Laurel Braitman Ph.D
American science historian and author. Writer-in-Residence at the Stanford School of Medicine and Contributing Writer for Pop Up Magazine.
RE:MODEL Project: What should we know about Beatrix Potter?
Dr. Braitman: Beatrix was, in many ways, the archetypical Victorian naturalist-- she was trained as an artist but was also really interested in nonhuman nature. She’s famous for her children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit but I admire her for other reasons too: she owned and ran a series of farms, she married much later in life, and was a mycologist and a passionate conservationist who helped protect the landscape that inspired her. Really, she was a feminist at a time when women were treated as property.
RE:MODEL Project: When did you become aware of Beatrix Potter?
Dr. Braitman: As a kid I loved Potter’s stories. My favorite was A Tale of Two Bad Mice. I read that one probably hundreds of times. It’s about these two fat mice, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, who are little animal outlaws. They break into a fancy dollhouse while the dolls are gone and see beautiful food set out on plates, a feather bed, and a crackling paper fire. They get really excited and sit down to this amazing banquet and then suddenly realize the food is plaster. So they get really mad and trash the doll house and steal the furniture. That’s literally all that happens-- but there was something so gleeful to me in Potter’s drawings of the mice smashing things in the house and trying to burn things in the fake fire. I think I just wanted to be tiny and rampage around with Hunca Munca.
RE:MODEL Project: I know you’re writing about animal outlaws now - why do you think they appeal to you?
Dr. Braitman: I’ve always been more interested in animals being bad than in animals being good. I don’t really know why, besides the fact that I’ve always been so well behaved. I’m really interested in motorcycle gangs too, but I’ve never been in one.
In general I think that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. No one has accomplished anything interesting by waiting around for someone else’s okay.
RE:MODEL Project: That’s interesting because when I think of anthropomorphism, I think of people wanting to see themselves in animals, but you are sort of looking for who you’re not.
Dr. Braitman: Yeah. I’m really interested in the animals that reflect in some way our darker nature. When you see an animal who is committing supposed crimes or causing trouble in some way - first of all, you realize that trouble and crime, just like they are with people, are very relative concepts. Sometimes that’s easier to see in a nonhuman animal than a human one.
Another reason supposedly “bad” animal behavior is interesting is that it can be a sideways proof of intelligence. We know orangutans are smart right? But when an orangutan fashions a lock pick out of a bit of metal he finds, keeps it hidden in his lower lip until he knows his keepers are done for the day and then uses it to break out of his enclosure and takes a bunch of other orangutans with him (which is something that has actually happened) - we’re forced to reckon with his intelligence in a way we may not have noticed otherwise. Sometimes it’s in the committing of crimes - an escape attempt or act of revenge - that forces us to acknowledge their intelligence.
A Tale of Two Bad Mice might have been my introduction to this stuff. Usually in children’s literature animals act up a little bit as a way to teach kids a lesson about being bad, but the great thing about A Tale of Two Bad Mice, is that it’s not written as a moral lesson. The mice aren’t punished - they aren’t made into an example - they get to keep all the furniture they stole!
RE:MODEL Project: Give us a your best crazy animal story.
This isn’t a story about an animal acting crazy, but it’s on the theme of rodents. When I first moved to San Francisco I lived in an amazing old Victorian house in the Lower Haight and my landlord lived upstairs with her two daughters. One of whom had a pet mouse. They’d had her for a while, and never let the mouse out of the cage unless it was to pet her or put her in a little plastic ball. And they fed her the same amount of food every day. But she kept getting fatter and fatter. Then one morning they peered into the cage and saw that she’d had a bunch of babies. Either that mouse was the rodent Virgin Mary or she’d gotten pregnant some other way. Which means that a wild mouse who lived in the house had broken INTO the cage, had sex with her and then left. I loved that. Starcrossed mouse lovers. And it makes me wonder how often it happens. Like if a coyote in some Los Angeles suburb has fallen for a goldendoodle in heat. Or a wild parrot in San Francisco has flown into someone’s yard and mated with someone’s pet bird.
RE:MODEL Project: If you could have a conversation with any animal, what animal would you want to talk to and what would you talk about?
Dr. Braitman: Oh man. I’d say my dog Cedar, but I already know what he’s thinking. Ok, two part answer: I would love to have a beer and a potato chip with one of the oldest rats in the NYC subway system. I’m endlessly interested in their shenanigans. One of my favorite things to do in NY is to go to the subway platform and see what’s happening - those rats are always with their friends and doing interesting things. If we’re talking about a historical animal, I would love to talk to Lewis and Clark’s dog, a big old fluffy newfoundland named Seaman. That dog went across an America that was about to disappear, not once, but twice. He went out with them and got all the way to the Pacific coast, turned around, and came back. I’d love to talk to that dog.
RE:MODEL Project: So, back to Beatrix Potter, you read all these books as a child, but when did you come to explore Beatrix as a person and scientist and whatnot?
Dr. Braitman: I began to think about her more when I was writing about anthropomorphism in my last book, Animal Madness. Much of Western scientific tradition has scorned anthropomorphism - the assigning of human-like traits and motivations to nonhuman animals - for a very long time. I’ve always thought that was a problem. I think that avoiding anthropomorphism actually makes us poorer scientists and observers of other animals and also keeps us from connecting with them and understanding their behaviors. That’s because we are all animals - so when we try to avoid our similarities on purpose, in service of understanding what they are thinking and doing, we are actually handicapping ourselves. That isn’t to say we should stuff mice in a dollhouse or put our dogs into clothes they find uncomfortable for our own pleasure, but I think we can anthropomorphize well and we can do that by paying close attention to them and our own biases.
RE:MODEL Project: What was your path from reading about animals to writing about them?
Dr. Braitman: I grew up on an avocado ranch in Southern California and I was surrounded by animals from a young age. I had a pony and chickens and rabbits and my family rescued donkeys - at one point we had I think 20 donkeys. I would spend entire afternoons with them wondering about their secret lives. I didn’t think that they were having tea parties necessarily - but I felt like there was a lot happening in their hearts and minds and with their behavior that was mysterious. Children’s literature can help explain animal behavior to kids - Charlotte’s Web for example. I was obsessed with that book just like so many other kids are. Could a spider in a barn be talking to a pig? Not exactly, but there IS a fundamental truth that underlies so many of our children’s books with talking animals, and that is that animals do talk and they do have language, it’s just not ours. So I think what children’s books offered me as a young person and continue to as an adult, is the idea that animals have lives that are interesting and full of drama and intrigue. Sometimes artists are better at helping us pay attention than scientists. Beatrix is interesting to me because she was a little of both and I relate to her. I studied biology and I did field work all over the world, from the Amazon to Alaska, and that whole time I was really frustrated because I just wanted to tell stories about the natural world. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my PhD when I just decided to go for it.
RE:MODEL Project: And like Beatrix Potter visuals play heavily into your work --
Dr. Braitman: Exactly. I worked with an incredible artist named Kathleen Henderson for Animal Madness. I also have a project called Music for Animals with a filmmaker named Aubree Bernier-Clarke where I ask musicians to play shows for other animals. We’ve done concerts for donkeys, sea lions, buffalo and most recently wolves. It’s incredibly fun and sneakily powerful. Hopefully the next one will be Sleater-Kinney for chimpanzees at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.
I’ve worked with a lot of visual and installation artists too--from Ann Hamilton to Nina Katchadourian and I love working with them. I think that we’ve lost something today in the specificity and professionalization of the sciences. Beatrix Potter, Charles Darwin and their contemporaries were trained in the arts in addition to their scientific studies. We might live in a different world today if Charles Darwin wasn’t also a great drawer. I think it’s very sad now that most science students don’t get an arts education. We’ve become siloed in a way, and a certain amount of beauty and joy and power have left the sciences because of it.
The questions that interest me most are all about humanity’s place on the planet-- and those can’t be explored through the sciences alone, or writing, or music, or visual art. We need all of them and more to understand ourselves and our potential as a species here on earth.
RE:MODEL Project: What do you know about this photo that we recreated?
Dr. Braitman: I know Beatrix’s father took that photo when she was 15. He was an amateur photographer and took photos of her all her life, until he died. My next book is actually about my father, and like Beatrix, I really relate to the fact that she was a young woman caught between a variety of different worlds. Had she been born at a different time she probably would have been a famous mycologist, but because she was a woman there were different expectations for her. Success as a writer didn’t come easily for her either. Peter Rabbit was turned down by six different publishers before it was accepted - she really created her own space for herself in the world. And I think in that photo you can see it - in the setting of her jaw, she is soft but she is also strong. Beatrix was a force to be reckoned with. She was someone who combined her interests in the natural world with art and writing and she lived life on her own terms at a time when that was exceedingly hard to do. Her work still influences people 150 years after she was born. I loved posing as her and I’m hoping that some of her strength rubs off as I start to write my next book. I’m writing a memoir and that’s scary but in a really good way. It’s about human medicine and human nature, love, and how we can prepare the people we care about for a time when we’re no longer here to remind them. I’m going to put this photo of Beatrix up above my desk next to a picture of Amy Schumer doing stand-up, wearing nothing but Spanx. We all need spirit animals who remind us of our own fortitude.
Dr. Laurel Braitman is the author of New York Times bestseller Animal Madness: Inside Their Minds (Simon & Schuster 2015) and is currently working on a new book about medicine, family and more. You can follow her on twitter @LaurelBraitman, on Facebook or at www.laurelbraitman.com.
For more on Ann Hamilton visit: https://www.artsy.net/artist/ann-hamilton