Feminist Ferals

Dr Arian Wallach
Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow
School of Life Sciences

Arian is the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research investigates the ecological role of large predators on biodiversity and functioning of novel ecosystems. She conducts fieldwork across the Australian arid zone, where she is researching the influence of dingoes on biodiversity and native-non-native coexistence.

Comments 10

  1. Thank you Dr Wallach for your insightful, provocative and, I feel compelled to add, surprisingly moving presentation.

    As I said in response to Mark Davis’ presentation in the first week, I am absolutely thrilled to hear these arguments being articulated from a biological and ecological perspective and would like to thank you for the generosity of your interdscipinary engagement with the idea of the feral.

    At this stage, I’d like to again invite questions and comments from conference ‘attendees’ and other participants in response to this presentation. I’d also like to ask a question about the idea of collectivism in your talk. I was immediately on board with your invocation of ‘instrumentalism’ and ‘nativism,’ but I’m more hesitant around the idea of ‘collectivism,’ and I’m trying to work out why. In my disciplinary context, collectivism is frequently evoked as a politically desirable category in contrast to individualism, which is often decried as a source of alienation and social division. I know this wasn’t how you were evoking the term in your presentation, but I wondered if you had any thoughts about how the idea of the collective might be recuperated, or whether you think the term has become too bound up with destructive and callous behaviours in an ecological context?

    Once you’ve watched Dr Wallach’s presentation, I would also encourage everyone to check out some of the other panels that are active this week.

    1. Hi Nick,

      Thank you for such kind words and for inviting me to participate in this fascinating conference. I’ve truely benefited from the various talks and am also learning a lot from the comments.

      I can see why using the term collectivism to critique conservation can be problematic when it is also useful in promoting social connectedness. I think feminism helps place collectivism in opposition to compassion – rather than in opposition to individualism – because feminism is ultimately about relationships. It represents the difference between treating someone as an instance of their type (species/gender/race) rather than as a distinct sentient individual. Relating to others as unique and distinct individual subjects with respect and care, can also be said to stand in opposite to individualism, right? Collectivism, as I’ve used the term, can only exist where objectification exists.

      These are my early thoughts on this and I’d be really interested to learn from everyone here about alternative ways of thinking about how we – as a broad community of people that care about animals and nature – could expand our ethical relationships with non-human individuals, populations, species, and ecosystems.


      1. Hi Arian, wonderful presentation. I have found my way toward compassionate conservation through a different path, i.e., different than through feminist ecology. As a teacher of animal behavior for 36 years I followed the change from viewing non-human animals as categorically different than humans to sharing many of the traits of humans. In the 1980s and prior to that, one would be accused of anthropomorphic thinking if one claimed many animals had emotions and personalities and felt pain and suffering. Ironically, this is such an anti-evolutionary perspective, i.e., believing that there is a major categorical break from humans to all other animals. Over the years research into animal emotions, personalities, etc. has become mainstream. This seismic shift in the field has taken place along with me getting older. Early in my career, I viewed populations as the primary objective for conservation. As I grew older my attention grew to include the welfare of individual animals, probably influenced by an increased awareness of individual mortality by the fact that our family has had pet dogs and cats for decades. Anyone who has had a pet dog knows that they have emotions, personalities, and that they feel pain. The killing fields in places like New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest in the US (where thousands of barred owls have been shot in an effort to protect the spotted owl) are a tragedy. –Mark

        1. Thank you Mark! I agree that the most fundamental issue is whether we recognise non-human beings as sentient, sapient, social, complex subjects. Conservation appears to have remained largely untouched by the revolution that has occurred in ethology, and has certainly proved immune to animal ethics. Conservation still treats animals as automatons – both empirically and ethically. You’re completely right that anyone that has loved a dog knows that we are not alone in the universe. We have to be actively taught to shut down our intrinsic capacity to look into the eyes of another being and recognise that there is someone there. This ability may be one of humanity’s greatest strengths and it is terribly sad that it is frequently repressed in conservation.

      2. Dear Arian,

        Thanks so much for your presentation which has fired a number of thoughts. I also wanted to pick up on Collectivism, as I think there is another dimension which is particularly apparent in my work with trees . It can be difficult to view trees as individual subjects, as trees may be intimately entangled with others of their species sharing nutrients and information in much the same way as social animals. In addition to those intra-species entanglements, there are hundreds (in some cases thousands) of entanglements with other species. Where does one tree end and another begin, where does one species end and another begin? Recognising the subjectivity of all those species is of course important but I can’t help thinking that the collective is important too – more as a community of all of it’s components than as a population. Do you see relations within and between species as important in compassionate conservation?

        Best wishes,


  2. Thanks a lot for this presentation, Dr. Wallach. It resonated a lot with my concerns about scientific practices in the natural sciences.

    I am not sure I understand the idea of collectivism you mentioned. What came to my mind was how biologists think about units of analysis for certain matters. For example, when discussing evolutionary processes, it is frequently prioritized the group vs the individual just evolution is measured as the change in a population and not in an individual, and we deal mainly with collective and not individual measurements. Only recently is intraspecific variation being considered in some analyses, but certainly the subjectivity of individuals is not something recognized or of concern, therefore consideration for individual experience is just overlooked (and undesirable for experimentation and reductionist explanations of several processes).

    This presentation also makes me think about practices in disciplines other than conservation science. Many times explanations about the living world are not made based on living creatures but on dead ones – biological collections support knowledge building in biological sciences, which also includes approaches involving artistic practices such as scientific illustration. Things have changed for some organisms we recognize as closer to humans, but for others such as invertebrates, the perpetuation of this kind of objectification is worse. It always puzzles me to think that, if natural scientists do not respect and care for other forms of life in our practices, is hard to ask others (thought to have less knowledge about the natural world) to care, respect and embrace other forms of life. Dr. Wallach and other people reading this comment: what ideas do you have for a feminist/compassionate ecology (not only conservation science)? I’m thinking in research questions, methods and educational approaches for people interested in these sciences. Thanks in advance for any possible idea.

    1. Hi Marcela
      It’s interesting how you draw attention to the way research is conducted in the first place. I think one of the best things we can do is work across disciplines. The fragmentation of knowledge, as well as the hierarchical placement of science on the pedestal of knowledge, is stifling to critical thinking, creativity and open enquiry. It would be amazing if scientists, artists, historians, ethicists, humanities scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, etc etc worked collaboratively much more regularly to help us understand the world and ourselves much better.

  3. Hi Arian,

    Thanks for your excellent and insightful presentation. I felt that this was a great follow on from Mark’s presentation last week. I appreciated your discussion of the ‘dark side’ of conservation which can be chauvinistic in its normative paradigms, reflective of western culture. Do you see a feminist conservation paradigm and the commodification of nature as completely mutually exclusive? Is respectful culling of individual non-human animals an oxymoron?

    I see the nativism paradigm pervade discussions of conservation and land management in Australia across many contexts and I can see real value in opening the discussion to a more compassionate conservation paradigm. I’m interested in exploring how different humans within a particular context enact particular narratives to legitimise particular management strategies and outcomes. I see compassionate conservation as a frame through which more respectful public dialogue could take place, potentially resulting in greater understanding of alternative perspectives. I’m interested in your opinion on how we as a society might move towards compassionate conservation in a practical sense, not just conservation practitioners and academics, but the whole of society.

    1. Thank you Jen,

      Yes the very term “commodification” excludes the ability to treat one another as subjects so it is inconsistent with feminism. We can certainly benefit from each other, but as in the example I gave of the hammer and the carpenter, we recognise carpenters as more than simply purveyors of goods. Some countries in southern Africa have developed systems of conservation based on commodification (the death of the lion Cecil is an expression of this).

      Similarly, objectification denies that non-human-beings can actually be harmed and killed because objects don’t have a life to begin with – at least not the kind of life we cherish in ourselves. When we recognise subjectivity in others we also try to avoid causing them harm and death, and are remorseful when we do.

      Compassion, respect, and empathy are traits we have to foster in ourselves and in one another and find ways to expand that outside our immediate circles. That’s a task for everyone.


  4. Thank you again to Arian, and to everyone who took time to leave thoughtful questions and comments.

    We really appreciate everyone’s engagment and commitment, which we feel has gone a very long way to making this online format work. At this stage, I’d like to draw this virtual keynote to a close, and encourage everyone to please check out the next presentation and set of talks as part of Week Three of the Feral conference (of course, as with a non-virtual conference, please feel free to continue your discussions!).

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