The anthropocentric bias in contemporary urban theory has long put humans as primary agents in cities. Yet, urban studies have increasing conceptualised cities as products of complex human and non-human exchanges (Hovorka, 2008). This has led to the rise of transspecies urban theory which moves beyond objectifying animals to recognising the interdependence of humans and animals and the importance of a focus on animals in making sense of human-environment relations.
Heterogeneous social encounters take place in the prosaic spaces of cities and not all actors are human. The Natural History Museum in Rotterdam is home to a collection called ‘Dead Animals with a Story’, a collection of animal carcasses and descriptions of how these animals came to their sticky ends. These stories reveal an interweaving of people, animals, machines and other elements that configure the plural spaces of cities (Whatmore, 1999).
Here are some of these stories:
The deaths of these animals show how their relative powerlessness in human–animal relations (Philo and Wilbert, 2000). How humans think, feel, and talk about animals shape their socio-spatial practices towards them – the “domino sparrow” is an example of how animals are excluded from sites of human activity, punished for wreaking havoc and transgressing human spaces and boundaries (Philo, 1994).
At the same time, the exhibition displays a recognition of animals as influential actors fashioning the relationships and environments they inhabit. Examining how ‘McFlurry Hedgehog’ influenced McDonald’s to change its lid covers, reveals the significance of animals in shaping the lives of urban dwellers through peculiar human-nonhuman encounters (Whatmore, 1999). While ‘McFlurry Hedgehog’ may not inherently possess the agency to change McDonalds, its power manifests through connections and networks between media, environmentalists, and McDonald’s consumers, allowing it to become a player instead of an inert and passive thing (Dempsey, 2010).
While this exhibition suggests a potential embracing of living with rather than against nature in cities (Hovorka, 2008), human behaviour also reveals underlying values and attitudes towards animals. Human responses to animals are rooted in cultural beliefs (Wolch, 1996). The attitude of derision that the exhibition adopts – e.g. the slightly jocular treatment of ‘McFlurry Hedgehog’ (instead of pointing out the underlying problem of irresponsible trash management) – reveals how humans, firmly astride the apex of the revolutionary chain (Wolch, 1996), set animals as apart and inferior based on intelligence and character traits.
Even as transspecies urban theory highlights the intermingling of humans and animals in cities, animals and their fates are entrenched in inexorable power dynamics of revulsion, control, utilitarianism or compassion (Tuan, 1984). Animals continue to be used instrumentally for food, company or experimentation because of definitive ideas of animals as ‘other’ relative to ‘us’ both socially – in character trains and geographically – by fixing spaces they are allowed/not allowed to occupy (Philo and Wilbert, 2000).
Some conceptual, but very useful articles on ways to think about animals in cities 🙂
Dempsey, J. (2010) ‘Tracking grizzly bears in British Columbia’s Environmental Politics’, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 42, 1138 – 1156.
Hovorka, A. (2008) ‘Transpecies urban theory: chickens in an African city’, Cultural Geographies, Vol. 15, 95 – 117.
Philo, C. ‘Animals, geography and the city, notes on inclusions and exclusions’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 13, 655 – 681.
Philo, C. and Wilbert, C. (2000) Animal spaces, beastly places, new geographies of human–animal relations, London: Routledge.
Tuan, Y. F. (1984) Dominance and affection, the making of pets, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Whatmore, S. (1999) ‘Hybrid geographies: rethinking the “human” in human geography’, in D. Massey, J. Allen and P. Sarre (eds), Human Geography Today, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 24 – 39.
Wolch, J. (1996) ‘Zoopolis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 7, No. 2, 21 – 47.