Going Forth and Multiplying: Animal Acclimatization and Invasion

Professor Harriet Ritvo

Professor Harriet Ritvo

People were on the move in the nineteenth century. Millions of men and women participated in massive transfers of human population, spurred by war, famine, persecution, the search for a better life, or (most rarely) the spirit of adventure. The largest of these transfers—although by no means the only one—was from the Old World to the New. Of course, people are not unique in their mobility, as they are not unique in most of their attributes. And many non-human animals followed the same paths during that period, although few of them were under the impression (whether accurate or not) that they were doing so as a result of their own decisions, or to serve their own ends.

Most of the animals thus transplanted were members of domesticated species long accustomed to moving in the human wake. But a small, yet compelling, fraction moved in the service of what was called “acclimatization.” In its most expansive nineteenth-century sense, this meant: to introduce, acclimatize, and domesticate “all innocuous animals, birds, fishes, insects, and vegetables, whether useful or ornamental.”[i] As attitudes toward human migrants have often been contradictory and complicated, migrants of other species have provoked similarly mixed responses.

Of course acclimatization was not new in the nineteenth century. From the earliest emergence of agriculture, it had been a frequent corollary of domestication, as useful plants and animals followed human routes of trade and migration. The instigators of the wave of acclimatization attempts that crested in the late nineteenth century often claimed that their motives were similarly utilitarian.[ii] But their actions told a somewhat different story. The transfers were on a much smaller scale. In addition, they resulted from the vision or desire of a few individuals, not entire communities or societies; they involved the introduction of more or less exotic animals to established settlements, rather than the transportation by human migrants of familiar animals along with tools and household goods in order to reestablish their economic routine. Self-conscious efforts at acclimatization also embodied assumptions and aspirations that were much more grandiose and self-confident: the notion that nature was vulnerable to human control and the desire to exercise that control by improving extant biota. In many ways acclimatization efforts seemed more like a continuation of a rather different activity, which also had ancient roots, although not quite as ancient: the keeping of exotic animals in game parks and private menageries (for the rich), and in public menageries and sideshows (for the poor). This practice similarly both reflected the wealth of human proprietors, and implicitly suggested a still greater source of power, the ability to categorize and re-categorize, since caged or confined creatures—even tigers or elephants or rhinoceroses—inevitably undermine the distinction between the domesticated and the wild.

Nineteenth-century acclimatization initiatives targeted a wide range of species. Perhaps the most famous American story concerns the English or house sparrow (Passer domesticus), which was allegedly first introduced into the United States by a nostalgic Englishman named Nicolas Pike in 1850, and subsequently reintroduced in various locations in the eastern US and Canada. In Darwinian terms, it was a great success story. So conspicuously did the introduced sparrows flourish that in 1889, they were the subject of the first monograph published by the U. S. Bureau of Biological Survey.[iii] And in 1928, a USDA survey of introduced birds explained the brevity of its entry on the species on the grounds that it “receives such frequent comment that it requires no more than passing notice here.”[iv]

The sparrow’s adaptation to North America may have been a triumph from the passerine point of view, but hominids soon came to a different conclusion. Although the first recorded introduction was at mid-century, the most celebrated one occurred a decade and a half later. The New York Times chronicled the evolving assessments of the new immigrants. In November 1868, it celebrated the “wonderfully rapid increase in the number of sparrows which were imported from England a year or so ago”; they had done “noble work” by eating the inchworms that infested the city’s parks, described by the Times as “the intolerable plague of numberless myriads of that most disgusting shiver-producing, cold-chills-down-your-back-generating, filthy and noisome of all crawling things.” The reporter praised the kindness of children who fed the sparrows and that of adults who subscribed to a fund that provided birdhouses for “young married couples”; he promised that, if they continued to thrive and devour, English sparrows would be claimed as “thoroughly naturalized citizens.”[v]

Two years later, sympathy was still strong, at least in some quarters. For example, the author of an anonymous letter to the editor of the Times criticized his fellow citizens in general, and Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in particular, for failing to provide thirsty sparrows with water. Bergh took the allegation seriously enough to compose an immediate reply, pointing out that despite his “profound interest…in all that relates to the sufferings of the brute creation—great and small,” neither he nor his society had authority to erect fountains in public parks.[vi] But the tide was already turning. Only a few months later the Times published an article entitled, “Our Sparrows. What They Were Engaged To Do and How They Have Performed Their Work. How They Increase and Multiply—Do They Starve Our Native Song-Birds, and Must We Convert Them Into Pot-Pies?”[vii]

There was, of course, a moral of this story, but apparently it was not universally obvious. A few years later English starlings were introduced, also in New York City, and not by a lone (or rogue) acclimatizer. In 1871 the American Acclimatization Society, modeled on a very successful French predecessor and an already defunct British one, was founded to provide a formal institutional base for such attempts. It is widely reported, although occasionally doubted, that Eugene Schieffelin, the Society’s moving spirit, wished to introduce to the United States all the birds named in Shakespeare. One reason for doubt is simply quantitative—according to a little book called The Birds of Shakespeare, which was published in 1916, the Bard mentioned well over fifty species, not all of them native to Britain.[viii] Less controversially, this attempt—which also turned out to be excessively successful—was part of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture retrospectively characterized as “the many attempts to add to our bird fauna the attractive and familiar [and “useful”] song birds of Europe”[ix] The report of the 1877 annual meeting of the American Acclimatization Society, at which the starling release was triumphantly announced, also approvingly reported more or less successful releases of English skylarks, pheasants, chaffinches, and blackbirds, and looked forward to the introduction of English titmice and robins, as well as additional chaffinches, blackbirds, and skylarks—all characterized as “birds which were useful to the farmer and contributed to the beauty of the groves and fields.”[x]

Not all acclimatization attempts met with equal success. After the American annexation of what became Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, the U. S. Army found that patrolling the vast empty territory along the Mexican frontier was a daunting task, especially in the overwhelming absence of roads. The horses and mules who normally hauled soldiers and their gear did not function efficiently in this harsh new environment. Of course, although the challenges of the desert environment were new to the U.S. Army, they were not absolutely new. The soldiers and merchants of North Africa and the Middle East had solved a similar problem centuries earlier, and some open-minded Americans were aware of this.[xi] Several officials serving in the dry trackless regions therefore persuaded Jefferson Davis, then the U.S. Secretary of War, that what the army needed was camels, and in 1855 Congress appropriated $30,000 to test the idea.

Acquiring camels was more expensive than acquiring sparrows, partly because they are much larger and partly because such transactions required intermediate negotiations with people—camel owners, foreign government, customs officials. And the animals themselves demanded significantly more attention, which Americans familiar only with such northern species as horses and cattle were ill equipped to provide. (In consequence a Syrian handler named Hadji Ali–soon anglicized to “Hi Jolly”–was hired to accompany the first shipment of camels.) A total of seventy-five camels survived their ocean voyages and their subsequent treks to army posts throughout the southwest. The officers who used them on missions were, on the whole, favorably impressed, while the muleteers who took care of them tended to hold the opposite opinion.

But these discordant evaluations did not explain the ultimate failure of the experiment. With the outbreak of the Civil War, responsibility for the camels, whose numbers had grown somewhat through natural increase, passed to the Confederacy. Even their early advocate Jefferson Davis had other priorities at that point. Some of the camels were sold to circuses, menageries, and zoos; others were simply allowed to wander away into the wild dry lands. They were sighted (and chased and hunted) with decreasing frequency during the postwar decades.[xii] In 1901 a journalist reported that “now and then a passenger on the Southern Pacific Railroad…has had a sight of some gaunt, bony and decrepit old camel…grown white with age, [and] become as wild and intractable as any mustang.”[xiii]

So no immigrant camel problem emerged in the United States. But, as the very different Australian story suggests, that was the result of historical contingency, rather than any lack of adaptability or enterprise on the part of the camels. Although the Acclimatization Society of the United Kingdom failed to thrive, the acclimatization movement was enthusiastically embraced in some of the remoter colonies of the British empire. In particular, acclimatization societies quickly sprang up throughout the antipodes, where their members understood their mission in weighty progressive and patriotic terms. New kinds of animals were not needed merely for aesthetic or culinary diversification (the most frequent motivations of American and European acclimatizers); they were needed to repair the defects of the indigenous faunas of Australia and New Zealand, which lacked the “serviceable animals” found so abundantly in England, including, among others, the deer, the partridge, the rook, the hare, and the sparrow. Acclimatizers further complained that while nature had provided other temperate lands with “a great profusion…of ruminants good for food, not one single creature of the kind inhabits Australia!” They were not discouraged when immigrant rabbits and sparrows began to despoil gardens and fields, merely suggesting that it might be advisable to “introduce the mongoose to war against the rabbits.” They continued to urge “the acclimatization of every good thing the world contains” until “the country teemed with animals introduced from other countries.”[xiv]

As was often the case, ordinary domesticated animals were not of primary concern to the most enthusiastic and visionary acclimatizers, although in many places cattle and sheep were more influential than rabbits or rats or sparrows in converting alien landscapes into homelike ones. But, in Australia as in Texas and Arizona, extraordinary domesticated animals could fall into another category. Similar problems—vast trackless deserts that nevertheless required to be traversed by people and their equipment—suggested similar solutions. A few immigrant camels arrived in Australia in 1840, but they were not integrated into the economic life of the colony (or colonies) for several decades. In the 1860s, just as the Civil War deflected official interest from the North American camels, their Australian conspecifics were beginning to flourish. By 1878 Nature reported approvingly that they worked well when yoked in pairs like oxen, and that they remained very useful in exploring expeditions, although most labored in the service of ordinary commercial purposes.[xv] They also carried materials for major infrastructure projects that brought piped water and the telegraph to the dry interior. A camel breeding stud was established in 1866; overall, in addition to homegrown animals, approximately ten to twelve thousand camels were imported for draft and for riding during the subsequent half century.[xvi] Their importance continued until the 1920s, when they were supplanted by cars and trucks—the same fate that had already befallen horses in Europe and elsewhere.

Suddenly, what had seemed an unusually successful adventure in acclimatization took on a different cast. As in the American southwest, once the camels lost their utility, they became completely superfluous. A camel-sized pet is an expensive luxury, and there was no circus or zoo market for animals who had long ceased to be unusual. So some were shot and others were set free to roam by kinder hearted owners. At this point the Australian story diverged from the American one once again. Camels had lived in Australia for at least as long as many of its human inhabitants (that is, the ones with European roots) in terms of years, and in terms of generations, they had lived there longer. They were well adapted to the harsh terrain, where they foraged and reproduced, rather than dwindling and dying. Their feral descendants have grown to over one million—by far the largest herd of free-living camels in the world. People complained that they competed for resources with other animals, wild and domesticated, and that they were disrupting fragile desert ecosystems; they were occasionally reported to terrorize small towns.

After helping to build the nation, they had, it was asserted, “outstayed their welcome.”[xvii] The cull of 25,000 per year, mostly accomplished by sharpshooters, sometimes from helicopters, did not keep up with new births; and the niche market for camel meat that had arisen in the 1980s made even less of a dent. As officials contemplated more drastic methods that would quickly reduce the population by two-thirds, human resistance also emerged, whether based on regard for the welfare of individual camels, the hope the camels could be converted dead or alive into a profit center, or the fear that large-scale eradication would require the violation of property rights.[xviii] Nevertheless a major cull is now underway.

The acclimatization project has often been interpreted as a somewhat naïve and crude expression of the motives that underlay nineteenth-century imperialism—intellectual and scientific, as well as political and military—more generally. But this is only a partial explanation; acclimatization also reveals an underlying ambivalence or unease. There is, for one thing, a difference between the imposition of the European biota on the rest of the world, and the transfer of exotic animals and plants to the homeland. And for another, the enterprise of acclimatization is much more likely to demonstrate the limitations of human control of nature than the reverse—whether the targets of acclimatization shrivel and die, or whether they reproduce with unanticipated enthusiasm. Already, by the late nineteenth century, introduction of exotic plants and animals could be seen as a kind of Pandora’s box. The Society for the Protection of Native Plants (now renamed, in consideration of contemporary sensibilities, the New England Wild Flower Society) was founded in 1900, in order to “conserve and promote the region’s native plants.”[xix] It was the first such organization in the United States; in the intervening century societies with similar goals have been established across the continent and around the world. The commitment to preserve native flora and fauna from the encroachment of aliens marked a turn, conscious or otherwise, from offense to defense—perhaps in the American context, to be read in conjunction with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the more comprehensive Immigration Act of 1924.


[i] Christopher Lever, The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles (London: Hutchinson, 1977), 29-35.

[ii] For extended work on acclimatization efforts see Peter Coates, American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Douglas R. Weiner, “The Roots of ‘Michurinism’: Transformist Biology and Acclimatization as Currents in the Russian Life Sciences,” Annals of Sciences 42 (1985):243-260; and Thomas R. Dunlap, Nature and the English Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[iii] Michael P. Moulton et al., “The Earliest House Sparrow Introductions to North America.” Biological Invasions 12 (2010) 2955-8; Walter B. Barrow, The English Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in North America, Especially in its Relations to Agriculture, USDA Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy Bulletin 1, (Washington: GPO, 1889).

[iv] John C. Phillips, Wild Birds Introduced or Transplanted in North America, Technical Bulletin 61, USDA (April 1928), 49.

[v] “Our Feathered Friends,” New York Times (November 22, 1868), 8.

[vi] “Man’s Inhumanity to Birds.” New York Times (July 22, 1870), 2; Henry Bergh, “Mr. Bergh and the Sparrows—A Defence Against Certain Aspersions.” New York Times (July 23, 1870), 3.

[vii] “Our Sparrows.” New York Times (November 20, 1870), 6.

[viii] Archibald Geikie, The Birds of Shakespeare (Glasgow: J. Maclehose, 1916).

[ix] Phillips, Wild Birds, 48-49.

[x] “American Acclimatization Society.” New York Times (November 15, 1877), 2.

[xi] For the definitive account of the integration of camel transport into the economies and societies of the Middle East and North Africa, see Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

[xii] This account is drawn from Fred S. Perrine, “Uncle Sam’s Camel Corps.” New Mexico Historical Review 1 (1925), 434-444.

[xiii] Helen T. Griswold, “The Camel Comedy.” Current Literature 31 (1901), 218-9.

[xiv] Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, First Annual Report (1862), 8, 39 and Sixth Annual Report (1868), 29-30; South Australian Zoological and Acclimatization Society, Seventh Annual Report (1885), 7; Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, Third Annual Report (1864), 30 and Fifth Annual Report (1867), 25.

[xv] “Geographical Notes,” Nature (July 25, 1878), 337.

[xvi] “Camels Australia Export.” http://www.camelsaust.com.au/history.htm Accessed March 30, 2011. “A Brief History of Camels in Australia.” Based on Strategies for Development (1993) prepared by the Camel Industry Steering Committee for the Northern Territory Government. http://camelfarm.com/camels/camels_australia.html

[xvii] “A Million Camels Plague Australia,” National Geographic News (October 26, 2009). http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/10/091026-australia-camels-video-ap.html Accessed March 30, 2011.

[xviii] “Feral Camels in Western Australia,” Department of Environment and Conservation, Western Australia. http://www.dec.wa.gov.au/content/view/3224/1968/ Accessed March 30, 2011.

[xix] New England Wild Flower Society website. http://www.newfs.org/about/history/?searchterm=history Accessed April 1, 2011.

15 comments to Going Forth and Multiplying: Animal Acclimatization and Invasion

  • Jane Carruthers

    It was a pleasure to read Harriet Ritvo’s essay on acclimatization and invasion. It adds an historical dimension to, and provides a fresh eye on, a topic that is, more often than not, the purview of natural scientists. The literature on botanical invasion is substantial (possibly because of the greater environmentally transformative role that plants can play in many parts of the world); there is less on animal transfers and acclimatization. The time is ripe for a scholar such as Harriet Ritvo to delve into the cultural and social issues around acclimatization and emphasise, in accordance with the newer historiography, the transnational and transdisciplinary underpinnings and expressions of this historical phenomenon. Issues such as the ‘improvement’ of nature; increasing agricultural productivity (birds consuming crop-feeding insects); feelings of comfort and familiarity in an environment populated by European animals (‘home’); cultural imperialism and the power involved in shaping one’s environment with personally selected biota, demand attention. And when circumstances alter and the introduction (often an ‘invader’ as per the metaphor of warfare) threatens something environmentally ‘precious’ (e.g. a growing fear of upsetting ‘biodiversity’, national animal and plant symbols) the narrative changes – this is the stuff of history.

    The essay begins with an overall brief appraisal of the topic, then mentions the introduction of Passer domesticus to the US. This species was also introduced to South Africa, allegedly into Cape Town by Cecil Rhodes at the turn of the 20th century, but although it thrives and has increased in numbers it depends upon human habitations and is thus only associated with urban populations. The story of the spread with humans within South Africa is similar for the Common (Indian) myna Acridotheres tristis, introduced from India via Durban. Neither of these birds was imported formally into South Africa by an acclimatization society and although generally disliked by purists and regarded as pests by municipalities that have to deal with messy nests and sullied buildings and pavements – as they have to deal with feral pigeons etc. – they are not regarded as environmentally transformative, or as ‘threatening biodiversity’. They cannot survive in the wild. (Acclimatization societies, supported by public funds, existed in Cape Town and Pretoria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they were more concerned with game and sport animals – pheasants and trout – than with ornamental species.)

    The essay moves on from birds to camels – 75 of which were brought to the US southern border in the first quarter of the 19th century as a military patrol animal because camels performed better in an arid environment than did other domesticated creatures, such horses and cattle. During the US Civil War, camels ceased to serve their purpose and they were either sent to zoos and menageries or they were deliberately hunted and killed. The introduction of camels into arid central Australia was, as the essay explains, different. As beasts of burden they thrived under their handling by professional immigrant cameleers (a case of humans following their animals), whose small Muslim communities became characteristic of outback towns, until the camels’ purpose, as Ritvo explains, was taken over by motor vehicles. However, without predators – human or non-human – camels thrived in the Australian outback, reverted to being feral and/or wild and soon numbered in tens of thousands. Australia’s fragile, predator-free, environment is particularly susceptible to feral creatures and the outback is populated with feral goats, feral swine, and feral cattle, while the northern areas contain huge feral populations of cane toads and buffalo. As was the case in the US, camels were also introduced into the Kalahari desert region of South Africa. During the First World War when South Africa was responsible for the campaign against German South-West Africa a number of camels were used by the military. After the war ended, some camels survived, but given the absence of a settled human population in this area they had no further use and were generally abandoned. Probably not for long, because a weak animal does not long survive the attention of predators such as lion, jackals, hyena, vultures etc., nor of the San hunter-gatherers, all of which inhabit the Kalahari. Thus a growing feral population of a vulnerable large edible animal is less likely to occur in Africa. Today there are a few camel safaris, but they are strictly for the tourist trade. A comparison of camel introductions would be rewarding and the essay hints that this is what Harriet Ritvo intends to do.

    A couple of queries: the meaning of the last sentence of the first paragraph is not clear. Do we know that non-human animals can be ‘under an impression’? The phrase ‘yet compelling’ is used in sentence 2 of paragraph 2: why is acclimatization more compelling than another form of animal import/export? What is a ‘more or less exotic animal’?

    Environmental philosophers, such as Hattingh, Larson and Sagoff, are writing on other aspects of the topic of animal and plant transfers – particularly the linguistic and ethical – and Ritvo’s essay adds an historical dimension to this topic.


    Hattingh, J. (2001) Human dimensions of invasive alien species in philosophical perspective: towards an ethic of conceptual responsibility. The great reshuffling: human dimensions of invasive alien species (ed. by J.A. McNeely), pp. 183-194. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
    Larson, B.M.H. (2007 b) An alien approach to invasive species: Objectivity and society in invasion biology. Biological Invasions, 9, 947–956.
    Larson, B.M.H. (2007 c) Who’s invading what? Systems thinking about invasive species, Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 87, 993–999.
    Larson, B.M.H. (2010) Embodied realism and invasive species. Philosophy of Ecology and Conservation Biology. Handbook of the Philosophy of Science (ed. by K. de Laplante and K. Peacock), pp. 1-18. Elsevier BV, Amsterdam.
    Lever, C. (1992) They dined on eland: The story of the acclimatization societies. Quiller Press, London.
    Sagoff, M. (1999) What’s wrong with exotic species? Report from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, 19(4), 16-23.
    Sagoff, M. (2005) Do non-native species threaten the natural environment? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 18, 215–236.
    Sagoff, M. (2006) Environmental ethics and environmental science. Environmental Ethics and International Policy (ed. by H. ten Have), pp. 145-161., UNESCO, Paris.
    Sagoff, M. (2009a) Environmental harm: political not biological, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 22(1), 81-88.
    Townsend, M. (2005) Is the social construction of native species a threat to biodiversity? ECOS, 26, 1–9.
    Warren, C.R. (2007) Perspectives on the ‘alien’ and ‘native’ species debate: a critique of concepts, language, and practice. Progress in Human Geography, 31, 427-446.
    Woods, M. & Moriarty, P.V. (2001) Strangers in a strange land: the problem of exotic species. Environmental Values, 10, 163–91.

  • At the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna, South Australia, near the junction of Lake Torrens (all salt) and Lake Eyre (currently with water), we are exhorted to eat our ferals. Two of them, the kangaroo and the emu, are the faunal symbols that embrace the Australian coat-of arms. (I doubt the American bald eagle would ever be so honoured?).

    The other animal is the camel – the notion of a million wild camels roaming and damaging delicate desert ecosystems figures large in the Australia’s conservation imagination. But we are not exhorted to eat donkeys, horses, wild pigs or mountain goats. Less than 6 miles from this ‘pub’, I watched mountain goats ripping the tops off small trees in a gorge in a National Park, despite its active conservation program (Bounceback). The camel is just one of a number of creatures gone wild. It is perhaps more successful in the dry desert than the others, but the others are at least as successful in the semi-arid regions, the ‘clapped out sheep and cattle country’ that surrounds this sign.

    Ritvo’s stimulating essay turns our attention to the human contingency of animal transfers. She focuses on the acclimatization movement of the nineteenth century, which was also very active in Australia, and was the most ‘scientific’ (and experimental) of the efforts to bring useful animals and plants into the ‘new’ lands (that often turn out to be much older than Old Europe) as part of the imperial spirit of that era.

    Acclimatization movements are often fingered as ‘to blame’ for invasive disasters by latter day invasion biologists, who thrive here in Australia, a ‘megadiverse’ country that leads the world in small and medium-sized mammal extinctions(1). Conservation biologists have a real reason to look at what is compromising the habitat and niche for a host of animals evolved over long periods of isolation. Australian animals were ‘long isolated’ in both a biogeographical and historical sense. They were more vulnerable to human changes to the environment, not just 200 years ago when Europeans invaded, but also 55,000 years ago when the first humans arrived. As Tim Flannery argues, Australian animals had never met a hominid species before the arrival of Aboriginal people (2). Where biota in other parts of the world had co-evolved with pre-modern hominids and their tools, the first hominids to cross Wallace’s line and enter the Australian continent were fully-modern humans with sophisticated tool kits.

    Rather than casting blame on particular individuals who introduced biota that ‘got out of hand’, Ritvo here is encouraging us to look carefully at the culture that is supporting attitudes to invasive animals. In my own new project on ‘the culture of weeds’, I am also keen to flesh out the context of the rejection of some animals, and the ‘blind eye’ turned to others (for example, sheep and cattle, which are as damaging as camels to desert ecosystems). Even more curiously, when native animals respond successfully to the great European experimental farm in outback Australia, they too become regarded as ‘feral’.

    Cultural paradoxes abound: it is often people worried about plants who condemn camels and acclimatization societies – yet 94% of plant introductions into Australia are garden plants (some of them still being introduced in the 21st century) while acclimatization (deliberate) introductions account for about 4%. Of the plants classified as environmental weeds, 72% were introduced for gardens. The colony of Victoria had its first weed legislation, the Thistle Prevention Act on 19th March 1856, just 21 years after the first European settlement, and six years before the first Acclimatization Society in Australia was established in Melbourne in 1862.

    In a world where food security is debated regularly, and has been the motivation for much agricultural expansion in Australia (3), we are shooting camels and kangaroos – great sources of protein. At present, when the ‘culls’ occur we mostly leave the animals to rot in the name of conservation. Feral animals pose complicated cultural questions. We need more historians like Ritvo engaging with the international dimensions of the ‘foot soldiers of empire’ in the twenty-first century.

    We also need more chefs like the one at the Prairie Pub, Parachilna, who can take these animals and prepares them with herbs and spices of the outback, then serve them on the spot in a high class restaurant.

    1. The top 17 ‘megadiverse’ countries as defined by Conservation International include only two (Australia and the USA) that have first-world economies to fund conservation efforts.
    2. Tim Flannery 2010. Here on Earth:An Argument for Hope , Text Publishing, Melbourne
    3. Cameron Muir, 2010. ‘Feeding the world: Our great myth’, in Schultz, J (ed.) Food Chain. Griffith Review, 27(1):59-73.

  • Exotic “natives”

    Professor Ritvo’s essay highlights two intriguing examples – sparrows and camels – of a phenomenon that she argues has been pervasive throughout the history of our species. Non-human animals have accompanied humans on their travels around the globe since prehistoric times. We tend to forget – or ignore? – that many animal species that we consider as natural elements of our native faunas were in fact introduced in our regions less than a few thousand or even a few hundred years ago.

    Most people know that modern horses were first brought to America by the Spanish Conquistadors, but it is much less well-known that North America’s principal breed of dairy cattle, the Holstein-Friesians or Holsteins, originated from some 7500 animals imported from the Netherlands by American farmers in the late nineteenth century. Dutch farmers in their turn long liked to believe that their black and whites had been around since the times when the first prehistoric farmers settled in the Low Countries. As it turns out, the foundational Dutch black and whites were actually imported from Denmark only in the late eighteenth century, as replacements for the many Dutch dairy herds that had been destroyed by consecutive onslaughts of rinderpest. Similarly, chickens and rabbits had been unknown in Northern Europe until the Romans introduced them; and Great Britain, now the home of more than forty different sheep breeds, some of which are vital elements of the country’s traditional landscapes, would not have had a single breed of sheep if humans arriving from the continent had not brought them along. The same holds for seemingly native European species such as pheasants and fallow deer; they too came here through human intervention.

    In recent centuries, particularly since about 1700, animals considered useful for improving regional breeds were imported from all parts of the globe on an increasing scale. For instance many breeds of fowl and pigs from South-East Asia were crossbred with European breeds to improve the latter’s functional or aesthetic qualities. There are probably no sheep breeds in existence that do not carry at least a small number of Merino genes – the result of ubiquitous attempts to improve the wool of local breeds by crossing them with the Spanish breed that had been known for its superior wool quality since the Middle Ages. The famous English Thoroughbred, now the icon of a purebred horse, actually owed its origin to a number of Arabian stallions that were used as sires to ‘ennoble’ the British draught horse.

    Recently, in the Netherlands, a member of Geert Wilders’ nationalist Freedom Party objected to the introduction of what he called ‘exotic species’ into the Dutch national parks. Breeds such as the Polish Konik horse and Scottish Highland cattle might represent a danger to the national fauna, he argued, and they should therefore be replaced by ‘native’ breeds. Yet it is doubtful whether any Dutch breed of grazers will be allowed to retain its green card if its supposedly ‘native’ origin is put under scrutiny. From our perspective, species introduced from elsewhere can of course become a pest, as the rabbits and, perhaps, the camels in Australia show. It is also true however that expanding their original territory to wherever they could, is simply what evolutionary mechanisms have compelled most living organisms to strive for. Our own species, Homo sapiens, provides a pretty convincing example. Cats and dogs, one might say, have cleverly used humans to extend their range.

    For us to be aware of the remote and often mixed origin of our fauna and domestic breeds is not merely of interest from the perspective of nature preservation. Our highly productive modern breeds of livestock have been bred from what was once a plethora of highly variable strains of mixed origin and composition that did not yet deserve the name of breeds. (Professor Ritvo’s publications have played a prominent role in demonstrating this.) Over the last two centuries a relentless process of selection aimed at creating high-yielding utility breeds has led to the loss of much of the original genetic variability. Our increasing awareness of the importance of preserving biodiversity now sparks much interest in the preservation of what remains of the old ‘native’ breeds. Writing the history of such breeds and species helps to remind us that the usefulness of our efforts to preserve them should not derive merely from cultural considerations, let alone from the putative ‘native’ character of such animals. Quite the contrary: such breeds derive their current value precisely from their genetic multiformity, resulting from their exotic and mixed origins.

    Bert Theunissen
    Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science
    Utrecht University,The Netherlands

  • Harriet Ritvo’s essay calls our attention to the unprecedented efforts of nineteenth-century enthusiasts to reshuffle the biota of the planet. Not satisfied with importing what Alfred Crosby called the “portmanteau biota” of their home countries to new settlements [1], acclimatizers of the era sought to perfect the art and science of adapting attractive, useful, or curious organisms from one place to another. As the essay makes clear, the study of acclimatization holds out the promise of enriching our understanding of nineteenth-century environmental history and the history of imperialism, of the links between the valorization of nonhuman natives and the exclusion of human “aliens”, and of present-day projects of biodiversity conservation and biological heritage preservation.

    There is much here to discuss, but like Jane Carruthers I find myself caught up on the last sentence of the essay’s introductory paragraph, particularly the closing qualification. Ritvo writes that although many animals followed the paths traced by the movements of human populations in the nineteenth century, “few of them were under the impression (whether accurate or not) that they were doing so as a result of their own decisions, or to serve their own ends.” Whether or not nonhuman animals can be “under an impression” with respect to their own agency and intentionality, the difficulties here hint at a way in which the topic might be reframed to take on an even broader scope.

    When we look at the environmental transformations of the nineteenth century, it is impossible not to be struck by the radical infrastructural transformations that made possible the large-scale movements of humans and nonhumans. These infrastructures were not merely technological in the pedestrian sense of the word; they also encompassed transformations in institutions and economies that uprooted human populations and reallocated resources from one region of the world to another. The consequence of these structural and infrastructural changes for the acclimatization movement were twofold. At the same time that they facilitated the acclimatizers’ transfers of organisms from one place to another, they also set in motion a new phase of Crosby’s “Columbian Exchange” that was beyond the control of any human agent and whose consequences we continue to grapple with today. As the acclimatizers worked to incorporate specific desirable species into the local biota, in other words, that biota was being flooded (or invaded, or enriched — choose your metaphor), for reasons entirely beyond the acclimatizers’ control, by unwanted and even unrecognized immigrants.

    This is not to dismiss the importance of the many species that flourished in new habitats under the care of acclimatizers, horticultural entrepreneurs, and other human agents. But many of the biological transfers of the nineteenth century and since have exceeded human agency and intentionality; they were accidents, not projects. This becomes especially apparent when one shifts the focus from conspicuous vertebrates such as camels or sparrows to humbler plants, invertebrates, and microorganisms. Take a recent example: the sea squirt Styela clava, a marine invertebrate native to the northwest Pacific that can now be found off the coasts of Europe, North America, and Australia. No one intentionally introduced the sea squirt to any of these places; it most likely made its way around the world on the hulls or in the ballast water of shipping vessels. Ritvo notes that acclimatization projects were “more likely to demonstrate the limitations of human control of nature than the reverse.” The movements of organisms like the sea squirt that no one had ever attempted to acclimatize but that nonetheless slipped into the material flows of the global economy illustrate something more: not just the limitations, illusions, and ambivalence of human control, but its irrelevance. Stacked up against the twinned juggernauts of global trade and expanding transportation infrastructures, the ambitions of nineteenth-century acclimatizers and twenty-first century invasive species eradicators alike shrink to their proper proportions.

    Or is this too fatalistic? What place should should nonhuman agency and intentionality be accorded in the history of ecological exchange — where “nonhuman” includes not just nonhuman animals but also structures of power, discourses, material technologies, and infrastructures? Is the language of “decisions” and “ends” adequate to the story at hand? These are questions with no simple or universal answers; Ritvo’s essay opens up a rich vein of empirical material and new insights through which to explore them further.

    Etienne Benson
    Research Scholar, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

    1. Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., The Columbian Exchange, 30th anniv. edn. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).

  • Barri J. Gold

    I will heartily second Jane Carruthers’s observation that “the time is ripe for a scholar such as Harriet Ritvo to delve into … this historical phenomenon.” As my perspective is that of a literary scholar, however, I would encourage Professor Ritvo to bring her distinctive historical lens to the question of how acclimatization works as a particularly intractable and slippery signifier. I believe, moreover, that this work, entangled as it is with questions of “nonhuman agency,” has the potential to address a critical need of ecocriticism—notably, the challenges of negotiating a balance between the anthropocentric tendencies of language-based postmodern criticism and an ecology so “deep” that it ignores the importance of human-constructed meanings.

    Ritvo’s essay already suggests the productive intractability of acclimatization as a signifier: one that refers to the very different projects of bringing familiar species to new terrain and to importing the exotic, one that serves individual as well as (rather than?) cultural goals, and one around which the narratives may change very rapidly. She further points out that the frequent interpretation of “the acclimatization project …as a somewhat naïve and crude expression of the motives that underlay nineteenth-century imperialism” is at best a partial explanation, as acclimatization also “reveals an underlying ambivalence or unease.” It is precisely this ambivalence and unease that I find particularly intriguing—underlying, as it does, so much of nineteenth-century British literature and attaching to the domination both of human others and of nonhuman nature. I would add to this that the relative infrequency of acclimatization efforts are no bar to their potential significance. To borrow Jonathan Dollimore’s terms, such efforts may be at once “socially peripheral” and “symbolically central.” Those monstrous “signifiers” who refuse to behave, who do not consistently perform the dominant meanings ascribed to them (women, colonized peoples, perhaps even cats, as Ritvo’s previous work suggests), seem to attract cultural contention and often prove the most revealing of the processes of contesting meaning.

    Ritvo’s claim that acclimatization is “more likely to demonstrate the limitations of human control of nature than the reverse” suggests to me the great potential of a historical treatment that is at once signification- and nature-sensitive. Similarly suggestive is the clear role that species themselves play in driving changes in the human narratives that surround them—the capacity of camels, for example, to reproduce without human help and beyond human intentions, such that they might “out[stay] their welcome.” That “they” then endanger fragile ecosystems highlights the importance of “unintended consequences” and implicates humans in the effects of manipulating both nature and its meanings.

    I would very much like to be able to see more clearly the effects of signification on nature and vice versa. I would love to know more, for instance, about how the rapid passage of sparrows from “citizens” to potential “pot pies” was a combined effect of the prolific sparrows themselves, of the favorability of their new environment (whether from well-meaning children or delectable inchworms), of their impact on that environment, and of a human cultural context. That this last is least obvious marks it, in my experience at least, as an unusual case. And I remain curious about what else happened between 1868 and 1870 (akin perhaps to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 with which Ritvo closes, but was there also, perhaps, a shortage of savories?) that made “pot pies” a more appetizing concept than were “naturalized citizens.” Finally, I wonder what happens to the sparrows as/if they are increasingly viewed as intrusive, and whether/how it matters if they are framed as, say, foreign invaders, unwelcome guests, or potential pot pies.

    I have a tendency to ask more of Harriet than is reasonable, but I believe we are in need of less anthropocentric ways of treating our own history of conferring meaning on the natural world. Perhaps “failures” of acclimatization will prove especially useful in helping us find a middle ground between nature as signifier and nature as irreducibly other.

    Barri J. Gold
    Associate Professor of English
    Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA

  • Like all of Harriet Ritvo’s work, this essay is bursting at the seams with empirical riches and analytical and conceptual tools that will surely be marshaled for future research. With so many questions raised in my mind, I will focus my comments mostly around Professor Ritvo’s wonderful discussion of camels.

    First, I think Professor Ritvo’s essay offers us a way to think of acclimatization as a dialectical process rather than one that can only occur “in the human wake.” The needs of the very human U.S. Army to patrol wide tracts of desert in the southwest brought camels to the region. The camels, for their part, brought Hajj ‘Ali and other camel handlers to the U.S. Thus, depending on where we enter the chain of movement this story offers, either the camels or the humans are the motors moving the other species. Without going down the slippery slope of attempting to assign intentionality (camel or human) to these processes, the fact remains that camels brought their handlers to the U.S.—not the other way around. And as Professor Ritvo suggests in her last sentence and in other of her work, this dual immigration meant that both human and nonhuman animals became objects of acclimatization projects.

    Second, as Professor Ritvo makes clear, acclimatization has long come alongside domestication. Taking the longer view, it would not take us long to think of many instances—domestication and as well as other phenomena—in which humans followed animals, not the other way around—Pacific fishermen following salmon or Central Asian pastoralists moving with their flocks. Are these instances of the animal acclimatization of humans?

    More specific to the example of Syrian camels in the U.S., is it possible for us to make a case for the animals’ roles in the human demographic changes that took place in the western U.S. in the second half of the nineteenth century? As American Indian communities continued to be ravaged throughout this period, massive numbers of Arab immigrants and others settled in the western territories of the republic away from more traditional centers of American power. Some of them, as Professor Ritvo shows us, were brought by camels. Thus, without overstating our case, could we understand immigration in the nineteenth-century American West as partly a process of the camel acclimatization of humans?

    Thinking about this immigration leads me to wonder as well about how so many of the other commonplace stories we tell about the nineteenth century—capitalism, globalization, imperialism, nationalism, and state-building to name but a few—might look different were we to tell them as stories of acclimatization. Sticking with Professor Ritvo’s camels, one such story might show how acclimatization was a technology that emerged to deal with a growing number of expendable and no-longer-relevant animals in different parts of the world. Indeed, animals like camels, donkeys, water buffaloes, and mules were increasingly becoming less and less valuable as animals of labor in the Middle East in the nineteenth century. These creatures had long been the engines, trucks, and heaters of this rural world, and a decrease in their importance as economic actors was one of the most profound changes to the rural landscape of places like Syria, Anatolia, and Egypt to take place for centuries, or perhaps even millennia. Skipping over the details of a massively complex story, we can say simply that from about 1750 to 1850 animals were first replaced by humans as the preferred beasts of burdens in rural parts of the then still-Ottoman Middle East. A few decades later steam and rail would emerge to make it even harder for animals to make claims of economic worth in human communities. Thus a new animal economy emerged in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Domestic animal populations declined, a centralizing meat production industry began to take shape, and various animal institutions, many of which Professor Ritvo has illuminated for us, took over animal bodies—the zoological park, schools of veterinary medicine, and a silk industry. In this recoding of animals’ economic worth in the Middle East, it is therefore not surprising that Syrian camels left the region altogether to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Their historic laboring and economic roles were greatly diminished in the Middle East, so they, like their human counterparts, had to search for work elsewhere. Restoring camels’ roles as viable economic actors, therefore, became one of the chief tasks of their acclimatization in the U.S.

    Thus, as a translation of animals into new environments, acclimatization was a science that made possible—and that was, of course, itself made possible by—the global movement of human and nonhuman animals, the spread of market economies, and ecological and economic change around the world. We might therefore usefully think of acclimatization as a search for utility—as a means of matching supply and demand. The U.S. needed camels and then it didn’t. Australia was good for camels for a period, but then there too they lost their utility and became expendable. Thus, as Professor Ritvo’s essay shows, examining acclimatization as a process of movement, adaptation, and translation across ecologies allows for doing animal history on a global scale.

    Alan Mikhail
    Department of History
    Yale University

  • Rebecca Woods

    As the robust commentary above indicates, there is much to discuss in this excellent and provocative essay, but taking a cue from Etienne Benson, I would like to focus my brief remarks on the question, or perhaps the problem, of non-human agency in the history of plant and animal transfers. This issue is vexing and, at times, disquieting for scholars unraveling the history of ecological exchange over the last several centuries. How do we incorporate non-human agency into our analyses of the past? What do we make of something as simple and evident, yet which has such a profound impact, as the fact that livestock wander off and propagate in the interstices of settlement? Or of the reality of reproduction—so aptly demonstrated by the burgeoning populations of starlings and sparrows in Harriet Ritvo’s essay?

    Harriet Ritvo is careful not to attribute unwarranted human characteristics to the camels and birds that populate her essay (although the same cannot be said for her sources), and to attend to the differences among species and locations that shape the varied ways in which similar acclimatizing endeavors unfolded. At the same time, due recognition is accorded to constraint and contingency. In the cases she discusses, these animal actors were largely, if not exclusively, initially transposed within and according to the confines of human actions and projects, only to escape these confines and evade, more or less, human control. What emerges is a picture of modified agency, something that looks like the expression of will (or maybe instinct) according to the contingencies of context—political, environmental, social, technological and cultural. As Ritvo suggests in her opening paragraph, the same could be said for most, if not all, human migrations. If we recognize the ways in which human agency is constrained by many of these factors, and acknowledge that free will is practically unlikely, then human actions and animal agency begin to look more alike, just as the rhetoric surrounding animal acclimatization parallels that of human migration. It thus becomes easier, perhaps, to treat agencies of all kinds on similar, if unequal, footing.

    Rebecca Woods
    Doctoral Candidate, History, Anthropology, and STS (HASTS)

  • Pete Minard

    I also welcome a scholar of Professor Ritvo’s depth and experience writing about acclimatisation in the United States, a field that has been sadly neglected to this point. I have nothing to add regarding acclimatisation in the United States, I do however believe that my research can suggest further avenues of enquiry for Professor Ritvo’s approach to the Australian Acclimatisation Societies.

    I would suggest that the idea that the Victorian Acclimatisation Society introduced animals in the colony solely because they saw that the landscape lacked ‘serviceable animals’ and were not discouraged when sparrows and rabbits ran wild is an artefact of the existing acclimatisation historiography drawing too heavily on the Society’s annual reports and focusing heavily on the Society’s importation program at the expense of their other aims.1

    The Australian acclimatisation Societies saw that colonial landscapes were simultaneously brimming with agricultural potential and under considerable threat from ecological damage caused by colonisation.2 The ecological damage caused by the introduction of sparrows into Victoria split the Acclimatisation Society in two only three years after they were introduced into the colony.3

    I would suggest that Professor Ritvo look to see if American acclimatisers’ attitudes towards sparrows was influenced by the disastrous impact of sparrows in Australia.

    In summary I welcome Professor Ritvo’s insightful foray into acclimatisation in America but recommend profound caution regarding the published work about the Australian Acclimatisation Societies.

    Pete Minard
    PHD candidate
    University of Melbourne


    1.Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, The Rules and Objects of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, with the Report Adopted at the First General Meeting, and a List of Officers. Members and Subscribers to the Society (Melbourne: William Goodhugh 1861), 22. Linden Gillbank, “The Origins of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria: Practical Science in the Wake of the Gold Rush,” Historical Records of Australian Science 6, no. 3 (1982); Thomas R Dunlap, “Remaking the Land: The Acclimatisation Movement ” Journal of World History 8, no. 2 (1997); Michael A. Osborne, “Acclimatising the World: A History of a Paradigmatic Colonial Science,” Osiris 2nd Series Nature and Empire Science and the colonial landscape 15, no. 2 (2000).

    2.Edward Wilson, “The Distribution of Animals,” The Times, October 30 1858. Edward Wilson, “Acclimatisation,” The Field, the Country Gentleman’s Newspaper, June 19 1862. “Acclimatisation as a Means of Restoring the Balance of Life – a Paper Delivered by Dr Madden.,” The Yeoman and Australian Acclimatiser 1864; Acclimatisation Society of Victoria – 1863-1867, Minute Books. Volume One, “21 March 1865”, VPRS 2223, P0000/000003, 610-12, Public Records Office of Victoria, Melbourne

    3. Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria – 1863-1867, Minute Books. Volume Three, “March 31 1868”, VPRS 2223, P0000/000004, 837, Public Records Office of Victoria, Melbourne Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria – 1863-1867, Minute Books. Volume Three, “6 April 1869”, VPRS 2223, P0000/000004, 898, Public Records Office of Victoria, Melbourne

  • Harriet Ritvo’s essay gives some good examples of the double-edged sword that was nineteenth-century acclimatization in theory and practice. As the work of Michael Osborne and others has shown, the French in particular tied the introduction and adaptation of various animals and plants, not to mention the adaptation of Europeans to tropical climates, to the larger colonial enterprise which aimed to impose the values of the European metropole on the colonial periphery. But these policies also aimed to adapt colonial flora and fauna to European uses. Although attempts to introduce yaks to the Alps failed, the distribution of the Australian eucalyptus across the world succeeded quite well.(1)

    If acclimatization is successful, its legacy includes a blurring of the boundaries between native and exotic and even between domestic and wild. Such ambiguity complicates our relationship with animals such as English sparrows or starlings: a century after their introduction to the US, can we really still think of them as exotic species? Like the nineteenth-century immigrants whose descendents have become fully American, these birds are part of the American landscape. No one seriously thinks that a pre-sparrow landscape could ever be restored. In fact, most people probably do not even realize that these birds are not native, and one could argue that even if sparrows are not caged, the ubiquity of bird feeders makes them something less than wild. It is a sobering thought that the robin – another introduced European species – is now the most common bird in North America.

    Edmund Russell’s recent Evolutionary History reveals that the evolutionary malleability of organisms is not something that took place only in the distant geological past, nor does it work only in one direction. Examples of co-evolution such as canine domestication show that humans and dogs both changed in the process.(2) Introduced organisms may fill evolutionary niches left by the disappearance of earlier species, or they may create their own niches. Following French attempts to introduce the eucalyptus to Algeria, Americans planted it widely in California, where it adapted easily to its semi-arid landscapes. In some areas, eucalyptus groves have become favored habitat for migrating Monarch butterflies, and this has complicated efforts to restore native landscapes. Subjective and aesthetic criteria of desirable organisms as opposed to pests in this instance take precedence over ecological distinctions between native and non-native.

    Australia, as Ritvo’s example of the camel shows, has been a particularly fertile landscape for non-native species. But the reversion of a domesticated animal such as the camel to a feral state has been duplicated in a number of sites. The novelist T.C. Boyle recently dramatized the impact of feral pigs on one of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands off the southern California coast.(3) Like the camels in Australia, the pigs were introduced in the nineteenth century and flourished in the absence of predators, wreaking havoc on a fragile landscape. The uproar that surrounded their recent removal from Santa Cruz Island in the interests of restoring its compromised landscape well illustrates the shifting emotional landscapes that surround introduced animals in particular. Like some Australian camels, the Santa Cruz Island pigs were removed with shotguns. Even if ecological restoration proceeds from clear scientific objectives, it is a human endeavor just as acclimatization was, and therefore equally subject to human values and objectives.

    Anita Guerrini
    Horning Professor in the Humanities and Professor of History
    Oregon State University


    (1) Michael A. Osborne, Nature, the Exotic, and the Science of French Colonialism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); idem, “Acclimatizing the World,” Osiris, N.S. 15 (2001):135-51.

    (2) Edmund Russell, Evolutionary History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

    (3) T.C. Boyle, When the Killing’s Done (New York: Viking, 2011)

  • Garry Marvin

    It is a great pleasure, as always, to read a new piece by Harriet Ritvo; and, as always, her work offers suggestions for new ways of thinking and re-thinking, and new areas for research. I will limit my comments to a couple of issues that emerge after the acclimatization processes she refers to. In particular I am interested in the processes that relate to the terms ‘invasion’ in her title and the term ‘innocuous’ in her first quotation. This is a fascinating area – the social and cultural processes and the ecological and environmental processes (all closely related) that convert innocuous species that were initially welcomed and nurtured (at least by some) into unwanted invaders that needed to be controlled, culled or extirpated (again, at least by some) in order to return to a perceived environmental purity or original environmental integrity. This is something that Adrian Franklin (Franklin, ‘Animal Nation’ 2006) has also explored in the context of the changing attitudes to native and introduced flora and fauna in Australia.

    Ritvo points to intriguing and changing notions of success in terms of introduction and acclimatization when she notes that some ‘targets of acclimatization shrivel and die’ – a failure perhaps for those who attempted the experiment – whereas others ‘reproduce with unanticipated enthusiasm’… which I imagine would have been treated as a success. The twist then comes when, later in the twentieth century, such successes become perceived as a blight and some people seek the eradication of these successful creatures. As Ritvo comments about camels in Australia, ‘After helping to build the nation, they had, it was asserted, “outstayed their welcome”’.

    Indigenous and invader are always socially and culturally complex, and loaded, terms when applied to humans or non-human animals and when rights are being claimed by humans for themselves or when humans are claiming them for other animals. At the end of her essay Ritvo points to important areas for research when she suggests that the commitment to preserving native flora and fauna might be read in conjunction with early American human immigration policies — something that might be done with other cases. The language of imported/exotic species and their impacts on local natures often seems to find parallels with the language of the impacts of immigrant humans on local/national cultures and societies. How many generations from the settlement of early migrants, both human and non-human, does it take for them to be no longer invasive?

    Ritvo’s work is historical but the issues she raises and engages with have contemporary relevance with new acclimatizations and introductions – but with a new term – ‘re-introduction’ to add to the mix. The term certainly needs careful interrogation. As with acclimatization programmes of the past these are projects in which humans initiate and guide the processes that are as much cultural as natural. Here animals are returned, re-introduced, to the spaces that some suggest they ought now to inhabit because they were there once. That ‘ought’ is not always shared. An example would be the furor, or the ‘wolf wars’ as one writer has termed them (sorry I do not have the reference to hand!) over the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park. Here was a space that had been cleared, in the early twentieth century, of what were perceived as pestilential predators and to which, at the end of the century, people planned to reintroduce them. The history of wolves here involved complex and multi-stranded issues and attitudes of hatred and removal; of revaluing, denaturalising and rewilding; and also of new hatreds. Again, this was an acclimatization process of animals from outside (from Canada) being transported into a new space in the hope that they would successfully colonize and multiply. They did – to the horror of some and the delight of others.

    Similar issues can be seen in cases of species that are introduced and acclimatized to spaces old or new because humans would like them to be there.

  • James Serpell

    Harriet Ritvo’s fascinating essay explores yet another intriguing dimension of the human-animal relationship: The use of familiar animals (and plants) to improve, or correct perceived deficiencies in, unfamiliar foreign environments. At least two distinct veins of acclimatization emerge from her analysis—the utilitarian and the aesthetic. The former, typified by the introduction of camels (or water buffaloes or cane toads) to Australia, was evidently inspired by practical motives, even if what seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time turned out to have devastating, and presumably unintended, environmental consequences. The latter, in contrast, seems to have been motivated primarily by colonial homesickness; a desperate yearning for the natural sights, smells and sounds of the ‘Old Country.’

    The extraordinary impact of this aesthetic motivation was brought home to me on a recent trip to the City of Christchurch, New Zealand, where I had never been before but where I was immediately struck by a feeling of uncanny familiarity. I can only describe the sensation as stepping through a time warp and being transported back to the London Borough of Ealing sometime during the late 1960s when I was still a teenager. Admittedly, some of this peculiar sense of déjà vu could be attributed to the smaller cars and predominantly low-rise buildings, but a bigger factor was the almost uniformly suburban English fauna and flora that surrounded me at every turn. The streets and parks were filled with familiar English trees and shrubs, and the trees and shrubs were filled with English songbirds—blackbirds, song thrushes, chaffinches—all singing familiar English songs. In effect, I was walking around a little chunk of England, seemingly uprooted and transported in one piece to the South Island of New Zealand. And what was particularly striking about the entire phenomenon was that none of this was a product of practical or economic necessity. None of those blackbirds and flowering currants were introduced as sources of food or to control pests. Their sole raison d’être was apparently to satisfy the colonists’ Proustian nostalgia for the comfortably familiar ecology of their homeland.

    For somebody who devotes much of his time to studying the nature of people’s relationships with domestic pets, Ritvo’s account provides a forceful reminder that human attachments for the living world extend far beyond companion animals. The nineteenth-century acclimatization project reveals that the Victorians did their best to cling emotionally to their ecological roots even while they were carving out new lives for themselves in often profoundly exotic locations. In these alien contexts, the acclimatized European animals resemble the cultural equivalents of transitional objects—like the young child’s inseparable teddy bear or blanket—that provided the colonists with the confidence and the ‘secure base’ from which to explore new worlds. In the human-animal interaction literature it has now become commonplace to talk about the putative psychosocial benefits of our attachments for pets, such as dogs and cats. But few scholars have seriously addressed the possible psychosocial impact of our attachments for ecosystems or biomes. One can’t help wondering to what extent the staying power of the British Empire (or indeed any colonial endeavor) depended on the persistence and success of its acclimatizers.

  • Jennifer Beane

    Throughout history animals have been transported by humans in their travels. Some non-human animals were intentionally introduced into new environments, while others followed human tracks. In the nineteenth century, intentional acclimatization was seen as a way to solve human difficulties. Sparrows and camels were two examples provided in this article which were transported to purposefully fulfill niches and assist humans. At the time these efforts were applauded by society, but more recently these attempts have been viewed with more distain. Kudzu was introduced from Japan in the eighteen-hundreds to reduce erosion and since then has since drawn public disapproval because of its ability to outcompete and smother native flora. Due to this, kudzu has created a management nightmare. It is difficult to kill large areas of kudzu without also killing the native plants that the efforts intend to save. Most of the time the introduction of non-native species of plants and animals has negative effects that were not initially intended by the acclimatizers. It is our job as humans to manage these situations intelligently. We must find effective ways to protect indigenous species from acclimatized ones. This effort is crucial to preserving our planet’s ecological diversity and genetic heritage.

    As we push towards a more technological society, we can relate the story of species acclimatization to some of the potential problems associated with the advance of artificial intelligence. We can think of cyborgs as a new species introduced into our ecosystem of society. Following this train of thought, we must remember that while the usage of advanced technology may seem beneficial at first, it may prove to overpower humans. Just as we created the kudzu problem, cyborgs could become as much of a problem to humans as kudzu are to indigenous flora. It would be advisable to learn the lessons of the past in terms of species acclimatization so that we are better equipped to confront the problems of the future.

  • Lisa D'Costa

    This article written by Professor Ritvo greatly exhibits humans’ use of animals as tools. Camels were brought to the southwestern area of the United States as a means of better transportation in this area for the US Army. But what gives humans this ability? At the beginning of the article, Professor Ritvo says “people are not unique in their mobility, as they are not unique in most of their attributes.” This quote made me think of human singularity. Human singularity says that humans make up a group where they shared the same characteristics, and therefore, they can be considered morally superior. This moral superiority allows them to rule over animals and treat them like possessions. However, there is a problem with human singularity. There is no characteristic that can include all humans while excluding all animals, which the quote draws on. But sometimes it doesn’t matter if we are morally superior or not because we have the means to controlling them. We are easily tempted to use our advantages to illustrate our dominance on the world because humans have the desire to control their surrounds. Humans do not just try to control animals but also other humans. Hitler did it to the Jews with death camps and Caucasians did it to Africans with slavery. So whether it is justifiable or not, the answer does not seem to be the case.

    Humans need to exert their control over something or someone. The process of acclimatization allows them to do this with animals. Moving animals to a new environment and domesticating them indicate the human desire for control. It also shows that humans are not at the mercy of nature and the unknown; however, in the end, humans do not have complete control over the animal brought over. A species has the potential to over flourish or die out compared to the population size humans would like to retain. Humans do not have all the control over their environments, which is shown by acclimatization; therefore, Professor Ritvo is accurate in saying “the enterprise of acclimatization is much more likely to demonstrate the limitations of human control of nature than the reverse.”

  • Ethan Thompson

    Ms. Ritvo says early in her essay that while humans have always made an effort to transfer location and expand it is “(most rarely) [in] the spirit of adventure”. I think that humans’ attempt at acclimatization is a perfect example of this. When humans moved to the New World their first effort wasn’t to discover what they had found and to adapt to their new life; they weren’t looking for an adventure. Their first effort was to take what they already knew and make this new property as close to what they had come from as possible. They began with agriculture and architecture that matched what they were already used to instead of attempting to find their own niche in this new environment, or even attempting to copy the ways of the other native humans. When problems arose (such as the bugs that were ruining attempts at agriculture) many years later, they didn’t look to discover what in their new home was native that could solve the problem, instead they made their best effort at acclimating a solution brought from their home (such as the birds that ate the bugs).

    Obviously this wasn’t necessarily what was best for anyone but the humans (and at time not even best for the humans), as bird populations in the examples that Ms. Ritvo gave often either exploded in population (eating more than just the bugs and causing harm to the rest of the environment) or dying out because the new ecosystem could not sustain them. I agree with Ms. Ritvo that acclimatization was naïve experiment that was done in an effort to squash the unknown and adventure in a new place. Humans aren’t often looking for excitement it seems, just more room to do what they have always done, preferably in a way they are used to.

  • Christian Hart

    In her essay, Professor Ritvo describes the attempts of humans to acclimatize animals in order to control their environment and nature. Different examples where given throughout the article to show instances where humans have used animals to their benefit. Camels where brought to the United States and used as a mode of better transportation. Another great example of this acclimatization was the case of the sparrow where it flourished in its environment.

    Even though it was met with good reception in the nineteenth-century, today, the forceful displacement of animals into different environments would come with greater disapproval. Some would consider this action morally unacceptable to move these animals into environments they were not adept. This, in my eyes, brought a great contrast to the possible future. If there ever were to come a time when machines become human like and can perform jobs much better and more efficiently than humans, would it be morally wrong to displace them to an unfamiliar environment in order to acclimatize them to perform a certain job, much like the camels. This draws great contrast to the camels because in their situation, they were able to transport soldiers across the vast deserts, a job that would have been much more difficult if it were not for them. Many would say this is morally unacceptable because the camels were placed there forcefully and it is not their natural environment. However this was done for the greater good of the U.S Army, which a utilitarian would argue is valid since it is benefiting the greater population. In the future, machines might become so human like that they are able to do a number of jobs better than humans would. If an android were able to perform certain jobs better than humans would it be morally unacceptable to place them in a different environment to perform a certain job or to complete a task, much as the camels did. Being that they are machines, I would guess some would argue that it is not unacceptable because they are not living biological beings (where in the camels case they are). However I would also assume that some would argue that it is unacceptable because they are human-like. This is a very real possibility that should be seriously considered for the not so distant future.