Animal Geographies I: A brief overview

Kartik Chugh

“Coronavirus: Industrial animal farming has caused most new infectious diseases and risks more pandemics, experts warn.”

– The Independent (May 2020)

“From Hamsters to Baboons: The Animals Helping Scientists Understand the Coronavirus.”

– Scientific American (May 2020)

“The wild animals at risk in lockdown”

BBC (May 2020)


These three recent headlines show some of the innumerable ways in which the worlds of humans and animals are enmeshed. They show how, at times, the focus of attention can shift towards non human animals and our relations with them. Central to these relations are the dimensions of space and place. The first headline talks about the spaces of animal farming which have become the breeding grounds for zoonoses (passing of diseases from animals to humans), risking new diseases and outbreaks. At the intersection of these spaces are the broader geographies of capitalism, technologies, global health, animal rights, ethics and how they’ve shaped the myriad human-animal relations.

The second headline tells about the spaces of scientific laboratory where thousands of animals ranging from hamsters, macaques and baboons substitute humans as research models to help scientists answer questions about viruses in order to develop vaccines and treatments. These spaces reflect the hidden geographies of labs shrouded in university complexes wherein animals live, die, breed and perform labour as a part of highly unequal power relations. Questions about capitalism, science, politics, power, ethics and welfare are again brought to light.

The third headline tells how the lockdown has affected wild animals at particular places. While wild animals are seen to be thriving in the streets of urban cities and rich countries due to lockdown, they’re at a higher risk of being poached in the rural parts of poor countries, especially in South-East Asia and Africa. Having lost their jobs, there are few realistic alternatives for people here but to rely on poaching to support themselves. Again, the questions about conservation, politics, state intervention, economics, and well-being of humans and animals alike, are deeply implicated.

In the last 25 years or so, animal geography has emerged as a distinct, lively and innovative field of geography with increasing interdisciplinary connections.

The interest in this field revived in the mid 90’s when a theme issue titled ‘Bringing the animals back in’ was published in an otherwise resolutely ‘human’ journal of Society and Space. Up until then, animals were seen as passive and culture as superorganic, which inscribed imaginings and orderings on animals. Animals, in other words, were mere ‘signifiers’ of human meaning. This changed when scholars started asking the important question of how animals themselves figure in the practices that are responsible for the construction of their representation/imagining in human societies. What happens when we shift the focus to animals and think of them as subjective participants, playing an active role in the social construction of culture? Stimulating new considerations emerge – especially that of agency and the extent to which animals can transgress and even resist human orderings – which challenge the assumptions about animals in modern societies.

The guest editors of the special theme, Wolch and Emel (1995), made a strong case for a ‘new’ animal geography to rethink nature, culture and animal subjectivity. By acknowledging the historical and global significance of human-animal relations in their seminal work, Philo and Wilbert (2000) famously argued that any social science “which fails to pay at least some attention to these relations, to their differential constitutions and implications, is arguably deficient.”

We are in the middle of enmeshed existences. Human and animals are, and have always been co-constructed relationally to an extent that the animals are constitutive of human societies. Not only are humans dependent on animals ecologically for sustenance, they have also shaped the life conditions of animals whether domesticated (pets/livestock) or wild. And while humans have dominated the power relations and animals have usually been the marginalised partners in these relations, at times, the animals have evaded this dominion (Yes! I’m talking about the latest locust attack) and played an active role in shaping the human society. One of the tasks of the new animal geography, therefore, is to accommodate the nonhuman animal more fully in the fabric of society, and to recognize its agency in shaping our history, culture and society.

Of many things, the new animal geography is concerned with how animals have been socially defined, used as food and material, labelled and classified as vermins, pets, wild, useful, others, by different people, different cultures, in different contexts and different times. By doing that, it attempts to unravel the multiple ways in which animals “are ‘placed’ by human societies in their local material spaces (settlements, fields, farms, factories, and so on), as well as in a host of imaginary, literary, psychological and even virtual spaces.”

According to Wilbert (2009), the new animal geographies have engaged in three overlapping themes:

1) Identities and Meanings

These studies focus on the role that nonhuman animals play in constructing certain human identities in terms of practices such as eating, hunting and working. They stress the importance of social categories such as caste, class and gender in constructing these identities in relation to animals.

2) Political Economy/Political Ecology

The second strand of studies utilize the political economic or political ecology analyses of intra-actions of humans and animals in agricultural geographies. The focus is on capitalist food production regimes in which animals are in the background, being acted upon. The wider processes of power in which animals are engaged by humans are brought to the fore.

3) More than human Geographies

These studies question the human-centeredness of human geography and shift towards a posthumanistic approach where animals are acknowledged as actors in a wider network of intra-actions which form the social fabric of society. The focus is on animal agency, nonrepresentational theory, actor network theory (ANT), politics, and ethics of human-animal entanglements.

This article was aimed to provide a brief overview of the emerging field of Animal Geography. In the next part of Animal Geographies, I will discuss the basic geographical concepts of ‘space and place’. By exploring how Animal Geography has developed historically, I will attempt to demonstrate how adopting a geographical perspective can create new possibilities in researching human-animal relations.

References

Buller, H. (2014). Animal geographies I. Progress in Human Geography, 38(2), 308–318. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132513479295

Philo, C. and Wilbert, C. (eds.) (2000). Animal spaces, beastly places. London: Routledge.

Wilbert, C. (2009). Animal Geographies. In Kitchin R, Thrift N (eds) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Volume 1, pp. 122–126.

Wolch J and Emel J (1995) Bringing the animals back in. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13: 632–636.

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