Disciplining Non-human Bodies in the City

Aditi Dhillon & Ajay Immanuel Gonji

In his seminal essay Why Look at Animals? John Berger (2009) talks about how, in the past, people kept domestic animals because they were useful to them – as guard dogs, hunting dogs, mice-killing cats, and so on. Later, people began to keep animals regardless of their usefulness, a practice which he describes as a modern innovation – the keeping, exactly, of pets. He goes on to describe a pet as, “…either sterilized or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contacts, and fed with artificial foods…They are creatures of their owner’s way of life.” [emphasis added] 

As opposed to domestic animals or pets, there are several other “wild” animals in the city which exist as creatures having their own way of life. Although these animals or non-human beings live amongst us and may be used to human provisioning, “they retain their own self-regulating mechanisms of social organization, reproduction, and raising of their young” (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2011). They are almost never of any direct use to humans and are seen as outsiders and as being “out of place” in our highly domesticated and managed cities (Jerolmack, 2008; Kareiva et al., 2007). Because urban wild animals are seen as outside the realm of human control and domination, they are deemed as “unruly bodies”, and their bodily practices – where they live, where and how they move, what they eat, how they interact with other non-humans and humans, etc. – are seen as a threat to human life and property (Palmer, 2003).

Image: Sharp spikes and other structures are installed on public infrastructure to prevent monkeys and birds from using/damaging them in any way (© Ajay Immanuel Gonji).

Non-human animals which challenge the grand design and spatial ordering of the city are seen as trespassers on human territory, qualifying them for mass trapping, relocation or even extermination (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2011). Less drastic measures include the channelizing of animals into particular paths, routes and spaces by installing fences and other types of barriers (Palmer, 2003). Such measures are adopted to “monitor, regulate, and/or halt the movements of various forms of life” (Bingham et al., 2008), and are often aimed at making the city a safe space for humans. Therefore, various mechanisms like nets, metal cages, mesh enclosures and glass spikes are used to repel non-human beings like pigeons or monkeys that are seen to infringe upon space that is considered to belong solely to humans. In other words, some species are seen to ‘pollute’ the urban environment and varied instruments are put into place to remove these species from the urban ethos, thereby accomplishing the ‘sanitization’ and ‘purification’ of the city as well as succeeding in upholding the nature-society divide, where nature, is seen as being present outside of society (Ibid). Therefore, since urban “wild” animals are seen as a threat not only to humans but also to common city spaces, biosecurity, which is crudely defined as making human life secure or safe becomes necessary to achieve (Bingham, 2008). Various means and mechanisms, like the ones mentioned above, are therefore put into place, the cost of which is borne by humans.

Who has access to spaces in the city, and who doesn’t, then, becomes a power-laden question and involves the regulation and disciplining of lives (Collard, 2012). The idea of biosecurity, as discussed in the initial few paragraphs, is an attempt to “construct secure spaces” and to make “life safe”, for humans (Ibid). Therefore, biosecurity, as it plays out, is premised on the bodily control and regulation of lives, which in turn determines access to the city for several species. This is where the Foucauldian notions of biopolitics and biopower come into the picture. In simpler terms, biopolitics is the administration, control and regulation of life and its movements and biopower lays out how the various mechanisms of power present in society lead to “power over life”, or, more technically, how certain species become biopolitical subjects (Adams, 2017; Collard, 2012).

The goal of managing lives depends upon how humans perceive different species. Those perceived as a threat to human life or property would be controlled in a way to ensure safety and security for humans. There are also some species that are perceived to ‘pollute’ habitats that are seen as belonging to humans alone – for instance, pigeons (Collard, 2012; Jerolmack, 2008). Therefore, the biosecurity mechanisms, as discussed initially, that are put into place by humans in the urban to prevent nonhumans from overstepping into the ‘ordered’ human space triggers an entire economy, where, to prevent trespassing and infringement by animals, humans need to pay a price. This is what Maan Barua (2021), has called bioeconomy: an economy that is based on bio or ‘bios’, which in Greek translates to life (Collard, 2012). Hence, in order to prevent animals or birds from damaging property or to construct a space that is safe for us humans or simply, to ensure cleanliness and purity in our visible environment, humans have to bear a cost and therefore, it is these non-human beings and their agency that lead to an economy that is reliant on them. For instance, an article published in the Hindustan Times in 2015 spoke about how the NDMC, in Delhi, had spent lakhs of rupees in trying to tackle the monkey menace in Lutyen’s Delhi and had tried several mechanisms including air guns, translocation and langur cry imitators among several others. The NDMC had also tried the power-fencing technique on a pilot basis, the installation of which apparently runs into lakhs of rupees and hence, was not taken forward.

A mere Google search from our end led us to organisations in India that sell simian tapes or electric monkey tapes to repel macaques. These organisations also sell various devices to repel several other species of animals, thereby, making them a part of the mainstream economy. To explain bioeconomy better, Barua (2021), talks about how termites, despite being eyeless and blind, as well as miniscule in size, have the capability of damaging infrastructure to a point, that today, there exists a billion-dollar economy worldwide to not only prevent the damage that they can cause but also to eradicate them. In addition to this, Jerolmack (2008), also talks about how once pigeons were declared a pest in London, they became a “major moneymaker for the pest control industry”, as they triggered an entire economy that was based on their eradication and removal.

Therefore, biosecurity mechanisms which are a result of biopolitics and biopower sustain and retain not only the nature-society divide, where, for humans, animals do not ‘belong’ to the city, but also upholds the belief of human exceptionalism. Space and power, however, is dynamic and is created and recreated, making the boundaries between human-animal and nature-society, a porous one (Collard, 2012).


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Featured Image (© Ajay Immanuel Gonji)

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