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uno Salazar Parreñas offers an intimate, holistic, and provocative study of wildlife workers and semi-wild orangutans at rehabilitation centres on Borneo. In Decolonizing Extinction, she foregrounds the work of care to explore the everyday social relations, grounded in mutual vulnerability and arrested autonomy, as well as experiences of loss and pain. By doing so, Parreñas illuminates the inherently colonial contradictions and violence of wildlife rehabilitation – for both human and nonhuman animals – and urges us to consider whether extinction may be, in and of itself, the most humane option for conservation in a time of annihilation.
In Decolonizing Extinction, Parreñas embraces fully feminist sensibilities and reflects clearly how gender relations of power work in the context of human-animal relations. As such, her work enhances the dialogue between feminism and animal studies in three ways.
First, Parreñas empirically unpacks the layers of species-based gender dynamics, helping us understand how gender ‘works’ through the relations among humans, among orangutans, and between humans and orangutans. In the introductory chapter, From Ape Motherhood to Tough Love, she details how human gendered roles and attributes shape people’s differential interactions with orangutans: “The men training orangutans, in a way, perform rehabilitation as acts of forced feeding, the cruelty of injuring an orangutan is undertaken for the sake of their survival and their semi-wild state. The women working as officers appear to try an alternative . . . making [orangutans] survive and thrive with a little less violence in their lives” (p59). She also details how human gendered constructs of work reinforce or challenge gender roles and stereotypes. For example, rehabilitation activities entail what is viewed as ‘hard labour’ often in the prevue of men, such as cleaning cages, lifting brush, and handling orangutans. In this case study, however, white professional expatriate women take on these masculine roles in an effort to ‘work as hard as men’ towards personal fulfilment and care work on behalf of a vulnerable species. Here then, women are both buying into masculine norms of work yet subverting them by demonstrating that their capabilities are equal to men despite being ‘kinder and more patient and more likely to volunteer’ than their male counterparts.
Further, Parreñas offers insights on orangutan gender roles, responsibilities and life chances whereby ‘female orangutans bear the burden of their survival as a species’ (p13) given their central role in rehabilitation-based breeding operations. At the same time ‘female orangutans [face] specific risk and vulnerability because of their sex’ (p79). This point is a sobering focal point for Chapter 3, which intimately details forced orangutan copulation and sexual violence promoted by some rehabilitation workers to ‘save the species’. Parreñas additionally unearths the complexity of interspecies dynamics when she considers how gender expectations and implications in a single encounter impact human and orangutan individuals in necessarily gendered ways. In Chapter 6, for example, she recounts an encounter between a female care worker and a male orangutan, Ching, who didn’t like ‘local women’ and had a reputation for biting them. The bite marks received took on gendered consequences given that a disfiguring scar would negatively impact their ability to secure a husband.
Second, Parreñas enhances the dialogue between feminism and animal studies by engaging a feminist methodological approach and tools to study complex species interrelations. She expertly details the nuanced, embodied encounters between humans and orangutans in ways that bring us closer-to-them. We get to see the lives of orangutans, and those who care for them, more clearly. Parreñas’s approach urges intimacy, fosters empathy, and encourages responsibility. In Chapter 2, for example, she recounts the task of carrying Gas, a juvenile orangutan, to her enclosure is a moment of intimacy, vulnerability, risk, awkwardness, bodily encounter. She writes: “Gas gripped my arm, leg, and hand with four different muscular and clammy hands as we walked, sometimes dragging a limb or grasping the bars and walls as we passed. The texture and surface of her skin and hair interfaced with my skin and clothes. In the interface of bodies, our bodies responded to one another, but in ways that were asymmetrical, unequal, and muddled. The job of carrying Gas to her enclosure entailed a hyperawareness of both our bodies in the fleeting moment of encounter. Cooperation did not come on its own, and neither could it be physically forced. Though she was little, she was still stronger than I was” (p66). By taking us to the scale of the microbe, the body, and the individual, Parreñas takes seriously the everyday, affective encounters between humans and animals. In some instances, particularly Chapter 3, the passages of encounter are difficult and painful to read. Arguably, Parreñas’s approach pushes us towards acknowledging an orangutan standpoint when she asks: “Can we, like the wildlife ranger Nadim, make serious efforts to ‘think what the orangutan are thinking’?” (p14). She rightly claims that we “need richer stories that suit the complexity of our times and of our lives” (p17).
Third, Parreñas enhances the dialogue between feminism and animal studies by providing theoretical insights on the power relations among wildlife workers and semi-wild orangutans in Borneo’s rehabilitation realm. Unpacking the layers of gender-species relations of power gained through an embodied feminist methodological lens culminates in a substantive theoretical contribution regarding the ‘work of care’ taken by those employed in wildlife rehabilitation. Parreñas argues that orangutan rehabilitation is “the work of care – labor that is performed with or without monetary compensation and embodied through the signs of gender and race” (p59). Much of the book highlights the care work performed by humans on behalf of animals, be it exemplified in the long-term care relationship that Barbara Harrison cultivates with individual orangutans or the relationship fostered between caretakers and orangutans. Pushing further, more can be said about the care work performed by animals on behalf of humans. Here Parreñas’s work would benefit from explicit linkages with Kendra Coulter’s Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity (Palgrave 2016). Coulter employs feminist thinking, labour studies, and political economy to develop nuanced approach to understanding animals’ various work roles, including care work as those tasks done by animals when they are expected to be in particular places, behave in certain ways, and inhibit their own desires in the workplace. This conceptual framing can help us ask: what role do orangutans themselves play in the care work of decolonizing extinction given that many are to live out their rehabilitated lives in centres, with forced breeding, to save a species. Pushing further still, Parreñas’s work offers insights on the animal ethics of care approach brought forth by feminist animal scholars, for example Donovan and Adams (1996), Donovan (2006), and Gruen (2015). An ethics of care perspective recognizes that we are in personal relationships with animals and we care instinctively about them, especially when they are in distress. So rather than a logical assessment of whether ‘they can suffer’ or ‘they have rights’ we should be guided by our tendency to build relationships with animals and show compassion, empathy, sympathy.
Ultimately, Parreñas’s Decolonizing Extinction offers a compelling example of why feminism is well suited and positioned to take on issues related to animals, as well as how gender relations of power are necessarily embedded in human-animal relations, and in turn broader process of colonization and arrested autonomy.