Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

On Animals and “Time Off”

April 29, 2011

This week, I taught my last Primate Behavior class of the semester on Wednesday, and the last Biological Anthropology & Society seminar just yesterday. Yes, research papers and final exams still loom as a black hole to gobble my time over the next ten days. Further, I thrive on teaching William & Mary undergraduates (the majority of whom blow me away with their talent and dedication). Even so, I savor that annual moment when it sinks in… I’m done with teaching for the summer!

That happy rush feels an order of magnitude greater than usual, this year, because I won’t return to the classroom until late August, 2012. It’s my turn for the every-seventh-year research leave offered by my College, at 80% pay. To say I’m excited about this opportunity defines understatement.

Animals play a big part in my research leave. (Full disclosure: I become uncommonly agitated if someone refers to this period as “time off” –it’s time off only from teaching; like every other academic I know, a great deal of my sustained and ongoing work occurs outside the classroom). My contract with the University of Chicago Press requires a hefty manuscript on animals and animal emotions be handed in by April 2012. Like most writers, I don’t like to talk in any great detail about what’s in progress, but I can say that the topic involves animals’ response to death.

Because writing is central to my health and happiness, I do write during the school year—chapters for edited volumes, long book review essays, even three pages here and two there towards the new book. But dedicated time to read and write, for uninterrupted days on end? That’s a rare joy, experienced typically during holidays and summers but now available in a longer period that stretches pure and unsullied ahead of me.

I’m currently in that heady stage of making lists of projects to throw myself into – in addition to my writing – during the next 15 months. If these lists are to be believed, when I come back to campus two Augusts from now, I’ll speak flawless Italian, will have read more novels and non-fiction science books than in any other given year, will have viewed animal-related art in Europe, and will be in the best shape of my life, having turned over a shiny new leaf in the realm of exercise.

Okay, I do have glimmers of self-awareness about my affliction with OLMS-- Overambitious List-Making Syndrome. Check back with me in fall ’12 and ask if I’ve accomplished a quarter of my goals. Whatever else happens, though, I intend for time with animals to play an increased role in my temporary non-teaching life.

Because we have 30 cats under our care (to various degrees), including our seven in the house, I spend too little time with any given one. I crave some lazy, stretched-out-on-the-couch, reading-in-the-sunroom-with-a-cat-on-my-stomach time, with a rotation of cats taking their turns.

But I’d like to do more, for more cats, as well. The dozen rescued cats who live in our outdoor enclosure (many with health or behavioral problems) could benefit from greater stimulation of their brains and bodies. Only a few had ever before encountered wiggled ribbons or thrown catnip mice, and many don’t respond at all when offered these toys. Yet a few of the cats are playful- they roll on their backs, or grab a gumball and throw it around with their paws. Will more cats become playful if I encourage them to play? I plan to get a large bucket and take out to the enclosure all kinds of items from commercial toys to natural objects like sticks and grass fronds, and engage the cats with them in afternoon enrichment sessions.

Perhaps too, on a more global scale, this is the time for me to get more involved in campaigns for animals who need humans’ help (or more to the point, who need humans’ protection from the destructive power of our own species). Examples include apes in Africa, too often shot for bushmeat; buffalo n Yellowstone, vulnerable to slaughter when they wander outside bark boundaries; and domestic species who suffer in factory farms.

I know I’ll have extra chances for R&R during the next 15 months, and that’s a great thing. But clearly, this research leave is a privilege not to be taken for granted. I intend to use it wisely.


  1. April 29, 2011 10:34 AM EDT
    Your ambitions are commendable! I hope you'll still have time to do the Friday Animal Blog. I do so look forward to it. :) Charlie and I are enjoying your Biological Anthropology lecture series on CD from The Teaching Company. Your lecture on "race" was last night, and left me with much food for thought.
    - Marian Allen
  2. April 29, 2011 11:04 AM EDT
    This is wonderful! To say that I'm envious would also be an understatement. :) I hope your "time off" is productive and relaxing, in equal measure.
    - Stephanie
  3. April 30, 2011 1:34 AM EDT
    Whew- your leisure plans are wearing me out thinking about them! But I know you always do amazing things. I dream of a "year off" from my life, but I think I'd just end up doing most of the same things- which means that I like what I do!
    - Joanne
  4. April 30, 2011 8:43 AM EDT
    Marian, I love writing this blog, more than I would've thought. So I'll be here every Friday unless we are traveling. Since you bring up the race lecture, I'll mention that last night we watched a DVD entitled 'Skin', a story about a family set in apartheid South Africa, that was just outstanding for getting across the social construction of race. Stephanie, I'm aiming for just that balance, because I actually think a person can be TOO productive on leave-- it should also be a kind of antidote to possible burnout, since Wm. and Mary really does require a LOT of its faculty (as well as of its students), with so much emphasis on all 3 areas of teaching, research, and faculty governance. Joanne, to imagine a year off being a continuation of what you do now is a great thing. One difference for us is that it will allow much greater freedom for travel; since my leave year and Sarah's first college year coincide, Charlie and I are suddenly untethered from almost all of the impact of academic calenders.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.