Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras
Essays on Animals and History
Over the past two decades, Harriet Ritvo has established herself as a leading scholar in animal studies and one of those most responsible for establishing this field of study as a crucial part of environmental and social history. Her two well-known books, The Platypus and the Mermaid and The Animal Estate, did much to introduce and illuminate the importance of nonhuman animals to the study of human culture. Hunting and husbandry, as well as petkeeping and zoo-going, forge powerful connections between animal lives and those of humans: in fact, animals have helped define what a human is. They have also been one of the most reliable measures of humans’ disproportionate influence on the environment. From domestication to extinction, the human impact on animal populations has been profound.
In the essays collected in Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras, Ritvo explores our attitudes toward animals, from cruelty to sentimentality to the indifference of pure practicality, and touches on many social and scientific issues, including genetic engineering and an animal protection movement much older than most readers would think (animal advocacy was a cause embraced by many Victorians).
While Ritvo’s writing represents the cutting edge in animal history, it has always been characterized by its accessibility, and these essays originally appeared not only in scholarly journals but also in Grand Street, Daedalus, and American Scholar. Collected for the first time in a single volume, they reveal an important dimension of human history by looking to those other creatures that have surrounded us all along.
Harriet Ritvo is a world authority on the history of animals and a pioneer in the important developing field of animal studies. A number of these essays are classics. Taken together, they reveal an author at the height of her intellectual and interpretive powers.
No single scholar has so profoundly shaped our understanding of the significance of animals in human history as has Harriet Ritvo. Reading the works in this collection, which repeatedly demonstrate her exceptional skills as both a historical investigator and strikingly creative and compelling writer, I found myself quite simply marveling at her range and facility.
In Noble Cows & Hybrid Zebras, a book of collected essays, Massachusetts Institute of Technology environmental historian Harriet Ritvo explores the idea that human history, science, and society are impossible to view truthfully if not through the lens of our interactions with the animals that share our planet. From early hunting parties and the crucial role of domesticated beasts in agriculture to pet keeping and animal experimentation, animals have helped define what it is to be human. The animal rights movement and its position on the use of animals in scientific research is a constantly recurring theme in Ritvo’s writings, and the book reveals her measured take on the issue, which may be at once challenging and illuminating to the scientist reader. "All it will take is a little compromise to protect animals from abuse without stopping scientific progress," she writes in one chapter. Another of Ritvo’s essays in Noble Cows contextualizes current debates on genetic engineering by tracing the roots of modern animal husbandry in 18th-century England. Ritvo is an important figure in the field of animal studies, and her voice comes through nicely in this compilation, reminding us that, though we split from our nonhuman cousins long ago in evolutionary time, we remain intimately connected to animals to this day.
History buffs will love Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras, a well-written collection of astute, scholarly essays exploring animals' role in human history. As Ritvo admits in her introduction, her work may very well be "the weirdest of the many weird things coming out of the humanites lately," but it is fascinating (at least for those of us interested in 19th-century English zebra hybrids). Ritvo exhaustively analyzes issues from mad-cow disease to Victorian-age animal advocacy, showing how we've come to feel the way we feel about other creatures.
Hariet Ritvo is Arthur J. Conner Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author, most recently, of The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism.
Whiting Award from Whiting Foundation