U.S. Spending $227,437 to Study How National Geographic Depicted Animals

By Fred Lucas | March 15, 2013 | 5:02pm EDT

This April 12, 2012 file photo provided by Forest and Kim Starr shows axis deer in upcountry Maui near Makawao, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Forest and Kim Starr, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The federal government is spending $227,437 to investigate how animals have been depicted in National Geographic magazine over a span of 120 years, which federal officials say is an “innovative study” that will examine “images of animals to see how people have changed their view of the natural world.”

The grant was issued March 4 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Michigan State University to look at how animals were depicted in the science magazine from 1888 to 2008.

“Studies of other popular media representations of animals and human-animal relationships have found that animals are often portrayed as problems or nuisances, and we know that media influences attitudes and behavior,” NSF spokeswoman Deborah Wing told CNSNews.com in a written response to questions about the grant. “Predators like wolves and coyotes have been consistently portrayed as a threat.

“The U.S. predator poisoning programs, which decimated coyotes, had a devastating effect on the local ecology and produced even more problem animals, for example, millions of mice in Kern County, California in 1927 when their natural predators coyotes, hawks and owls had been killed by the Bureau of Biological Survey and farmers,” Wing continued.

In the midst of sequestration--the 2.3 percent reduction in the federal government’s rate of growth – many government expenditures are coming under scrutiny.

CNSNews.com asked if the study could have been done without federal funding.

Wing said that the grant request met the requirements that it be “necessary, reasonable, allocable, and allowable” before being eligible for an NSF grant.

“Are animals sources of food or friendship, a natural resource or something that helps define the place of the individual or the family in its context?” Wing said.

“Recent research dealing with this question has focused on the language used to describe non-human primates in publications like the National Geographic, which has been a major source of public understanding of science, the environment, other cultures and domestic and wild animals. This innovative study takes another, important approach, by examining images of animals to see how people have changed their view of the natural world.”

Wing added in the response, “This new approach is significant, because relative to words, photographs convey information about the emotions and thoughts of the photographer in addition to the nature of what is depicted in the photo.”

The project investigator for the study is MSU sociology professor Linda Kalof. She could not be reached for comment Friday either by phone calls or e-mails.

The NSF website said, “The evolving visual depiction of animals will be interpreted, taking into account scientific changes, natural history, environmental history, and the new aesthetic sensibilities provided by the history of landscape and environmental photography and by situating the magazine and its photographers, editors and photographic conventions in their broader historical, cultural and political contexts.”

The NSF website said the research will seek two end products. First, develop an online digital archive of the images from National Geographic through MSU that teachers and students can use for learning. Second is to have “an illustrated monograph on animal imagery in National Geographic.”

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