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Rosemary-Claire Collard’s Animal Traffic: Lively Capital in the Global Exotic Pet Trade focuses on the often-obscured world of so-called exotic animals circulating in global trade networks. By examining the “oddity” of exotic pets, Collard invites introspection on more commonplace relationships with animals, such as the “familiar idea… that an animal is a resource, a piece of property, a commodity” (2020: 8). She argues that these dominant ways of relating to animals, common in much of the world’s political-economic operations, are central to capitalism (2020: 8). Collard tracks the processes through which animals are made into lively capital and the effects of these processes on animals’ lives. A core contribution of this book is to put animal studies, and theorists of capitalism and inequality, in dialogue with each other, making a powerful argument for how capitalist relations structure human-animal relations, (re)produce lively capital and commodified life, and ultimately “how capitalism drives ecological problems like extinction and biodiversity loss” (2020: 8). Animals as lively capital in the exotic pet trade means that their value is derived from their encounterability, individuality, and controllability (2020: 37).
Collard has written an important book that illuminates a “shadowy trade” (2020: 3). Through vivid ethnographic accounts and equally powerful theorisation, she adapts the method of “following the thing” (2020: 9) to track and show the spaces in which wild animals become lively capital, revealing how and where animals circulate in global exotic pet commodity chains. Ultimately, Collard advocates for a politics of wild life (chapter four) where animals have their own lives “lived in conditions of relational autonomy” (2020: 127). She accomplishes her aim of revealing spaces and processes that produce animals as lively capital by tracing the lives of animals in and through three different sites of encounter.
Beginning in the forests of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, Collard encounters spider monkeys in the wild, describing their deft movements up high in the canopy where they spend most of their lives. This is where the severing happens (chapter one). Animals, including these spider monkeys, are captured to fill a demand for exotic pets in largely wealthy nations, severing them from what Collard calls their socio-ecological relations, meaning the complex social and ecological relations and communities that sustain them and to which they contribute. Socio-ecological relations are part of socio-ecological reproduction, a concept Collard develops by drawing on feminist political economy (2020: 21-22). Collard describes the severing as a one-time act of enclosure; the animal is cut out from its own life world and reconnected to new relations, ones that are driven by capitalist and colonial logics.
Drawing on Marx, Collard develops the persuasive and theoretically rich concept of animal fetishism to argue that animals who are captured from the wild and entered into capitalist commodity relations are treated as if they do not have lives of their own. This stands in contrast to fetishization in Marx where commodities are treated as if they do have lives of their own, in turn obfuscating, even making imperceptible, the workers and social relations of labor that produced the thing and generated a profit (2020: 18). Animal fetishism is starkly apparent at the second site of encounter: exotic pet auctions in the United States (chapter 2).
Collard reflects on being marked as an outsider and “activisty” in the auction houses because of her Canadian accent (2020: 66), her VW Golf parked beside big trucks (2020: 62), and her lack of cowboy boots as remarked upon by one child at an auction in Texas (2020: 74). Scribbling notes in her book at the auctions also drew attention to her and made her stick out, in part because many people at these auctions are suspicious of undercover animal rights people (2020: 67). Across five auctions in four different states, she encounters hundreds of animals, including a giraffe too big to fit into the building, spider monkeys sold as breeding pairs in part because they were less encounterable than young monkeys who would be more likely to bond with human owners, and hundreds upon hundreds of birds, especially macaws, parrots, and African grey parrots who are valued for their intelligence and ability to learn human languages.
A key technique of animal fetishization is that each time an animal enters the auction space, their life before sale is largely erased, a fact made more obvious when Collard notes she is witnessing some of the same animals come up in different auctions within the span of a few months (2020: 74). At auction, an animal’s history is told in such a way that emphasizes the animal’s encounterability for the next buyer. In a note on the introduction, Collard tells us that “Encounters are the exotic pet trade’s bread and butter – they propel animals through commodity circuits” (2020: 142-3). The ability to encounter an animal is part of what adds value (actual or potential) to that animal. This is demonstrated with the use of ring boys at the auctions who ride the animals, prod them, and haul them around the auction space to demonstrate the animals’ docility and use for potential buyers.
In chapter 3, Collard finds that the lines of care and violence are blurred at rehabilitation centers that seek to reconnect former exotic pets to a wild life. Collard argues that rehabilitation workers in Guatemala attempting to de-commodify former exotic pets and return them to the wild take a misanthropic approach to condition the animals for wild environments. The workers attempt to instill fear and mistrust of humans into the animals that were formerly pets, roadside zoo attractions, or used in film and television. The work of rehabilitation exists in a paradoxical space where the goal of animals being de-commodified and able to live in the wild without humans is carried out through techniques of captivity and dependence (2020: 92). Here the enormous work required to (insufficiently) replace the socio-ecological relations of the animals is revealed.
Collard concludes her book back in British Columbia, Canada, where she lives and works, with the story of an escaped serval (medium-sized African wild cat) that underscores the constrained options exotic pets have for a life outside the cage once they are captured (2020: 125). From here Collard proposes a wild life politics. Drawing on feminist, Indigenous, and autonomous Marxist theories, Collard highlights that recognizing animals’ own use values, a term she borrows from Marx, and dismantling and resisting animal enclosure are necessary conditions for animals’ relational autonomy and a wild life on their own terms. Given the massive global scale of the exotic pet trade, the fact that it is a demand-driven market, and that demand is increasing, Collard proposes an intermediate response: reduce demand. While this theory of change comes with its problems and potential unintended consequences, Collard makes a compelling case that eroding demand and shrinking markets in top importing regions like the United States and the European Union has the potential to match the scale of the problem (unlike policing trappers who benefit the least from the trade). What is less clear is what sustains this demand in the first place.
Infrastructure and Exotic Pets
Animal Traffic lends itself well to an infrastructural analysis, where infrastructure refers to the materiality of social, economic, and political systems that maintain power relations, and is most readily visible when it breaks (Max Liboiron, 2022, personal communication). When particular animals in their role of lively capital and exotic pets are "unruly" (2020: 5), escape, or even die, the infrastructures that propel the exotic animal trade become more visible, even if that visibility is short-lived.
In the case of Darwin, the “Ikea monkey,” a case Collard uses in the introduction, the regulatory and legal infrastructure that sanctions and reproduces owner-property relations with animals is revealed when Darwin escapes his cage, then his owner’s car, wanders into an Ikea in Toronto, Canada and is picked up by animal services. When Darwin’s owner tries to get him back, she is confronted with Darwin’s legal status as a non-native wild animal who is only her property when in her possession (2020: 2). Having lost possession of Darwin, she has lost ownership. In contrast, pet dogs are considered absolute property under Canadian law because they are domesticated. If a dog decides to slip their collar and follow their nose around the neighborhood, they would still be considered their owner’s property. Part of the infrastructure that propels the exotic pet trade is the shifting and patchy regulatory and enforcement landscape. The infrastructure, such as the auction houses, performs and reifies the commodity status of these animals, while simultaneously discarding the animals’ desires for themselves and their communities, thus reinstating their value in so far as they are individual, encounterable, and controllable.
Denaturalization is a research strategy that asks how certain ideas and ways of being come to be common, normal, and natural (Liboiron and Lepawsky 2022: 16). “When contextual, place-based, situated, and historically specific moments become naturalized and are assumed to be so normal that they are not thought about, denaturalization unearths how they initially became normal and thus can be changed” (Liboiron and Lepawsky 2022: 19). One of the many important aspects of Animal Traffic is how it denaturalizes seemingly normal forms of human-animal relations that primarily serve human uses and deny the animals’ own desires for themselves and their communities. By naming the role of colonialism and empire building in the history of how exotic pet ownership came to be seen as desirable and good (for some), Collard shows that the idea of animals as property has to be taught (as with the young boy with his dad at the auction house), performed, and maintained. Infrastructure is productive; it can produce what normal looks like within particular systems and what is considered unremarkable, such as owning animals in capitalist systems. Infrastructure, as a naturalizing force, makes some things (in)visible, (un)imaginable, and (un)likely to be considered. Yet, infrastructure is also uneven and can be hotwired for decolonial futures (la paperson, 2017).
In a recent article on land-based salmon aquaculture, Martin et al. (2021) discuss the ecological infrastructure, like ocean currents, that are hard if not impossible to replace in the highly controlled factories that raise commodified salmon. In the rehabilitation center where Collard volunteered for a month, she and other volunteers vigorously and thoroughly scrubbed the floor of the parrots’ cage each morning where a thin layer of green mould continually regenerated itself. The rehabilitation center’s head veterinarian tells Collard that parrots live high up in the trees, where there is a difference in “humidity, speed of air, density, amounts of light” (2020: 103). The ecological infrastructure is different in the canopy. Workers and volunteers attempt to replace ecological infrastructure through their labor.
Collard paints a vivid picture of the immense volunteer and worker labor needed, day in and day out, to provide a basic – and often inadequate – substitute of the complex socio-ecological networks and relations their wild kin depend on and to which they contribute. She lays out some of the historical and geopolitical power relations that are implicated in voluntourism, like Guatemala’s colonial experience and the imperial dynamics that shape conservationist and environmental politics in the region (2020: 102), as well as reflecting on her own position of being a volunteer and researcher who, like the other volunteers, is able to pay to access the rehabilitation center. Collard’s insights on the worker and volunteer labor relations that are also implicated in the rehabilitation are succinct. She notes the importance of situating herself and the center in their larger relational contexts, such as the gender, race, and class relations of the workers and volunteers. I am left with a curiosity on how similar relations matter in the auction houses.
After one particularly long day of field work, Collard returns to her campsite and sees a flock of geese flying above. In that moment she thinks of how their freedom stands in stark contrast to the unfreedom of the animals being bought and sold at the auctions from earlier that day:
“Exotic animal owners assert that they should have the ‘freedom’ to own these animals, and they exert this at auctions. But their freedom to buy and sell and own animals depends on animals’ lack of freedom” (2020: 88).
Collard's work illuminates the relationship between capitalism and wild life by centering the experiences of animals who are affected by these relations and drawn into global commodity circuits. She argues that capitalist relations have led to animal fetishism, defaunation, and the loss of animals’ territories.
Collard’s work is useful for analysis in both scholarship and where our everyday lives include seemingly unremarkable relations with animals. While reading this book in the capital city of St. John's on the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk and Mi'kmaq, on the island portion of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, I found myself thinking a lot about Perdita, who is my dog. Perdita comes from Natuashish, an Innu community in northern Labrador. The Innu of Nitassinan are one of the original peoples of Labrador. Perdita, along with her five siblings, were separated (or severed, using Collard’s language) from their mother and other relations at four weeks old and travelled from Natuashish to the Happy-Valley-Goose-Bay SPCA where they were fostered until transportation to St. John’s could be arranged. At five and a half weeks, Perdita, her siblings, and a few other puppies took a two-hour flight to the St. John’s airport. My partner and I waited alongside other anxious and excited humans picking up their ‘rescues’ until the puppies were offloaded from the plane. We brought Perdita home and settled into our new relationships with her, such as teachers (Perdita has taught me a lot!), companions, and owners-pet to name a few.
Collard's book focuses on the exotic pet trade, but of course - and as Collard points out (2020: 10-13) - what is considered exotic is intimately tied to ongoing histories of colonialism, colonial imaginaries, and the desire to possess. Perdita, being a Northern dog with light blue eyes, could be considered exotic when she is adopted into Southern communities, like my own. In my context, Northern refers to the subarctic regions, while Southern refers to most of Canada that is South of the 60th parallel. Collard describes the defining characteristic of exotic pets like spider monkeys, African grey parrots, and zebras as being “out of place” in such communities, captured from the wild (or recently descended from wild forebearers) and undomesticated (2020: 9). The book asks what kinds of human-animal relations are produced through this capitalist displacement, such as severing. Collard’s work prods me to further reflect on my own normalized relations with animals, like how capitalism still frames pet ownership in rescue and adoption situations and the settler-colonial relations in Canada that animate pet rescue and adoption from the North.
By joining many insights from Marxist theory and animal studies, Collard offers both a powerful analysis of how capitalism structures human-animal relations in the exotic pet trade, and what the “oddity” (2020: 8) of the exotic pet case can teach us about our more common relations with animals. The infrastructure Collard describes in Animal Traffic functions to produce lively capital and naturalize particular relations between humans and animals, as well as particular relations between humans. In taking the reader to the places where animals are captured and severed from their socio-ecological relations, where they enter into commodity circuits and are sold at auction, and where they are rehabilitated for the hope of a de-commodified wild life, Collard has offered a compelling look at animal fetishism and is a must read for all those concerned with (re)making worlds where animals can live wild lives.
Collard R-C (2020) Animal Traffic Lively Capital in the Global Exotic Pet Trade. Durham: Duke University Press.
la paperson (2017) A Third University Is Possible. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Liboiron M and Lepawsky J (2022) Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Martin SJ, Mather C, Knott C, and Bavington D (2021) ‘Landing’ salmon aquaculture: Ecologies, infrastructures and the promise of sustainability. Geoforum, 123: 47–55.
Sam E. Morton is a feminist researcher and Vanier Scholar at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador and is a settler on the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq. Her PhD project investigates how animals are enrolled into international development projects.