Reviving Biophilia—Mary Trachsel Considers Our Disconnect from the Natural World

Authored on:

May 23, 2016
Child at the Natural History Museum, University of Iowa

Animals on Campus

Humans share the state of Iowa with as many as 20 million hogs, in addition to millions of chickens and cows. In a state so densely populated with non-human animals, why are they so invisible to us on the University of Iowa campus?

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1800s, a fence was erected around the Pentacrest to keep pigs off the grounds. An early professor of writing, George Cram Cook, was often seen galloping his horse across campus by moonlight as a form of creative rumination. In the early 1900s, a goat known as William roamed campus and was sometimes herded into classrooms and offices as a prank. And a bear that served as a football mascot and lived in a cage under the stands of Kinnick Stadium tragically drowned in the Iowa River.

Today, the UI's Office of Animal Resources maintains animals for testing purposes—including a goat that famously escaped last winter. Service animals sometimes visit the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics or come to campus during finals week, and many displayed and archived species can be viewed at the Museum of Natural History. But why, wonders Mary Trachsel, Professor of Rhetoric (CLAS), is the presence of animals on a campus located in a state teeming with them so rare?

Advocating More Tolerance

Mary Trachsel and dogA Spring 2016 Obermann Fellow-in-Residence, Trachsel is working on a book tentatively titled Reviving Biophilia, which questions how and why we’ve become so separated from other species and what we might do to reconnect with the natural world.

“At a very basic level, I am advocating for more tolerance of other life forms,” she says. Better yet would be for students to have some hands-on experience of non-human reality. Trachsel is inspired by the work of biologist E.O. Wilson and others who believe humans have a deep affiliation with nature that can lead us to more environmentally sensitive ways of living.

“We aren’t separate from nature; we’re part of it,” Trachsel explains. “It’s this lack of humility that has gotten us into this predicament.” Referring to climate change and other imminent environmental challenges, Trachsel feels obliged to teach science to her students.

“My students tell me, ‘I’m not an environmental person,’” says Trachsel, who talks with her classes about terms like “environmentalist” and “environmental activist." Despite her students' hesitation, she believes that it is the task of education to move young people beyond this simplistic way of thinking. “I’ve been persuaded by environmental scientists that people not only need to understand current circumstances, they need to care. So that is my mission as a teacher and a writer—to make them care.”

Animals Studies by Way of Language Study 

Trachsel came to her current work mostly through her study of language—particularly ape language research (ALR)—than through personal environmental interests. As part of a 2005 Obermann Faculty Research Semester, “Articulating the Animal,” Trachsel’s project was to examine the ethical dimensions of apes and language instruction.

Since then, she has widened the scope of her study to include interspecies communication that “decenters the scientific gaze,” such as horse whispering. Without discrediting traditional scientific research, Trachsel believes we can learn from “rustic authorities” who cultivate non-academic ways of knowing that defy scholarly modes and expectations. “There are ways of knowing,” she says,  “that are academically irresponsible to dismiss.”

The Modern University as Alternative Realm to the Natural World

A native of small-town northern Iowa, Trachsel wonders what it says about the modern university as a center of human knowledge that it so restricts the presence of both wild and domesticated animals. By comparing the current University of Iowa campus to its earlier iterations, when human-animal relationships were more common and fluid, Trachsel questions what it means for “entire institutions to have created an alternative realm to the natural world.”

Animals are prohibited from UI offices and living spaces; a group of feral cats that staff and students in the College of Nursing had befriended in the 1990s were forcibly removed. There is also control for allergens, fear of institutional liability, and anything else that might be deemed a non-human threat. In general, learning spaces are increasingly sterile and technologically controlled.

“I’m not sure it's healthy or otherwise advantageous to separate what we understand as learning and knowing from the rest of the natural world,” notes Trachsel.

Book Spans "Human Uniqueness" and Language-Enabled Animals

In addition to a chapter surveying the history of animals on the University of Iowa campus, other chapters of Trachsel's book include an analysis of neurolinguistic claims of “human uniqueness” and critical responses from lab scientists who work with “language-enabled” apes, dolphins, and parrots. Another chapter examines human communication with other animals outside of laboratory settings, and another looks at scientists’ relationships to their non-human animal subjects.

Trachsel views educators as the most important audience for the book. She hopes the work will motivate them to explore and exercise their own biophilia and to discover ways to help their students do the same.

Returning to non-human species on the University of Iowa campus, Trachsel muses over the recently escaped goat and all of the ways that people got involved in the short-lived story: “PETA was concerned about the well-being of the goat—that he was cold and hungry. But then a researcher from Iowa State commented that goats are both very hardy and very clever. Other people used the goat as comic relief, putting up wanted signs around campus. Clearly many people were interested in the story.”

Pockets of Acceptable Presence

Trachsel is heartened that there are increasingly more pockets of acceptable animal presence on university campuses, including the University of Iowa’s therapy dog visits during finals week, sponsored by the student group PAWS.  She also points to field work and applied study programs such as Eastern Kentucky University’s Minor in Horses, Humans, and Health and an anthrozoology program at Carroll College in Montana that explores the human-animal bond.

Closer to home, Trachsel imagines an Animal Studies curriculum that partners the University of Iowa with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University. Such a program could allow students to learn about the natural world by studying and developing their relationships with other animals.