latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
s someone who entered academia after more than a decade of doing hands-on work with animals in India, the complicated and often hidden ways in which harm enters practices and domains of more-than-human care have been a core interest of mine. Along the way, I have encountered insights, literatures, and empirical materials that have inspired, but also in some cases, baffled me, and raised more questions than they answered.
Over the years of thinking about the entanglement of harm and care in more-than-human spaces, three key themes have preoccupied me: a) the relationship between the individual (organism) and the collective (species, ecosystem, population); b) the links between the socio-political context and embodied, everyday encounters, i.e., between structure and agency; and c) in a related vein, the relationship between care and justice. Decolonizing Extinction by Juno Salazar Parreñas tackles all three themes head on through an ethnography of orangutan rehabilitation and conservation in Borneo.
First, the book brilliantly weaves discussions about broader socio-political transformations and norms alongside very careful and detailed accounts of the everyday practices and interactions between orangutans and people in the Lundu Wildlife Centre. The book centre-stages and pays tribute to the hard physical and emotional work performed by people and orangutans. It shows how in this space of “trans-specific care and affect…everybody in relation to another is vulnerable to the other, and that mutual vulnerability entails risks and consequences that are unequally experienced” (p. 79). At the same time, the book situates the Centre’s existence and operations within the broader histories and landscapes of devastation that endanger orangutans as individuals and a collective.
As Juno puts it, the book is “a story of both extractive and internal colonialism generating relations, enclosures, and futures” (p. 10). Careful accounts of the historical and contemporary colonization of more-than-human habitats, their transformation into roads, plantations, dams, and human settlements, and the consequent disruption of human and nonhuman lives, remind us of why the Centre is necessary in the first place. This, together with the detailing of the everyday harms and high rates of failure embedded in orangutan rehabilitation efforts, ensures that the reader does not go away thinking that rehabilitation centres and indeed the domain of conservation offer win-win solutions to the problem of biodiversity loss and extinction. This is a refreshing intervention in literatures on the postnatural that suggest that zoos, gene banks and curated landscapes are ways to move forward in the Anthropocene (Braverman, 2013; Marris, 2011). By connecting the political with everyday interactions and agency, the book also offers a useful corrective to post-Harawayian proclivities in human-animal studies and geographies of nature wherein the interest in the relational, the embodied, and the affective result in a blanket overlooking of the broader structures and ethico-political contexts within which specific relationships unfold and are constituted (Haraway, 2008).
Second, the book lays out pathways for critically reflecting on the entanglement of harm and care in spaces of more-than-human social change, i.e., domains of discourse and action oriented towards ethically, politically, and practically improving humankind’s relationships with the rest of nature. Juno’s analyses of the wide range of activities that take place in the Lundu Wildlife Centre indicate that the caring act of rehabilitation can entail three broad types of harm (to orangutans). The first is harm that is done in the interests (often long-term) of the individual orangutan that is being harmed. The best example of this is the physical and emotional rejection that must be carried out for rehabilitation to be successful and to prepare the orangutans for life outside of captivity: “to be a caring animal keeper at a rehabilitation facility was to reject tender human-animal intimacy” (p. 52). Whether through the denial of affection and food or through physical violence in the form of beatings, the overarching goal here is the wellbeing of the individual orangutan who is being harmed, and is perhaps not dissimilar to the harm that is done to children when they are given vaccinations or subject to the confines of a classroom.
The second is harm that is unintentional, and that emerges from the wildness that remains inherent in even the most carefully constructed human artefacts (Preston, 2012). Like planes that crash and banks that fail, things go wrong in Lundu Wildlife Centre too. Orangutans have to be managed with threats or the perpetration of actual bodily harm while cleaning cages; crocodiles do not die the way they are expected to; and caregivers get badly bitten and find amusement when recalcitrant orangutans slip and fall and hit their heads.
The third is biopolitical harm, harm that is done to individuals in the name of the wellbeing of the collective (Biermann and Mansfield, 2014), in this case, the orangutan species. In Lundu Wildlife Centre, much like in zoos across the world (Chrulew, 2011), biopolitical harm is manifest in what Juno, after much contemplation on whether rape would a suitable term to describe what happens (pp.97-99), decides to call forced copulation. By describing the conditions of confinement that enable forced copulation and prevent escape from unwanted attentions, the book forestalls the scapegoating of the male orangutans. It also draws our attention to reproductive violence in the absence of copulation – to the practices of semen extraction and artificial insemination that is perpetrated upon valued nonhuman animals by human animals in captive reproduction programmes everywhere. To Juno, “reproduction among semi-wild orangutans forces us to confront the problem that conservation defined through the reproduction of future generations requires sexual violence and what appears to be a gendered distribution of fear” (p. 99). In this case, harm emerges because of what Juno refers to as the collapsing of individuals with species (p. 159). Anyone who has sought the help of assisted reproductive technologies knows how traumatic they can be – even when willingly chosen. When it comes to wildlife, the trauma experienced by individual males and females used for captive reproduction is overlooked or justified by the ontological and ethical prioritization of the collective. The wellbeing of individual animals is sacrificed in the name of preserving the long-term survival of the species category these animals belong to, in an exemplary manifestation of the biopolitical orientation towards the future (Nally, 2011). We, human animals, create zoos and captive reproduction programmes because we don’t want X, Y, or Z species to disappear, quite regardless of how the individual animals that make up the species experience these interventions in their name, and on their bodies and lives.
This (the prioritization of the collective over the individual) is a political choice. Like Juno points out, “the response to mass extinction has not been to curb the burning of fossil fuels or to cease the standardization of species in industrial agriculture [but to]…directly intervene in the lives of endangered species” (p.11). By reframing the practices of embodied and entangled care & harm that take place in rehabilitation centres, zoos, and the domain of conservation within broader socio-political and ecological processes, the book teases out the tensions between care and justice. It shows that practices of more-than-human care are more often than not restricted and shaped by structures of human exceptionalism.
Forced copulation, zoos, and wildlife rehabilitation centres appear as care only because they are founded on the edifice of anthropocentrism. They are founded on the inequitable valuation of interests, lives, and experiences, both human and nonhuman, and reduce what is a political problem to the domain of the technological and the personal. By contrast, bringing the idea of justice into the picture might demand a very different set of responses and types of care (Cochrane et al., 2018). It would shift the locus of intervention from the lives of endangered nonhuman species to those things that are done in the name of development and human wellbeing and that have the direct or indirect consequence of endangering the rest of life on the planet. It should shift the focus from preserving endangered wildlife to the processes that cause endangerment in the first place. And if this seems impractical or utopian, at the very least, the integration of ideas of justice with practices of care would entail that rehabilitation centres and refuges remain hospices – and that they do not participate in practices of reproductive futurism (Edelman, 2004). More broadly, as Juno points out, the decolonization of extinction might entail coming to terms with death; it might involve accepting that, from the point of view of the individual orangutans and other endangered nonhuman Others, extinction might be a better option than species survival in compromised life-worlds.