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Displaying Death and Animating Life

Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life

The number of ways in which humans interact with animals is almost incalculable. From beloved household pets to the steak on our dinner tables, the fur in our closets to the Babar books on our shelves, taxidermy exhibits to local zoos, humans have complex, deep, and dependent relationships with the animals in our ecosystems. In Displaying Death and Animating Life, Jane C. Desmond puts those human-animal relationships under a multidisciplinary lens, focusing on the less obvious, and revealing the individualities and subjectivities of the real animals in our everyday lives.

Desmond, a pioneer in the field of animal studies, builds the book on a number of case studies. She conducts research on-site at major museums, taxidermy conventions, pet cemeteries, and even at a professional conference for writers of obituaries. She goes behind the scenes at zoos, wildlife clinics, and  meetings of pet cemetery professionals. We journey with her as she meets Kanzi, the bonobo artist, and a host of other animal-artists—all of whom are preparing their artwork for auction. Throughout, Desmond moves from a consideration of the visual display of unindividuated animals, to mourning for known animals, and finally to the marketing of artwork by individual animals. The first book in the new Animal Lives series, Displaying Death and Animating Life is a landmark study, bridging disciplines and reaching across divisions from the humanities and social sciences to chart new territories of investigation.

312 pages | 26 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Animal Lives

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Behavioral Biology

Cognitive Science: Human and Animal Cognition

Psychology: Animal Behavior

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work


“An important and moving book. Reading it is a bit like catching an unexpected glimpse of yourself in a reflection and being worried about what you see. How is it that we remain, as a culture, so largely unreflective about animals and their place in our lives?”


“This book is a unique source of ‘food for thought’ about the comparative value of human and nonhuman lives, and ultimately, the appropriate and inappropriate ways of displaying animal deaths. Through a series of selected anecdotes and case studies, the author takes a multidisciplinary approach to understudied areas within human-animal relationships, including museum exhibitions, burial and mourning practices, and artworks made by animals. A critical aspect of this work is the careful analysis of the various emotional and artistic expressions of animals’ afterlife across different human societies. . . . The overarching implications of this book are extensive, as they address the meaning of a diverse range of lives. Recommended.”


“This is a wonderful book. Desmond’s writing moves between the scholarly and the personal, between the well-trained curiosity of the anthropologist and the deeply felt concern of an intimate friend in order to examine a range of practices from blockbuster exhibitions to marginalized memorials that address and engage interactions between human and non-human animal lives. In those practices she seeks to understand, and sometimes to change, the ways that non-human lives are and are not rendered meaningful, are and are not granted subjectivity. Indeed she reveals how animals are stripped of potential meaning and individuality in the human directed performances and displays of their bodily or species being and death.”

Kari Weil, Wesleyan University

“The boundaries between humans and other animals have themselves many boundaries, many margins, places where what counts as proper animal life—and death—is contested and uncertain. In this spellbinding book, Desmond takes us to the odd ends of taxidermy, to the limits of human mourning for animal companions, and to the edges of dominant sensibilities about animal aesthetic expression. Displaying Death and Animating Life promises to rearrange dominant definitions and deliberations about the matter of animal agency.”

Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Desmond’s fascinating book focuses on our engagement with animals in the practices of everyday life and death. With a remarkably accessible writing style that will appeal to a broad readership, she takes up some of the most important but rarely investigated topics in our relationship with other animals, including death mourning practices, roadkill, and exhibitions. Displaying Death and Animating Life makes a valuable contribution to animal studies and the legitimization of the multispecies family as a social unit and will provoke much discussion on the myriad ways human and animal lives are intertwined in co-constitutive worlds.”

Linda Kalof, Michigan State University, author of Looking at Animals in Human History

Table of Contents

1                      Introduction: Passionate Encounters with Animals in Everyday Life—Beyond the Mainstream
Part One    Theaters of the Dead: Humans and Nonhuman Animals
2                      Postmortem Exhibitions: Taxidermied Animals and Plastinated Corpses in the Theaters of the Dead
3                      Inside “Animal” and Outside “Culture”: The Limits to “Sameness” and Rhetorics of Salvation in von Hagens’s Animal Inside Out Body Worlds Exhibition
Part Two   Mourning and the Unmourned
4          On the Margins of Death: Pet Cemeteries and Mourning Practices
5          Grievable Lives and New Kinships: Pet Cemeteries and the Changing Geographies of Death
6          Animal Deaths and the Written Record of History: The Inflammatory Politics of Pet Obituaries in Newspapers
7          Requiem for Roadkill: Death, Denial, and Mourning on America’s Roads
Part Three  Animating Life: Cognition, Expressivity, and the Art Market
8          “Art” by Animals, Part 1: The Transnational Market for Art by (Nonprimate) Animals
9          “Art” by Animals, Part 2: When the Artist Is an Ape—Popular and Scientific Discourse and Paintings by Primates
10         Conclusion: “Every Bird a ‘Blueboy’” and Why It Matters for “Animal Studies”

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