Crip Cows?: Confronting Disabled Animals in the Archive

I met Katie in Washington, D.C. this summer in a box of files from the Smithsonian Institute Archives. Our meeting happened haphazardly as I flipped through a folder of letters sent to the National Zoo in the early twentieth century. The letter that featured Katie was just a little thicker than the others. Its weight made me pause and cued my hands to take just a little more time with it.

I found her picture pasted on the third sheet of a stapled correspondence. The image still fascinates me. It looks like it was ripped out of a newspaper or magazine. Maybe it was a calling card from her owner. Maybe an advertisement. “Katie The Three-Legged Calf,” reads the caption, alongside her birthdate:  September 22, 1903.

A picture of Katie from the Smithsonian Institute Archives, Washington, D.C.

In 1904, Katie’s owner sent the letter and picture to the superintendent of the National Zoological Gardens with hopes to sell her. Although in perfect health, Katie occupied a paradoxical position in the eyes of her caregiver: simultaneously special and useless because she was born with three legs. She was “natural born” and “healthy”—her owner emphasized—on one hand, but, really, what farmer would try to breed back a three-legged cow to be a viable meat or milk producer? Katie’s owner wrote that he would be “glad to dispose of [her]” as he had “no place to accommodate [her].”

Katie’s letter was one of dozens of requests sent to the zoo’s director, Frank Baker, advertising “strange” animals to consider adding to its collection. Historian Elizabeth Hanson devotes a section of her Animal Attractions book to these letters in a chapter that describes how zoo officials made decisions about which animals belonged at the institution [1]. The hunters, farmers, and businessmen who contacted Baker assumed the zoo was meant for amusement purposes, likely following the momentum of turn-of-the-century circuses and freak shows which showcased human and animal oddities. These inquiries were met with typed replies that the zoo only desired “standard,” “normal,” and “natural” animals because it was meant to be a space that represented animals as they were found in nature. Katie—among an earless hog, a hermaphrodite sheep, and a three-legged chicken—did not fit the bill.

In environmental history, we’re often preoccupied with how humans interacted with nature and how “natural” has been categorically maintained over time within various cultural contexts. Noting the literature in both environmental history and the history of medicine, Katie provoked questions for me at the intersections found in Envirohealth scholarship. I wondered about Katie’s owner and how he rationalized Katie’s condition on his farm: healthy but disposable. I thought about the veterinarians who met her and how they may have described her. I also speculated on Katie’s fate if, in the end, her owner couldn’t sell her.

animal freak clip
The Oakland Tribune (June 27, 1900) reports a two-headed calf “freak” alongside an ad for Yellowstone.

Katie forced me to confront what happened to differently bodied animals in history, and what it could mean to engage in “embodied environmental history” when it came to non-humans [2]. I’m still grappling with how to write animal histories, and Katie’s case allowed me to follow some interesting connections between environmental history and disability studies.

I gravitated to the work of Sunaura Taylor, who writes about the often uncomfortable intersections found between animals and disability. Taylor explores the notion of the “animal crip” in her book Beasts of Burden, noting how human ableism is often projected onto non-human animals [3]. We evaluate animals based on our own ideas of health, value, and work—which animal studies and environmental history have explored in various ways. But Taylor goes on to suggest that the current agricultural industrial complex relies on a careful balance of values that are uniquely placed on food animals. They need to be both exceptional (as overproducers) and disabled (with their limited mobility).

beasts of burden taylor

Katie embodied a similar tension as it existed in the early twentieth century—teetering the line between marvel curiosity and pathological specimen [4]. When I think about how I could and should write about Katie, I realize there are stakes in calling her an animal crip. Taylor explains that, “To crip something does not mean to break it but to radically invest it with disability history, politics, and pride while simultaneously questioning paradigms of independence, normalcy, and medicalization” (p. 12). To call Katie crip aligns her history with disability activism—acknowledging connections in the valuation of human and animal bodies and pressing for a critical stance of agricultural practices in general. I’ll be honest, as someone who works closely with farmers in both the field and in the archive, I struggle to embrace this notion and these narratives of protest. But sitting here with my images and notes from the Smithsonian archives, I wonder what cripping environmental history could look like, the people, places, and organisms it could unveil, and how disability studies can transform and challenge stories about “nature,” “natural,” “normal” [5].


[1] Elizabeth Hanson, Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[2] Considering, in particular, Christopher Sellers, “Thoreau’s Body: Towards an Embodied Environmental History,” Environmental History 4:4 (1999): 481-514.

[3] Sunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (New York, NY: The New Press, 2017).

[4] For a source that addresses this transition and balance, see Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[5] It could look like this: Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (editors), Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).