Harriet Ritvo


On her book Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History

Cover Interview of July 19, 2011

In a nutshell

Disciplines like zoology and veterinary medicine have always taken animals seriously as the subject of research.  In the humanities and social sciences, the field sometimes known as “animal studies” began to emerge in the 1980s, and it has flourished and diversified in the subsequent decades.

The essays collected in Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras were written over this same period.  They illustrate the evolution of the field, as well as my own evolution as a historian.  A few of the essays deal with contemporary issues such as mad cow disease and the use of animals in laboratory experiments.  Most of the essays, however, focus on British history.

Within this focus, these essays engage a wide variety of topics.  For example, the noble cows of the title were (and are) a small group of white cattle with black ears, claimed by their aristocratic owner to have descended directly from the aboriginal bovine ancestors, without the intervening humiliation of domestication.  The hybrid zebras of the title were crosses with horses and ponies, produced by a Scottish zoologist at the end of the nineteenth century to disprove the widely believed theory of telegony or influence of the previous sire (the belief that the father of a female’s first child would somehow influence her subsequent offspring by different fathers).

In addition to zoology and animal husbandry, the essays in the volume also offer historical perspective on the fields of veterinary medicine, gender studies, and comparative psychology.