“For many centuries history was written to be a record of human stories and human triumphs,’” says Nance, who in addition to circuses has also written about the history of horse racing and rodeos. “But I understand history to be an approximation of the past of all species. We’re all sort of in it together.”
As historians turn their attention to zoo animals, dairy cows, exotic pets, urban squirrels, and even the insects that share our homes, they are also shedding new light on what it means to be human.
WHAT MANY CALL the recent “animal turn” in history has actually been several decades in the making. Influenced by social forces like the labor movement, feminism, and the struggle for civil rights, 20th-century historians gradually broadened their vision beyond the old themes of politics and war to include a fuller range of humanity. At the same time, cultural history — an interest in the everyday lives of people in the past — began to supplant the idea of a grand narrative. And since animals have always shared our daily lives (whether as food, labor-saving technology, predators, pets, or entertainment), animal history eventually came to seem a natural extension of both these trends.