RECASTING OUR 'WILD' NEIGHBOURS: CONTESTING LEGAL OTHERNESS IN URBAN HUMAN-ANIMAL CONFLICTS.

Author:Deckha, Maneesha
 
FREE EXCERPT

INTRODUCTION

Discussions of human-animal urban co-existence often characterize relationships between the two as conflict-laden, generally locating animals on the losing side. (1) This type of framing is unfortunate--both for how it positions animals and also for how it imagines humans vis-a-vis animals. It is a framing that is undergirded by a centuries-old binary in cultures dominated by Western intellectual traditions where humans are sharply distinguished from all other animals and nature is sharply distinguished from culture. These oppressive binaries--and the concept of "wildness" that circulates within them--infuse human-human relations as well. In fact, the use of animal and "wildness" imagery to dehumanize (and thus degrade) certain human bodies has made the division between human and non-human animals particularly ingrained. When legal and policy actors rely on terms such as "wildlife" to represent animals in urban environments today, little consideration is given to where this notion came from or to how racial and colonial logics about wilderness indelibly shape our cultural attitudes about animals, human uniqueness, and even other humans. Western ideologies of dominance and control fit comfortably into a need to subdue the wild "other" whether the Other is human or non-human. Where non-human animals are concerned, these hierarchical cultural ideas translate into legal principles. (2) They are evident in the law both in terms of the general legal landscape for animals as well as more concerted legal and policy responses to "wild" animals. Seemingly benign urban wildlife management laws and policies, we argue, thus reproduce problematic cultural, racial, gender, and species logics.

In this paper, we first demonstrate the problematic cultural lineage of the legal classification of "wild" animals on which urban wildlife management laws and policies depend. We unpack some of the cultural assumptions that make what some have called a trans-species ethic rather than an anthropocentric urban ecological framework very difficult to achieve in handling the challenges raised by the presence of wild animals

in human urban zones. (3) In the second part, we will discuss how the law fortifies these problematic cultural assumptions through its classification of animals, particularly through a conception of animal bodies as subject to human ownership through property regimes. In the third part, we look at how these cultural and legal understandings of human-non-human animal relationships (i.e., animals as property) coalesce in the context of solving "conflicts" in urban spaces, in terms of the consistent privileging of human interests. We take the controversy surrounding the "invasive" rabbits on the University of Victoria campus in Victoria, British Columbia that came to a head in 2011 as a case study. Finally, we will consider how we might approach human and non-human animal urban relations in a more egalitarian way and better acknowledge non-human animals as members of our communities.

  1. CULTURAL LANDSCAPE

    1. WILDNESS AND THE NATURE- CULTURE BINARY

      A binary understanding of nature and culture has long permeated Western cultural imaginaries. As Donna Haraway writes, in this binary "[n]ature is only the raw material of culture, appropriated, preserved, enslaved, exalted, or otherwise made flexible for disposal by culture in the logic of capitalist colonialism." (4) Nature is perceived as passive and uncultivated (5)--a wilderness to be tamed--while culture is the active set of practices by which humans "dominate" nature. What is more, "culture" is exclusively associated with human agents and, conversely, agency with human beings. (6) Perceptions of humans as distinct from non-humans have been ingrained through these representations. Indeed, the nature-culture dualism is closely related to the rise of the idea of human uniqueness. (7) Humans "are understood to be unique in their ability to domesticate and civilise," (8) and to transcend nature and wilderness. Kay Anderson notes that

      in Judeo-Christian traditions--and despite Darwin's influential claims for continuity between the human and animal worlds--humanity has persistently been seen not as a species of animality, but rather as a condition operating on a fundamentally different (and higher) plane of existence to that of "mere animals." (9) Human capacities for conscious reasoning and rationality have consistently been used to emphasize and justify this separation. (10) The ability to actively exert power over non-humans is highlighted in conceptions of humans as categorically distinct from non-human animals.

      The nature-culture binary is thus not simply one of demarcation and opposition, but also one of subordination. As Sandie Suchet notes, "[t]he oppositional binaries of culture-nature and human-animal naturalised in Eurocentric discourses do not exist in a power-neutral situation." (11) With increased urbanization, the privileging of human interests (and culture) over non-human nature becomes more transparent. Nature is deemed to be civilized through urban cultivation, and brought into a particular "moral order." (12) Most urban landscapes position humans at the centre, imagining them as agents, actively creating out of the available natural materials, while the latter are understood as objects. This tendency to centralize and exalt humans in their relationships with the non-human world in urban space is apparent with respect to a variety of non-humans, not just animals. (13) Consider gardens, for example. Emma Power suggests that such "spaces have been read as simple reflections of the cultures and understandings of their (human) gardener.... Nonhumans are largely absent within these narratives, emerging simply as the raw material from which gardens are created." (14) As with their relationship to animals, humans are seen as separate from this "raw material" from which they create and are depicted as the only beings exercising agency. (15)

      The centuries-old nature-culture binary is contemporarily reinforced through current media representations of the wilderness and wild animals in reality TV and documentary programming. (16) Jan-Christopher Horak discusses the increasing popularity of nature programs, noting that a number of cable channels (e.g., Animal Planet, Discovery Channel) are now almost exclusively devoted to such shows. (17) Moving "wildlife" from our immediate surroundings onto the small screen may cause persons in urban settings to fail to appreciate the impact "cultivation" of the wild has on animal habitats. Indeed, Horak argues that "the migration of nearly extinct animal species into the digital world can be seen as a virtual rescue [of animals] from the uncomfortable reality of the natural world." (18) "Wildlife" programs alternately characterize "nature" and animals as something unfamiliar to be approached with curiosity and caution, detached amusement, (19) as a world made familiar through the projection of human morals and values onto it, as a space under human threat in danger of disappearing, as a source of spirituality to be revered and treasured, (20) or as a challenge to overcome. (21)

      In any case, such programs arc marketable for their promise to showcase the untamed and unknown--those elements separate from our cultivated existence (22)--and make them resonate within the parameters of human intelligibility. (23) Important to this association is the reliance of these programs on conventional gendered narratives, e.g., females as self-sacrificing mothers and males as competitive, aggressive, and dominant. (24) In these representations, such programs take for granted the positioning of non-human animals and nature as inferior to humans, often legitimating the dominant social order by "illustrating" hierarchy among animals as the natural order of things. (25) David Nibert states that "media portrayals of other animals also reflect the assumed naturalness of their lowly social status.... [they are] frequently portrayed as dangerous and largely deserving of violent treatment." (26)

      Despite their pervasiveness and popularity, these oppositional relationships are not natural or universal assumptions. Suchet argues that "[c]onstructing complex worlds as culture and nature, human and animal, is not universal, true or 'natural' but is particular to Eurocentric knowledges." (27) Indeed, many Indigenous cultures have considered humans to be integrated with nature for millennia. (28) Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), a term associated with the knowledges of Indigenous peoples of North America, "assumes that humans are, and always will be, connected to the natural world, and that there is no such thing as nature that exists independent of humans and their activities." (29) This epistemological base does not place non-human animals in opposition to humans; rather, both form part of an interconnected system. This is not to romanticize the fate of wild animals in their interactions with Indigenous peoples, notably, when hunted and consumed. (30) The example nonetheless indicates the difference in the understanding of the positioning of humans in relation to animals and highlights the artificiality of the constructed border between the two in the West.

    2. MATRIX OF DIFFERENCES

      In grasping the cultural contingencies of views of humans and their place in relation to non-human others, it is important to understand the reliance of these cultural values about species difference on norms associated with other types of difference. These constructions do not emanate solely from ideas about animals or animality, but form part of a complicated discursive network that involves ideas of race, gender, class, and empire. A growing chorus of scholars, particularly ecofeminists, has noted links between representations of species difference in relation to animals and representations of other types of difference. (31) It is well observed, for...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP