Musings of an Early Career Anthrozoologist: Becoming With our Study Animals

By: Jes Hooper

It’s a quiet start to the morning and I am feeling the butterflies of nervous anticipation. It will be my first academic conference as a post-graduate researcher. I wonder if maybe including the word “poop” in the title was a good idea or not, to use the word “faeces” sounded somewhat pretentious at the time. I wanted to get away from the all too often lack luster linguistics of the biological scientist. Now I worry I’ll be labelled as the kooky social scientist. Why does this dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative politics persist? Coffee in hand and dressed in my most appropriate ‘smart-casual’ attire (it’s been a while, 58 days to be exact), I hesitate in the lobby, nervous to enter.

There are precisely 176 registered attendees when I enter the conference room including myself and 19 other panelists. I know this, because each person is represented by a number, only the panelists are attributed names and only the curator is currently visible, as a floating virtual head. His dog, who we were later introduced to (an odd looking Chihuahua dressed in a pink tutu), can be heard barking in the background. Unabated by reprimand, she slips the surly bonds of the living room and dances the internet on blissfully ignorant soundwaves [1], simultaneously entering the virtual conference and the physical homes of 175 strangers. With her voice, my mind wonders. She and I are the same, we share the same unique space in time between physical and virtual realities. This is a space created by our efforts to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic as countless industries across the globe have been forced to move online in order to survive. As domesticated species, we wait out the storm in social isolation. Like many, my anxieties have been soothed by social media feeds filled with anecdotes of how the “natural world” is thriving, devoid of human interference. Ah yes, there is that comfort of the human-animal binary, a reassuring, albeit false, divide.

As the Chihuahua yaps on, my thoughts turn to the intrigue I have felt as I have adjusted to life in the liminal virtual-non-virtual realm I’ve become accustomed to inhabiting. Where the classroom once defined me as lecturer, my office as student and my home as friend, the absence of these boundaries has been thought provoking.  For when I consider my newly founded liminality I am reminded of my non-human informants, those who I’ve chosen as kin for the next six years of my academic progression. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be my study ‘subject’? A species which flourishes in the in-between spaces, the spaces yet to be defined by ‘man’.

It is true that the question that had me stumped for many weeks as I poured over journal articles describing the taxonomic classification of the species pivotal to my research was a simple one: “What is a civet?” It had been within one of my many hazes of confusion amidst the different articles that re-classify civets into separate species and subspecies [2], remove them from the genus Viverra entirely [3] or dismiss their actual existence to begin with [4] that I begin to realise civets cannot be contained by human defined boundaries. For the civet is illusive, her intrinsic value lies in her liminality.

Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus)
Civets are nocturnal and arboreal animals, viewed by farmers as pests, they are frequently captured and traded for the pet trade and coffee production.
Photo credit: Mike Prince

Despite belonging to the most primitive family in the ancient lineage of Feliformia, or “catlike” animals [5], existing amidst humans for centuries, much of the information available on these mysterious animals comes from the humans who live amongst them, and until relatively recently most of these interactions were peripheral in nature. Locals would tell of their encounter not by visual conformation but by the lingering scent left in the air, a ghostly reminder hanging in the night that as humans they are not alone, that the resources around them are resources shared. Civets and humans share ecological histories, both have contaminated each other, enabling a transformation from fleeting local encounter to global trade, shared identity, commodification and exploitation. Tsing [6] describes survival of all species as dependent upon liveable collaborations. It is in the transformative encounters she refers to as “contamination” that multi-species worlds are created. It is just so with the civet. She can be a pet. She can be a pest. She can be a spirit animal or a valued commodity. In the same way she can be a coffee “helper”, “producer”, “worker”, an “education ambassador” or illegal interloper, the civet’s elusive nature extends beyond behavioural ecology and stretches into the classifications imposed upon her by humans. The civet is a liminal being. She exists most comfortably and most naturally in the in-between spaces. She is liminal down to her very nature, her very genetic coding, morphological features and behaviour. The civet is liminal because she has yet to be understood, yet to be confirmed as belonging to the correct family, species or subspecies, she doesn’t quite fit and that not-fitting is her essence, her survival, her story.

Civets have become popular pets throughout urban Indonesia, as evidenced by the rise in “civet lovers clubs”, designated social clubs for civet enthusiasts. The captive breeding of pet civets has resulted in a wide variety of colour morphs and civets are actively traded online on Instagram, YouTube and dedicated pet shop websites.
Photo credit: Civet Farms Indonesia, Instagram

To try and classify her, regardless of the usefulness of the exercise, feels somewhat forceful and violating. Yet humans have an almost constitutional need for order and organization of otherly worlds. Anthropologist Deborah Rose [7] argues there is violence in generating categories which homogenizes biodiversity. Nomenclature such as “natural capital”, “ecosystem services” and “working landscapes” categorize nature and its processes, diminishing their biodiversity into hierarchies which are separate to yet serving the human domain [8]. Here too the need for order is seen in the classification of civets, kin species that refuse to comply with the human-determined boundaries of taxonomic classification. Hence the civet continues to be re-categorized into different species and subspecies as humans desperately push for conformity she will not give. Thus what better species to depict Rose’s [9] claims that the organization of nature is an anthropocentric act which involves the “squashing [of] living beings into homogenized categories.” In times when our own liminality can feel looming, I suggest there is something to learn from the un-squashing of the “natural” world. Here in the in between spaces, between physical and virtual worlds, we are all liminal, we are all undefinable.


[1] In his 1941 poem “High Flight” pilot and poet John Gillespie Magee described the elation he felt during flight as breaking away from the confines of earthly boundaries to which nature prescribes in his opening lines “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings”. Magee’s (1941) poem has been widely popularized by pilots and astronauts alike in homage to humankinds aviation achievement.


About the Author:

Jes Hooper is an Anthrozoology Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter and a member of Exeter’s Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) working group. Jes’ current research focuses on human-animal encounters within the trade in exotic wildlife for the pet, coffee, tourism and zoo industries. Jes’ Ph.D. project, The Civet Project, is a multi-species and multi-sited ethnography following the stories of Viverridae species entangled within live animal trade, with encounters viewed through a trans-species lens. Jes’s work actively engages with interdisciplinary scholarship including collaborations with visual artists, critical tourism academics, conservationists, zoo keepers and fellow anthrozoologists. Jes lectures part time on two undergraduate programs in Animal Behaviour, Welfare and Conservation at Plumpton College, Sussex, and blogs under the name Shilo & Patch.

Author Jes Hooper and her dog, Dylan
Photo credit: Jes Hooper

References:

  1. Magee, J.G. and Sutherland, J., 1939. High flight. Larwell Butler & Hook.
  2. Veron, G., Patou, M.L., Tóth, M., Goonatilake, M. and Jennings, A.P., 2015. How many species of Paradoxurus civets are there? New insights from India and Sri Lanka. Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research, 53(2), pp.161-174.
  3. Do Linh San, E., Gaubert, P., Wondmagegne, D. and Ray, J., 2015. Civettictis civetta. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e. T41695A45218199.
  4. Nandini, R. and Mudappa, D., 2010. Mystery or myth: a review of history and conservation status of the Malabar Civet Viverra civettina Blyth, 1862. Small Carnivore Conservation, 43, pp.47-59.
  5. Hunter, L. and Barrett, P., 2019. Field Guide to Carnivores of the World. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  6. Tsing, A., 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  7. Rose, D.B., 2011. Wild dog dreaming: Love and extinction. University of Virginia Press.
  8. Crist, E., 2013. On the poverty of our nomenclature. Environmental Humanities, 3(1), pp.129-147.
  9. Rose, D.B., 2011. Wild dog dreaming: Love and extinction. University of Virginia Press.

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