Rats, mice, raccoons, squirrels, opposums, ants, snails, skunks, slugs, pigeons, geese… the list is endless. What unites this list of nonhuman animals is their urban North American geographies and the common moniker of pests, vermin, trash, and most eloquently said, “matter out of place”.
On a typical day we encounter these nonhuman animals in more places than we are made aware of, but for the purpose of this article I am zooming in on the streets, shops and homes that display urban animals, particularly as decor. This distinction is interesting because the permissibility of these urban creatures depends on their liveliness, or lack thereof. I am guided by one of the main declarations inTrash Animals: How we live with nature’s filthy, feral, invasive and unwanted species that identifies our problems resting in how little we know about urban nonhuman animals that contributes to the paradigm of the urban nonhuman animal pest category. There is very little effort in the city to challenge geographies of human imaginations that posit these nonhuman animals as unwelcome.
The category of pest animals is an unfixed and constructed class of nonhuman animals. It has been subjected to political agendas, misunderstandings and an industrial fear of the uncontrollable and unboundable being (Snæbjörnsdóttir & Wilson 2011, 6, Fissel 1999). The categorization rests in their animality this prevents pest animals from entering into civilized, anthropocentric scripts concerned with instances of hygiene, proper codes of conduct, and other expectations for humans and domesticated nonhuman urban dwellers.
Urban settings are built in contrast to the rural; the concepts rest in negation to the other. This poorly hinged dichotomy relies on the development of the industrialized city. Matthew Gandy articulates this transformation of cities through the concept of “bacteriological cities” (Gandy 2006). This insightful work, redresses the ‘hows’ of capitalist industrialism, exposing how the success of the contemporary cityscapes necessitated new ways of governance – a new kind of control couched in promoting health and a ‘clean city’. This development involved redefining standards of the city that place individuality as one of the most important and desirable aspects (Gandy 2006, 17). Building on this, Jing Yi Huang comments that what makes us delighted or disgusted is made tangible by what we keep, or allow, to exist “interior or exterior to us” (Huang 2015, 67). In the city, non-domesticated nonhuman animals are denizens, unwelcomed. However, the imaginary lives and images of animals delight us. Huang declares that with the distancing of ourselves physically from unbounded nonhuman animals, we find places for them in fiction, in consumer-capitalistic culture and in the virtual realms (Huang 2015, 67).
Huang’s work encourages us to understand the shifting human imaginaries of nonhuman animals in the city. There is excessive force and resources used to eradicate or control urban animals, however, I am particularly interested in the imaginary spaces they are granted. I want to trouble two of the many encounters we have with urban nonhuman animals, that being on the streets in their corporeal ‘live’ states and their ‘dead’ states as décor. As of recent, there is a visible flux of ‘cute’ urban animals like foxes, squirrels, mice and other urban creatures finding their way onto statement plates, pillows, throw-overs, t-shirts and other fabricated items. We can take this in immediately as passive consumption but to give it a bit of political clout, it is arguably creating a space for these animals to exist without having to exist corporally. Seeing these urban nonhuman animals grace the store shelves should not be taken as a celebration of co-existence, rather, understood as an actively permissible destruction, to substitute real lives.
One of the compounding reasons why these particular animals are so readily disposable is their very demeanour that largely resists ownership, and thus escapes simple human efforts of control. One of the re-workings of these animals in consumer-capitalist culture that has been successful is the multitudes of caricaturized forms they have taken, fitting them into roles relational to us- perverse forms of anthropomorphism. John Berger commented on this phenomenon, observing that the more animals became withdrawn from daily life, the greater the diffusion of animalized, commercialized imagery dominates (Berger 1980, 26). A particularly heartbreaking example is the image of the mothering nonhuman animal. Take for example a plush toy of a mouse and her infant or a skunk and her kit. We will buy these figures up to warm our homes with, initiating endless ‘awes’ and comments of how adorable the scenario may be. Yet, in actuality, the idea of parental care in the ‘wild’ (read: uncivilized, uncontrolled) brings red to our eyes. The idea that they will be producing, in such a fury, only creates fear and a capitalist-oppressive impulse to take care of the problem, legible only in poison and violence.
Shifting slightly, I want to address one of the places that fear for urban nonhuman animals is rooted in and the lack of fundamental knowledge about them that would promote an appreciation. There is increasing interest in the worlds of these common nonhuman animals in the city. Dr. Gow and her team at the University of British Columbia are dedicated to studying northern flickers and their nest sanitation. One of the observations was that male flickers spend about an hour a day tasking away at removing the continuous excrements from the chicks. Reasons for completing this task includes a need for general nest sanitation by removing microbes and odours that may draw predators (Gow et al., 2015). Research like this is very important to unlock a lapse of knowledge that urban dwellers have. Even more important is the fundamental tool of observation that we are all equipped with that can ‘access’ and contribute to this knowledge base.
These steps of learning and declaring the importance of the nonhuman animals in the city contribute to what is called an ‘urban sense of place’ which has been constructed out of ideas of living in an urban setting whilst feeling detached. When seeking nature, the typical response is to look to the exoticized, pristine landscapes, whether being national parks or distant and far locations requiring various degrees of transportation, citizenships and privileged visas to take you there. This form of nature seeking is embedded in colonial conquering narratives and ‘Columbusting’ effects of finding the new, un-encountered, null spaces.
In the pages of City Wilds: Essays and stories about urban nature, the reader finds a comparative discussion of seeking nature in the city compared to the far-away landscapes. I have found particular use of their contribution to urban nature discussions when considering urban nonhuman animals. These tenants speak to issues of accessibility, scale, understandings of mutuality, and an aesthetic veering. Rekindling an appreciation for urban nonhuman animals allows for the sense of co-existence with all species to be facilitated in the confines of a city without the imprisonment of a zoo. With accessibility also comes an appreciation for the normal, common found creatures whether it is birds or squirrels. Orienting one’s nature ethics internally permits a ground for contemplation of why one needs to consume the exotic animals that are tied into legacies of ‘othering’ couched in ecological tenants of colonialism. Encountering these common animals also brings them into ones daily lives. This establishes a sense of place, since you can walk through the same borough day after day witnessing similar animals in that place. Familiarity and appreciation on this scale is in contrast to the “American nature adventure narratives” (Dixon 2002, xiv). The self becomes absolved into a contributor of a greater community of co-habitation hinged on ethics of interdependency. With all of this comes the grand celebration of the urban ecologies, an aesthetic response that requires one to question where they find beauty, and to question why the atypical is undeserving.
A worthwhile activity for an urban dweller is to keep a sort of urban bestiary. Lyanda Lynn Haupt does this in Encountering the Everyday Wild: The Urban Bestiary where they promote “the more we understand the wild animals that share our home places, the better we can coexist in safety, wisdom, conviviality, and delight” (Haupt 2013, 10). An activity like this could be a mere mental mapping all the way to a more comprehensive journaling. Regardless of the degree of commitment, the sentiment remains the same; and that is an interest in knowing and appreciating the nonhuman animals in the city that criss-cross our paths all day. There has been a lapse of interest in literature of critical animal studies regarding these ‘loathsome’ animals that may largely have to do with their placement on hierarchies of speciesism. Therefore, urban nonhuman animals require internal and external reconfigurations from everybody.
Once we begin conceptually figuring urban nonhuman animals into cityscapes, mentalities are cultivated that will profoundly shift city nature ethics. One that is based on forming bonds with ones surroundings in ways that recognize the colonial legacies, imaginative geographies, challenging commodification, all for the radical possibility of envisioning very rich entwinements of life in the city. Nonhuman animals shuffled into the category of pests are re-inscribed as more than the filthy quarters they inhabit or their unrelatable forms of hygiene, consumption and livelihoods. Challenging what we consider normative nature ethics in the city, offers real opportunities for more abundant, critical, and flourishing landscapes of co-existence.
Stephanie Eccles is an activist-scholar based in Montreal, Canada. She begins her MSs in the fall of 2016 at Concordia University in the Geography, Planning and Environmental Studies department, specifically focusing on critical animal geographies. Stephanie both studies and advocates for the undesired human and nonhuman animal’s of the world, whether by investigating the violent industries of wildlife management or in sharing her home with her pit bull Clementine.
Berger, John. About looking. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Dixon, Terrell F. City wilds: Essays and stories about urban nature. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Fissell, Mary. “Imagining vermin in Early Modern England”. History Workshop Journal 47(1999): 1-30.
Gandy, Matthew. “The bacteriological city and its discontents”. Historical Geography 34(2006) 14-25.
Gow ,Elizabeth, Karen Wiebe & Annessa Musgrove. “Nest sanitation in response to short-and long-term manipulations of brood size: males clean more in a sex-role reversed species”. Animal Behaviour 104 (2015): 137–143.
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Encountering the everyday wild: The urban bestiary. New York: Little, Brown Company, 2013.
Huang, Jing Yi. Animal cities: Post-human urban wildness. MA Thesis. Syracuse University, 2015. Web. April 1st, 2016.
Nagy, Kelsi & David Johnson II. Trash Animals: How we live with nature’s filthy, feral, invasive, and unwanted species. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Snæbjörnsdóttir, Bryndis & Mark Wilson. Uncertainty in the City. Berlin: The Green Box, 2011.