Animal Traces: Giving and Receiving in Presence and in Absence


The bee’s bench, Macquigg Lab courtyard. photo by the author, October 2015.

By Seth Josephson

And now you ask in your heart, “How shall we distinguish that which is good in pleasure from that which is not good?”
Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,
But it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.
For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,
And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,
And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.
People of Orphalese, be in your pleasures like the flowers and the bees.
-From “On Pleasure” in Kahlil Gibran’s long poem, The Prophet (1923/2007 p.145) 

Bees. Through the gaps of a bench on the South side of Macquigg Lab, they fly without pause. It seems they’ve made a home in a square a gap in a brick landscaping wall. Watch a few minutes and you’ll likely see some hapless student sit down on that bench for a moment to eat their lunch or read on their phone only to notice the cloud of dangerous yellow and black flying past them. Indifferent, but nevertheless stinger laden and menacing. These bee workers, all female, seem unconcerned with us humans. This wall and this bench has simply become theirs. We may have lain the bricks and planted the trees, but the bees have put in their own wax and labor, making a habitat within our own. The flowers and the fruit benefit from their pollination, so in turn do we.

Among other things, the BioPresence project, led by Amy Youngs, calls on us to notice these inter-territories. The #AnimalsOSU tag collects animal presences on social media in a hypertextual way. “If you see an animal or insect on campus (alive, dead or even a trace)…” the call for tags explains. Attending to diversity of species around us we discover ourselves in a richer world. We really have no need for extra-terrestrials to visit from the stars when we live here with other beings, still so alien to our ways of thinking, yet so familiar, navigating their own landscape around us. Each species sees, hears, smells, or even senses the magnetic fields of our world in a way we could never fully understand. We can come to know these other forms of life, but we can never fully know what it is they know.

At the same time, these other beings share innumerable qualities with us. And through those similarities, we are able to recognize their moods or anticipate their actions. The cat’s rub against our leg is immediately understood as a request for petting and their penetrating stare when standing next to their food bowl is unmistakable as a request for food. We’ve always lived in a larger community, an ecology of species, defined by recognition and radical difference. We are surrounded by companions, intimate foreignness, lifeworlds alongside and within our own. With a little attention, we can recognize the numerous territories of living where we visit but are not the primary inhabitants. Like the bench outside Macquigg, there are places where we humans are more migrants than sovereigns.

We humans often think of ourselves at the top of a hierarchy of beings, yet we also marvel at the beauty of other creatures and we form deep bonds with the animals in our homes. In nature writer, Henry Beston’s, now classic statement of awe for animal difference, nonhuman animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”(1928) He argues that “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. …In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

An attitude of reverence may create distance interfere with understanding but the vision of other species as “other nations” offers a frame we can use to recognize and value animal lives as creative and world-ordering. These creatures are different, but their difference isn’t a defect. Rather it is an alternative way meeting at the rind of the Earth. All creatures build around them an architecture of relations adapted so that a life-way may extend continuously into the future.

When surveying a landscape like this land-grant university, we must recognize that we are not the only ordering intelligences crawling, flying, swimming, through this shared territory. There are many ways we might wish to conduct our ‘foreign affairs’—many ethical approaches to animal difference—but we must first understand something about the state of things as they are. As foreign as other species are to our human way of being, they are also intimate companions in our lives. Humans and non-humans are not just “caught” in the same “net of life and time,” as Beston describes it, we have also built these nets together, making possible shared, if unequal, co-habitations and lifeworlds. On the most fundamental basis, our being is dependent on animal beings, and always has been. We haven’t just co-existed, we have co-emerged. In one way or another, animals are essential to every human project. However submerged and deferred, their trace is everywhere.

Co-emergence: animals within the human

Animal traces are foundational to human life and history. The AnimalsOSU project has so far emphasized wild animals, and the overlapping networks of co-existence brought together with digital methods of hashtags and hidden cameras are astonishing. But, the animal presence cuts even more thoroughly through human life. Before we turn to some examples of animal presence (and absence) at OSU, we must first recognize the extent to which there is a trace of animals everywhere in our culture and even inside our own bodies. While humans often imagine encountering animals from a position of autonomy, we’ve emerged alongside other species at every juncture, already in complicated ecologies of relationship. Every distinctly human achievement, everything that appears to be the single-handed work of our species, is deeply dependent on other animals at all scales. We are marked by other beings, not just by animals in general but each in their own particular ‘species natures.’

Domestication, the act of bringing an animal into the human ‘house,’ changes both species involved. The dog is different from the wolf, the chicken different from the jungle foul, the bull different from the aurochs. Despite one-sided power relationship of assimilating animals into human projects, humans are also thoroughly transformed. When the animal adapts to the human house, it also forces the home to adapt to the animal. And not just the home, but the field, the dinner plate, the hospital, and the human body itself. Domestication is a two-way process, a symbiotic integration, a co-production.

Truly, there is no place in human lives that doesn’t bear some kind of trace of the domestication experience. The domestication trace is most easily identifiable where biological and historical investigations intersect.

For example, since 1965, the medical community recognized that the adult ability to digest lactose (the type of sugar found in mammalian milk) differed among different populations (initially recognized among African-Americans and European-Americans in Baltimore, Maryland in Cuatrecasas et al.) (Simoons 1979). It is now believed that humans in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East independently adapted to the presence of animal milk in their diet and developed a genetic trait around 7,500-10,000 years ago which allowed the lactose digesting enzyme (lactase) to persist into adulthood (Tishkoff et al. 2007), and other adaptations of intestinal microflora followed (Szilagyi 2015).

In addition, the appropriation of animals into human culture allowed for particular projects of war and domination with far reaching impacts. The horse gave military advantage to invading armies throughout Europe and Asia. Later, the European colonization of the Americas was made possible by adaptation to ‘old world’ diseases. As Jared Diamond describes in his Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), diseases like smallpox had originated in domesticated animal populations and had jumped species into humans centuries before. Indigenous people of the Americas had lived without cattle, pigs, or chickens (although they had dogs), and so they were vulnerable to these new pathogens.

Animals are present everywhere in human culture as our most basic family of symbols. Animals proliferate art and story, especially those most beloved by children. They are the subject of the oldest preserved human paintings, the symbols through which we express unconscious desires, the primary totems of nations and local communities. Simply put, animals are “good to think [with]” (Lévi-Strauss, 1963). We use them for a million metaphors. In their distinctive species beings, they become convenient tools for understanding each other and our own lives. All along, we imagine, but never know truly what they know in themselves.

Our minds buzz like bees
but not the bees’ minds.
It’s just wings not heart
they say, moving to another flower.
(Harrison 1996, p.3)

The animal is also present in the human in a deconstructive sense. ‘Animality’ is the basic thing against which ‘humanity’ is defined. ‘The beast’ is part of the human as a “trace” in Jacques Derrida’s sense, whereby a category contains within it the hidden presence of its opposite (1998). In this respect, any understanding of the human is incomplete without accounting for how the rejection of the animal as ‘other’ constitutes the human as an idea. The animal, its particular form and life, makes possible ‘the human’ as we now know it, as a material fact and as a social idea. As Donna Haraway puts it in reference to much scientific discourse, “We polish an animal mirror to look for ourselves.”(Haraway 1991, p.21)

Today, even as all animals other than ‘pets’ recede from our direct contact, especially in the industrialized North, human dependence on them for useful material remains equally, if not more, salient. This dependence presents new challenges, globally and individually. As animal agriculture has been increasingly industrialized, the international consumption of meat products has risen. The cow, along with the pig and chicken, is again everywhere: in food, clothing, ointments and cosmetics, plaster and asphalt, the hair of artist brushes, fertilizer, glues, and photographic film, to name a few.


“Cowspiracy” a 2014 documentary which highlights the ecological impact of animal farming.

Cattle, as the largest and most numerous farmed mammal, have an especially enormous impact on human culture, bodies, and the larger ecology. Cattle-based agriculture is a key contributor to global crises, such as deforestation, species extinction, and water eco-system health. As argued by the influential study from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow, livestock production, because of its contribution to climate change, land degradation, air pollution, water shortages, and loss of biodiversity, is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale, from local to global.” (Steinfeld et al., 2006, p. xxvi) According to the documentary, Cowspiracy (2014), evidence of the effect of the livestock industry on ecological health is overwhelming but ignored by mainstream environmental organizations because of cultural and political dependence on eating animals.

While the science of nutrition is a contested field, the overconsumption of meat, dairy, and eggs is linked to human illness, including obesity, heart-disease, and cancer. Recently (in October of 2015) the World Health Organization added “processed meat” to its “Group 1” carcinogens based on its aggregation of numerous studies. The hamburger, as the paradigmatic industrialized food product, the cornerstone of the ‘McDonalds diet,’ may be our undoing from within.

Tracks through campus

With this frame, we can’t look without seeing the “BioPresence” everywhere, a hoof print in every footprint, on campus and in the world. Let us then narrow our vision, and set aside the semiotic animal trace. Let us also set aside the animal trace in the bodies of people—the health, disease, or genetic affordance given to us by this long relationship. Let us set aside the political consequences of human-animal partnerships and the technologies originally developed in contexts of human/animal relations. Even looking past these symbolic or historical traces, and looking instead at current material presences, there are still many animals all around us.

Skim milk, 2%, cream, and honey at the Crane Cafė. Animal ingredients are “BioPresence” which permeate our food system. Photo by the author, 2015.

Skim milk, 2%, cream, and honey at the Crane Cafė. Animal ingredients are “BioPresence” which permeate our food system. Photo by the author, 2015.

Consider the Crane Café in Hagerty Hall, a place I frequently to meet students and caffeinate before teaching. With a quick glance around, I can see cheese on a sandwich, cream in coffee. Nearly every food or drink, in fact, contains some animal trace—a piece of animal body or animal excretion—making it difficult for the many of us at OSU who forgo animal products to buy lunch. Looking a moment longer, I notice the leather shoes, belts, and jackets being worn on bodies all around me. I might notice a silk tie or a shark tooth necklace. With a little more work, we might find a presence of bone in the glue which holds together a violin in a case, a presence of animal fat or feathers used as a “slip agent” to reduce friction in the polymer production plastic bags depend on, or a presence of various animal tissues reduced to simple ingredients of shampoo, toothpaste, or cosmetics on the bodies of students and instructors.

If we made our way over to the OSU Hospital, we’d find even more material animal traces. Heparin, for example, a very common anti-coagulant, is produced from porcine and bovine (pig and cow) mucosal tissue (lungs and intestines) and given intravenously on a routine basis to bedridden patients and stroke victims so that they may have the chance for a “normal” (human) life. Bovine serum, essentially the plasma portion of the blood of cattle, is widely used as the primary ingredient in the culture medium which supports the laboratory life of human tissue, allowing for the production of vaccines against viruses and for much of cancer research happening at The James.


“Campus view from the Virtual Pasture” a photo by Michael Mercil of his own installation. “The Virtual Pasture” highlighted the departure of animals from OSU’s campus. Photo available here.

“Campus view from the Virtual Pasture” a photo by Michael Mercil of his own installation. “The Virtual Pasture” highlighted the departure of animals from OSU’s campus.

The material presence of the animal is everywhere, but now the living animal itself seems more and more conspicuous in its absence. When we attend to the proliferation of animal ingredients in food and the manufacture of ordinary products the BioPresence highlights a distinct “BioAbsence.” In 2008, artist, Michael Mercil installed a “virtual pasture” on OSU’s campus to highlight this absence. As he writes in his explanation of the work, “Sheep and cows once grazed our central campus grounds. Horses pulled delivery wagons to classrooms, auditoriums and dormitories. Now, except for pigeons, squirrels, rats, cats, raccoons and dogs, animals are mostly absent here. The Virtual Pasture reanimates OSUʼs campus with a flock of sheep grazing off-site, but streaming through images transmitted live from three motion sensitive cameras—on remote location at the farm—to a large (up to 5ʼ X 7ʼ) LED monitor installed outside the Wexner Center to face the Oval. As a whole, the project raises questions such as Where, when and how do we encounter farm animals now? And, How might we re-establish contact with those living creatures with which we share deep mutual dependence, but which we have made invisible to our daily life?” (Mercil).

Sequestered presence

In fact, livestock animals do still live on campus, but they are removed from central campus to reside in the agricultural and veterinary schools. The Waterman Laboratory, of the College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences, for example, houses an “over 100-Jersey-cow herd in the heart of Columbus.” (“About Us: Waterman Dairy Center”) As their website explains, the cows are milked in a highly-automated parlor, and maintained for the purpose of “teaching, outreach, and research.”

Curious about the dairy, I stopped by to visit the Waterman cows on a cold day in the winter of 2013. The cattle (all female) are separated by life stage.

Two calfs in hutches in front of the Heifer Barn at Waterman Dairy. Photo by the author Winter, 2013

Two calfs in hutches in front of the Heifer Barn at Waterman Dairy. Photo by the author Winter, 2013

The young calves, most in their own hutch but a few together with a sibling, came forward despite the biting wind to investigate me. The heifers, cows who have not yet given birth, were especially curious about my presence and crowded forward to watch my actions. I later learned that the dairy is considered a “biosecure” zone, and while prearranged tours are welcome, my unannounced visit was inappropriate. Visitors must verify that they haven’t traveled outside the US during the last 10 days and they must wear protective shoe coverings as they are shown around the farm so as to protect the herd from “several contagious disease agents.” (Waterman Dairy Center, 2014)

Other species, especially mice, are housed on campus for the purpose of laboratory research and are rarely seen by anyone not involved in a specific scientific enterprise. This research is overseen by the University Laboratory Animal Resources (ULAR). ULAR tells us, “The university’s centralized animal vivaria consist of over 14 buildings located primarily within the Health Sciences complex. Approximately 70,000 sq ft of animal housing space consists primarily of rodent barrier housing utilizing individually ventilated caging systems. In addition, facilities for accommodating large animals, rabbits, and nonhuman primates are available.” (OSU Office of Research) Animals proliferate in these spaces as funding for research allows.

The knowledge this research produces is shared but these facilities, while not secret, are nevertheless set aside from view. The activities of animal research labs come to public view with the publication of results or, more provocatively, when animal advocates criticize the morality of particular research projects, often producing an antagonistic relationship between activists and researchers. In the early 2000s, a research project at OSU in which cats were given FIV and methamphetamine, run through a set of tests, and then dissected, was heavily protested by a local group called POET (Protect Our Earth’s Treasures). International animal activists became involved. The US National Institutes of Health was sued by The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the incident received national news coverage, including by Nature (Check, 2002), Science (Teitelbaum, 2002) and Time Magazine (Goldstein, 2002). This pressure resulted in the resignation of the primary investigator on the project, Michael Podell, in 2002, although similar studies continued at least until 2007.

A photograph from POET’s website in 2005. Possibly from a protest Aug, 24th, 2001. (POET, 2005) The sign reads, “OSU football / YES / OSU cats-on-meth / NO! / Tell pres. Kirwan to / stop the torture / or / NO BUCKS!”

A photograph from POET’s website in 2005. Possibly from a protest Aug, 24th, 2001. (POET, 2005) The sign reads, “OSU football / YES / OSU cats-on-meth / NO! / Tell pres. Kirwan to / stop the torture / or / NO BUCKS!”

This summer, Beagle Freedom Project filed a complaint with the National Institute of Health regarding a set of dogs purchased for a study on pacemakers. According to the Dispatch, some implanted pacemakers were set to force the dog’s hearts to fail so that the effect of irregular heart rates could be studied. Such research is perfectly legal. The complaint simply alleged that the researchers weren’t in compliance with a new rule by the National Institute of Health, which prohibited the experimentation on animals sourced from dealers who did not breed them specifically for research. (Arenschield, 2015) These dogs may have once been pets, so their plight is brought to public attention. To experiment on a dog who was once a pet is significant for the Beagle Freedom Project perhaps because it is felt as a betrayal of the companion animal relationship. But a dog bred for experimentation is not different in any other way.

By far, most experimental studies take place on rodents, an estimated 49,200, in contrast with the approximately 125 dogs, cats, primates, and farm animals, according to OSU spokesperson, Jeffrey Grabmeier. (Arenschield, 2015) Yet rodents rarely have advocates.

While the results of research is published, the details of animal experiments on campus are not. In the Dispatch article on the pacemaker study, the university asked that the names of the researchers not be published “for fear of backlash from animal-rights groups.”

Non-wild, non-pet animals thus live in various forms on OSU’s campus even as their lives are absent from the view of most. We must not discount these forms of animal presence. Whatever our ethical assessment of farming or animal experimentation, animals in the dairy or the lab are just as “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear” as Beston describes their wild cousins. Each in their own way, create a world of their own, a tiny place where they can best experience home.

Giving and receiving

I don’t know how long the bees will last behind the bench outside Macquigg Lab. Animals who establish their own territories within human spaces, are often taken as pests and eliminated. I do hope OSU’s Facilities Operations and Development (FOD) won’t take it upon themselves to exterminate the hive on our behalf.

Attending to the presences, and conspicuous absences, of animals, we may be inspired to make space for the flourishing of many species. We have much to learn from being with these “other nations.” It is possible to co-exist without domination or extermination. It’s possible to make an interspecies relationship which is a giving and a receiving where there is mutual benefit, and even mutual joy.

Perhaps we can learn to be like a bee and a flower giving to each other in turn. Each is for the benefit of each, and only together is the beauty of the garden possible. And, in being more than each of us are alone, we become something more than an individual, more than the circle of a single species. This standing outside ourselves with joyfulness, we have a name for that. We call it ecstasy.

Works cited and linked:

Andersen, Kip, and Keegan Kuhn. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. 2014. Film.

Arenschield, Laura. “Ohio State’s Medical Research Using Dogs Fuels Complaint.” The Columbus Dispatch 24 Aug. 2015. Web. Viewed 17 Nov. 2015.

Beston, Henry. The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod. Holt Paperbacks, 1928. Print.

Check, Erika. “NIH Faces Action over HIV Cat Study.” Nature 10 Jan. 2002: 106. Print.

Cuatrecasas, P.D., H. Lockwood, and J. Caldwell. “Lactase Defiency in the Adult: A Common Occurrence.” Lancet 1 (1965): 14–18. Print.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Print.

Gibran, Kahlil. The Collected Works. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.

Goldstein, Andrew. “A Win For the Kittes.” Time Magazine 24 June 2002: n. pag. Print.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Harrison, Jim. After Ikkyū and Other Poems. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Print.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. Beacon Press, 1963. Print.

Mercil, Michael. “The Virtual Pasture: A Proposal.” No date. Web. Viewed 17 Nov. 2015.

OSU Office of Research. “Animal Research Facilities.” No date. Web. Viewed 17 Nov. 2015.

Protect Our Earth’s Treasures (POET). “Cats On Meth.” Web. Original page viewed for archive 28 Feb. 2005. Web archive viewed 17 Nov. 2015.

Simoons, Frederick J. “Dairying, Milk Use, and Lactose Malabsorption in Eurasia: A Problem in Culture History.” Anthropos 74.1/2 (1979): 61–80. Print.

Steinfeld, Henning et al. “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations (2006) Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

Szilagyi, Andrew. “Adaptation to Lactose in Lactase Non Persistent People: Effects on Intolerance and the Relationship between Dairy Food Consumption and Evalution of Diseases.” Nutrients 7.8 (2015): 6751–6779. Print.

Teitelbaum, Steven. “Editorial: Animal Rights Pressure on Scientists.” Science 22 Nov. 2002: 1515. Print.

Tishkoff, Sarah A. et al. “Convergent Adaptation of Human Lactase Persistence in Africa and Europe.” Nature Genetics 39.1 (2007): 31–40. Print.

Waterman Dairy Center. “About Us: Waterman Dairy Center.” No date. Web. Viewed 17 Nov. 2015.

—. “Biosecurity Form.” 2014. Web. Viewed 17 Nov. 2015.