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The Day After: Animals

The first installment in an ongoing series analyzing the perils and possibilities of our collective response to COVID-19


‘Robin’, an illustration by John James Audobon, American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter (1851). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Day After: Animals marks the first installment in an ongoing curated series that asks contributors to imagine the perils and possibilities that will ground our collective response to or emergence from the COVID-19 crisis.

We will ask Canada’s leading scholars to respond to questions of human-environment relations to consider our post-COVID future: What opportunities make you hopeful and what risks do you see at the human-nature interface? How can we build an ethic of care for socioecological systems?

These scholars of critical environmental studies have dedicated their professional lives to grappling with questions of environmental conflict, governance and justice—here, we have asked them to turn their reflections toward the public. Together, we hope this contributes to a broad and ongoing discussion on how the COVID-19 crisis can produce visions of the future of human-environment relations, for better or worse.

Our first edition is about animals, with contributions from Rosemary-Claire Collard, Zoe Todd, Kendra Coulter, Stephanie Rutherford, and Jonathan Luedee.

Rosemary-Claire Collard is an assistant professor of geography at Simon Fraser University and author of Animal Traffic: Lively Capital in the Global Exotic Pet Trade.

The day after, a lot of invisible labour becomes visible. Much of this labour is “life’s work”: keeping kids and adults healthy, fed, and getting along. The day after, we start calling it “frontline work”, and two things about it become obvious. This work, long devalued, often even treated as if it isn’t work at all, is essential and it is work. And women, especially women of colour, do the lion’s share of it, whether unpaid or poorly paid. The day after, cheers begin rippling around the globe as people lean out their windows, banging pots and pans each day in appreciation of these frontline workers.

The day after, a million species are at risk of extinction. Wildlife trade and habitat loss are driving animal endangerment and human vulnerability to zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. North Americans imagine themselves as distant from these drivers. Hate crimes spike. Wet market becomes a pejorative word. The US president tries to brand COVID-19 “the Chinese virus”, while his country leads the world legal and illegal wildlife imports.

The day after, scientists turn to a different kind of wildlife trade in the scramble to understand and solve the virus. “We get diseases from other animals, and then we use more animals to figure out how to stop the diseases” observes the New York Times. Monkeys, who closely replicate disease processes in humans, are prized test subjects; mice, hamsters and ferrets are also enlisted. Scientists worry: China, which supplies the world with 70,000 monkeys a year for medical testing and experimentation, passed a new wildlife trade ban and it is restricting access to monkeys. These animals who are tasked with “living out our nightmares”, as Hugh Raffles says—aren’t they frontline workers? The day after, let’s honour their invisible life’s work too.

Zoe Todd (Métis/otipemisiw) is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University writing about fish, art, Métis legal traditions, the Anthropocene, extinction, and decolonization in urban and prairie contexts.

I became sick at the end of January 2020. The cause remains an asterisk. A ‘presumed’ case of COVID-19 remains a strong possibility, but like many things associated with this pandemic, there is little clarity on what actually caused me to experience two (possibly three?) rounds of pneumonia and extended sickness over the last 16 weeks. What I do know is that in the space between waking and sleep, in those long days and nights I spent bedridden in my modest attic apartment in Ottawa through February, March, and April, I kept dreaming of fish. Drawing them, reading about them, animating them in short video clips. Imagining being out on the water with them.

I was supposed to spend this summer back in Alberta, working with an amazing team of researchers and community members to tackle questions about trout population decline in Alberta. However, as my sickness worsened, I had to step away from different aspects of our work. Early on in my convalescence, I woke from a dream where I spent time along the River Thames in London. In the dream, the fish in the river spoke to me, and conveyed that humans need to celebrate the fish with an arts and music and cultural festival to acknowledge all the labour and meaning-making the fish in that river provide for the human inhabitants of London and its environs. I woke with the firm sense of a duty to somehow share this message with others. I’m still not sure how to do so. But this seems as good a place as any. Maybe there already is such a festival! And who am I to tell Londoners how to live!

What these fishy dreams remind me, however, is that in many ways we are being called to care for one another in capacious and courageous ways. To ensure one another’s mutual flourishing in spaces that have undergone violence for far too long. I can only hope that, perhaps, we will figure out how to celebrate the fish, the water, our friends, family, the lands and other beings that make our existence possible. And I can only hope that we figure out how to be present on the earth, in the earth, in ways that ensure the fish know we appreciate all they do for us, in those watery worlds that our distant ancestors once inhabited, millions upon millions of years ago. I can only hope that somehow we figure out how to dismantle unjust systems, and build something worthy of the fish—who travel alongside us through everything, and as Leroy Little Bear reminds us, have much to teach us, still.

Scanned from The Naturalist on the River Amazons (1863) by Henry Walter Bates, University of California Press version, published 1962.

Kendra Coulter is the chair of labour studies and Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence at Brock University, and a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She is the author of Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity.

A just society would be rooted in solidarity, equity, and care. And, crucially, these concepts wouldn’t only apply to people. As we imagine and work for a sustainable future, the need to take animals’ presence and wellbeing seriously is undeniable—for their own sake and for our own.

The concept of interspecies solidarity invites us to expand our webs of empathy, compassion, and politics to include other species. Interspecies solidarity is a goal, a process, a vision, and an opportunity to reshape our daily lives, communities, and normalized economic patterns in order to recognize animals’ sentience, interests, and social relationships—as well as how we are interconnected. It complements the concept of One Health and many Indigenous communities’ ideas about integrated wellbeing.

One powerful extension of interspecies solidarity is the idea of humane jobs: those that are good for both people and animals. We have laudably rejected the supposed dichotomy between good jobs and environmental protection through the concept of green jobs; the same is needed for human-animal labour. The promise of humane jobs is about creating work that is about helping others, not harming them. It can involve improving certain jobs to make them more humane. It can mean creating new humane jobs to replace those in destructive industries or proactively cultivate more ethical employment.

Industrial animal agriculture warrants particular attention. 800 million animals are now killed annually in Canada. Factory farming is damaging to workers, especially racialized and migrant workers, rural communities, the environment, our health, and, most of all, animals who suffer short lives of intense misery. We need alternatives. We need humane jobs and ethical, sustainable food production.

Stephanie Rutherford is an associate professor in the school of the environment at Trent University and author of Governing the Wild: Ecotours of Power.

One of the only positive narratives emerging in what feels like an avalanche of terrible news concerns the triumphal return of animals to cities. Of course, it’s not a return; animals have always been part of the more-than-human ecologies which constitute urban space. While it turns out that dolphins didn’t swim around the waterways of Venice, less venerated wildlife that live in and around our urban landscapes are making themselves more obvious, from the eastern coyotes that roam my town, to the goats gleefully rampaging in Wales or the African penguins reclaiming the beach in Cape Town. The urban seems alive in unexpected ways; our newly imposed distance reveals their proximity to us.

For the most part, people have been charmed by these visitations, with animals serving almost as therapeutic surrogates at a time of breathtaking loss. But it’s not enough to be charmed. I would suggest that we owe animals more than an ephemeral pause in the human-induced change which affects their life chances. Instead, we need something much more like solidarity and mutual aid. There have always been other ways of relating to animals that resist the colonial and capitalist logics of agricultural intensification, resource extraction and human exceptionalism; these are often about seeing animals as kin or individuals with lifeworlds of their own. And it may be the collective grief as a result of COVID-19 that opens up a possibility space to think about how our unevenly shared world might be otherwise.

In Thom van Dooren’s writing on extinction, he contends that grief is about “relearning our place in a shared world”; grief can catalyze a new posture, one focused on enmeshment rather than separation. For urban wildlife, this might involve fostering nodes of connectivity and chances for autonomy, even as they live in synanthropic relation with us. But if the cascading impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and habitat transformation—all of which are related to coronavirus—teach us anything, it’s that doubling down on half-hearted solutions to the violence of environmental harm aren’t enough. Arundhati Roy tells us “the pandemic is a portal.” The question is to where? The answer to that question is alive with radical possibility for humans and nonhumans alike.

Mountain goats roam the streets of LLandudno, Wales on March 31, 2020. Photo by Christopher Furlong.

Jonathan Luedee is a postdoctoral fellow in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of a dissertation entitled Science, borders, and boundaries in the western Arctic: environmental histories of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

The global transmission of COVID-19 exposed the perils and inequities engendered by contemporary animal-human relationships. As governments rushed to contain the cross-border flow of human hosts of coronavirus, scientists investigating the origins of the disease reminded us of a troubling reality: that is, the intensification of human encroachment on animal habitat has increased the likelihood that humans will be infected by animal-borne pathogens and diseases.

Yet, cross-species disease transmission is but one among a suite of interrelated environmental impacts unleashed by the widespread destruction of wildlife habitat. At the global scale, the degradation of critical animal habitat is driving biodiversity loss and causing the extinction of wildlife species. This global trend has local implications for animals and people in North America. Throughout Canada and Alaska, woodland and barren-ground caribou populations have been impacted by habitat disturbance and fragmentation related to resource development. Recent efforts to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development represent a profound threat to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which calves on the Refuge’s coastal plain, and Gwich’in communities on both sides of the Alaska-Yukon border.

Despite this environmental history, the disruptions engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic have provided us the impetus to restructure our relationship with the more-than-human world. The global economic slowdown triggered by the COVID crisis has led to a reduction in North Slope oil production, and provides us with an opportunity to ask important questions about the wisdom of pursing energy development plans that will cause further fragmentation of wildlife habitat in the North American Arctic. As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, I am hopeful that we can contribute to an ethic of care for socioecological systems through the protection of critical wildlife habitat in places like ANWR. Achieving this in an equitable manner will require a collective effort that centers and supports Indigenous voices, rights, and sovereignty, and resists the trappings of past forms of colonial conservation.

Jonathan Peyton is an associate professor of geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia.

James Wilt is a master’s student in geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk.


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