Animals inspire professor’s book

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February 16, 2010

12:35 AM

The great naturalist and adventurer John Muir once said, “Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.”

College of William and Mary anthropology professor Barbara King would certainly agree. In her newest book, “Being with Animals: Why We Are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World,” King explores the various relationships that exist between animals and humans.

“I began to think about how people all around the world, in different ways, are immersed in bonding with animals,” King said. “‘Being With Animals’ is my attempt to think through that ‘why’ question, and in writing it, I read heavily in anthropology, psychology and religious studies.”

For King, this book is a combination of her two greatest interests.

“As an anthropologist, it is so significant that we became human in our interaction with other animals,” King said.

Primates have served as a special point of interest for King, who believes they are distinct from other animals.

“It seems to me we can only understand what it means to be human by understanding our similarities with and differences from these evolutionary cousins,” King said.

According to King, the bond humans and animals share is deep and ancient.

“Part of my desire in writing the book was to trace the deepest roots of that experience,” King said. “As far back as prehistoric cave paintings and animal-human burials, we can see hints of emotional connections.”

While the relationship between humans and animals has endured for many centuries, it cannot be clearly defined; King explores the ambiguities in her book.

“I’d be delighted if the book raises more questions than it answers about the relationship of the past and the present,” King said.

King’s research is an important part of her job at the College, influencing her teaching by providing a first-hand outlook to share with her students.

“[My research], at least I hope, enlivens my teaching because I can talk about what I learned by observing baboons in Kenya or gorillas at the National Zoo, or writing about the prehistoric roots of religion, or researching how we became Homo sapiens,” King said.

King’s enthusiasm for animals is obvious to those who work closely with her. Brittany Fallon ’11 has been working with professor King on a proposal for enrichment programs for chimpanzees at local zoos.

“Professor King’s passion for animals — not just primates — is one that she exudes on a daily basis,” Fallon said. “Her compassion translates beyond her job as a professor, researcher or even author. She really lives her love of animals.”

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