I received a BA in history from the University of Utah and then an MA and PhD from Harvard University, where I wrote about the exotic animal trade in nineteenth-century Germany. I then moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I began working as an editor at the then Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

A revision of my dissertation work led to my 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. In that same year, Indiana University Press published Representing Animals, a cross-disciplinary collection I 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 2000, I was named director of the Edison Initiative — a teaching and learning innovations unit in the College of Letters and Science at UWM. Based on a small undergraduate research program I developed within the Edison Initiative, the campus opened the Office of Undergraduate Research in 2008 and I was appointed director. I continued my research and writing about animals and culture and in 2012 started a book series at Penn State University Press with Garry Marvin called Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures. I am currently the General Editor of the series and twenty-two volumes are in print.  The seventh, Elephant House, is a collaboration with the photographer Dick Blau and focuses on the lives of elephants and their caregivers at an American zoo. My new book, Elephant Trails: A History of Animals and Cultures was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in November 2021.

In 2018, I joined the History Department at the UWM as a tenured Associate Professor. In 2020 I was elected by the campus faculty to the University Committee, the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate. In 2021, I was promoted to Full Professor, and elected to serve as the Chair of the History Department and Chair of the University Committee. In 2022, I was selected to serve as the Acting Dean of the College of Letters & Science at UWM.