In my previous article, I provided a brief introduction to the distinct, lively, and innovative field of Animal Geography. I portrayed how new considerations about how we imagine animals in modern society emerge when we shift the focus towards animals and think of them as subjective participants and active agents who play an important role in the co-construction of complex layers of history, economics, science, culture, and politics. In this article, I’ll explore the geographical component of Animal Geography. First, I’ll discuss the basic geographical concepts of Space and Place. And then, by exploring the early development of Animal Geography, I’ll show how adopting a geographical perspective has created new possibilities in researching human-animal relations.
Some Geographical Concepts
Central to Animal Geography is the geographical conception of place in relation to animals. The conception of place can be explored in two ways, between which there is a lot of common ground. The first is the concept of ‘space’. Although there is a lot of debate about the ways we can understand space within academia, for many animal geographers, space is a relative concept which refers to “relations between phenomena distributed across a range of identifiably different locations” (Philo and Wolch, 1998). These phenomena can be the elements of the natural world such as mountains, rivers, forests, etc., or human society such as farms and factories. Spaces can be conceptual, abstract, imaginative, literary, or even virtual (like YouTube).
Closely related to space is the concept of ‘place’. A place is a location which a particular individual or a species of animal can be said to possess in human classification or orderings of the world (Philo and Wilbert, 2000). A place captures the situated and material dimensions of space and describes the distinctiveness of unique, nameable settings. In other words, a place can be neatly identified, delineated, and situated in the relevant conceptual space. To understand it better, let’s use an example. If Botanical Gardens in different locations are devoted to conserve, collect and display a diversity of plant species for educational and research purposes, then these pivotal sites together constitute a space, important in the cultural construction of nature. If Botanical Garden is a space, then the Calcutta Botanic Garden is a place because of its specific particularities like its colonial history in shaping the Indian environment or its geographical specificity.
The same logic can be extended to think about animals. For instance, specification (species-identification) on animals based on various classifying mechanisms is carried out so that each animal can be neatly identified and separated from others, and so that each identified animal has its own ‘proper place’. The result of such classifications, as Philo and Wilbert (2000) argue, is to situate animals in abstract ‘animal spaces’. For instance, consigning animals considered as wild into the wilderness, beyond human civilization and animals considered tamed into houses and farms.
The development of Animal Geography
Animal Geography can be divided into two parts. The older Animal Geography (from the 1850s to 1970s) and the ‘new’ animal geography, starting from the 1990s. I’ve already given an overview of the ‘new’ animal geographies in my previous article. Here I’ll discuss how Animal Geography emerged and developed by making use of the geographical perspective and the concepts I discussed above.
For half a decade before Darwin published Origin of Species, many who collected species of plants, fossils and animals were interested in understanding the dispersal patterns of collected species. Zoogeography emerged in 1858 when PL Sclater, a cartographer, published a paper where he correlated the animal distributions with the main geographical regions of the Earth. At the heart of his research were the notion of space, spatial patterns, and spatial relations. The idea was to map patterns of spatial covariation between animal distributions and environmental factors such as climatic variation, vegetative cover, and geological formations, to establish general zoogeographical laws of how animals arranged themselves across Earth’s geographical regions. These regions were further refined by Wallace and Allen and came to be known as Sclater-Wallace regions.
Many who have continued working in the field of zoogeography are now more associated with the ecological discipline. The new Animal Geographers have recently attempted to reconstruct the biographies of these taxidermic species in an attempt to reveal their individuality and subjectivity and to highlight their effect on cultures, histories, science, and communities.
Cultural Animal Geographies
Contrary to zoogeographies, animal geographies in the early twentieth century examined how humans influenced – by domestication and introduction- animal distributions. However, it was Sauer’s work in the 1960s which became associated with what we now know as Cultural Geography or Cultural Ecology. Around this time, the work carried out by cultural animal geographers focused on the spatial relations between animals and humans. The concept of space was no more limited to its scientific conventional sense of seeking spatial laws but it was imagined, for instance, in terms of inclusion and exclusion. Continuing with this example, the spatial relations were thought of in terms of the distance between humans and certain animals.
These relations ‘place’ animals identified as ‘wild’ into the wilderness, far away from human civilization, and if these wild animals transgress the frontiers of wilderness to move into human spaces, they become ‘out of place’. Humans often grapple with these transgressions by deeming the transgressed animal ‘killable’. Alternatively, these relations can also entail a warm reception. Animals considered as ‘tamed’ are placed in the home, yard, or immediate surroundings as ‘companion animals’. When these animals transgress the frontiers of home, they become ‘feral’ or jungli.
The new animal geography not only challenges these binaries, but it also makes a case for animals that lie in between the extremes. For instance, animals which are consigned as ‘domesticated’ and which possess utility as food and other products, are placed into specialized locations such as farms, factories, markets and abattoirs where they spend the entirety of their life. The relations become more complex when we take into consideration the agency of the animals and the power structures that these relations incorporate. The new animal geographies, by using tools such as actor-network theory (ANT), multispecies ethnography, animal biography, nonrepresentational theory, and so on, tease out the multitude of social, political, cultural, economic, and historical pressures that shape the spatial relations between humans and animals.
- Philo, C. and Wilbert, C. (eds.) (2000). Animal spaces, beastly places. London: Routledge.
- Philo, C, Wolch, J (1998) Through the geographical looking glass: Space, place and society-animal relations. Society and Animals 6(2): 103–118.
- Wilbert, C. (2009). Animal Geographies. In Kitchin R, Thrift N (eds) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Volume 1, pp. 122–126.