Animal Borderlands


Animal Borderlands

The British Animal Studies Network meeting we hosted illustrated the value of interdisciplinarity

This year the Oxford AnNex team, supported by Keble College and ably assisted by the wonderfully organized Hibba Mazhary, was delighted to host the autumn meeting of the British Animal Studies Network. BASN is a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary forum for thinking about human-animal relationships and the role, place, perception, and representation of animals.

The theme we chose for the meeting was Animal Borderlands. Borderlands are places of meetings and partings, of gatherings and divisions, as well as of edges, outsides, and interiors. While dominated by a spatial imaginary, borderlands need not be limited by it: borderlands are also transitions, moments where things and phases mix, liminal states. Borderlands abut frontiers, which are often sites of persistent struggles. We therefore encouraged submissions relating to all kinds of animal borderlands, be they categorical, geographical, political, biological, affective, metaphorical, or conceptual.

Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic we had to have a change of format. Instead of the usual two-day face-to-face meeting, we instead held three two-hour online workshops, where participants discussed prerecorded papers (which will be available via the BASN website) submitted by our presenters and two plenary speakers. While we all missed the conviviality and social side of the usual BASN meeting, being online allowed us to open up the network to a much wider range of participants, who joined us from as far afield as Australia, India, North America, and Norway.

Living in the borderlands

In our first session – ‘Living in the borderlands’ – we explored how peoples and species negotiate living alongside, between, and betwixt each other, their conflicts and co-dependencies, their becoming with, and their drawing apart. This session featured five papers and a wide variety of different kinds of human relations with diverse species.

The first talk, presented by AnNex’s Alistair Anderson, examined the interface between caring for one’s own health and for that of a companion animal, through the lens of antibiotic resistance. Alistair’s research suggests that ‘One Health’ does not necessarily reflect the lived experience of pet owners, since people often thought more about difference than sameness between themselves and their pets in their negotiations of antibiotic resistance and stewardship.

Ideas of stewardship also came to the fore in our second paper, by Seth Gustafson, which used oral history work with an eel-fisher turned eel-conserver to consider the role of living memory and disappearing environmental knowledge in an age of extinction. Seth challenged us to think not only about the moral dilemmas experienced by those whose jobs are entwined with animal extinctions, but also how to love mysterious and slimy creatures like eels, and how to narrate their stories.

This theme of caring for the unloved continued in Erica von Essen’s talk about the "war on boars" in Europe, which involves culling and spatial control of wild boars (e.g. Denmark’s 70km-long fence aimed at keeping out German boars). Erica’s talk prompted us to think about how the socio-legal status of boars shifts as they move across national and urban/rural borderlands, and the complex alliances and disputes that can emerge in contexts of conservation and other animal control regimes (e.g. unlikely alliances between hunters and animal rights activists against boar trapping).

Katherine Kanne’s paper took us away from political disputes in the present to the deep past, through her examination of human-horse relationships in the Eurasian Bronze Age (c. 2000-1000 BC). Citing evidence of how humans and horses mutually shaped each other’s behaviour, bodies, and sociality in this period, Katherine made a compelling case for co-domestication, and for the horse’s central role in making us human.

Our first session concluded with a story embedded in both the present and colonial past of Western Australia: Jaxon Waterhouse and Chantelle Mitchell told of how the night parrot (Pezoprous occidentalis) – presumed extinct, but recently rediscovered – exists in a borderland between presence and absence. Exploring representations and understandings of this elusive but otherwise unremarkable bird (often described as a "fat budgie") in colonial archives and indigenous worldviews, Jaxon and Chantelle presented the night parrot story as an allegory for exploring the futures of conservation and decolonisation in Australia.

Narrating, negotiating, and performing border crossings 

A week later, we reconvened to explore how animal border crossings are narrated, negotiated, and performed. We began this session with a plenary from Raf de Bont, whose presentation opened with the story of the antelope fence: an innovation which allowed farmers in the American West to keep their sheep and cows contained while allowing the free passage of pronghorn antelopes. Raf used this example as a way of prompting us to think about histories of non-human globalisation. In the antelope fence example, we see the effects of globalised agricultural production, where sheep and cows are raised for far-off consumers. We also see evidence of globalised ideals of wilderness conservation, with antelopes among those privileged animals considered worthy of infrastructure to enable their movement. Through hearing how antelopes took considerable time to learn about and adjust to the fences, we also saw how animal globalisation involves considering animals’ agency. Raf’s plenary took us well beyond the antelope fence – to wildlife corridors, bird monitoring across flyways, the zoo trade, and species introductions – to think about the past and future of non-human globalisation.

Offering further food for thought was a response to Raf’s plenary by Shubhangi Srivastava, who prompted us to think about animals’ opportunistic use of human infrastructures (e.g. urban macaques’ use of electrical wires to keep safely out of reach of humans’ sticks and stones), and categorical boundaries within species that can shape their ability to move and coexist with humans (e.g. differences in the treatment of pet and street dogs).

Following our discussion of Raf’s plenary, we heard from Anna Guasco about the migration of gray whales through the waters of North America. Anna prompted us to think not only about how human-whale relationships change across these migratory pathways, but also about the inseparability of land and sea, since the human-whale interface often occupies liminal zones such as coasts and beaches. Anna therefore suggested that we think in terms of "terraqueous" borderlands rather than a sharp division between land and sea.

Thomas Spencer took us deeper into the role of animals in national and political disputes by exploring the role of gyrfalcons in inspiring the revolt of the Jurchens against the Khitan empire in northeast China at the start of the 12th century. Thomas proposed that the fundamentally different relationships between humans and falcons in these two areas may have meant that a "falcon tax" imposed by the Khitan empire was perceived as a ritual insult to the Jurchens. Thomas therefore compellingly showed how differences in human-animal relationships across borderlands have shaped key events in history.

Finally, we heard from artist Bronwen Buckeridge about her performance of a live pigeon race from London to Kent. This performance explored various borderlands, including the movement of birds between the domestic space of the loft and the wild space of the sky, and the public-private interface as Bronwen’s performance brought the secretive world of pigeon racing into the public sphere. The performance also explored the human-animal borderland, from the intimacy demonstrated through the gentle handling and ringing of pigeons before a race to shared narratives of love, loss, and longing created through practices like "widowhood", in which trainers motivate pigeons to race by separating the birds from their "girlfriends".

The human-animal interface

Our final session explored perhaps the most fundamental animal borderland: that between humans and nonhuman animals. In particular, the final session explored interspecies communication, how to access animals’ minds or perspectives, and the dynamics of affective, in-person interactions versus absences.

We began with a plenary by visual artist Marcus Coates, whose work playfully explores the human-animal interface, although animals themselves rarely appear in his workMarcus is more concerned with the imagined and embodied physical space that animals occupy. We saw, for example, Marcus’s efforts to explore animals’ vocabularies, by seeing what it feels like to sing for long periods of time without repetition (in ‘Skylark’) and translating human voices into birdsong in ‘Dawn Chorus’. Marcus’s work also investigates how we use animals to define ourselves, as seen for example in ‘Degreecoordinates’, which explores the perhaps unexpected shared characteristics between humans and our closest relatives, and in ‘Human Report’ in which a blue-footed booby reports on the unusual behaviour of Homo sapiens. Marcus’s explorations of how we imagine animals, and how we imagine ourselves in relation to animals, also delve into ethical questions about human-animal relationships, as demonstrated in ‘Apology to the Great Auk’, in which a Newfoundland community issued an apology to a now-extinct nonhuman resident of their home.

Mara Dicenta and Charlotte Boulc'h offered thought-provoking responses to Marcus’s plenary. Mara reflected on the connections between some of Marcus’s work and colonialism, how vocalising like birds might give animals agency, and the potentials we might see in his work for thinking about how to share space with animals. Charlotte situated Marcus’s work within the context of efforts by other artists to ‘become animal’ (to borrow Deleuze’s terminology), drawing in particular a comparison with the work of Russian artist Oleg Kulik, who adopts the persona of a dog to attack (literally and politically) other humans. Marcus, Charlotte suggested, is more motivated by curiosity about how far it is possible for humans to understand how animals inhabit the world.

Following our discussion of Marcus’s plenary, we heard from Ben Farrar, a comparative cognition researcher who argued that science’s ability to tell us about animal minds is limited. Drawing on critiques from both within science (e.g. about bias and replicability) and from outside of science (e.g. about the limitations of objectivity and the need to "place the view from nowhere"), Ben made a compelling case for rethinking comparative cognition research, and for building stronger connections between scientists interested in animal minds and animal studies scholars.

We then heard from Karen Jones, who took up the themes of human-animal communication and imaginative constructions of animals by exploring the practice (initiated in the 1960s) of the public wolf howl in Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada, in which park rangers and wolves howl at each other for the education and entertainment of visitors. Karen’s presentation prompted us to consider how soundscapes can serve as tools for science communication and shape our constructions of, and relationships with, nonhuman animals and "wilderness".

Finally, we heard from primatologist Anindya Sinha about evidence that wild bonnet macaques in southern India have developed a novel food-requesting behaviour (involving gestural and vocal elements), which they exclusively direct towards food-bearing tourists. Anindya made the case that this behaviour is clear evidence of how macaques perform their agency in a naturalcultural contact zone (albeit one in which two related species have unequal amounts of power), and may reflect the macaques’ efforts to cope with habitat loss and a rapidly changing way of life.

Anindya also reinforced a point made in earlier presentations, and which is key to BASN’s mission: that in order to live well alongside nonhuman animals, and to understand animal minds and agency as best we can, we should break down disciplinary boundaries. The Animal Borderlands meeting was a great example of how this interdisciplinarity can work in practice to open up new possibilities for thinking about the role, place, perception, and representation of animals.

The Animal Borderlands meeting was a great example of how interdisciplinarity can open up new possibilities for thinking about the role, place, perception, and representation of animals.
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