Seminar Series 2020/21

Term One

16th September 2020

The Photographer in the Sheepfold
Jonathan Brown, Hon Fellow at Museum of English Rural Life (MERL)

Photography is a universal medium. This talk considers how photography has been used to portray but one part of farming, and how we might interpret photographs surviving from the past.

14th October 2020

Pet Cemetery: Spaces of Feeling and the Animal Dead, 1880-1950
Julie-Marie Strange, Durham University

In his novella The Loved One (1948) British author Evelyn Waugh lambasted an American death culture where even pet death was commercialised into some kind of sentimental travesty. As one character in the story notes, ‘No one who really loved an animal would bring them here’. But the commercial pet cemetery had been operating in England for almost seventy years when Waugh published The Loved One. For almost the whole of those seventy years, British commentators – especially in the press – had reported on the pet cemetery with bemusement, curiosity or condescension: it was a space of sentimentality rather than sensibility, associated with excessive or inappropriate feeling. This paper examines the affective dynamics of the pet cemetery to question what it meant to ‘really love an animal’ in the context of pet death and the commercial pet cemetery.

11th November 2020

Unnatural Selection: Evolution at the hand of man
Katrina van Grouw, Natural Science Author and Illustrator

When Charles Darwin contemplated how best to introduce his controversial new theory of evolution to the general public, he chose to compare it with the selective breeding of domesticated animals. In her recent book, Unnatural Selection, marking the 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s great work on domesticated animals Variation under Domestication, author and illustrator Katrina van Grouw explains why this analogy was more appropriate than even Darwin had realised.

Artificial selection is, in fact, more than just an analogy for natural selection – it’s the perfect example of evolution in action.

9th December 2020

What Is it Like to be a Pigeon? (and why should we care?)
Jon Day, King’s College London

This talk will consider the relationship between the common pigeon or rock dove – Columba livia -and human history. Deriving from academic and pigeon-fancier Jon Day’s book Homing (John Murray, 2019) – a hybrid of memoir, natural and cultural history – it will consider the pigeon from a variety of perspectives to ask why it is that these creatures are so reviled, and what they can teach us about our own need to home.

Term Two

13th January 2021

Animal Celebrity in Agricultural Science: Peering into “Jessie the Window Cow”
Nicole Welk-Joerger, NC State University

During this presentation, you will meet Jessie. Jessie was one of several experimental animals to have a fistula surgically cut into her side in the early-20th-century United States. Using this hole into her stomach, scientists at Pennsylvania State University made new discoveries into the ruminant digestive system. Through the case of Jessie (publications about her and speculations about her demeanor,) I will demonstrate the importance of “animal celebrities” in creating excitement and acceptance of university-led agricultural science in rural U.S. communities.

17th February 2021

Foot and Mouth Disease Eradication Programs and Animal Management in mid-20th century North America
Rebecca Kaplan, Cain Postdoctoral Fellow

In the first half of the 20th century, Mexico, the United States, and Canada implemented strict slaughter and quarantine programs to eradicate outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. Federal agencies culled thousands of livestock and wild animals to prevent the spread of the disease in North America. In the mid-20th century, modified and new concepts of managing animals during FMD outbreaks developed. This talk will consider how changing medical technology, environmental factors, and political forces impacted FMD eradication policies, animal economies, and food production.

17th March 2021

The Craven Heifer: the biography of a beast
Carl Griffin, University of Sussex

The mania for agricultural ‘improvement’ in England at the turn of the nineteenth century extended in often paradoxical ways to livestock. At once the pursuit of perfection was a matter of yields – deadweights, number of progeny, milk volumes – and fitter and stronger animals. However, the same imperatives also encouraged the breeding of outlandishly large but often unfit animals. The search for sublimity led to deformity and frailty. Such cattle, sheep, and pigs became status symbols, evidence of their owners’ success, variably represented in paintings that further distended their proportions in cartoonish ways and even toured round to the country to crowds of gladly paying punters. In many ways, these mega beasts have become the icons of improvement, the poster bullocks, so to speak, of the age. (In)famous and ubiquitous yet curiously little studied, this paper takes one such famed animal – the so-called Craven Heifer – and through a study of its life, reception, and afterlife attempts to better understand the complex histories of  prized livestock.

14th April 2021

“Lake Ontario Roamer:” Animal History and the Ongoing Legacy of Jocko the Sea Lion
Keri Cronin, Brock University

During the summer of 1962 a sea lion named Jocko caused a media sensation when he escaped from a theme park in Ontario (Canada). For several months he evaded authorities and amateur rescuers as he swam in Lake Ontario, one of the world-famous Great Lakes. Jocko’s story of escape and eventual capture is not only interesting on its own–here we have an animal who is neither native nor invasive struggling to survive in a foreign environment–but it also provides a surprisingly relevant framework for thinking about marine mammals in captivity in this region of Canada nearly 60 years later.

12th May 2021

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

In 1859, an English settler named Thomas Austin imported 24 wild rabbits to Australia so he could hunt on his property in Victoria. 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 pathogen in South America changed the course of history. Following a series of trials, in 1950 the myxoma virus was introduced into Australia as a biological control for rabbits and a couple of years later in Europe. The subsequent pandemic decimated populations but ultimately led to the evolution of viral resistance in rabbits of both continents. We investigated the genetic basis of this resistance by comparing historical rabbit specimens collected before the virus release and contemporaneous rabbit populations. By replicating our analyses in Australia, France and the United Kingdom we found a strong pattern of parallel evolution across the three countries, where the same immunity genes changed since the release of the virus. More than 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. 

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