Seminar Series 2019/20

Term One

25th September 2019

Making the nēnē Matter: Valuing Life in Postwar Conservation
Duncan Wilson, University of Manchester

In 1950 a group of scientists and public figures, based in Hawai’i and England, launched a transnational ‘restoration project’ to save the nēnē or Hawaiian Goose from extinction. In this talk I argue that scrutinising efforts to save the nēnē during the 1950s and 1960s highlights how endangered species were valued in ways that reflected and linked the interests of different groups. I detail how people did not undertake the restoration project simply because they realised the nēnē was endangered, but instead sought to rescue it at the ‘eleventh hour’ in order to legitimate the new conservation organisations they helped establish after the Second World War. I also show how they engaged with broader political and socioeconomic concerns to justify the restoration project, publicly framing the nēnē as a valuable asset that benefitted Hawaii’s tourist economy and push for statehood. I close by examining disputes over the reintroduction of geese bred in England to highlight how the nēnē was valued in complex and sometimes contradictory ways, with unforeseen consequences for both the restoration project and its animal subjects. I ultimately argue that this case study draws our attention to the inherently biopolitical nature of modern conservation by showing that there is no simple trajectory from endangered life to valued life.  

23rd October 2019

Animals in World War I – An Unexpected Tale
Karolyn Shindler, Scientific and Library Associate, Natural History Museum, London
Karolyn Shinder NHM WW1

The heroism of animals in wartime is rightly celebrated – the magnificent monument in Park Lane is testament to that. Far less well known is how the study of animals saved countless thousands of lives in the trenches and on the home front. In WWI, research by scientists at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington into lice, fleas, flies, mosquitoes and leeches was crucial in the prevention and cure of disease.

The Museum advised the military on means of camouflage – only developed in WWI – by the study of what was called ‘the protective coloration of animals’. Soldiers training for transport duty visited the Museum to study the anatomy of the horse. When the lives of submariners were threatened by a shortage of white mice – vital for the identification of noxious gases in submarines – it was to the Museum the Navy turned.  As for the whale – the importance of this mammal in the development of underwater acoustics, in the prevention of trench foot and in the manufacture of explosives, cannot be overstated.

In this talk, Karolyn will highlight how the NHM’s expertise in animals from the smallest organisms to whales, played such a vital role in WWI.

Karolyn’s book A Museum at War, snapshots of life at the Natural History Museum during World War I, was published by the NHM in 2018.  


How to survive a viral apocalypse: a rabbit’s tale.
Joel Alves, University of Oxford

In 1859, a settler named Thomas Austin imported 24 rabbits to Australia so he could hunt on his property. His attempt could not have been more successful, and in a few decades, billions of animals covered the country in what has been described as a “grey blanket”. The ecological and economic damage was devastating. When nothing seemed to be able to stop the rabbit pest, the unexpected discovery of a lethal virus in South America changed the course of history. After a series of trials to assess its effectiveness, the myxoma virus was finally released as a biological control for rabbits in Australia in 1950 and a couple of years after in Europe. The subsequent pandemic decimated entire populations on the first impact but ultimately led to the evolution of viral resistance in rabbits of both continents. We investigated the genetic basis of this resistance by comparing the genomes of modern and museum rabbit specimens collected before the virus release. By replicating our analyses in Australia, France and the United Kingdom we found a strong pattern of parallel evolution across the three countries, with the same genetic variants changing in frequency over the last 60 years. Notably, these occurred in genes involved in antiviral immunity and viral replication, and support a polygenic basis of resistance. 150 years have passed since Austin imported rabbits to Australia. Unbeknown to him, this caused a cascade of events ultimately leading to what is considered by some as one of the greatest natural experiments of the 20th century. With rabbits and viruses still coexisting in the wild, the experiment is still ongoing.

13th November 2019

Unfortunately the seminar with Joel Alves has been postponed until a later date and so in a change from the previously advertised programme we will be hearing two papers from AHG members.

Televising the Equine Athlete: British Race Horses and the Evolution of the BBC’s Outside Broadcast Unit
Scott Hunter, King’s College London.

Although the history of the moving picture and the horse are inextricably linked – with Eadweard Muybridge pioneering film technology to capture the movements of the race horse – the continuing relationship between race horses and the moving picture is largely unexplored.

By focusing on the broadcast of horse racing on British television, this animal history and film studies paper seeks to highlight both the importance of the sport to the history of British broadcasting and to situate the horse – and the desire to capture its movements – as a driving force behind the evolution of the BBC’s outside broadcast unit.

Early television technology was ill-suited to capturing the movements of the race horse: stationary cameras could not follow the horses ‘out in the field’ and the low definition of television receivers meant that moving pictures of the races could not match the clarity of still pictures.

This paper will argue that this tension between still and moving pictures of the racehorse was central to the development of the sport of British horse racing in the 20th century and, therefore, the movement of the race horse drastically impacted how the sport was presented to, seen, and consumed by the public and their equine counterparts.

Work in Progress: ‘Returned to depositor’: The Gardens of the Zoological Society as a ‘holding pen’ for naturalists.
Elle Larsson, King’s College London.

Established in 1828, the Zoological Gardens of the Zoological Society of London were originally intended as a place in which members of Society could conduct scientific research. However, they fast became a popular visitor attraction and were opened to the public in 1847, providing visitors with both a source of entertainment but also instruction – a way of demonstrating the power, scope and legitimacy of the British Empire. While previous scholarship has explored the role of the zoological gardens in this capacity – as a public attraction, a site of display and microcosm of empire – as well as a source of specimens for the taxidermist, the gardens played a much more varied role in the circulation of animals in nineteenth century London than has previously been identified. This paper will use exotic-animal dealer Charles Jamrach, private collector and museum proprietor Walter Rothschild, and scientist Karl Pearson, to explore how the zoological gardens acted as a ‘holding pen’ for naturalists – providing a temporary source of accommodation or a place of residence for an animal until death. In doing so, it offered assistance to naturalists in carrying out their business and scientific research, but it too profited significantly from these relationships, as this paper will uncover.

11th December 2019

Global Greed and the Gluttonous Dodo
Natalie Lawrence

In the halls of London’s Natural History Museum, there is a large and eye-catching painting of a ‘DoDo’, surrounded by a couple of parrots, a pair of ducks and a lizard. This well-known painting was given to the museum by George  Edwards in 1759, when dodos were probably still in existence. It was first encountered by sailors in 1598 on the island of Mauritius, and was extinct less than a century later, making it a poignant symbol of anthropogenic extinction. We are all familiar with the rotund, ungainly dodo, seemingly brought to life in this painting. But this was not what a dodo looked like at all: the living dodo was probably far sprightlier than the creature of popular images.

The ‘obese dodo’ is actually an historical artifact, borne from the role that the dodo played in European trade through the 17th century. It was one of the many wonders brought to Europe, and was especially fascinating to naturalists partly because they never saw living birds. Images of an increasingly greedy, engorged dodo came to symbolise human greed and the bird was, ironically, consumed out of existence shortly after it was first encountered. This talk will uncover the dodo’s dark history, and the parallels with how gluttony and engorged bodies are viewed today. 

Term Two

8th January 2020

Kennel Club Library and Art Collection

Clarges Street, London, W1J 8AB (just off Piccadilly, 2 minutes’ walk from Green Park Tube station)


Please join us for a guided tour, led by the KC librarian and curators, with additional commentary from AHG convenor Alison Skipper, whose research depends on this archive. Highlights include early modern dog books, Victorian kennel books, canine specialist newspapers and a remarkable collection of dog paintings and decorative art.

Meet in the KC lobby from 5.30 pm; the tour will begin at 5.45. There is no charge and all are welcome, but please contact us beforehand to confirm your place.

22nd January 2020

The Interdisciplinary Animal Studies Initiative at SOAS: What, who and why?
Ed Emery and William G. Clarence-Smith,  Interdisciplinary Animal Studies Initiative. SOAS University of London


‘Over the past 10 years or so, we have worked to create a “stable” of individual animal-related conferences from our base at the School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS, University of London ]. We have covered Donkeys… Mules… War Horses… Camels… Elephants… Sponges… and Oysters (upcoming)

Donkeys and mules were the starting point, as a testimony to the Island of Hydra, a developed Mediterranean economy that continues to use equids as its principal form of transport. It became apparent that an interdisciplinary approach to the study of animals in society was hugely productive. And it became equally apparent that disciplines that do not take into account animal-human relations are lacking an essential dimension of full social understanding.

With that in mind, we have begun to create a hub of ongoing work (poorly staffed – only the two of us, and no money…) at SOAS, under the rubric of the “Interdisciplinary Animal Studies Initiative @ SOAS”.

In our presentation we shall talk about aspects of our work, and offer some possible templates for future activities.’


‘As the historian in our duo, my research has focused on past relations between human and non-human animals. I have done some work on all the topics on which we have run conferences, as well as on cattle, yaks, water buffaloes, other bovids, zebras, and wild half-asses. At the most general level, I am interested in the global trade in animals and animal products. I have also looked into the spread of a tropical and subtropical parasitical disease of equids and camels, Trypanosoma evansi, and African Horse Sickness, a viral malady specific to equids in Africa. I have further researched changing Islamic perceptions of elephants, and the use of animals for purposes of war in the early modern and modern Middle East, especially during World War I.

My main research project, for a monograph, consists of a global history of mules (including hinnies). I am especially interested in the puzzlingly uneven distribution of these equine hybrids across space and time, and whether this is due chiefly to natural or to cultural reasons. I look at breeding, training and equipment, imports and exports of live animals, and the consumption and trade of dung, meat, hides, bones, and other products. I also consider the various uses to which mules have been put, including transport (pack, draught, and riding), agriculture, pastoralism, forestry, manufacturing, construction, war, prestige, and sport. ‘

19th February 2020

Poultry in motion: new archaeological perspectives on the changing relationship between chickens and people
Richard Thomas, University of Leicester

There can be little doubt that we are living in the age of the chicken: with a standing population of 23 billion, chickens are the most abundant domestic animal on the planet. This abundance reflects our reliance on the chicken as a source of meat – it is the most commonly eaten source of animal protein worldwide – a feat made possible by selective breeding and the technologisation of their production in the 20th century. Examination of the archaeological record provides a longue durée perspective on human-chicken relationships and demonstrates that their consumption forms only a small part of their story. By studying the physical remains of these birds it is possible to track their journey towards commodification, but there is a richer story here too: chickens as magical beings, chickens as individuals, chickens as markers of human identity.  In this lecture, I will draw upon zooarchaeological evidence from across Britain from the past 2500 years to evidence this complexity of relationships and conclude by reflecting on how chickens might be the best marker of our current geological epoch – the Anthropocene

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