Radically Imagining Human-Animal Relations after the Covid19 Pandemic

Throughout the Covid19 pandemic there have been numerous viral social media posts claiming that Mother Nature is healing. One way in which this plays out is through the sharing of multiple stories of animals returning to places considered the domain of humans, as with the goats who wandered through Llandudno. Another way is through the sharing of often erroneous stories about the resurgence of animal life as with the story about dolphins returning to canals in Venice. As National Geographic put it “Fake animal news abounds on social media.” While some of this can be attributed, as the National Geographic article does, to a need to share positive news, or to a need to believe that nature can heal, it’s not without risk. Believing that nature can ‘heal’ so quickly without human interference while meant to show how damaging we are to the environment runs the risk that people will simply dismiss the urgency of climate change/damage due to a belief it can be fixed quickly.

It’s worth noting, too, as Scott Hess does that these kinds of stories play into the construction of ‘nature’ as a separate place where we go to escape modernity, to escape the pressures of what is constructed as a solely human world. But this comes at a price:

In providing this sense of refuge, though, our ideas of nature too often lead us away from where we actually are, promoting a model of Romantic imaginative escapism and autonomous individualism that in many ways actually supports the same modern consumer order that it claims to oppose … [it] … skews our environmental awareness and priorities in ways that blind us to the devastating ecological impact of our own everyday lives and incapacitates us from pursuing realistic alternatives (p. 85).

This can be applied to the spread of these kinds of animal stories whether fake or not. Our incredulity about the goats in Llandudno, for instance, serves to underline the binary between human spaces and animal spaces: ‘they’ have come into ‘our’ space now that we are no longer using it. Absent is any analysis of how we colonised the space and pushed them out in the first place. And so absent, too, is any discussion on how we might want to radically alter our practices post-pandemic to make space for animals who clearly want – or are at least willing – to use more space than they are allotted by us. Instead we are left with little more than humorous headlines in the case of the goats and feel-good fake stories in the case of the dolphins returning to Venice canals.

It is important to keep imagining a different world, in this case, in terms of other animals’ relations with us because a radical imagination can help sow the seeds of change. But we need to check the veracity of the claims made about animals because the consequences to them can be catastrophic when the information we use is incorrect. Consider for instance, the mistreatment of companion animals in Wuhan at the start of the pandemic.

This process of radically re-imaging human-animal relations should not be undertaken with a belief in a uniform outcome for animals or humans. We need to proceed carefully and make sure we recognise and understand different species of animals and then their individuality within their species, for instance. We also need to embrace differing viewpoints.

We will all have different ideas and priorities, and this is a strength of our attempts to re-imagine as we will stretch each others’ ideas and thinking. Our collective re-imagining should, however, be undertaken with a view to advocating for other animals, to including their needs and desires in the conversation as much as is possible/practicable.

Furthermore, it should be undertaken with a radical imagination – that is, one which seeks to locate the treatment of other animals within wider systems of oppression and one which seeks a future devoid of the objectification, abuse, and torture of other animals as well as one filled with delight about their potential return to ‘human’ spaces like canals or Welsh towns.

The pandemic has shown the fragility of our systems and the folly of our practices. It is now urgent that we think about the kinds of changes in our relations with other animals that we want – need – to enact post-pandemic.

As Arundathi Roy says:

What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.

Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

We hope you’ll join us in this re-imagining project as we think through the many and profound issues facing all animals especially those not enjoying the privileges associated with being human.

Authors: Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser

Artwork: Heather Fraser

2 thoughts on “Radically Imagining Human-Animal Relations after the Covid19 Pandemic

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  1. Well said. We cannot, of course, fully occupy the perspective of a bat, or a goat or a dolphin. But we can start by recognising our anthropocentric viewpoint, and considering how that skews our approaches to the other animals we either share with or dominate. From that can come new perspectives, respectful of difference as well as similarity.

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