So far, our blog has been rather human-centric. Today, I want to change that by starting a discussion about the intersections of Animal Studies and the American Science. Since I just got back from a little trip to Florida, I’m calling this post “Hemingway’s Cats” in honor of the polydactyl felines that have colonized the author’s old estate in Key West. The image of exceptional, proliferating non-human bodies in human built-environments is evocative (at least to me) for thinking about the ways in which animals inspire, populate, and transmit technical knowledge.
I’m particularly interested in animals that resist standardization (unlike Kohler’s flies or Rader’s mice), but which nonetheless become enrolled in scientific projects. One obvious area in which this has occurred is the realm of conservation biology. Here, the privileged animal body is one in danger of being manipulated or obliterated by unfettered human activity. The non-human animal that resists captivity becomes the object of scientific intervention revealing as much, if not more, about human values as about the organism itself. Etienne Benson’s Wired Wilderness is a notable, recent example (see his blog for links to some great bibliographies).
And then there are the animal bodies that get frozen — my own area of expertise. I’m fascinated by the way in which overlapping ideologies and technologies of preservation have supported the archiving of extracts of non-human animals for purposes of conservation. Two of the most high-profile sites for such research are the Frozen Zoo in San Diego, CA and the Ambrose Monell Cryo-Collection at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.
I’ve spent time at both collections and believe that they require us to re-think the relationship between certain spaces that support the conduct of American science: zoos & aquariums, natural history museums, and . . . reproductive clinics. (Sociologist Carrie Friese has investigated reproductive cloning for conservation purposes in US borderlands). In addition to tissue and DNA samples, the Frozen Zoo has a massive collection of cryo-preserved gametes from rare and endangered animals . . . a sort of nursery for nature if you will. When I visited, I spied this baby monitor in the freezer room — intended to alert lab workers to alarms triggered by power outages. Here, the goal is not — as in industrial agriculture — to breed more standardized livestock. It is to preserve genetic diversity.
However, I recently learned of a frozen non-human tissue collection that manages to combine issues of assisted reproduction, agriculture, and conservation. The SVF Foundation in Newport Rhode Island is financed by the heiress to the Campbell’s Soup Fortune and collaborates with the vet school at Tufts. According to the website:
‘Although there are numerous seed banks throughout the world, little effort has been made to collect germplasm for rare and endangered breeds of livestock. Rare or heritage breeds of livestock carry valuable and irreplaceable traits, such as resistance to disease and parasites, heat tolerance and mothering ability—all of which may be needed at some future time.’
In this case, the discourse of conservation is combined with that of agriculture and assisted reproduction to promote the preservation of exotic breeds. SVF has actually partnered with organic food co-ops, including one a few blocks from my apartment, to promote a ‘taste’ for these animals. Unlike other animal conservation discourses, SVF reps argue that the best way to ‘save’ genetic diversity is to eat it. A moveable feast?
Tell us about your particular species of work and thoughts on animal bodies in American science. This would be a great place to share any resources for those interested in learning more.