By contrast, you seem to embrace a kind of anthropomorphism that uses human perspective as a tool toward a greater understanding of other animals. How have the scientists that reject anthropomorphism responded to your work?

sc0009c0b1CS: I’m not sure I can answer that one except to say that I’m always as careful as I can be in my research, and my interviews with scientists, and in my actual writing, about the so called “spectre of anthropomorphism”. I try to let the science lead my imagination and these days that’s a very effortless dance indeed. Ultimately, however, all we humans have is anthropomorphism. We have to, by the very nature of our own biological alignment, project upon and conjecture about what might be going on within the bodies and minds of biology’s other alignments. What science has forever changed, however, is the substance and tenor of our projections and conjectures. Whereas once we had to proceed from the inherently unanswerable question: what it is like to be in Roger’s day, or a whale’s, or a dolphin’s or an elephant’s, now science has told us enough about the behaviors and the brain structures of these other creatures to allow us to conclude that they all clearly have their own parallel days, ones that are in many ways as complex and woundable as ours, and therefore as commanding of regard and respect.

AI: You cite the work of Eve Abe and Gay Bradshaw, two scholars who suggest that wild elephants are experiencing a collective psychological and cultural breakdown of epic proportions, caused by human interference (habitat destruction, poaching, culling, translocation, etc.). What can we draw from these findings that will inform us about the future of wild chimps?

CS: Wild chimps are experiencing the same encroachment, habitat destruction and attendant breakdown of their society that elephants are. The future of both species, and that of any number of large land-based animals with whom we share the planet, is more or less entirely up to us. We are the ones who’ll have to determine how important it is to us to keep these animals around, how impoverished we’d be without them on the earth. And then we have to make the effort to preserve enough extant wilderness in which those animals can prosper. That, of course, involves very complex, geo-political maneuvering and cross-cultural co-operation and negotiation.

AI: Towards the end of the book, you state that we need “to finally get past ourselves and our story and, through acts of deep, interspecies empathy…to become a part of [other animals’] story (p 175).” On the one hand this seems like a simple request, but on the other hand this requires a radical shift in perspective. Can you explain what you mean by this?

CS: In one sense this involves us human beings collectively coming down off of our high horse, if you’ll excuse the old expression. The more we begin to see and understand ourselves as one more extension of the greater biological forces that created and control all life on earth, rather than as beings apart, entities anointed by some higher authority, the more the “inter-species empathy” I speak of, or what Gay Bradshaw calls the “trans-species psyche”, will be allowed to flourish. This will all still bring us to the same tough decisions and compromises that I alluded to earlier, but what a better premise it is to approach them from such a new collective interspecies empathy, as opposed to the ongoing parochial factionalism rooted in old rival religions and the false notion of human exclusivity.

AI: Finally, do you have any new projects in the works that we can look forward to?

CS: I’m currently completing an upcoming July 12th cover story for The New York Times Magazine about whales and all the amazing new things that we’re learning about them and their culture. I’ve also got a number of new books in the works, one about the hopefully doubtful future of the zoo; a novel about a hardware shop owner who happens to discover the common ancestor of all life on earth; and, finally, a collection of poems.

Image 1: Cover of The Wauchula Woods Accord

Image 2: Cover of Angus

Image 3: Siebert’s new friend, Roger

Image 4: Engraving by Nicolaes Tulp (1641). An image of an ape who is thought to be the first live chimp brought to Europe

Special thanks to Kate Bittman at Scribner

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Conservation, Ethics, Extinction, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Primates, Public Policy, Representations, Theory | 6 Comments »

Do Animals Have Emotions?

Posted by lisagbrown on April 19, 2009

facial-expressions1My blog entries are inspired by many things: movies, books, news stories, and sometimes, conversations. Recently, someone asked me “how we can know that animals have emotions?” As I began to answer, I was reminded that nearly a year ago I wrote a blog post called Can Animals Think? That post was also inspired by a conversation. On the surface, these two questions — “do animals have emotions” and “can animals think” — are very similar. And on reflection, I realized that at their core each of these queries is rooted in one larger, more philosophical question — how can we prove anything about animals if we can’t ever get inside their heads?

The obstacle of inhabiting the mind of another species is one that has long been a source of both friction and inspiration for animal studies scholars. We may never have the technology to know what is inside the mind of another species, but we seem to forget that we can’t achieve such a feat with other humans either. Yet we rarely cast doubt on the ability of other humans to feel emotions or to think. The only way I know for sure that a person is happy, sad or thoughtful is if they tell me they are, or if I manage to read their behaviors well. And with the absence of language, there is no reason not to similarly interpret some animal behaviors as emotion, as well.

There is a wonderful story about Washoe, one of the first chimps to be taught sign language. The popular event has been recounted many times — One of the women who worked with Washoe had been pregnant and then was absent for a few days. Washoe was upset with the woman for her apparent abandonment, and did her best to ignore and snub the woman upon her return. However, when the woman finally got Washoe’s attention, the woman signed to her, “my baby died.” Washoe, who had lost several babies herself, simply signed the word “cry.”

Rarely has something occurred in human-animal communication that so clearly and evocatively lays to rest the question of whether animals experience emotions. Further still, this example demonstrates Washoe’s ability to empathize — that is, she appears to experience, understand and expect the emotion of her human friend, because Washoe herself had experienced a similar tragedy.

We humans rarely trust her own interpretive skills when it comes to animals, accusing ourselves and each other of anthropomorphism (assigning human qualities to nonhumans), so one reason why this story is so important is because Washoe herself tells us what she is thinking and feeling. We do not have to guess.

There are examples of emotion all around the animal kingdom — mourning in death, laughter in play, fear, jealousy, affection, pride. Some people argue that what we perceive as emotions in animals are merely behavioral manifestations of instinct. But couldn’t we say the same for own behaviors and emotions? If we are to assume that what we perceive as animal emotions are merely instinctual behaviors, then we must turn the lens back upon ourselves. We don’t know to what extent our behaviors are driven by instinct, but that doesn’t make the emotions we feel any less powerful, palpable, or real.

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Primates, Theory | 2 Comments »

New York Times writer Charles Siebert: The Complete Works

Posted by lisagbrown on March 12, 2009

To read my interview with Charles Siebert, click here.

06oped1901One of the challenges of writing with an agenda — that is, writing for the purpose of helping animals, or bringing greater awareness to animal issues — is that sometimes it seems as though lyricism and the beauty of words must be sacrificed. It can be difficult to imbue the language of public policy, welfare and rights, with the cadence of poetry.  I started my career as a writer — not as an animal advocate, that came later — and so the weight of words matters to me. I am as much concerned with how I say something, as I am with what I am saying.

Therefore, when I find someone who manages to advocate on behalf of animals, while also creating worlds of imagery with his words, I become … shall we say … enthralled. Charles Siebert is becoming increasingly well known for his New York Times Magazine editorials, and below I’ve gathered a bibliography of his writings. Within each article, book and radio piece, you’ll find a searing analysis of human-animal relationships that is hidden inside the folds of personal, accessible, and above all, poetic writing. He manages to educate readers about the plight of animal sheltering in the United States, the inherent conflicts in caring for adult chimps, and the complex relationships between humans and the environment, all in the context of visceral autobiographical writing that engenders rawness and self-discovery, without becoming remotely saccharine. Enjoy the works below, and don’t forget to check out my interview with Siebert


2009 The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals (Scribner)

2004 A Man After His Own Heart (Three Rivers Press)

2000 Angus: A Novel (Three Rivers Press)

1997 Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral (Three Rivers Press)



7/21/09 Charles Siebert: The Wauchula Woods Accord The Diane Rehm Show

6/13/09 The Surprisingly Social Grey Whale Fresh Air

3/06/09 350: Human Resources, Act three. “Almost Human Resources” This American Life

10/06 Are Humans Causing Elephants to Go Crazy? Day to Day



06/09 Watching Whales Watching Us New York Times Magazine

03/09 Something Wild New York Times Magazine

05/07 Falling Down Green New York Times Magazine

 04/07 New Tricks New York Times Magazine

10/06 An Elephant Crackup? New York Times Magazine

01/06 The Animal Self  New York Times Magazine

06/05 Planet of the Retired Apes New York Times Magazine

09/04 The Genesis Project New York Times Magazine

03/03 Making Faces New York Times Magazine


Click here to see four articles by Siebert published in Harper’s Magazine:

(Please note: You must be a Harper’s subscriber to access the full text.)

05/97 Our Machines, Ourselves

02/93 The Artifice of the Natural

05/91 Where Have All the Animals Gone? The Lamentable Extinction of Zoos

02/90 The Rehumanization of the Heart: What doctors have forgotten, poets have always known

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Cats, Conservation, Dogs, Ethics, Fish, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Primates, Public Policy, Radio, Representations, Theory | Leave a Comment »

Dogs of War

Posted by lisagbrown on February 19, 2009

Dogs have played an unexpectedly prominent role in media coverage of the Iraq war. It began with a horrendous video: a U.S. soldier threw a tiny puppy off a cliff. This video (which I have chosen not to re-post because I find it too upsetting) captures the havoc of war in a new and startling way. That tiny runt of a puppy is innocence personified, and I will never forget the sound of his scream as he was tossed over the rocky crag.  I wondered if that soldier had always been capable of such an act, or if this war had changed him into someone without compassion or concern. Had he been so numbed by the horrors of daily life in Iraq that his act did not seem to him deranged? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do know that that soldier was America’s worst fears realized — he was meant to be representing our country, and instead he perpetuated a cycle of violence and rage that this war was (supposedly) trying to prevent.charlie___profile_main_51_1_1_32421

Eventually, stories began to trickle out of Iraq about U.S. soldiers who are smuggling dogs back into the U.S. These are not horror stories, but tales of love and compassion. The stray dogs lift the spirits of the soldiers who adopt them, and give the soldiers a reason to wake up each morning. If the man in the video was America’s worst fear about who represents our country abroad, then this other kind of soldier is the antidote. These soldiers see profundity in every single life. They are soldiers that Americans can believe in and relate to; soldiers who  witness horror, decay, and the hell of war, yet still see a life worth saving amongst the discarded strays.

And now a different kind of story is coming out of Iraq. Baghdad has established a program to deal with their rampant strays, and that program is enforced with poison and a shotgun. These strays are part of the aftermath of our war. They are  innocents who no one knows what to do with, so the dogs are simply and brutally killed.


When I write about controversial animals issues — like the geese that were struck by an airplane, or the personhood rights of apes, or the suffering of dogs in wartime — I sometimes get e-mails from people who accuse me of putting animal welfare before human welfare. They wonder, with all the human suffering in the world, how I could focus on animal issues instead. They see this question as black and white: either humans or animals. We must chose between them, and I have chosen wrong. But in response, I must quote the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

I believe that animals deserve to live free from pain and suffering, simply because they can experience these feelings. But if that is not a good enough reason, then I encourage people to look at the ways that the health of animals is inextricably linked to the well-being of humans. We are mirrors of each other, animals and humans. Our choice should not be one of who show concern for, but howwe do.  It is possible to build an understanding of suffering that integrates compassion for both humans and animals, because we cannot achieve the well-being of one, without the other. These dogs of war are examples of this. Each story — the discarded puppy, the adopted dogs, the slaughtered strays — demonstrates how we channel our own frustrations, hope and despair into another species. We look to them to save us from our pain, whether by hurting them or helping them. The way we treat animals tells us how well we are doing to maintain our own standards of well-being. It is through them, and with them, that we strive to be better people.

For more information on how to help soldiers bring their dogs back from war, visit Operation Baghdad Pups

Posted in Animal Welfare, Animals, Dogs, Ethics, Film, Human-Animal Bond, Identity, Public Policy | 3 Comments »

Telling Nature’s Story: A Manifesto, By Boria Sax

Posted by lisagbrown on January 12, 2009

nilaslogoNature in Legend and Story (Nilas) is an academic list serve that caters to scholars and storytellers who engage in the narrative of nature, animals and human culture.  As described on the Nilas website, “H-NILAS is a moderated internet discussion forum sponsored by the Nature in Legend and Story Society (NILAS). NILAS is a group of people dedicated to understanding relationships between human beings and the natural world, through the mediation of stories, poems, legends, pictures, and other cultural products.”

The group’s founder, Boria Sax, recently posted an essay that I thought would be of interest to Animal Inventory readers. Sax has graciously allowed me to post the manifesto, which also appears on his blog, Raven’s Wing.

Telling Nature’s Story: A Manifesto

Stories are not confined to human beings. Every animal, plant, stream, or mountain has a story.

Scholars are storytellers, who must now help to tell the story of humankind, of the earth, of the cosmos, of the troubled marriage between Mother Nature and Father Culture. These should be told in a language that can convey both intellectual nuance and emotional intensity, together with high drama, humor, pathos, adventure, and romance.

To tell the story of a tree or a butterfly is to grant it what is sometimes called “personhood.”

The majestic protocols of scholarship add authority and dignity, but they should not become the reason why we write. Documentation should enhance, not overwhelm, the story. Noting special cases should add interest and variety, and qualifications should enhance suppleness. But the accumulated mass of detail must not distract us from the line of narrative.

Language is not confined to human beings, though our language is like no other. There is also the dance of a bee, the changing colors of an octopus, the architecture of a bower bird, and the howling of a wolf. There is the language of the genetic code, with which strands of DNA speak to an embryo, or of plants as they bend and turn to share the sun.

The laws of physics are the grammar of a language in which the stars and galaxies communicate with one another. Are we speaking metaphorically? Sure. But that is how our language works.

Computers also have languages. We may use their languages when we communicate with them, but human beings do not use computer languages to talk with one another. We also do not habitually dance like bees or bark like crows. That is because our language is not simply an accessory. It is a basic part of what we are.

Humankind does not simply have a story; humankind is a story. While that story is still told, humanity will live. When the story ends, humankind will be no more. Our DNA, if it survives, will be one more monument alongside Stonehenge and the paintings in Lascaux.

What is Nature? All things that we are not. It is our beloved partner and adversary. Nature is a spider, gazing at a boy as she turns, with each of eight arachnid eyes, hanging from a filament catches the sun momentarily and then seems to disappear.

Didn’t Aristotle point out that things are opposite only through the qualities they share. The story of nature is our story, just like the reflection in a pond is our image, in reverse. Without Nature we could not live, in fact we could not even die.

By Boria Sax

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Guest Blogger, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Representations, Theory | Leave a Comment »

Finding Integration

Posted by lisagbrown on January 7, 2009

cgan738lI recently suffered a minor injury that has caused me to limit my writing and use of the computer. You may have noticed that this has altered the length and quantity of my blog postings over the last month. The experience has been frustrating and painful, but it has also forced me to slow down and take a step back. The injury has placed me very viscerally inside of my physical body, and while that is not always a pleasant place to be right now, it has also enabled me to reflect upon how long it’s been since I’ve been there. Here. That is, inside this living, breathing physical structure. The truth is that I typically spend most of my time inside my creaky, crowded brain and even my relationship with animals — my queries, feelings and thoughts — has become the dominion of my intellect, rather than my visceral core.

There was a time when the reverse was true — I worked with animals at a job that had very little room for braininess. My work was about connecting with the animals on a deeply emotional level, communicating with them through movement, touch and a rawness that people sometimes call instinct. The way that I felt about those beings transcended wordy description or heady explanation. I was strongly rooted in my body because that physicality helped me to understand the needs of my animal charges. It made me a better caretaker and a skilled communicator.  

But ultimately, the physical intelligence I honed at that job led me to realize that I was missing a piece of the animal puzzle. Despite my visceral understanding of these particular animals (and the colony as a whole), there were larger questions that I needed to ask.  So I left my job in order to learn about the history, culture, philosophy, ethics and policy surrounding human relationships with animals. I set up camp in a place that was all brain and thought and intellect. Many of my questions were answered, which led to more questions, and more answers, and more questions, still. And I lived in that cycle until about a month ago, when my body broke down and reminded me that, literally and figuratively, I had forgotten my physical roots.

My two divergent selves — intellect and body — inform me about how to understand animals.  I have found multiple ways to communicate with animals, to see them fully and completely, yet I have not found a way to join together these two sides of myself, to enable brain and body to connect and communicate with each other in order to facilitate an integrated understanding of animals. It is this integration — of the visceral and the intellectual — that is, in some sense, at the very core of human-animal studies. This is not a battle over who has what — animals have instinct, humans have smarts, or vice versa — this is an acceptance of the fact that there can be no holistic understanding of  animals unless we humans are more fully integrated selves. Or, let me state it another way. I’m not sure I can achieve a deeper understanding of animals until I achieve more integration between my intellectual and visceral understandings of animals.

At the very least, I think that’s what my strained body is trying to tell me, and these days I’m trying very hard to listen.

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Ethics, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Public Policy, Theory | 2 Comments »

Obama’s mutt

Posted by lisagbrown on December 12, 2008

obama_dog_pictureEveryone took notice when Barack Obama uttered his now famous words,

“Shelter dogs tend to be mutts, like me…”

It was a startling moment for many reasons. Had we ever heard a president-elect speak so self-deprecatingly? Had someone with such power ever spoken about companion animal issues to such a rapt audience? And finally, what did it mean for a person of mixed heritage — the president-elect, no less — to compare his own lineage to a dog’s? These were questions that felt too big to answer in a single blog entry, too daunting to address without serious rumination. Where would I even begin?

Thankfully, Frances Bartkowski has begun to peel back the layers of meaning behind Obama’s 8 small words. In her recent post on the Columbia University Press blog, Bartkowski suggests that to understand the power of this statement, one must recognize a new form of kinship that is emerging:

Aren’t we all, if we look closely or far enough back in our genealogies, mutts? …This is our object lesson, among others, whether to follow our curiosity and desire—to kiss, or to be led by our lesser selves toward animosity, what we sometimes like to cordon off as animality. Only by letting our human-animal borders become more porous can we let the future materialize out of our mixed pasts.

In Bartkowski’s view, Obama has revealed a way of bringing animals into the fold of family, and not just as individual companions. He has introduced a kind of shared ancestry among humans and nonhumans, one that integrates our history, if not our biology.

I believe Obama’s statement is one that people will turn to time and again for guidance, inspiration and contemplation, particularly those of us who work with or for animals. His 8 words are an endless meditation on race, individuality, animality, responsibility, history, welfare, and power.

To read Bartkowski’s full blog post, visit the Columbia University Press blog by clicking here. Bartkowski’s new book, entitled Kissing Cousins: A New Kinship Bestiary, is available on the site. Look for a review of the book on Animal Inventory in the coming weeks.

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Barack Obama, Dogs, Ethics, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Public Policy, Representations, Television | Leave a Comment »

Best of the Blogs…

Posted by lisagbrown on December 7, 2008

There is nothing I love more than perusing my favorite blogs. Too often, the medium of blogging gets a bad rap because anyone can have a blog (and almost everyone does!) But that’s not the medium’s fault. Just like there are terrible and wonderful books, movies and art, there are terrible and wonderful blogs, as well. You just have to know how to sift through the bad to find the good, and this can be an intimidating endeavor. I highly recommend every single one of the blogs listed on my blogroll, but I thought I’d highlight the ones I’ve been completely addicted to lately. Enjoy!


Antennae isn’t actually a blog (it’s a journal), but it’s full of fascinating articles, interviews, art and tidbits by many of the most influential contemporary animal/nature writers and artists. Download the current issue “Botched Taxidermy” as a PDF on their website.

This blog is authored by Vanessa Woods, a Bonobo researcher who is stationed at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Congo. Her blog is full of vibrant color photos, descriptions of her relationships with the bonobos and a no-holds-barred personal account of the politics of bonobo protection.

You may have noticed my previous enthusiasm for this blog, but it bears repeating. Daily Coyote is the day-to-day account of Shreve Stockton’s efforts to raise an orphaned coyote pup. Not only are her photos breathtakingly beautiful, but Shreve’s determination to chronicle this adventure responsibly (i.e., to reiterate that she will never again undertake an experience like this, and that coyotes are not meant to be pets) is commendable.

For a more intellectual and theoretical perspective on animals, check out the blog of Boria Sax, one of the stand-out powerhouses in the burgeoning field of human-animal studies.

Red Star Cafe is undoubtedly one of my all time favorite blogs. I like to imagine that I’m the only one who knows about this amazing treasure-trove of writing. I’m only sharing this little secret with you because I know you won’t tell anyone else about the intelligence, insight and originality with which they write about animals and nature in culture. Shh. Don’t tell. Our secret.

This blog is the ‘notebook’ of Boston-based writer and professor Steve Himmer. Steve posts his favorite highlights from blogs, books and more, and all of it is about nature, animals and writing. It’s a great source of inspiration, and a way to find hidden gems.

In the past, my own blog has been called, “wonderfully specific,” a compliment that I’d like to pass on to Taxidermy: Ravishing Beasts. It is a smart, engaging blog about the beauty, controversy, and power of taxidermy.

This bilingual blog by a Columbia University doctoral student combines her love of 18th century literature, contemporary American popular culture, and razor-sharp autobiography, into one big, diverse, delightful read.

Posted in Advertising, Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Art, Birds, Cats, Comics, Conservation, Dogs, Ethics, Extinction, Film, Fish, Food Animals, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Music, Photography, Primates, Public Policy, Radio, Religion, Representations, Television, Theory | 3 Comments »