Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Wild and domestic: A cultural history of human-animal relations

By Andi Horvath

Environmental historian Prof Harriet Ritvo recounts the often ambiguous relationships between the human and animal worlds through history, and explores our need to both tame and take inspiration from the wild.

ANDI HORVATH
I'm Doctor Andi Horvath. Thanks for joining us. Today we bring you up close to our important but often conflicted relationship to the world of animals. Animals, whether domesticated, tamed or wild are not only our fellow creatures on the planet, but our very survival depends on the continued existence of quite a number of animals and insect species. While we exploit some members of the animal kingdom for their milk or honey, meat or fibre and fur or feathers, we treat others as ornaments and trophies and yet we elevate others to the role of our best friends and lifelong companions. As we will hear, this mix of human attitudes towards animals has evolved over time and place. History and context conspire to make species once regarded as dangerous vermin into precious endangered wildlife. Internationally recognised scholar in animal studies, Professor Harriet Ritvo is our guest today on Up Close. She is the Arthur J Conner Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her research focuses on the history of animal and human relations and the history of natural history and the environment, especially with regard to the British Empire. Harriet Ritvo was a keynote speaker at the 2015 conference Animal Publics: Emotions, Empathy, Activism held at the University of Melbourne. Welcome to Up Close, Harriet.

HARRIET RITVO
Hello.

ANDI HORVATH
Harriet, you've explored the relationship with humans and animals, both domesticated and wild. You've delved into the history of zoological parks in Britain that started around the mid 1800s. What was the thinking behind these very early zoos?

HARRIET RITVO
Well the first zoo in Britain, in the sense that we understand the zoo now, is the zoo in Regent's Park in London that was founded in the 1820s. But of course there had been animal collections and animal shows for hundreds of years before. There was a menagerie, a Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London. There were travelling menageries that went around and went to fairs and showed in the back gardens of pubs and things like that. But the reason for the establishment of the London Zoo and other similar institutions subsequently had to do with, in a sense, the relationship between science and Empire. Part of it was competitive with France, for example. The zoo was a way of making sense of the increasing variety of the zoological world that was becoming apparent as colonialist traders and whatnot, as they explored and appropriated larger and larger parts of the globe.

ANDI HORVATH
Was there a notion of the exotic that attracted them?

HARRIET RITVO
Oh, of course. It's true, even now. Not so much in Australia actually but in most other places that if you go to the zoo the one thing you don't see is local animals. Like if I go to the zoo in Boston - which is not actually such a great zoo - it doesn't have racoons or beavers or coyotes or any of the animals that live around here, it has animals from far away. So the exotic is almost part of the definition of what a zoo is, and that you can see from the 19th Century beginnings where very, very quickly it became required, in effect, to have lions, to have tigers, elephants. From our own point of view, we're used to having hippos and rhinos in zoos, but they were particularly hard to catch and transport. So it wasn't until after the middle of the 19th Century that the first ones of them came to the zoo in London, and they were treated as absolute celebrities.

ANDI HORVATH
Did any of these early zoos get involved in experimentation with breeding?

HARRIET RITVO
Yes. Part of the founding mission of the London Zoo was actually to provide animals related to domestic species to hybridise with them, although it turned out that there wasn't really a big market for that. Again, it's very different from current practice, but all the way through the 19th Century the people who ran zoos experimented with mating, for example, lions and tigers - that was a favourite one - different species of monkeys, different species or even different genera of bovine crosses and so forth. That kind of experimentation was very much a part of the zoo agenda. Whether it had a notionally practical objective, that is, to improve domesticated animals, or whether it was just, in effect, to see what you could do.

ANDI HORVATH
When humans started breeding lions and tigers together, what actually resulted in those breeding experiments?

HARRIET RITVO
Well, they're called tigons or ligers. Actually, you can't tell them to do it. I mean, for some kinds of crosses like zebras and donkeys or zebras and horses even, basically you just have to put them together and mostly it works. For lions and tigers just every so often a pair of them become friends and produce a litter. There have been several different litters that were produced, say in Britain, in the 19th Century. They were always great sensations. They were in menageries, they toured around and everybody was, apparently, very interested in seeing them. People still produce them now; there have been some in recent years.

ANDI HORVATH
Tell us about groups called acclimatisation societies. Now these were in Britain, France and British colonies like Australia, is that right?

HARRIET RITVO
Yes. They were also in other European countries like Russia and Germany. They were in North America as well. They're a kind of phenomenon of the middle to late 19th Century. In most places they were, in a way, glorified hobby endeavours. They were people who just liked the idea of diversifying or enhancing their local fauna with exotics. For example, kangaroos and wallabies were repeatedly attempted to be acclimatised in Britain. Not really because anybody had any practical ideas of what to do with them, but just because - I mean, isn't it great to see them hopping around. Or in North America, British starlings were introduced in an attempt to basically make the birdlife of the United States look more like what it was in Britain. I mean, the starlings were overly successful, but there were attempts to introduce skylarks and nightingales, which didn't succeed at all. But of course, the most elaborate and most successful acclimatisation societies were in Australia and New Zealand where there was a sense that the existing indigenous fauna was actually deficient in one way or another. Of course people are dealing with the consequences of that, very, very much so, up to the present time. It's also - we're [saying] that the acclimatisation societies in Europe and North America mostly concentrated on mammals and birds, where some of the most spectacular successes in Australia and New Zealand, in terms of acclimatisation, had to do with fish.

ANDI HORVATH
In Australia, you mention fish. But also, the plague of rabbits and mynah birds is something that we're just not able to control. Were the fish more innocuous in their introduction here to Australia?

HARRIET RITVO
I think that that's a kind of judgement that wasn't really available until relatively recently, to kind of judge among fish or to get a sense of what the aqueous ecosystem was like. It's much more obvious if you have monster flocks of starlings or plagues of rabbits, as happened quite quickly in Australia.

ANDI HORVATH
I'm Andi Horvath and you're listening to Up Close. In this episode, we're talking about case studies in history of our relationship to animals with historian and author Harriet Ritvo. Harriet, you often talk about the 19th Century societies love hate relationship with the wild and you mention that the British have exterminated the wolves and wild boars. They killed so many beasts also in the colonies. Yet there were groups who bred and kept these so-called ferocious animals, especially even ferocious breeds of cattle. That seems like a conflict. Can you shed some light on that?

HARRIET RITVO
Well, it's a kind of reversal that's happened over quite a long time. I mean, in the middle ages, there were four big extinctions in Britain, as you say boars, wolves, bears and beavers. Beavers are not a threat to anybody really but the others were dangerous animals - somewhat threatening animals. Their extermination, of course, made life safer in the countryside. But by the time you get to, maybe, the 18th Century, when - at least for people in the upper rungs of society, life was beginning to seem a bit more secure than it had and nature, in a way, became something that could be appreciated and not necessarily simply something to fear. You see this it's a commonplace of our history, where you look at mountain landscapes or storms at sea - the kind of thing that we appreciate greatly on an aesthetic level. Up to a certain point, those things were just considered horrible and hideous and then it became possible to consider them sublime and thrilling. You can see the same kind of trajectory to do with animals. So, in the 18th Century, as you say, there's a kind of celebration of cattle - a breed of cattle that were considered to be wild, although they weren't really very wild. But it was possible to project on them all the positive things about wild animals - strength and bravery and even ferocity - and people used them as, kind of, totems. You can see the way that has continued up to the present day. So in the 19th Century you have lions and tigers in zoos being understood, more or less, as national or local pets.

ANDI HORVATH
The Industrial Revolution brought about dirty environments. Was there a backlash to that? Like a religious sentiment to the return to Eden and a re-fathoming of nature as actually less hostile?

HARRIET RITVO
Well, of course, Eden was a garden and that's not very wild. In fact, one of the things about conventional paintings of Eden have wild animals acting tame, the lion not eating the lamb. So it's hard to see the reaction to industrialisation - which was certainly strong - as exactly Edenic. But if you look, for example, at the work of someone like John Ruskin, who was appalled by the way Britain was being transformed in the middle and late parts of the 19th Century. What he wanted was a return - not exactly to wildness, but to a kind of domesticated or controlled nature. I mean, he ended up living in the Lake District in the north western part of Britain. The Lake District is kind of the epitome of a wildish landscape that actually is pretty completely domesticated.

ANDI HORVATH
Harriet, some animals in history were originally in absolutely massive numbers, but have since been hunted to extinction, or in some cases to near extinction, like the North American bison, which is now only in very few numbers but it's kind of become the poster child of wildlife conservation. Take us through this shift in thinking and this transition.

HARRIET RITVO
There were a few shocking extinctions or near extinctions in the late 19th Century that caused people to really revise their thinking about, in effect, the vulnerability of animal populations. There had been extinctions earlier. I mean, the dodo is a famous one, the Steller's Sea Cow in the 18th Century. But those were mostly small populations. What was the case with the bison, which existed in enormous numbers in the American plains, and also with the quagga in Southern Africa - which is, in a way, a kind of extremely un-stripy zebra, or with the passenger pigeon, also in North America, which flew around in flocks that, apparently, darkened the skies for days - was that there had been so many of them. Then all of a sudden, within a few years really, there were either none or almost none. So the quagga did become extinct, as did the passenger pigeon. A few individuals lingered on in zoos. The North American bison almost became extinct and then it was one of the reasons that Yellowstone National Park, the first national park, was founded in the 1870s, in order to provide a refuge for the remnant herd. Of course, once there were almost none of them, then there was a great desire to preserve them and, as I say, a general recognition that even apparently robust wild animal populations could be extremely and rapidly vulnerable.

ANDI HORVATH
So if a species became rare, all of a sudden it gained value. The wolves are also an interesting case study. They were exterminated in the UK, as you mentioned, but then they were also hunted in the US. But they've also done this shift, but this is a more controversial shift. Why is that?

HARRIET RITVO
Well, wolves are a bit more of a challenge than bison. Actually, the reaction to wolves shows the extreme, I would say, economic limits to our society's desire to preserve endangered animals because if we were consistent about that, of course the wolves shouldn't be controversial. There aren't really that many of them. The people who complain the most are ranchers, who may lose a few animals to the wolves per year, although they are also people who get a great deal of benefit from the federal government in terms of water rights and access to national lands and so forth. But people's tolerance for making real economic sacrifices in the interest of preserving wild animal species is pretty limited. You can see this in the very acute and really quite politically difficult forum in the conflicts about preserving animal populations in areas where there's an indigenous human population that is also in economic trouble.

ANDI HORVATH
Harriet, tell us about the definition of wolves as a species that is really political and not zoological because it's got to do with dogs.

HARRIET RITVO
Yes. Species itself is one of those concepts, that it's essential. You have to be able to give things names in order to talk about them or even to think about them. But for many species, it's not 100 per cent obvious where you draw the line. If we use ourselves as an example, we are kind of unrepresentative because it's clear that all humans are one species and there aren't any ambiguous groups. But for most domesticated animals if their parent species hasn't become extinct - as is the case with cattle, for example - they are still able to interbreed and produce fertile offspring with their parent species and often with other species that are less closely related. So the kind of conventional, although unsatisfactory, definition of species doesn't really hold. That's certainly true to do with dogs and wolves. There are lots of hybrid dog-wolves or wolf-dogs that people have as pets. But it's scientific convention to distinguish domesticated and wild animals, and of course it has a giant political impact. Wolves and dogs do behave quite differently and in North America - well, I assume in any place in Europe, too - where there are wolves, if dogs were made to be Canis lupus instead of Canis familiaris, then you couldn't say that wolves were an endangered species, because there would be millions and millions of them.

ANDI HORVATH
I'm Andi Horvath and our guest today is historian Harriet Ritvo. We're delving into our complex relationship with other animals, right here on Up Close. Harriet, let's move onto the idea of wilderness and civilisation. They appear to be overlapping entities and your writing takes us on a journey where we're forced to re-think the ideas of wild, tame and undomesticated. It seems as though we've mucked about with nature; so much so, we're re-introducing domesticated animals into the wild, as well as the other way around. Tell us more about that.

HARRIET RITVO
The kind of vast human impact can be traced back a long way. When people do ice cores from places like Greenland, they often find traces of the industry say of ancient Rome. So there's been a human impact in places where there was no human settlement for a long time. But as William Cronon, a very distinguished American environmental historian, wrote in an essay that was - I think it's about 20 years old now and has continued to be controversial, even though it seems to me it's nothing but good sense - he was arguing that it's possible to appreciate what people call wilderness, without making the absolute claim that it is anything like pristine, untouched, virgin, all that set of words. There really is no environment, now, that hasn't been significantly influenced by human activities. I mean, maybe at the very bottom of the deep sea - I mean, I don't know. When you look at animals, there are plenty of animals that live their lives without interacting with people. But even those animals often the limits of their lives, the conditions of their existence, have been altered by human activity. To take an example that is kind of a poster child for this, most polar bears don't have too much to do with people. Although some of them do, there's a place on Hudson's Bay in Canada where they all gather - the local polar bears gather in the Fall, to wait for the ice to form, and there's a big tourist industry. People go up there and the polar bears are used to being looked at and they don't eat the people although I don't think the people get too close to them. Then when the ice forms off they go. But anyway, even other polar bears that are not indulging in this kind of contact there's less ice. That makes their lives very different and, in fact, it puts them at extreme risk. So it's hard to conceive of an animal existence that is not - you wouldn't say it's under human control, because that implies that the people are intentionally making a particular difference but certainly under extreme human influence, in most cases.

ANDI HORVATH
Do you think our understanding of ecology and integrated ecosystems has changed our perceptions of animal hierarchies, in the sense that it's not just about endangered large furry species, but it's about the environment that they inhabit, including birds and insects and microbes?

HARRIET RITVO
Yes. That has been a big change. It's come later than you might think. I mean, ecological thinking, although it's roots are in the 19th Century, it doesn't really take hold in science until the first part of the 20th Century, and it doesn't become part of wildlife conservation practice until later, until the second half of the 20th Century. So you see the first efforts at preservation, such as the bison, and there were other efforts directed at particular species all over, for example, the British Empire, in the late 19th Century. But they focus on particular species to be preserved, often to be preserved so that they could be hunted. They often, at the same time as they protected elephants and giraffes and gorillas, they would still have bounties for predators, that is, competition for hunters. So the large carnivores, you would get paid if you killed them. So no sense of a unified ecosystem at all. As I say, it took a long time for that to filter into the actual practice of game management.

ANDI HORVATH
There's a lot of discussion too about perhaps bringing back some animals from the past, like trying to resurrect the mammoth and, in Australia the Tasmanian tiger is a bit of a favourite. What's your reflections on that?

HARRIET RITVO
It seems very impractical. It's not hard to see what the appeal of it is. It's a kind of extreme version of the appeal of zoos. But the difficulties are overwhelming. I mean, aside from the questions of, is that a reasonable use of resources and what would you do with this kind of recreated animal if you managed to actually produce it? With regard to a mammoth, even assuming that you could clone a mammoth in embryo and transplant it into an elephant mother to gestate, animals have culture as well as genetic endowment. In the unlikely event that such an animal were to be born, its mother could only teach it to be an elephant. It couldn't teach it to be a mammoth.

ANDI HORVATH
Now, humans are animals. After all, we share about 98 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees. But there's been a reluctance to understand ourselves as animals amongst animals.

HARRIET RITVO
Of course, it depends what you mean by that. There's a lot of implicit recognition that we're animals among animals. You can see it in the use of animals in physiological experiments. If there wasn't a perceived analogy, then there would be no point in using them for drug tests and other things like that. You can also see it in the kind of anthropomorphic projection, or even non-anthropomorphic understanding of animals, where people - whether accurately or not - interpret animal behaviour and reactions and so forth, in the same terms as they interpret the behaviour and reactions of other people. So in a way, you've got an acceptance on a kind of implicit level. But then, there is a lot of resistance - not by everybody, but sometimes, to saying explicitly that we're just one kind of animal. I mean, of course we're the most important kind for ourselves, and possibly, unfortunately, for most of the other ones, as well. But mostly it seems to be philosophical or religious, and those are commitments that are not necessarily based on scientific observation.

ANDI HORVATH
Human animals are carnivores, and as fellow carnivores - or at least most of us - humans have learned to hunt, co-operating with wolves, and we co-evolved with dogs. This means that their evolution and our evolution were linked. That's a very exciting concept when you think about this human-animal boundary.

HARRIET RITVO
Yes, people have - at least for the last 10,000 15,000 20,000 25,000 years - evolved in concert with a suite of domesticated animals. In fact, there is an argument that I have read for seeing us as domesticated animals too. Not just animals, but animals of a particular kind or subgroup. Dogs, of all domesticated animals, are the best at communicating with people. They are the best at understanding people. But most of the domesticated species, to some extent, have evolved or developed a way of interacting and communicating with us, back and forth. I mean, in a way, the creatures with which we have co-evolved - which have had the greatest impact I would say, on our evolution - have been the disease organisms that have been introduced, by and large, to human groups by domesticated animals. Most of our significant contagious diseases are zoonotic in their origin, often thousands of years ago.

ANDI HORVATH
Harriet, thanks for being our guest on Up Close.

HARRIET RITVO
Thank you. It was a pleasure.

ANDI HORVATH
We've been speaking about the complex dynamics of the human and animal relationship with historian and author Professor Harriet Ritvo from MIT.