Fear or reverence: a Virginia Tech researcher delves into the complex history of the American alligator | VTX
In his research, Barrow engages with a relatively new scientific trend in the humanities called the “animal turn”. The method challenges researchers to go beyond a totally human-centered perspective to better understand history and our complex relationship with the non-human world.
“The animal turn demonstrates the power and utility of taking animal agency seriously while centering non-human organisms in our historical narratives,” Barrow said.
Over more than 20 years, Barrow has collected a wide range of sources to explore the historical and cultural themes of the book, from newspaper articles and archived documentaries to tourist brochures, memorabilia and postcards.
It devotes two chapters to how the alligator became a marketing tool after the Civil War. Amusement parks, circuses and fairground promoters frequently touted their traveling alligators. The species “became the ‘star attraction and main attraction’ for seasonal tourists who began flocking to Florida in the late 1800s, first on river steamer excursions and then in the form of numerous popular attractions known as alligator farms,” Barrow said.
Simultaneously, hunters took part in a pelt trade “which decimated the population of alligators in the wild, leading to early predictions that the species would soon be threatened with extinction”.
Barrow also plans to describe the alligator’s use in perpetuating racism, specifically, he said, “how white people have used the species as part of an ongoing campaign to control, oppress and humiliating people of color.”
Claims that alligators had a fondness for black flesh began circulating in the mid-18th century, according to Barrow. The lies were amplified over the next 100 years with the circulation of images depicting caricatures of black people being threatened or attacked by alligators.
“These highly racist images, which proliferated on stereoscopic cards, photographs, sheet music, business cards, postcards and product advertising, remained ubiquitous until the modern civil rights movement,” Barrow said. .
Later in the book, Barrow will examine the brief and problematic tendency of Americans to keep alligators as pets. Live baby alligators became a popular souvenir for tourists returning from Florida in the late 1800s. A fashion trend was even to attach newly hatched alligators to brooches as a form of animated jewelry, Barrow said.
Often, “pet owners” quickly realized that they ultimately did not want to live with alligators.
“Many alligators were released into the wild, a few were donated to zoos, and others were simply flushed down the toilet, leading to the pervasive myth about alligators inhabiting the sewers of New York and New York. ‘other metropolitan areas,’ Barrow said.
The book will also trace the efforts to save the alligator from extinction and how the species became “a kind of canary in the coal mine warning of environmental dangers.”