Back in April, I had the privilege of presenting at the annual American Society for Environmental History conference, the panel aptly titled “New ‘Nature Fakers:’ Historians and the Animal Experience.” As one may correctly guess, the focus of the panel was on animals and their impact on human history. The presentations covered everything from fur farming to German POWs in Canada during the Second World War, with mine focusing on a 1944 film entitled Sergeant Mike. My work focused on how the film highlighted the service of real-life war dogs and encouraged owners to donate their animals to Dogs for Defense during the Second World War. I left Columbus feeling vindicated in my research of WWII war dogs. However, when I returned home to Indiana, I could not help but wonder: can I call myself an environmental historian if my work has no connections to the environment?
Though I am unsure of how to strictly define myself, I do enjoy environmental history. Both of my advisers at my MA program were environmentalists and they were wonderful. In fact, my secondary field was hunting history with a direct focus on animal conservation. I would not be opposed to pursuing environmental history as a field requirement for my doctorate. I may not be as willing to explore nature as some of my friends, but I still enjoy it and gain pleasure from reading about how it has impacted our history—so why do I feel so hesitate to truly identify myself as an environmentalist?
My research focuses on the Dogs for Defense program in WWII-America. Elites from the dog world formed the organization and aimed to create a “dog army” for the United States that could be utilized on the battlefield. The program was completely created through donations of pet animals by the general public and Hollywood stars alike. Civilians donated around 20,000 dogs for wartime service, and about half of them were put through training and served.
Still, is it fair to call myself an environmentalist or an environmental historian if my research does not intersect with the environment? Sure, I could possibly focus on the war dog and their handler’s interactions with the native fauna and flora of the Pacific Theater, but that would not be the bulk of my research. Depending on how one classifies historians who study animal history and if one believes that animal history is in conjunction with environmentalism, then yes, I can call myself an environmental historian Yet I would argue that animal history is moving into its own genre and separating itself from environmental history. I am often hesitant to put this lavel on my work as I do not study the impact of animals on the environment. Instead, it is broadly focused on the idea of animals as citizen-soldiers, patriotism, and humanitarianism.
My research may never intersect with the environment, but I still identify myself as an environmental historian. My reasoning is rather simple: I enjoy it. I enjoy learning about the history behind animals interacting with their environment along with the human impact on history. After being asked recently what courses I could see myself teaching after obtaining my doctorate, environmental history immediately came to mind. As long as I gain some sort of enjoyment from learning about the environment’s impact on history, should that be enough to consider myself an environmental historian? I believe so. It will just have to include dogs.