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College of Arts and Sciences Newsroom

UD animal historian releases book about National Zoo, helps start academic journal

By Kassidy Lammers ’24

University of Dayton Assistant Professor of Environmental History Daniel Vandersommers is using animal history to examine a storied American institution in his new book, Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo: Stories from the Animal Archive.

“Historians, in the past, have looked at history as if humans are agents who create their worlds by themselves,” Vandersommers said. “Animal history revises everything by showing that every chapter of history is forged by humans and animals together.”

In Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo: Stories from the Animal Archive, due out Sept. 29, Vandersommers argues the National Zoo is a fundamental part of American culture and history. The book also focuses on how there is more to animals than what people see from the outside of an enclosure.

“People walk through zoos thinking they’re seeing wild animals, when in fact they’re seeing the opposite,” Vandersommers said. “The book is about that gap — the difference between what people think they see in zoos and who is actually in zoos.”

Zoos sell more than 700 million tickets each year, which is greater than tickets sold for every major sporting event in the United States combined. With one ticket, an individual can not only see unusual animals, but also embrace a variety of experiences offered by the zoo, an idea Vandersommers highlights in his book.

“I am also trying to push people to think of the zoo as multiple places,” Vandersommers said. “We often think of ‘the zoo,’ but if you look closely, there are also many institutions inside that zoo. There are breeding institutions, educational institutions, Budweiser contracts and hundreds of thousands of jobs every year.”

Vandersommers spent 12 years researching and writing Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo. His research process included reading and sorting through more than 120,000 letters, as well as zookeeper notes, diaries, veterinary reports and even complaints from zoo-goers. 

Not only was there a large volume of reading involved in his research process, the reading itself also was highly challenging. Using analysis and comprehension skills that are key to the historian’s craft, Vandersommers had to decipher hundreds of styles of handwriting and technical jargon dating to the Gilded Age.

“It was tedious, but it was interesting,” he said. “I had to kind of decode everything — it was like reading a bunch of different languages.”

Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo also reflects Vandersommers’ work at UD teaching courses in animal history. Having worked on the book since 2011, Vandersommers said his teaching has continuously influenced his writing process.

“My animal class has been evolving for the last decade,” he said. “The many spirits of that class are in the pages, in the margins, in the footnotes and lingering between the sentences. It definitely is my teaching, and my teaching is that book. It’s all one endeavor.”

Christopher Agnew, associate professor and UD Department of History chair, said Vandersommers’ skill, passion and expertise as a scholar are evident in his work on his new book, the Animal History journal and as professor at UD, where he shares his knowledge with students from disciplines outside of the history department.

“Dr. Vandersommers' book is grounded deeply in archival research and will establish his reputation as a leading scholar in the relatively new field of animal history,” Agnew said. “On top of that, Dr. Vandersommers brings his enthusiasm for his research in animal history to the classroom, where his course on the subject has become one of our more popular offerings.”

Animal history is a field of historical research that has gained traction in recent years, and one in which the University now plays a leading role. Beginning in August, UD became the home of the new academic journal Animal History, which Vandersommers helped start and is a lead editor. 

He started the journal with six colleagues from universities in the U.S. and Canada, the National Science Foundation and the Animals & Society Institute. It will be published by the University of California Press and hosted at UD at least until 2028.

Vandersommers hopes his work on Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo: Stories from the Animal Archives will encourage readers to look beyond the human-centered world to understand how animal-human relationships define every aspect of life. 

“Human centeredness has caused myriad issues that are very evident right now,” Vandersommers said. “Animal history is a grand empathy project in a society that is largely devoid of empathy. If you extend empathy and curiosity in one direction, you can extend them in many directions.”

For more information, visit the Department of History and Animal History websites.

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