Wild Immigrants

The other day I had the pleasure of attending a symposium on wildlife – humans interactions. It was organized by the Centre for Nature and Society of the Radboud University, and gathered academic and practitioner voices for a very interesting discussion of the ethical and social dimensions of interacting with wild animals. The symposium was called Invasion of the Wild, and it was framed by the recent arrival of wild animals closer to cities: boar in Berlin, lone wolves in the Netherlands, foxes in London. I learned a lot, and I want to share with you some of the insights that shone through the talks. Also, I want to reflect on some common assumptions that I am starting to doubt.

First, what I learned.

1. Europe has a surprising density of wildlife. As in a Platonic discourse, learning here meant remembering: I had read about the literal closeness of wildlife to Europeans, but hadn’t thought about it, or its significance, in a while. To be precise, people in Europe are more likely to live close to charismatic megafauna (wolves, big grazers, bears, the like) than people in the US. This flies in the face of inherited wisdom, and says something about the capacity of animals to evade detection, as well as our capacity to live hermetical lives. One way to read this situation is to consider the ways in which our daily practices with wild animals, though largely unreflective, are a form of pedagogy: we teach animals how to stay alive in a human world, how to carve out an autonomous existence in the hustle and bustle of a dense Europe. In some cases this pedagogical process is conscious, if not yet fully reflective. In the US, I learned, bears that come into town are subject to a two or three strike policy: they are scared two or three times, that is to say, they are given the chance to escape unharmed. If they nonetheless return, they can be shot. The parallels with the American criminal justice system, and the notorious three strike policy for petty crimes, are hard to ignore. Thinking of wildlife-human relations in pedagogical terms supposes an understanding of wild animals as intelligent others, capable of forms of complex communication that span species barriers. The three strike policy still treats bears like incorrigibles, another disturbing parallel with how the criminal justice system treats petty offenders.

Thinking about the broader issues involved in interacting with wild animals, I come back to a point that was made repeatedly in the symposium, namely that part of our discomfort at seeing bears forage through trash is the fact that wild animals disturb our symbolic order. The wild animal in the city straddles the neat border we have drawn up between the space of culture – tidy, organized, and that of nature – chaotic, violent. The parallel was drawn between wild interlopers and strangers, refugees, immigrants. But in light of the discussion above, perhaps an appropriate parallel would be between the wild animal and the criminal, both blurring the symbolic border between order and chaos. The image of a symbolic order disturbed assumes that people, in punishing the wild creature and the criminal, want to protect the sphere of order and uniformity. In fact, disposable others are routinely incorporated within normalizing symbolic orders. This is the meaning of the pedagogy of punishment I described, and why it is not really pedagogical at all. The proper end of education is equality in autonomy, whereas punishment as pedagogical tool discards the capacity of the other for both equality and autonomy, and treats it as second-class by nature. Criminals are incorporated in our symbolic order as subjects of domestication, and wild animals are routinely incorporated as prey. Our overall symbolic universe is not really disturbed by the presence of different others, but rather fortified in incorporating them as subordinate and disposable. This is, perhaps, why it is so hard to change certain practices, like hunting: killing is not just a reaction to a threat, but a working part of the symbolic universe.

2. One of the speakers was the founder of WikiWolves, an organization that works with sheep farmers in Germany to protect their flock from wolves. Besides being a tremendously inspiring person, there was one part of her presentation that I found very important. In speaking about the sheep farmers that WikiWolves works with, she enumerated the kinds of things that would be on a farmer’s mind on any given day: the price of sheep products, access to grasslands, the fragmentation of the landscape (and therefore the difficulty of driving the flock), the quality of forage, management regulations of grasslands, the health of the animals, family and private life, the social image of a farmer, health, uncertain farm succession, and dependance on funding programs for the continuation of their lifestyle. Presented in this context, the rise of wolf numbers in Germany, where the project operates, becomes just another threat in the pot. This reminded me of conversations I’ve had in the Danube Delta about jackals. There, locals complained about the jackal being another thing they have to worry about. This suggests that there is a relation – surely not straightforward, but nonetheless – between general wellbeing and acceptance of wild others. At least it is reasonable to suppose that the less people have to worry about, the more leeway there is for a change in attitudes and behavior towards threatening others (be it wild animals or strange humans). This, I think, sets the appropriate context for any kind of intervention aimed at increasing tolerance. However, it is also true that the relation between tolerance and other facets of life is not straightforward. Which brings me to the assumptions:

(1) people that are used to wildlife are more tolerant of it.

This was expressed in different ways by different people, and it reflects a generally held assumption about why some places can live with wildlife while others cannot. The idea is that, if a community experiences wildlife continuity, as it were, it grows tolerant of different critters. Conversely, in places that have not had wildlife for a while, it is hard for newcomers to be accepted. This makes intuitive sense, but there are two obvious problems that recommend the assumption for reassessment. One is the historical fact of local populations driving species into (local) extinction. Supposedly, it was not for lack of habituation, but simply because the way the animals in question were perceived was under the spell of a predator-prey relation. Second, in my field work I have come across multiple cases of people in wildlife-rich areas hating the hell out of one animal or another. Again, this isn’t because of few encounters, or fear generated by such ignorance. It is simply that some animals feature as creatures to be killed, rather than accepted, no matter how long they have been around. The idea that simply being around wildlife would make one tolerant starts to seem like either wishful thinking, or else the kind of thing that someone that doesn’t live around wild animals would suppose. It might be, in fact, that another assumption fits better: people that don’t live in areas with abundant (particularly conflictual) wildlife tend to think that habituation is enough for acceptance. Looking at cases of human-wildlife interaction in various environments, it seems to me that some species (wolves, for example), tend to be incorporated symbolically in similar ways, none of which are very positive for their long-term survival. And this seems to be particularly so for people that do know these animals. Hence why most sheep farmers would rather not live close to wolves.

(2) invasive species are negatively perceived because they are invasive.

I shared this assumption for a long time. The idea is that an invasive is a stranger and, like in human communities, strangers have to prove themselves over and beyond what is required of someone that is familiar. This reaches back to the idea that there is a deep connection between some animals (in this case, invasive ones) and foreign humans: we tend to treat both more suspiciously than we otherwise would. The term invasive is itself loaded, and already suggests danger, aggression, unwanted expansion. However, despite the term being so singularly apt for stigmatization, people don’t seem to follow the linguistic clue in the way they relate to actual animals. To begin with, many invasives are not known as such, because they are part and parcel of our ‘normal’ daily lives. Others, like some species of carp in the Danube river, are delicious and abundant, which makes them welcome to fishermen. In this case, pointing out that they are invasive – hence brining in the inherent moralism of the term – makes people feel more righteous in eating said species, while of course hoping they will still be around to eat tomorrow. And finally, some species are known to be recent arrivals, and are hated, yet not because of their being newcomers. This seems to be the case with the golden jackal in South-Eastern Europe. Everyone can remember when it first appeared, and it is more or less universally reviled, but its being new doesn’t seem to be what fuels the hatred. This is quite remarkable, and I have no explanation for it (yet?). My hunch is that the quality of being foreign is not the automatic negative stamp we usually assume it is. Foreigners are also interesting in being different. And, as with the term invasive loosing meaning if we shift baselines far enough, so does the term foreigner loose its outer-directed focus as soon as we thrust our imagination back in time. Particularly in a region as diverse as South-Eastern Europe, everyone was a ‘foreigner’ at one point or another. This being the case, the category looses its purchase, and becomes somewhat descriptive, but uninteresting. More interesting, and relevant, is that the jackal, recently arrived or not, might eat your kids.


  1. This parallel would indeed be a topic for a lot of reflections. Just a few:
    1) there were of course historical traditions of hospitality towards foreigners (that somehow survive in Europe’s periphery, southern Italy, the Balkans (but here I rely on hearsay). This tradition may have been quite ambivalent in practice (the host may have been considered suspicious and a threat), but nevertheless it’s also part of our past. It can moreover be reactivated, see e.g. a number of southern Italian towns (Riace for example) and their practice of hosting immigrants.
    2) an interesting question is up to which point modernity changed things. I don’t intend to provide any a priori answer, but I did read for example that in Ireland the presence of Travelers (“indigenous” nomads) was quite well accepted until the island’s modernization in recent decades.


    1. It’s interesting what you say about traditions of hospitality, which indeed do exist in many places around the world. In South-Eastern Europe there is a cult of the guest – s/he can basically do whatever they want, can never be asked when they plan on leaving, etc., but I wonder whether these kinds of traditions of hospitality are enough as a basis for long-term cohabitation. I mean, the guys, though you cannot ask when they plan on leaving, will leave at some point; the condition of being a guest is being there temporarily. In the case of new arrivals, whereas human or not, this condition is missing, and I find it hard to imagine an extension of the guest ethic to newcomers that want to make a home. That being said, another interesting tradition to look at is multiculturalism before that was a term. Constanta for instance, on the Black Sea, was home to a big variety of ethnic groups, and was notable for peaceful cohabitation and conspicuous lack of indentitarian conflicts. The diversity there was more or less purposefully destroyed, but people still retain some of that ethos, that acceptance of different languages, traditions, religions, etc.


  2. Exploring traditions of multiculturalism certainly sounds interesting!
    On hospitality: as they say in Naples, a host is like a fish, (s)he starts smelling after two days … But the practice of integrating immigrants in some southern Italian towns such as Riace is well worth studying – although probably difficult to copy because of the need these places indeed feel to attract new people to their dishabited old centres. Perhaps also interesting to look at other ethical resources, such as the tradition of people at sea to help other people (that’s why so many fishermen in Sicily were frustrated and shocked when they weren’t allowed to help refugees anymore, threathened as they were with confiscation).


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