Nigel Rothfels

  • Professor, History
  • Acting Associate Vice Provost for Research, Office of Research


  • PhD, History, Harvard University, 1994
  • MA, History, Harvard University, 1987
  • BA, History, University of Utah, 1985

Courses Taught

  • Hist 600 – Nonhuman History
  • Hist 398 – Global History of Animals
  • Hist 206 – Europe and the Modern World 

Teaching Interests

Rothfels is particularly interested in teaching courses on the presence and significance of animals in human history.  He also enjoys teaching Modern European History and History Methods courses. Because of his research, Rothfels has worked with a wide array of graduate students both at UWM and at other institutions.

Research Interests

Most of Rothfels' work has focused on the history of ideas about animals over the last few centuries. Publications have been focused in two areas: 1) the history of zoological gardens since the nineteenth century with a particular emphasis on the firm of Carl Hagenbeck in Germany; and 2) changing ideas about elephants since the eighteenth century.  His current research focuses on entomological discoveries in the South Pacific in the late nineteenth century. Broadly, Rothfels' work should be seen as part of the field of Animal Studies.

Related Activities

  • Director, Office of Undergraduate Research
  • General Editor, Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures with Penn State University Press

Biographical Sketch

Nigel Rothfels received a BA in history from the University of Utah and then an MA and PhD from Harvard University, where he wrote about the exotic animal trade in nineteenth-century Germany. In 1994, he came to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he began working as an editor at the then Center for Twentieth Century Studies.

A revision of his dissertation led to the book Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo, which traces the origins of naturalistic displays in zoological gardens. The focus of the book is on what is often called the “Hagenbeck revolution” — the innovative enclosures for animals developed by Carl Hagenbeck at his Tierpark in Stellingen, Germany. The book was published in Harriet Ritvo’s Animals, History, Culture series with Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002 and has gone through several printings. Rothfels is currently preparing a revised edition of the book. Also in 2002, Indiana University Press published Representing Animals, a cross-disciplinary collection Rothfels edited for the series Theories of Contemporary Culture. Representing Animals grew out of a year of research at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies and a conference I co-organized with the historian Andrew Isenberg. In 2012, Rothfels started a book series at Penn State University Press called Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures, and there are now twenty-two volumes are in print.  The seventh volume, Elephant House, was a collaboration between Rothfels and the photographer Dick Blau and focuses on the lives of elephants and their caregivers at an American zoo. In 2021, Johns Hopkins published Rothfels' Elephant Trails: A History of Animals and Cultures, a history of ideas about elephants in the West.

Most of Rothfels' career at UWM has been in the administration. In 2000, after working at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies for six years, Rothfels was named director of the Edison Initiative — a teaching and learning innovations unit in the College of Letters and Science at UWM. In 2008, Rothfels was then named director of a new Office of Undergraduate Research, a unit which received the Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishment by the national Council on Undergraduate Research in 2018. In 2018, joined the History Department where he is now Professor. While teaching regularly for the History Department, Rothfels remains involved in campus administration and is currently serving as Acting Associate Vice Provost for Research.


Selected Publications

Book: Rothfels, Nigel. Elephant Trails: A History of Animals and Cultures. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.
Book: Rothfels, Nigel, and Dick Blau. Elephant House. Photographs by Dick Blau, text by Nigel Rothfels. State College: Penn State University Press, 2015.
Book: Rothfels, Nigel. Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2002 (paperback 2008 and 2012).
Book: Rothfels, Nigel. Representing Animals. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 2002.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “Zoo Time.” A Wilder Kingdom: Rethinking the Wild in Zoos, Wildlife Parks, and Beyond. Ed. Ben A. Minteer and Harry W. Greene. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. Pp. 155-68.
TedEd: Rothfels, Nigel. “Can Zoos Actually Save Species from Extinction?” TED-Ed. April, 2023. Creators: Educator Nigel Rothfels; Director Anna Benner; Narrator Addison Anderson; Music Raphael Tschernuth; Sound Designer Raphael Tschernuth; Director of Production Gerta Xhelo; Senior Producer Anna Bechtol; Associate Producer Sazia Afrin; Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal; Senior Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler; Script Editor Soraya Field Fiorio; and Fact-Checker Charles Wallace.
Article: Rothfels, Nigel. “Imagining Zoos.” Captures. Figures, théories et pratiques de l’imaginaire 7.2 (Nov. 2022). Special Issue: Figures animales. Interprétations et illusions. Ed. Violette Pouillard and Anne-Sophie Coiffet.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “The Elephant in the Archive,” Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History. Ed. Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2022. Pp. 217-31.
Article: Rothfels, Nigel. “Captivity without End: The Delusion of Freeing the Elephants.” Culturico June 29, 2021.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. "The Antelope Collectors.” Zoo Studies: A New Humanities. Ed. Tracy McDonald and Daniel Vandersommers. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019. Pp. 45-64.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “(Re)Introducing the Przewalski’s Horse.” The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation. Ed. Ben A. Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James Collins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. 77-89.
Article: Rothfels, Nigel. “Will the End of Breeding Orcas at SeaWorld Change Much for Animals in Captivity?The Conversation, 22 Mar. 2016.
Article: Rothfels, Nigel. “Immersi con gli animali.” Animot. L’altra filosofia 1.2 (December, 2014): 80-106. Translation of “Immersed with Animals” (2002).
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “Mammoths in the Landscape.” Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies. Ed. Susan McHugh and Garry Marvin. London: Routledge, 2014. Pp. 10-22.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “A Hero’s Death.” Animal Acts: Performing Species Now. Ed. Una Chaudhuri and Holly Hughes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Pp. 182-88.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “Preserving History: Collecting and Displaying in Carl Akeley’s In Brightest Africa.” Animals on Display: The Creaturely in Museums, Zoos, and Natural History. Ed. Karen Rader, Liv Emma Thorsen, and Adam Dodd. State College: Penn State University Press, 2013. Pp. 58-73.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “Trophies and Taxidermy.” Gorgeous Beasts: Animal Bodies in Historical Perspective. Ed. Joan Landes, Paula Young Lee, and Paul Youngquist. State College: Penn State University Press, 2012. Pp. 117-36.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “Touching Animals: The Search for a Deeper Understanding of Animals.” Beastly Natures: Animals, Humans, and the Study of History. Ed. Dorothee Brantz and Christof Mauch. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. Pp. 38-58.
Chapter: Rothfels, Nigel. “Tiere Berühren: Vierbeinige Darsteller und Ihr Publikum.” Tierische Geschichte: Die Beziehung von Mensch und Tier in der Kultur der Moderne. Ed. Dorothee Brantz and Christof Mauch. Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag, 2009. Pp. 19-38. German translation of “Touching Animals” (2010).