The National Museum of Animals & Society

A great place to explore and enrich our interrelationships with other animals
By Marc Bekoff, April 2012

“…animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance.” (John Berger, About Looking, 1980)

Our relationships with other nonhuman animals (aka animals) move us all over the place. We love some, hate others and are indifferent to a wide range of fascinating species. Animals intrigue and inspire us and as we inquire about who they are we learn much about who we are.

John Berger, a famous art critic, painter and author, spent a good deal of time in his seminal work called About Looking analyzing what it means to gaze at animals. We stare at them for hours in a nature documentary, take a trip to a sanctuary in order to feel connected with them and marvel at their amazing cognitive, emotional and moral capacities. An important question on which many people often reflect is, “Why do we engage with other animals in a myriad of ways, often highly contradictory and inconsistently?” 

We also need to ask, “What about the animals who are staring back at us?” What is taking place behind the eyes and between the ears of a chimpanzee or a mouse in a laboratory, a deer or a bird darting through rush hour traffic, a wolf running from those who want to kill him, or two dogs romping here and there at a dog park? What is happening in their hearts? How do we give animals their due and recognize that they too observe us and also hear and smell us, that they too are sentient, thoughtful, and emotional beings who share and engage in this world with us?

There are many books, documentaries, and other venues that can help us answer these and many other questions that center on our relationships with other animals. The relatively new field of anthrozoology that is concerned with research on the nature of humans-animal interactions is gaining a good deal of momentum from researchers representing many different disciplines.

What has been missing, but no longer is, is a museum that can also help us learn more about human-animal interactions. For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of serving as an advisor to the National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS), based in Southern California. This museum is dedicated to enriching the lives of people and animals through the exploration of our shared experience when we and other animals encounter one another. In their collections, exhibitions, programs and educational efforts, the museum centers on the full spectrum of human-animal studies (our relationships with, and perceptions of, other animals), the history of protecting animals by organizations as well as by everyday people, and the importance of humane education.

MAS is the first museum to take on this subject matter from the perspective that respects the lives of individual animals. Its subject matter is near and dear to the hearts and minds of millions of people and most likely dates back to our very first interactions with other animals. 

Humans have long grappled with the moral, legal, emotional and spiritual dimensions of our interactions with, and representations of, nonhuman animals. This has included numerous debates about our responsibilities to companion animals as well to wildlife in crisis, the awe and revulsion experienced when witnessing animals in zoos and circuses and our feelings about how they are represented in literature, art and film, and our inspiration as artists, writers, photographers and audiences that awakens our best sensibilities about the lives of the many animals with whom we are active participants in different areas of society. All this is what NMAS calls “our shared experience.”

Historically, such experiences have motivated many people, at different points in time, to protect animals from cruelty and to challenge the ways in which we habitually think about and relate to other animals in the grand scheme of things. While sages such as Socrates and his contemporaries gave thought and energy to questions about the welfare of animals, it wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that the movement to protect animals gathered momentum. In fact, around this same period of time, there was much overlap among several social justice causes, such as those to abolish slavery, fight for women’s suffrage, and advocate for the interests of children and laborers. Interestingly, these other organized efforts have been widely represented and discussed in museums, but not that of animals—until now.

NMAS is the brainchild of museum professional and animal advocate Carolyn Merino Mullin, who has long been interested in how we can preserve, interpret, and present our rich and inspiring history of caring for animals. Now in its third year, the museum is fundraising to open exhibition space in Los Angeles, Calif. Led by an exemplary group of directors, advisors and academics, NMAS has already produced a number of bi-coastal traveling and online exhibitions ranging from animal welfare in colonial America to a children’s exhibit on mythical beings to an innovative and interactive Facebook exhibit called “Souls Awakened: The Animals Who Have Shaped Us” that exposed thousands of children to humane education programs at schools and festivals. NMAS also is acquiring a remarkable collection of historical artifacts (currently 500 items). Be on the lookout for its summer exhibit called “Be Kind: A Visual History of Humane Education, 1880–1945.”

You can follow NMAS on its website, Facebook and Twitter and support this inspirational, model and seminal organization and enrich your own life and relationships with other animals in the process. Those people living or vacationing in Southern California also can take advantage of their Fall Lecture Series, guest speakers, events and much more. 

As time goes on nonhuman animals are enjoying much more positive publicity as we learn that our own health and wellbeing are tightly associated with how we treat these remarkable beings. NMAS will surely enrich these varied and shared experiences, help us appreciate just how amazing other animals truly are and foster coexistence with other animals and other humans. 

Note: In the spirit of the growing field of anthrozoology, a course titled “Animals and Us” will be offered by Schumacher College in the UK. Information can be seen here. This course follows up on a special issue of Resurgence Magazine published earlier this year. 


Photo submitted by Sharon Discorfano, New York, N.Y., to interactive NMAS/Facebook exhibit called “Souls Awakened: The Animals Who Have Shaped Us.” Discorfano writes: “Pushkin found me at the Bideawee shelter on 38th St. in New York. Together, we founded the family. He made me a Mom, and opened my heart to other people and animals in need. He taught me patience and how to be present in the moment. He inspired my life in a new direction—animal law and advocacy for cruelty-free living. He lives on through Letters To Pushkin, a free site to help others cope with the loss of a companion animal.”

Marc Bekoff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder. 

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