Dominic Dongilli

Dominic Dongilli, PhD student, American studies

Reimagines impact of zoos in America

“Dominic Dongilli is an inspired and inspiring doctoral candidate in American studies who has also earned a graduate certificate in gender, women’s and sexuality studies. I can honestly say that he is one of the most creative thinkers and researchers I have encountered in over two decades of teaching graduate students at three institutions.” -Naomi Greyser, associate professor, American studies

Hometown: Lincoln, Nebraska

Faculty mentor/advisor: Naomi Greyser, PhD, associate professor, American studies, English, and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies; Kim Marra, PhD, professor emeritus, theatre, American studies, gender, women’s, and sexuality studies

What is your degree program and expected graduate date? PhD American studies; certificate in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies

Please describe your research: I study the American zoo, its history of human / animal relationships, and its power to shape U.S. national identity. From sportsmen’s pursuit of 19th-century American bison to Richard Nixon’s pride over giant pandas during the Cold War, animals lie at the heart of American life and political discourse. However, these animal histories are rarely considered in “official” narratives of United States history. My work considers new models of collaboration and understanding between humans and animals at the zoo.

In simple terms, why does this research matter? As a former great apes zookeeper, I know firsthand that zoos are important institutions in American culture. Over 180 million people visit zoos in the U.S. every year — more than NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB attendance combined! What people learn at the zoo and how it makes them feel about animals has the potential to intervene in our current climate disaster and extinction crisis.

How soon after starting at the University of Iowa were you able to participate in research? My faculty mentors encouraged me to present my research BEFORE I officially started at the University of Iowa! I was sitting on a haybale behind my zoo’s gorilla exhibit when Prof. Marra called and invited me to participate in a conference she was organizing. That evening she e-introduced me to Prof. Greyser to discuss affect and my research on eye contact and emotional connections with great apes.

How has being involved in research made you more successful at the University of Iowa? The promises and challenges we experience in our communities are never isolated. My participation in research at Iowa—from zoo animals to 21st century graduate education and digital storytelling to address the stigma of substance use—has given me the opportunity to address community challenges in systemic contexts.

What are your career goals and/or plans after graduation? I like to think the world is my oyster (animal pun intended)! I’m passionate about the pleasures of inquiry as a practice of building community. From university teaching and research to librarianship and museum education, I can see myself pursuing a number of opportunities. I hope to find myself in a position where I can share in the joy of collaboration; working with others to address the wicked problems and pressing questions that we face at this moment in the 21st century, including biodiversity and the climate crisis.

Banner location: Downtown—Washington St., in front of the Police Station