• Julie Urbanik

Kansas City: An American Zoopolis


This film tells the story of how animals have helped shape Kansas City. From the fur trade days to the cowtown boom to the pet and animal sciences industries today, animals have always been part of the city's economic, political, and cultural life.

As a cultural geographer I study the ways in which we engage with, and experience, the world around us. My particular area of focus is human-animal relationships and how we create these relationships in places and across space and time.

American Naturalist Henry Beston once wrote that “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 splendor and travail of the earth”. Who are these “other nations” that we, as human animals share our city with? Bison. Dog. Boar. Spider. Horse. Lion. Penguin. Eagle. Each one of these species calls up a constellation of images, experiences, phrases, and emotions – simultaneously our own and the result of the cultures we live in. We eat them, wear them, live with them, work them, experiment on them, try to save them, spoil them, abuse them, fight them, hunt them, buy, sell, and trade them, and love, fear, or hate them.

Where, how, and why do we have the relationships that we do with different animals? Why are some animals’ food and some animals pets? Why are some animals both? Do we have obligations to other species? Do some animal nations matter more than others? What can animals teach us about our own humanity? These are pretty big questions – but they are the type of questions I ask as an animal geographer – and – as I learned from making this film – the kinds of questions that many here in Kansas City (KC) have asked over the years.

Stories of place are traditionally told through a human-centric lens where humans are portrayed as the only actors who, by their power and spirit, literally and culturally create places. But, is this really true? When we look more closely we find that right next to humans are all sorts of animal nations – whether as wildlife, food, companions, or workers – who have assisted in making places unique. Indeed, places are created and evolve through a complex interaction between many species. KC is obviously a human metropolis; however, it is also a zoöpolis – a multispecies urban location. Cattle, horses, mules, dogs, and even the animals at the Zoo are just a few of the animal nations who have contributed to the city’s identity. In essence, KC would not be KC without its animal nations.

In mapping the webs of connections that link humans and nonhumans in one place, our film project goes beyond traditional exposé and one-topic focal points of most media about animals to try and reveal the intimacy of our co-existence.

I was assisted by two wonderful research associates: Jason Carron and Brianna Symmonds. This film would not have been possible without them. We received a small grant from the Missouri Humanities Council for the background research. We thank them for their support.

#KansasCity #furtrade #livestock #animals #animalgeography #culture #history #places #coordinatessociety

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