Humans have long been positioned at the apex of the evolutionary chain, relegating animals to a position more inferior (Wolch, 1996). The emergence of ‘new’ animal geography in the mid-1990s (Wolch and Emel, 1995), however, has led to an increasing recognition of the animals’ ‘Otherness’ by ‘Us’ as we start to view animals as subjects rather than objects. The Transspecies Urban Theory calls makes a call for understanding cities as a complicated web of interaction between human-nonhuman processes, shaped through processes of negotiation and political struggle (Hovorka, 2008). The presence of urban animals in Singapore will be explored through a series of two posts, where I question human-animal relations within a city as affected by human behaviour, which in turn is shaped by their underlying values and attitudes towards these animals (Wolch, 1996).
We will be following the journey of a family of otters known colloquially as ‘Bishan 10’:
The otters are well known in Singapore and even around the world, having starred in David Attenborough’s documentary Wild City; facebook and blog groups dedicated to them, and even academics study them (BBC, 5/7/2016). The increased integration of the otters to everyday life in Singapore is prevalent, with sign boards erected in sites where they frequent, reminding human users of certain practices to observe, ensuring the safety of these nonhumans (Fig 1).
Fig 1: Signs erected on sites with otter presence to encourage acceptable behaviour by public (source: IUCN Otter Specialist Group, 2017)
The agency of these nonhumans has also manifested through its connections with the public, media and environmental agencies where the otters are no longer subjected to passivity. The recent Operation Free Aquarius showcases the coming together of different human players (e.g. media, environmental groups and agencies and public) as they sought to treat an injured pup, winning admiration not just locally but also across borders.
Learn more about Operation Free Aquarius:
Despite not making a deliberate effort to restore the smooth-coated otter population since its reappearance in Singapore in the mid-1990s, recent initiatives by the government to green the waterways (previous post) may further enrich the habitat for otters, possibly leading to an increased presence of these wild animals within our living environment. This is slightly worrying because the increased interaction may raise potential disturbances and conflicts as was seen when the otters were suspected of having feasted on ornamental koi, reportedly costing upwards of $80,000 (Straits Times, 9/7/2015) and have caused inconveniences to some residents (ibid, 6/8/2016). Such occurrences have also occurred in Missouri, USA, where the non-compliance of these nonhuman actors have led to social conflicts (Goedeke and Rikoon, 2008).
What might happen if human-animal relations turn south?
Goedeke, T. L. and S. Rikoon (2008) ‘Otters as actors: scientific controversy, dynamism of networks, and the implications of power in ecological restoration’, Social Studies of Science, 38, 1, 111-132.
Hovorka, A. (2008) ‘Transspecies urban theory: chickens in an African city’, Cultural geographies, 15, 95-117.
Wolch, J. (1996) ‘Zoopolis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 7, 2, 21-47.
Wolch, J. and J. Emel (1995) ‘Guest editorial: bringing the animals back in’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 13, 632-636.