Not Just About Dogs, Historic Human-Animal Relations: A Teaching Experience

“Interestingly, the divide between humans and all other animal species is neither universally found nor universally agreed upon […] depending on time and place this border not only moves but the reasons for assigning animals and humans to each side of the border change as well.”

—Margo Demello

Despite the importance of non-human animals in human history, students rarely have opportunities to learn more about the various relations between humans and other animals in history. Most students have hardly any knowledge of the economic, social, cultural, or other impacts of these relations. I tried to fill that gap by offering a seminar for undergraduate students that mostly consisted of readings and discussions, plus the joint development of individual research ideas.

I teach in Austria as part of the German-speaking scientific community, which has a quite prolific output in the interdisciplinary field of human-nonhuman-animal studies. Because of that, and the nature of an undergraduate course, my reading list refers to publications in the German language alone. Nonetheless, my teaching experience can offer relevant insight to readers who don’t speak or read German as well as those who do.

My reading list started with an overview of historic research on human-animal relations, highlighting possible research areas by evaluating sources featuring dogs, such as sacral paintings, legal texts, and autobiographies.[1] Contrary to my intentions, half of my students came up with their own dog-related research ideas. Some of them decided to stick to those ideas, and we had the opportunity to focus on many different canine roles. We developed research inquiries concerning the history of shepherd dogs, rescue dogs, hunting dogs, and police/military dogs as well as the roles of (wanted and unwanted) dogs in medieval times.

Much to my regret, I did not include any cat-related literature, which meant we missed important discussions. Cats have taken many religious and cultural roles in human history. Cats served as a goddesses in Ancient Egypt, and as subjects of demonization in early medieval Christian literature. They became victims in early modern witch hunting. At the same time, there is a long history of personal human-cat relationships, and cats have served a continuing role in minimizing mice and rat populations in granaries and farmyards.

Due to the nature of the course, we did not just focus on animals we currently consider as pets, but covered a broader range of the shared history of humans and other animals.[2] This range of relationships includes competition (in terms of resource use and shaping of the environment), and consumption and cooperation (animals as food suppliers, workers and/or companions). To broaden the perspectives of my students, the mandatory readings at the beginning of the course discussed the genesis and ambivalence in the human perceptions of (other) animals as well as the deep relevance research of human-animal relations offers to understanding human history.[3]

Animal ethics—concepts of ethics and moral considerations concerning the treatment of non-human animals—already existed in ancient philosophy and since then a wide variety of concepts have been offered by different philosophical schools. The goal of this lesson in history of thought was to show students that many modern ideas have predecessors in historic philosophical ideas.[4]

The history of law regarding animals offered perspectives on the polity (structure), policy (content), and politics (process) of human-animal relations. It also offered perspectives on the self-perception of human societies in distinction from, integration of, and/or inspiration from (other) animals.[5]

Further readings covered various kinds of animal exploitation. We discussed animals as workers in agriculture, the development of livestock industries in the twentieth century in Germany, and an example for the atrocities and illogicalities of animal testing.[6]

A classic human-animal research approach, the history of hunting, allowed us the chance to see how deeply human history is based on the conceptualization of human-animal relations, and that hunting includes many different layers of perspectives in human-animal relations, both in practice and in theory. As a practical example, we examined the history of animals as they related to nobility, property rights, and land use in Bavarian history.[7]

The reading list of the seminar concluded with discussing premodern ideas of placing humans in relation to (other) animals, plus the Cartesian concept of describing animals like machines and coeval reflections stressing the absurdity of this idea.[8]

Throughout this course I deepened my realization that human-animal relations are a fundamental portal into understanding historic societies. Besides the aforementioned dog-related papers, the wide range of student research projects included a number of topics. Some students worked on animals as symbols, reflecting upon the non-human imaginaries in fascist media propaganda of the Third Reich, and the symbolism concerning predators in ancient Mayan and Assyrian cultures. Other looked at animals in military roles, like Hannibal’s elephants in the Alps or the role and fate of pack animals in the World Wars of the twentieth century. Still others examined agricultural animal uses. These included research on the long history of bees in symbolic and practical terms, a regional oral history study concerning farm animal welfare and housing, and a comparative history of the genesis of animal farming industries in the GDR and FRG. Finally, others explored the history of cows in Hinduism, the genesis of animal-assisted human therapies, and the modern development of laws and ethical ideas concerning animal welfare and animal rights.

The main intention of the course was twofold: to show students the wide range of animal involvement and human-animal relations in human history, and to develop tangible research concepts. I am really looking forward to offering a more specialized course sometime in the future, exploring one issue of human-animal relations more deeply.


[1] Aline Steinbrecher, »In der Geschichte ist viel zu wenig von Tieren die Rede« (Elias Canetti) – Die Geschichtswissenschaft und ihre Auseinandersetzung mit den Tieren, in: Carola Otterstedt / Michael Rosenberger (Eds.), Gefährten – Konkurrenten – Verwandte. Die Mensch-Tier-Beziehung im wissenschaftlichen Diskurs, Göttingen 2009, 264-286.

[2] Rainer Wiedenmann, Die Fremdheit der Tiere. Zum Wandel der Ambivalenz von Mensch-Tier-Beziehungen, in: Paul Münch / Rainer Walz (Eds.), Tiere und Menschen. Geschichte und Aktualität eines prekären Verhältnisses, 2. Auflage Paderborn 1999, 351-381.

[3] Paul Münch, Tiere und Menschen. Ein Thema der historischen Grundlagenforschung, in: Paul Münch / Rainer Walz (Eds.), Tiere und Menschen. Geschichte und Aktualität eines prekären Verhältnisses, 2. Auflage Paderborn 1999, 9-34.

[4] Reinhard Margreiter, Philosophische Tierethik, in: Gabriela Kompatscher / Reingard Spannring / Karin Schachinger, Human-Animal Studies. Eine Einführung für Studierende und Lehrende, Münster / New York 2017, 108-140.

[5] Andreas Deutsch, Das Tier in der Rechtsgeschichte. Eine Gesamtschau, in: Andreas Deutsch / Peter König (Eds.), Das Tier in der Rechtsgeschichte, Heidelberg 2017, 11-102.

[6] Paolo Malanima, Europäische Wirtschaftsgeschichte. 10.-19. Jahrhundert, Wien / Köln / Weimar 2010, 84-90 (=Unterkapitel zu Tierkraft); Veronika Settele, Revolution im Stall. Landwirtschaftliche Tierhaltung in Deutschland 1945-1990, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2020, 11-37 (=Einleitung: Tier, Stall und Gesellschaft); Martina Schlünder, Wissens-Hunger im Stall. Die Entstehung von Knochen-Schafen als Versuchstiere in der Unfallchirurgie, in: Cakes und Candies. Zur Geschichte der Ernährung von Versuchstieren, Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 35/4 (2012), 322-340.

[7] Martin Knoll, Umwelt – Herrschaft – Gesellschaft. Die landesherrliche Jagd Kurbayerns im 18. Jahrhundert, St. Katherinen 2004, 24-52 (= Kapitel 2: Grundlagen).

[8] Paul Münch, Feinde, Sachen, Maschinen – Freunde, Mitgeschöpfe, Verwandte. Menschen und andere Tiere in der Vormoderne, in: Sophie Ruppel / Aline Steinbrecher (Eds.), „Die Natur ist überall bey uns“. Mensch und Natur in der Frühen Neuzeit, Zürich 2009, 19-39.

Cover image: Lake Tekapo Collie, Wikimedia Commons.

[Cover image description: Statue of a shepherd dog at Lake Tekapo, New Zealand, unveiled in 1968]

Edited by Evelyn Ramiel, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.