Visiting scholar offers look at historian’s craft in action, connections to science and policy

Marlin Perkins image

The collected papers of the late Marlin Perkins, a TV star and longtime director of the Saint Louis Zoo, helped lead to “The Animal Game,” a book that Dan Bender published last year. Bender will connect with UMSL students, faculty and community members this week during his College of Arts and Sciences grant-funded campus visit. (Image courtesy of Dan Bender)

Dan Bender has taken more trips to the Saint Louis Zoo than he can count – which isn’t surprising considering that he grew up in the Gateway City. But a few years ago, shortly after the history professor became a parent, he wound up revisiting the zoo in a new way.

It was while watching his then-infant daughter lying in her crib, with two stuffed tigers and an elephant nestled beside her, that he had an idea for a book.

“I realized that she was so intimate and so familiar with animals that she would never see in the wild,” says Bender, a University of Toronto faculty member who is visiting the University of Missouri–St. Louis this week. “That was a kind of eye-opening moment that I think encapsulates so much of global history and imperial history.”

Dan Bender, historian

Dan Bender, who grew up in St. Louis, is now a historian at the University of Toronto. (Photo by Rick Halpern)

The research journey that followed led Bender back to the region where he was raised and deep into the archives at the State Historical Society of Missouri at UMSL as he traced the global trade and trafficking in animals that once supplied U.S. zoos. In 2016 he published “The Animal Game,” presenting the results of his inquiry.

Now he’s returning to St. Louis once more thanks to a Visiting Scholar Grant awarded to Kara Moskowitz, an assistant professor in UMSL’s Department of History, by the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I wanted to bring Professor Bender to UMSL because his work appeals to a broad audience,” Moskowitz says. “He studies zoos, a familiar space of popular attraction, but his research reveals a history that we might be less familiar with.”

During his stay on campus, Bender will interact with students and faculty as well as Saint Louis Zoo staff members and the broader St. Louis community. Along with visiting a variety of UMSL history courses, he’ll participate in a colloquium in partnership with Department of Biology faculty and the Saint Louis Zoo on Tuesday.

Eric Miller, executive director of the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute, and Michael Macek, the zoo’s chief operating officer, will join Bender on a panel titled “Conservation Conversations.” Patty Parker, the Des Lee Professor of Zoological Studies at UMSL and senior scientist at the Saint Louis Zoo, will moderate.

On Wednesday Bender will offer a colloquium with history faculty and students on his current research on food, empire and taste, and several events at the Mercantile follow on Thursday, including a public lecture at 6 p.m. titled “Bring ’Em Back Alive: The Money in Animals (1920-1945).”

Earlier that afternoon he’ll also show students and interested alumni and community members a few of the specific documents from his book that are housed on campus.

“This represents a really exceptional opportunity for UMSL students to witness the historian’s craft in action,” Moskowitz says of the archive dive, “and to understand how historians find primary source documents, interpret them and use those sources as evidence to make an argument.

“In addition, I anticipate that his public talk on the history of the Saint Louis Zoo and his participation in a panel discussion with zoo staff and UMSL biology faculty will raise really interesting questions about conservation, global connections and public policy.”

For his part, Bender says it will be terrific to return to the archival collections that have played such a key role in his research.

“We are going to be looking at papers from Marlin Perkins, the TV star and longtime Saint Louis Zoo director, and his strange, fascinating trip to hunt for the Yeti,” Bender says. “In my talks, I’m going to share details from the peak years of the global trade in animals during the first half of the 20th century, beginning with a famous rhino who came to St. Louis. Here’s the secret: Movies, souvenirs, comic books and more made animals profitable.”

He’s also eager to connect with local zookeepers and notes that the close ties between keepers and their animals are particularly fascinating to him.

“In the midst of a big, long struggle to understand life on the other side of the species line, I learned a lot about how keepers worked to care for captive animals,” Bender says.

The interdisciplinary conversation planned throughout the week is aimed at invigorating the intellectual curiosity of students and all interested members of the campus community and beyond. It also showcases the rich historical resources available in the State Historical Society of Missouri and the St. Louis Mercantile Library and the opportunities they offer for student and scholarly research.

“I hope the events will demonstrate the value of studying history for understanding questions important to our contemporary world,” Moskowitz adds.

For more information about Bender’s visit, contact Moskowitz or department chair Laura Westhoff.

The UMSL Experience

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