This week we’re hosting a debate on understanding the political uses, and abuses, of animals. In our first post Lucy Parry, PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics looks at a recent debate about bats living in churches around England. The bats were accused of ‘wasting tax payer’s money’ by one MP, and Lucy argues this reflects a broader problem with animals being wrongly blamed for political failures, with potentially damaging consequences.
The statement ‘wasting taxpayers’ money’ is not a particularly rare one. It’s an accusation frequently levelled at those claiming benefits and immigrants to the UK. When former Tory minister Andrew Rothaban uttered it in Parliament on the 11th December however, he was referring neither to benefit ‘cheats’ or immigrants, but bats. Bats are apparently taking their leave in churches around England, and causing considerable damage to the buildings (see, amongst others BBC.co.uk). This may very well be the case, but for me – researching the discursive representation of animals in the hunting debate – it was the choice of words in this debate that I found quite fascinating – and disturbing. Rothaban was not alone in his condemnation; the bats were described as an infestation and what’s more, according to Christopher Chope MP, if the Bats Habitats Regulation Bill has its way bats will ‘not get a free ride inside our churches’. After all, as Robathan helpfully pointed out, ‘they didn’t start there, they started in trees and wherever else it might be’.
This kind of language implies a wilful invasion and destruction of ‘our’ churches and is not uncommon when it comes to animals. Like the bats, urbanised animals such as foxes have frequently been conceptualised as ‘invading’ human spaces and are seen as being ‘out of place’ – they don’t belong there, as Rothaban asserts. Another way in which we blame animals is the backlash against invasive species. In the UK, it’s the grey squirrel that gets a particularly bad rep and according to a recent survey commissioned by the Countryside Alliance, 40% of the public support culling grey squirrels in order to reinvigorate the native red squirrel species – higher than levels of support for culling deer or rabbits. This is not a new phenomenon: in an article titled How Pigeons became Rats, Colin Jerolmack followed the development of this particular representation in the New York Times over several decades, and notes that in the 1920s, sparrows were constructed as invasive, aggressive little immigrants that threatened native US species. Another similar accusation levelled at animals is reminiscent of anti-welfare narrative: we see this in the notion that the bats are seen to be actively taking a ‘free ride’ and are ‘actually wasting taxpayers’ money’; this is not dissimilar to a recent rise in negative attitudes towards benefit claimants.
For me, the most interesting thing about these three facets of blame – and particularly in the final view that embodies the bat debate – is that in blaming the animals, agency is ascribed to them. Absent from these debates is the possibility that responsibility might actually lie with humans – who introduced grey squirrels to the UK? Whose expansive urban developments are ever-encroaching on the fox’s natural rural habitat? Perhaps in the case of the bats, it is a case of resourcefulness on their part – finding safe places to nest – but I sincerely doubt that the bats in question are hanging there having a good old chuckle about how well they’ve played the system.
It is notable that the above examples are all of animals that are conceptualised in the most part as ‘pests’ – seen as a threat to property, health, or indigenous species. But these are not the only examples of animal agency – the most obvious being our companion animals (pets) to whom we give names and ascribe personalities. We might be convinced that the personality is theirs, and not given by us, but that doesn’t change the fact that we discursively construct those personalities.
It is worth noting that the ascription of positive characteristics to animals is heavily criticised by some commentators; notably the Countryside Alliance who have recently bemoaned the ‘disneyfication’ of the countryside and wildlife. In this narrative, those who oppose the culling of wild animals such as deer are conceived as having mistakenly ascribed human characteristics to wild animals – the so-called ‘bambi effect’. This discourse suggests that those opposed to culling are irrational and driven by emotion – it does not consider that people might have viable political and ethical objections. On the other hand when it comes to pests, there is no such objection to ascribing negative agency through blaming the animal. In other words, it seems to be OK to make animals agents when we want to blame them for something, but a case of silly anthropomorphism when we want to protect them.
On the other hand, Michael Woods, in researching rural conflicts, describes how animals can possess their own forms of agency; by not acting according to human expectation or prescribed character, animals do exercise their own agency in a way that can have political consequences. In this limited way Woods tentatively suggests that animals can play an active role in actor-network analysis.
In relation to the hunting debate, foxes are often constructed as pests, vermin or aggressors against livestock. Again, the emphasis is on that animal being held morally responsible for its actions and the need to be held accountable: foxes are a pest, therefore their population needs to be controlled; grey squirrels are a threat to native species and because of that they should be exterminated; badgers carry TB and which threatens cattle – they must be culled. The same proposition seems intuitively preposterous if applied to humans – cull the immigrants? Although given the recent rise in anti-immigration rhetoric, perhaps it’s only a matter of time…
Lucy Parry is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Her workexplores the potential of deliberative democracy for enhancing the political representation of animals, through an investigation into debates and decision-making about hunting in the UK. Lucy’s PhD is part-funded by the Centre for Animals and Social Justice.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog email our deputy director, Matt Wood.