Animal Obituaries

I wrote about Gigi in March last year. Gigi was the highest producing milk cow in the world before she was surpassed by Ever-Green-View My Gold-ET in 2017. As I wrote about Gigi, I wondered about exceptional animals and everyday animals; animals that are named and animals that are numbered. With Gigi, I thought about personalities, anthropomorphism, and the challenge of writing about animals in history.


Feeling close to Gigi, at least as a subject who forced me to ask hard questions about my own work, it was a shock for me when I opened my local farm newspaper to find that she had been killed in a fire along with 30 other “Bur-Wall Holstein herdmates.”

Firefighters were able to rescue 35 other cows from the Bur-Wall barn that collapsed as it was engulfed in flames. But it was Gigi who made the headline of the short article. I wondered if it could be considered a kind of obituary, as it highlighted her accomplishments and assured its audience she would be “remembered by many.” Do other animals receive such treatment? If they would, and mass text used to make tributes to the animals who contribute to our food systems, would we be more shocked by the numbers? Feel more thankful for their labors? Be more conscientious of suffering – both human and non-human?

Academics like historians, sociologists, and anthropologists use animals to think about the human – and many believe that if we dedicate time to blurring the line between human and non-human, we will make political strides toward blurring difference in humanity. If we account for inequity across species, some suggest, we may find solutions to solving inequity between humans. To see an animal obituary for Gigi makes me wonder about obituaries in general: who gets one and who doesn’t, the cost (in space, time, text) in making one and who is able to afford this, who is memorialized and who isn’t, what kinds of death are tragic and which are not.

gravestone cow

Traverse Colantha Walker was one of many cows to get a gravestone for her efforts. Credit: Traverse Colantha Walker Facebook Page.

I’m certain that if Gigi had a “natural” death, she would have been memorialized with some sort of gravestone like other special cows before her. But I’m uncertain if an obituary would have been made for her. This speaks to the tragedy of that fire – certainly not the first to hit the farming community hard this year,.

Such micro-level tragedies also force us (or, at least me) to reflect on macro-level ones, like the hurricanes this month that hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. The media coverage of these areas has been uneven – and this has much to do with the economic and political climates of today. Media coverage reflects “who matters” at certain moments in time in certain spaces, and there is always someone unnamed, or an event unmentioned, because time and text have price tags. This is why the evidence we gather in history – old obituaries, news articles, books – is not wholly representative of what happened in the past. We only get to experience a sliver of what happened and who was there. In many cases, we only get to see who could “afford” to be remembered, in the literal sense of the word. And future scholars – decades or centuries from now – will look at the material we produce in our media and make claims about our present moment. This will also only reflect a fraction of what we experience. It will cover some events over others, and name some of us but not memorialize all.

Why push on this point about power, privilege, and memorialization? Because I think it is important for us to be just as critical about our current media as we can be about what kind of evidence has been produced (and found) in the historical record. While I find it interesting and exciting, I’m critical of Gigi’s coverage because it celebrates high producing cattle and implies they are the ones worth memorializing today. This is not necessarily the reality for all farmers and their cattle. It only tells one story of many. It is still a story that needs to be told – of course! But if I want to highlight other efforts, other farmers, other cattle, I need to get to this information in a different way. This is the same line of questioning we should bring to all kinds of coverage: obituaries, tragedies, and celebrations. Whether intentionally or not, if we are uncritical of the media we produce we submit to one narrative. Unfortunately, not all actors (human or non-human) get memorials or obituaries. Sometimes, it is worth reminding ourselves of this reality.

Animals in the Archives Symposium

I encountered two animals in the archive my first day conducting research this summer.  The first was a mouse.  As I opened my very first box from a collection in Pennsylvania, pulled by the archivists for my viewing pleasure, I happened upon some torn paper.  A loose scroll was shredded.  As I lifted it for inspection, white pieces fell from it like confetti.  I panicked.  The archivists on staff took the matter very seriously, as they concluded a mouse had made a nest in this box.  We scrambled together to make sure the other twelve boxes I pulled from this collection were in good condition, finding dust and pests had inhabited some (not all!) boxes for some time and caused some damage.  Save for the scroll of paper, nothing else was lost to the collection.  But, it took my request for a series that had been in storage for several decades to reveal its condition (and its nonhuman inhabitants!).


The usual wear and tear of early 20th century archival materials.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016.

That same day I flipped through the pages of a scientist’s journal.  His handwriting was mesmerizing.  I loved reading about the precise days and times this early 20th century chemist met with a veterinarian to make sure the calves he bought for experiments were healthy.  And there they were at the middle of the journal – pictures of these calves!  I squealed with delight to find the glossy black and white images accompanied by the beautiful handwriting.

These are two of many ways an historian or archivist can come to animals in the archives, and this barely scratches the surface of experiences and interactions.  This was evident in the papers and roundtables organized for the University of Pennsylvania symposium, Animals in the Archives.  The two day event took place from October 27th to 28th, bringing together historians, librarians, archivists, and even scientists (to a degree) to discuss interactions in the archive similar to the ones I had this summer.  The stories shared ranged from the recognition of animals as material (parchment, book binding, taxidermy) to animals as subjects in film narratives, photographs, and rhetoric.  Below are my personal “take aways” from this event as a budding historian of animals.


A film screening of Matto Grosso, The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931) launched the beginning of this symposium.  Housed within the Penn Museum’s archives, the film is known as one of the first non-fiction films to incorporate animal sounds, according to film specialist Kate Pourshariati.  This is due in part to the rapidly changing technologies of the time – when explorers could enter the field with various kinds of equipment to document visual and auditory material from a given area.  Many different kinds of animals were featured in the film and included both wild Brazilian animals and domesticated “Old World” species.  The story told by the film producers was one of science and friendship: the explorers collecting animal specimens for research purposes with the help of the indigenous groups of Matto Grosso.


Matto Grosso postcard from Penn’s Matto Grosso film website.

During a reflective roundtable discussion, Rosanna Dent provided some useful context about the history and area of Matto Grosso.  She noted how approaching the film as an artifact trying to achieve the “authentic travel narrative” reveals much of the intent behind this piece.  The back-and-forth between “authenticity” and “natural-ness” of the interactions between both humans and nonhumans was particularly striking to me – as many of the moments with animals could not be entirely staged in the film.  Carolyn Fornoff made the important nod to colonialism in the narrative, and Rahul Mukherjee reflected on how human identity is made through various interactions with animals, staged or not in the film.  Themes of extinction, creation and captivity (Noah’s Ark), and the difficulties in historicizing racism resonated with the crowd and affected the next day’s conversations.

The next day of the symposium demonstrated the multidisciplinary fortitude of taking animal material in archives seriously.  Bruce Holsinger outlined his most recent book project focused on animal skin – parchment – in the archives and his interaction with medieval texts and contemporary scientists to get at the significance of the medium in the past and today.  Iris Montero mapped the presence of hummingbird bundles in various types of archival material – making a case for the “pre-Columbian” archive.  To her, both memories and myths were materialized in these nonhuman animal artifacts.  Animal material, the question of its significance to understanding historical moments, and the question to archivists as to why material is collected and kept resonated in the other talks.   Rebecca Woods’s paper on Australian wool samples, Nigel Rothfel’s attention to elephant skins, and the “Materiality” roundtable, including both archivists and researchers, touched on these concerns.  We encountered issues of ethics in anthropodermic books, logistics in keeping taxidermy mice, and challenges in cataloging multi-species relationships: as insects and the plants they consumed leave DNA footprints on textual materials.

The last speaker, Neel Ahuja, addressed moments when animals are discussed in documents, and the different ways these moments could be interpreted by historians.  His example demonstrated that the implications of such documents were so political in certain places and time periods that it often becomes difficult for the historian to disentangle lived experience from political agenda – particularly when trying to “get at” the animal.  The presentation addressed animal welfare issues with milking cattle in late 19th century India, when legal documentation was ambiguous and hesitant to cite methods of milking that were banned based on their cruelty and ineffectiveness.  Ahuja made the case of looking at such material with hybridity in mind: the reality of the cruelty in these methods for certain historical actors, and the ban implicating something specific about colonial power and the rationalization of industrial methods of milking over pastoralist ones.  Certain human-animal interactions that took place for hundreds of years were suddenly re-contextualized as inappropriate through legal documentation.  But these interactions were also rhetorically avoided in the writing; perhaps illustrating a similar experience of getting to animal material in an archive without much written documentation of the life/experience/interactions the body had while still alive.


Harriet Ritvo’s Animal Estate (1987).

Harriet Ritvo, who arguably jump-started the animal history movement with her book Animal Estate (1987), provided some helpful closing comments to the event.   The two big questions participants seemed to be grappling with included 1) What are animals like?  and 2) What are archives like?  When historians engage with animals in the archives they are forced to recognize their living qualities.  Animals are not just metaphorical, even though we often approach them in this form in writings.  Animals are very real, and they were very alive before their bodies were placed in museums, libraries, or universities.  When animals are archived today, we see some difficulty in placing material objects within their context – particularly as papers become part of separate archival spaces housed away from their objects of reference.  The importance of these material objects – these animal bodies – in understanding the past is something historians and archivists need to keep in mind, and they are sources that are useful, troubling, and fantastic.