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In Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation Juno Salazar Parreñas examines the care work in orangutan rehabilitation and suggests that
… it is an effort at decolonizing extinction. Care is not necessarily affection, but for me it is a concern about the treatment and welfare of others. This takes work; it takes labor that requires compensation. (2018: 6)
For Parreñas decolonization, and the attendant work, labor, care and compensation it entails, is an ongoing process about fundamental ways of understanding and living in the world. It is about addressing human-nonhuman divides to imagine relations “beyond the tired colonial tropes of violence and benevolence” (p. 7). Parreñas draws on multi-species ethnography, anthropology, feminist science and technology studies, and thinks across multiple time scales (from colonial history to the present) to focus on embodied and affective ways of knowing. Her approach to the study of human-animal relations is unsettling because it is non-teleological and asks us to leave open the notion of what “decolonization” looks and feels like. It is precisely for this reason that it is so relevant to unthinking the many constitutive binaries of colonial modernity. Among its many critical contributions is its relevance to current attempts to grapple with the climate crisis of the 21st century.
The book’s focus on orangutan rehabilitation as an example of the rehabilitation of a wild species shows how much culture goes into making nature. In three sections (Relations, Enclosures, Futures) and six chapters, the book outlines in rich detail the work of caring for an endangered species in an enclosed space so that it may have the possibility of living free. That such a possibility may be permanently foreclosed is one of the many contradictions of such custodial care work. The book focuses on these and the how the culture of colonial and current capitalist modernity intimately shapes this contingent care work.
It is beyond the scope of this review to do justice to the vast richness of the material the book tackles. Rather I focus on some of the contradictions that drew my attention and which bear further parsing. The work of such parsing is not necessarily that of the author. I flag them as moments and opportunities for us to think in relation to them for the larger purpose of the book, viz. imagining different ways of being and relating in the world. The many challenges of such work for orangutan caretakers as for us is that it is on-going, open-ended and without guarantees. This is made poignantly evident from Parreñas’s reflection on the perspective of Layang, a caretaker who admits to the potential futility of his work:
Rehabilitation is set up with a perfect orangutan in mind: young yet independent, one already and continuously fearful of humans. Yet if the orangutan is young, how can she not be impressionable? As the orangutan experiences more interactions with humans, including being fed by them, how can she remain fearful of them? How can the orangutan not help but be enculturated through the co-presence around her? (p. 69)
How indeed? Parreñas highlights how colonial and capitalist modalities play an overdetermined role in this enculturation. The book’s first two chapters focus on “how people build social relations with members of a species famous for a love of solitude” (p. 27 or 28). It starts with the efforts of Barbara Harrisson of the Sarawak Museum “…at instilling independence among orphaned orangutans in the 1950s and 1960s, in the midst of debate around Sarawak’s independence following official decolonization” (p. 28). It shows how the responsibility of parenting these orphaned orangutans was almost thrust upon Harrisson, i.e. it was overdetermined. It became the precursor to the current care work of orangutan rehabilitation conducted in a global economy of commercial volunteerism.
The many tensions that beset such care work become evident across the scales of the ethnography, in dilemmas that the many human caregivers who encounter “non wild” orangutans have to face in whether to let the animals die or to care for them so that they might live. But as Layang notes the work of such care and living is contradictory and contingent. For example, for orangutans to survive in the “wild” they must become afraid of humans and stay away from them. Yet humans need to get close to them in order to move them and lift them as part of the work of care. Such closeness is dangerous for both orangutan and humans, albeit differently so. Or to invert with some of Parreñas terms, there are many “unequal risks” in this “mutual vulnerability” (p.109).
The labor and capital of western volunteers illustrate other contradictions in attempts to rehabilitate wild animals including cari makan, funding food for them and wages for Sarawakian workers. Volunteer tourists come to Lundu and Batu Wildlife Centers to get proximity to wild orangutans. Though their custodial care is important to the refuges’ work, they are not allowed to get too close to the animals for the sake of the safety of both. The volunteers come because they care and want other forms of relating to and exchange other than charity or capitalism. Some of these volunteers might wish to undo colonial relations, or at least try not to replicate them. Yet their efforts like those of Harrisson and scholarly attempts to decolonize knowledge and practices are deeply interpellated with the cultural practices and economic structures of colonial and contemporary capitalism. Like Harrisson’s “tough love,” this commercial tourism is beset with ironic paradoxes. Volunteers must pay to work at the rehabilitation centers. What they pay to labor during their leisure is necessary for the care of this dying species. Tourist money also pays the wages of the Sarawakians (like Layang) who must remain behind and continue the care when the tourists go home. Tourists, residents and the orangutans who bind them find themselves in the forced embrace of the colonial and capitalist forces they and we wish to forsake.
As these forces are violent, the labor of caring for these massive animals is physically demanding and requires “brute strength” (p. 76). But the volunteers at the rehabilitation centers are mostly white professional women from Britain and Australian. Parreñas asks Muriel, one of the volunteers, why this manly labor is performed by mostly female volunteers. In her response, “Muriel resignifies physical hard labor as a form of feminized care work” (p. 77). She also, “… seeks to define care to an essentialized femininity of wanting to nurture. Thus, she understands the hard labor that she performs at the site as a form of nurturing and caring” (p. 77).
At the heart of the book are many questions about care: “What is care? How to care? For whom to care? Who cares?” They bring to mind recent feminist scholarship on the role of care and social reproduction in colonial and contemporary capitalism. The book’s focus on the production of a global economy of affect is relevant to these debates.
Chapter 2 considers how affect, sensed on the surface of skin and grounded in a specific planetary surface, generates a global economy of commercial volunteerism. Examples of affective encounters include the everyday, ordinary, and yet extraordinary chores of the wildlife center staff and volunteers: evacuating orangutans, cleaning their cages, and carrying out hard manual labor. Even the technological mediation of “crittercams” cannot replace the experience of bodily presence with a member of an elusive and endangered species in the same space and time. (p. 2)
The production of this affect through quotidian care work (or that of hospice care as the last chapters suggest) is distinctly material. The relationship between affect and materiality also opens questions about the relationship between traditional forms of feminized care labor and hard work. While certain kinds of work are readily understood as hard (construction work, physical labor), others such as long hours doing domestic chores or taking care of children are exhausting but not seen as hard work. Current feminist scholarship on how social reproduction is a key part of social production of commodity capitalism would have been a useful supplement to parse these gendered contradictions, and those of the affective, cultural and material relations between labor and care. That this gendered labor has colonial and racial dimensions is something which could also do with simultaneous parsing. Questions of what constitutes “nurturing” and “care” calls attention to other gendered and raced idioms of affect. If care work is tough, dangerous, risky, and potentially harmful to caregiver and care recipient, might tough love also be a form of care?
Throughout the book Parreñas draws attention to how the labor of care is about living and dying. She links these issues to the dilemmas of forced reproduction and cultural interpretations of sexuality, nature, masculinity and femininity. She fleshes out the experiences, embodied sexualities and genders of Sarawakian wage workers such as June, western volunteers such as Muriel, and Tom the manager of the volunteer program. She also links the work and labor of human care workers and dying animals to capitalist expansion. For example, in the chapters in the section on Enclosures, she discusses how indigenous workers displaced by oil palm plantations need wage work. They use the savings from their earnings from commercial wildlife rehabilitation to purchase of plots on which to cultivate oil palms.
Tales of oil palm and capital expansion intertwine with descriptions of care and of lived experiences (of caretakers and care recipients) and relations. And though the shadow of death hangs over the entire narrative, neither the survival of orangutans in the wild nor their extinction from our world are guaranteed endings. This important book asks us to suspend our desire for clear answers. It offers foster or hospice care for dying species as a thread of hope by which to connect the grey shadow of biopolitics to the black of necropolitics.