(Part 3 of ‘After Attenborough: A Science and Myth for People Born of Nowhere.)
In my early years I was nurtured on David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell. Two naturalists famous in the anglophone world who have taught many people about nature, biology, and wildlife in the wake of British colonialism. I continue to find myself bumping into them again and again throughout my life. In my teenage years I lived around the corner from where Gerald Durrell would visit his brother the famous author Lawrence Durrell, in a small Cypriot village called Bellapais. Having read Gerald Durrell’s own popular book ‘My family and other animals’ – also the name of my family whatsapp chat courtesy of my brother – I found some parallels between Durrell’s family and mine; a group of siblings who spent a significant portion of their childhood growing up on a Mediterranean island beginning with ‘C’ amidst complex family dynamics, multiple languages, and cultures. And so too as a child amongst this milieu, my curiosity, like Gerald’s, turned to other animals.
In my case this was less to do with some innate love of animals (I have never had this homogenous feeling). It was to do with growing up outside of school and a fixed social context. There was the choice between hanging out with my family or playing with small critters like ants, antlions, snails, crabs, and beetles. Perhaps the best way to explain my relationship to these critters is via the tortoise my siblings and I were entrusted with. I would watch him endlessly enjoying lettuce, so much, that to this day I can gorge on lettuce leaves with similar intent. Something from all these creatures rubbed off on me, whether it was how darkling beetles can eat, shag, and not do much else given the right conditions, or how ants find a way together, no matter the obstacle – quietly relentless. I pulled them apart, probed their behaviour, built them obstacle courses, and vomited from whatever they left on my fingers. I watched snails plant the ground underfoot with buried eggs and spent countless hours learning how to tickle antlions from their lairs. Ghost crabs: I never managed to work out how to coax from their holes. The usual stuff for a kid, given the context. Bugs and books for company.
A tandem crucial experience as a child was learning that if I pointed out harsh treatment of an animal to my father, he would not pause for a moment but rush to chastise the person committing it. He would confront and threaten to visit similar treatment upon them. I remember an eagle in a crate at a street market. I remember a tortoises stuck haplessly in a bird cage. I remember a pair of monkeys shackled at the back of second-hand furniture shop. I remember my father getting out of the car on a roundabout and pulling a man from a donkey cart. Then beating him with the same whip the man had been using on his donkey. More often though these encounters ended in the animal being sold to my parents and them finding some way to for it to be free. However, the case of the monkeys stuck with me in particular. My parents sought the assistance of the national animal shelter in this instance. However, the officers there explained they did not shelter ‘wild animals’ but cats and dogs.
My father had not worried about smuggling the tortoise – he found whilst taking his daily poo in the woods – across national borders from Israel to Cyprus. But the monkeys were from Pakistan and didn’t seem likely to survive if let loose in Cyprus. They did not belong in ‘the wild’, and my parents did not have the resources to keep them. Ultimately, they found a local pet shop to take care of them. Itself a makeshift shelter for ex-circus animals and the like, with an old bear and a lion in malnourished conditions whilst the keeper sought resources to send them somewhere better. I later found out the bear had gone to a sanctuary in Turkey and the lion to someone’s country estate elsewhere on the island.
What a journey these animals had been on, forced migrants and mostly horrifying journeys from what I could see. Where help and support were limited by the fact that they did not fit in with the human social architecture they found themselves in. Later when I volunteered in a veterinary clinic, I witnessed how dogs and cats were integrated into this social architecture, either belonging to an owner who was responsible for them or captured and neutered at the clinic I volunteered at, in an attempt to control their population. Alongside these teenage experiences I had also been helping my grandmother on her pig farm and volunteering on a turtle conservation project. These adding further unique configurations of human and animals.
It was later as I studied at the School of Anthropology and Conservation in England that I bumped back into Durrell again as the local conservation institute was named after him. Attenborough had been a more ethereal but constant presence, whether it was young biology students voting for him as their celebrity crush or the naming of a new room after him. Not to mention his many TV series pretending to be ‘simply good quality documentaries about Nature’ accompanied by the Queens English of Attenborough. But contrary to my peers who loved his Attenborough and Durrell, I remembered reading their books, recording how they went around the world capturing animals to bring back to Britain as entertainment. The difference in my experience was that they walked in in the steps of Darwin – I didn’t as I will come to later. They became celebrity naturalists that were sponsored to go expeditions to ‘weird and wonderful’ places to trap and capture strange beasts and bring them back home to Britain. To then write fantastical books for their public to read, driving their readers to visit the zoological gardens these captured animals were then exhibited in. Later simply transplanting these zoos to safari parks worldwide.
In both cases mirroring and paying homage to Charles Darwin’s earlier expeditions. This capturing of beasties, whether partnered with books or films, was a perfected art form. The art of exoticizing animals in a similar way that ‘other’ peoples have been exoticized as part of colonialism. In doing so pulling on our heartstrings to justify the paternalization of them. In many ways a masterful success in marketing other life forms under the brand: Nature. Driving people to want to protect – seize control – of these animals and their habitats. The books and the films, an advertisement and recruitment drive to buy into the process of Empire, of landgrabbing and genocide of indigenous peoples, with Nature as a key brand and justifying story.
At the point in life, where this realization emerged, I was at a loss about how all these adults and authorities were basically useless at helping me join the dots. Putting each other down, no one seemed to be capable of doing much to resolve the quandary over what was wild, what was domesticated, what was invasive, what was nature, what needed saving, what could be culled. And that’s okay, but its in these tensions that I saw efforts to care about animals were existing in hard silos rooted in mis-shapen categories. At the same time, the very people on the ground who worked in this care (even if coercive, lethal or controlling) recognised these shaky categories to be deeply entangled, not siloed, and kind of silly. But as I have come to learn, the shackling of life is built on intimate notions of care.