The best books about animal history

Keri Cronin Author Of Art for Animals
By Keri Cronin

Who am I?

I am a historian of visual culture, and my work explores the ways images can shape and challenge dominant ideas about other species. The ways we choose to represent certain animals (or not) can have important consequences, both in terms of environmental issues but also in terms of the wellbeing of individual animals. Digging deeper into these histories can make us aware that the categories we like to put animals in can shift and change depending on the time period and place. As we confront increasingly urgent climate and environmental issues, understanding these dynamics will be even more important than ever.

I wrote...

Art for Animals

By Keri Cronin,

Book cover of Art for Animals

What is my book about?

This book looks at the ways in which those working to make the world a better place for animals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used art and imagery in their campaigns. Today we expect that activist campaigns are highly visual, but my book goes further back in time to try to understand some of the ways that reformers saw visual culture as an integral part of animal advocacy at this earlier point in history. 

There are some similarities--much like today, debates over the appropriate use of graphic imagery existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, there were some aspects of these early campaigns that aren’t as widely considered today: the role of art education as a way to foster kind and humane behavior in children, for example, or the ways in which some of the most famous paintings of the day were repurposed as campaign material.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain Since 1800

Why did I love this book?

I found this to be a hard list to put together because there are so many excellent books on animal history--on any given day I could have presented a completely different list. However, this was the one book that absolutely had to be on my list. Hilda Kean’s Animal Rights was the book that started me on this journey. I first encountered this book when I was a grad student, and it has shaped my thinking on animal history in many important ways over the years. Animals and concerns for their welfare have always been important to me in my personal life, but I hadn’t thought about incorporating human-animal histories into my scholarship until I read this book. It was a real game-changer for me. This is a very good introduction to some of the shifts in thinking that took place regarding relationships between humans and nonhuman animals in Britain and one I always recommend for people wanting to learn more about human-animal histories.

By Hilda Kean,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Animal Rights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the early twenty-first century animals are news. Parliamentary debates, protests against fox hunting and television programmes like Animal Hospital all focus on the way in which we treat animals and on what that says about our own humanity. As vegetarianism becomes ever more popular, and animal experimentation more controversial, it is time to trace the background to contemporary debates and to situate them in a broader historical context. Hilda Kean looks at the cultural and social role of animals from 1800 to the present at the way in which visual images and myths captured the popular imagination and encouraged…

Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Canada

By Joanna Dean (editor), Darcy Ingram (editor), Christabelle Sethna (editor)

Book cover of Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Canada

Why did I love this book?

This book is full of engaging and thoughtful essays focusing on the ways that human-animal histories have shaped so many aspects of life in Canada. From the horses on the streets of Montreal in the 19th century to more recent exploration of captive animals in Vancouver, this book presents an important range of topics that ask the reader to think differently about the histories, spaces, and species they may think they know. I also really appreciate that the University of Calgary Press has published an open access version of this book.

By Joanna Dean (editor), Darcy Ingram (editor), Christabelle Sethna (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Animal Metropolis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Animal Metropolis brings a Canadian perspective to the growing field of animal history, ranging across species and cities, from the beavers who engineered Stanley Park to the carthorses who shaped the city of Montreal. Some essays consider animals as spectacle: orca captivity in Vancouver, polar bear tourism in Churchill, Manitoba, fish on display in the Dominion Fisheries Museum, and the racialized memory of Jumbo the elephant in St. Thomas, Ontario. Others examine the bodily intimacies of shared urban spaces: the regulation of rabid dogs in Banff, the maternal politics of pure milk in Hamilton and the circulation of tetanus bacilli…

Book cover of Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus

Why did I love this book?

This book is such an excellent and innovative example of an interdisciplinary approach to animal history. Susan Nance blends current scientific thinking about the welfare, agency, and cognition of elephants with a detailed and highly engaging look at the role of these animals in circus history. This is a wonderful model of how to write animal history, an endeavor that isn’t always that straightforward because archival records tend to focus on human lives, deaths, and achievements.

By Susan Nance,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Entertaining Elephants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Consider the career of an enduring if controversial icon of American entertainment: the genial circus elephant. In "Entertaining Elephants" Susan Nance examines elephant behavior - drawing on the scientific literature of animal cognition, learning, and communications - to offer a study of elephants as actors (rather than objects) in American circus entertainment between 1800 and 1940. By developing a deeper understanding of animal behavior, Nance asserts, we can more fully explain the common history of all species. "Entertaining Elephants" is the first account that uses research on animal welfare, health, and cognition to interpret the historical record, examining how both…

Book cover of Civilised by Beasts: Animals and Urban Change in Nineteenth-Century Dublin

Why did I love this book?

This is one of several excellent books that explores how nonhuman animals shaped cities (see also Andrew Robichaud’s Animal City, Frederick L. Brown’s The City is More Than Human, Dawn Day Biehler’s Pests in the City, and Hannah Velten’s Beastly London, for example). Cities are multispecies spaces and they have always been so, even as the history of a given city shifts and changes. When we walk through a city like Dublin today we may not immediately think about the many, many nonhuman animals who used to roam the same streets and pathways we walk on today. And yet, as Juliana Adelman explores in this book, there are hints and traces of this animal history if we know where to look.

By Juliana Adelman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Civilised by Beasts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Civilised by beasts tells the story of nineteenth-century Dublin through human-animal relationships. It offers a unique perspective on ordinary life in the Irish metropolis during a century of significant change and reform. At its heart is the argument that the exploitation of animals formed a key component of urban change, from municipal reform to class formation to the expansion of public health and policing. It uses a social history approach but draws on a range of new and underused sources, including archives of the humane society and the zoological society, popular songs, visual ephemera and diaries. The book moves chronologically…

West with Giraffes

By Lynda Rutledge,

Book cover of West with Giraffes

Why did I love this book?

Unlike the others on my list, this book is a work of fiction. I loved this book and would go out on a limb and say it is one of the best novels I have ever read. I am still thinking about it months later! It is based on real-life events, but the author uses a fictional framework to bring the reader up close and personal with two giraffes who made an extraordinary journey across the United States during the Great Depression. I love how Lynda Rutledge uses animal history to tell a compelling story.

By Lynda Rutledge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked West with Giraffes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An emotional, rousing novel inspired by the incredible true story of two giraffes who made headlines and won the hearts of Depression-era America.

"Few true friends have I known and two were giraffes..."

Woodrow Wilson Nickel, age 105, feels his life ebbing away. But when he learns giraffes are going extinct, he finds himself recalling the unforgettable experience he cannot take to his grave.

It's 1938. The Great Depression lingers. Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder. They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a twelve-day…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Canada, Dublin, and giraffes?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Canada, Dublin, and giraffes.

Canada Explore 295 books about Canada
Dublin Explore 58 books about Dublin
Giraffes Explore 13 books about giraffes

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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