Panel 8: Feral Biopolitics (2)

Abandonment or care? A biopolitical analysis of trap-neuter-return programs for cats living on the streets of South Florida
Jacquelyn Johnston
PhD candidate in Geography
Florida International University

‘Feral’ horses, ‘wild’ horses and brumbies: The politics of horse management in Australia
Dr. Jennifer Bond
Institute for Land, Water & Society
Charles Sturt University

Wild (feral?) horses: Socio-ecological perspectives from 3 nations
Associate Proffesor Michael Adams and Dr. John Derek Scasta
University of Wollongong/University of Wyoming

Comments 6

  1. Dear all,

    Kia ora, and welcome to the 2nd week of PERC’s Feral conference!

    I’m Tony Carusi, and I will be chairing our session on Feral Biopolitics this week. Many thanks for the contributions from Jacquelyn, Jennifer, Michael, and John.

    I’m looking forward to viewing the presentations and the discussions they provoke for us. I’ll get going with some questions and comments of my own later today.

    Nga mihi,

  2. My thanks again to all the panel members for what’s proven to be a very coherent set of presentations on the feral across a broad ranging set of political, ecological, and geographical concerns.

    There are so many questions to dig into with the individual presentations, but I wanted to kick things off by asking something about the concept of the feral that these presentations sparked for me. Fingers crossed this comes across at least half as interesting as the presentations were for me!

    I think the presentations do an excellent job of showing the categorical integrity of the feral as a technology of biopolitics for non-human animals. In Miami, feral is applied to cats as a technology of humane population control at the expense of individual cats, as was very well (and gut wrenchingly) illustrated by the example of Sprinkles being TNR’d irrespective of the obvious issues of weight and age that should have disqualified her from the process. Conversely, feral is actively fought against for horses, and the Australian brumby gives a great example of how even national identity has become a stake in this fight. Through these presentations, the feral is clearly a biopolitical concept that shows us precisely the lives at stake when (or whether) this term is applied to a non-human species.

    For my question then, I wonder how these designations of feral that mark a non-human animal as a pest hold up when the feral is applied to humans. Do feral biopolitics reinstantiate the anthropocentricism that post- and non-human approaches of the humanities and social sciences seek to subvert?

    As mentioned across the presentations, the feral connotes pestilence for non-human animals, subsequently allowing extermination, but when applied to humans, the feral designates something spectacular. Unlike cats in Miami who, when labelled feral, initiate biomedical processes of population control, a feral human is a phenomenon to be witnessed (cf. the National Geographic special on Feral Humans as well as numerous documentaries and YouTube clips). Unlike brumbies, the feral human doesn’t risk culling and so has no need of champions fighting against their labeling as feral. Feral humans are sensational and rare, whereas feral animals are disposable and excessive. Does this represent a return of the anthropocentric through feral biopolitics, or can the feral offer post-/non-human approaches other ways to think that do not reinscribe human privilege in a non-human world?

    Thanks again for your fantastic presentations, and I’m looking forward to our continued discussion this week 🙂


  3. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for kicking off the discussion and what a great question! I must admit my consideration of ‘feral’ so far hasn’t included feral humans, which I think is perhaps an interesting self-reflection. While feral humans don’t risk being culled as brumbies are, or neutered as cats in Miami, I’m not sure that this necessarily implies that their welfare is secured. Several of the stories of feral humans involve neglect or child abuse as a precursor for moving into a non-human social and physical space. The sensationalism of the feral human stories, or even myths, can be used to benefit particular interests, not necessarily those of the individual feral human. While at a collective level it might show the privilege of humans above non-humans in relation to how we treat ‘ferals’, I’m not sure the individual humans necessarily are treated with the same level of respect and justice extended to many non-feral humans.

    I hope to ponder this more over the next few weeks of the conference and beyond.



  4. Jacquelyn,

    I thought this was a really interesting presentation. In fact, I enjoyed the whole set-up of this online conference and think this is a really important way to be conveying research. My question regards the domesticity of cats. As a species, house cats are domestic…but what does this entail? Is domesticity another socially constructed category or is this a lived experience / state for the animal itself? Once we answer this, does the state of being feral not just entail a categorical imperative for the government, but instead a lived experience for the animal itself in relation to it’s being of domesticity?


  5. Greetings,

    First, I would like to thank you all for the provocative research working through the potential for biopolitical analysis of ferality. My specific focus, I see here, is well grounded as we share a concern for the vulnerability of individuals or populations that are labeled “feral” for the purposes of inclusion in a government program.

    Jen, your discussion of “contested realities” is particularly helpful. I have been struggling with the mechanics of presenting alternative realities for these cats that are being forced to ‘live’ through TNR in Miami, and I look forward to reading more about how you are engaging with this literature. The political narrative of “life-saving” reflects the goals of the program, where the fleshly experience of the cats tells another story.

    What is particularly fascinating in your case study is the power of these narratives to justify culling based only on rough estimates. In Miami, the focus continues to be on data generated by the same government agency justifying the culling or TNR programs. The lack of any standardized operating procedure to guide the assessment of individual cats for inclusion in the program remains a contested component of my research. To date, I’ve requested the public records pursuant to the selection of cats for TNR, and despite over seven months of negotiations and a large deposit required for the agency to begin collecting the records, I have still not received any such standard operating procedures. Have you encountered any government documents that clearly define a process through which to identify a brumby or feral from a fearful or otherwise horse?

    If the distinction between a feral and a fearful or non-habituated individual is the narrative, or the classification as a threat to ‘native’ life or ecological space, ought the system of classification itself be brought in to question?

    Dr. Adams and Dr. Scasta, perhaps the answer lies within more comparative studies regarding how the legislative protections and the implementation of management programs across cultures and space will help us tease out the political narratives that have overwhelmingly been created void of any systematic classification system. Your work cuts to the core of my experience with culling programs; “You can’t just shoot animals for nothing.” The justification is more than just PR for the government agency; it’s also a justification that is internalized by the humans employed to implement these programs. How else could the person in charge of culling sleep at night?

    I wonder if there is a psychological or human-centered system for the classification of a human as feral? Something I will need to explore and ponder.
    Evan, I think we need to return to a discussion about domestication as a process rather than a product (Anderson 1998), with a focus on how the process of domestication is contingent upon classification systems largely emerging from political narratives (with specific motivations and justifications).

    Le saludo con la más alta estima y consideración,


  6. Hi everyone,
    Apologies for late engagement here, and thanks for really interesting presentations. One of the lessons for me, in some ways highlighted by Tony’s question, is that the human exceptionalism position is challenged by Indigenous modes of thought (and not just Indigenous: Aldo Leopold argued humans should be ‘plain members’ of the biotic community). Western conservation management is a command and control structure which results in these decisions about who and what get to live and die. Within our human communities (outside of conflict zones) we generally wouldn’t think of taking such a position. My understanding from Indigenous peoples is that everything deserves respect, including when you are killing it, and the mode of killing and the purpose demonstrate that respect.
    The other aspect I find really compelling about the feral argument is that modern humans attempt to prevent or reverse these great ecological trajectories of flourishing and decline, while simultaneously continuing to move species all over the world for agricultural or other purposes.
    Great stuff everyone, happy to be a part of this experiment.
    Best wishes,

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