Complicating Care: An Interview with Paolo Bocci

The August 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Tangles of Care: Killing Goats to Save Tortoises on the Galápagos Islands,” by Paolo Bocci, who is Lecturing Fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Ashley Elizabeth Drake and Adhann Iwashita conducted with Bocci about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.

Ashley Elizabeth Drake and Adhann Iwashita: What brought you to research in the Galápagos, and to the worldings around Proyecto Isabela (PI)? 

Paolo Bocci: After completing my master’s fieldwork in Senegal, I happened to read in the New York Times about clashes between fishermen and park officials on the Galápagos Islands. As I learned more about these islands during the following months, the Galápagos struck me as an overdetermined place: their central role in the history of natural sciences (as the mythical birthplace of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution); the complicated history of colonial and national influences on the making of this archipelago; and their place in the current global landscape of tourism and conservation as one of the last few putatively pristine places. In the face of massive efforts on the part of the international scientific community and the government of Ecuador to “do it right,” I sensed that the picture on the ground was more complicated—in part, because of those very conservation efforts—which brought me to Proyecto Isabela.

On one level, what sustained my curiosity during my fieldwork on the goat eradication project was its lasting riddle: the imperative to restore a human-free space by intervening in it with an unprecedented intensity. The higher the moral call to intervene, the starker this paradox. But also, the latter was compounded by the Galápagos National Park’s declaration of success in the form of the (near) disappearance of goats, which did not match with my experience on the Galápagos. By noticing and being surprised by goats on the islands, by asking about their contested presence, and by learning about the incredible complexity of the eradication campaign, I began to unfold the intricate ways in which goats have participated in the making of the islands.

AED and AI: Throughout the article, you portray a complex multispecies entanglement among humans, goats, tortoises, dogs, mules, and various endemic plants (just to name a few). Could you say something about the process of conducting ethnographic fieldwork across multiple species? What advice do you have for anthropologists interested in pursuing a multispecies project?

PB: Don’t sever the knots! The joy of conducting research and writing about goats and Proyecto Isabela lay in traversing geographical and jurisdictional terrains (such as the Park and the rural areas), ecological niches, disciplinary boundaries, and symbolic domains. From “scape-goats,” Mephistopheles, and chimeras, goats already carried a loaded history on their furry backs before their eradication on the Galápagos had begun. And, if Proyecto Isabela cast them as the chief un-doers of endemic nature, they also emerged as a troubling figure of the human species at a time of (concerns about) planetary ecological crisis. My article interrogates this latter figure of the human, as mobilized by goats, through ethnographic inquiry into the composition of the various humans involved, willingly or not, with PI: biologists, ecologists, veterinarians, hunters, farmers, fishermen, and longtime residents. The scrambling of domains and divides is by no means exclusive to conducting research on the Galápagos, though. Multispecies ethnography is a mess and should remain as such, as it opens to important questions about the human and nonhuman that defy simplistic answers.

AED and AI: As you describe in the article, there was opposition to Proyecto Isabela by hunters, fishers, farmers, and other community members who were marginalized by the expansion of tourist and conservation activities. We’re interested in what more you can say about care in relation to the care shown (or not) to these human populations throughout the eradication campaign—especially given the warlike conditions that the campaign created and the enlistment of local hunters to do the work of massacre-scale killing. If these hunters and other community members can be considered part of the human–nonhuman assemblage created by Proyecto Isabela, then how do these populations inform your ideas about the limits and consequences of care and the hierarchical ranking of life forms—including the uneven ranks of humans—in conservation practices and projects?

PB: Local hunters unwillingly participated in the care-full killing of goats during the eradication campaign: this is one way that the local population caused me to reflect on the contested nature of care. On the other hand, the goat eradication reactivated practices of care between some segments of the local population and the goats, which had been fading over time (with the archipelago-wide shift from subsistence farming and fishing to tourism). In this article, I am committed to honoring these people’s lifeworlds. But, in the heuristic spirit of tangles, I present their renewed ties with goats as but one of the many remainders unwanted by, and defiant of, Proyecto Isabela: hunters’ acts of defections, goats’ ingenious and adaptive will to live, and the unscheduled course of plant and animal assemblages in the eradicated areas and beyond. Rather than singleheartedly espousing their worldviews, I seek to account for locals’ protests and daily engagements with goats in order to illuminate the always plural nature of care.

AED and AI: The article describes how “eradication demanded continuous care and an unprecedented intervention into animals’ bodies and sociality.” One of these interventions was the so-called Mata Hari goats, sterile females with hormone implants that prolonged their estrus cycle and thus enhanced gregariousness in their male counterparts. Would you view this as another instantiation of Proyecto Isabela’s mobilization of care—in this case, sociality or care between goats? What were some of the conversations around this manipulation of gender/sexual reproduction? How are such interventions, in your view, part of an ethic of care and multispecies flourishing?

PB: I view Mata Haris as the pinnacle of this eradication intervention because of their profound reconfiguration of goats’ bodies and interactions with other goats. The result of close monitoring of goats’ responses to other eradication methods, the surgical procedure to create Mata Hari goats enacted unprecedented veterinary and conservation strategies, which I argue are forms of care. At the same time, the forging of Mata Haris dramatically exposes the fraught and morally ambiguous project of killing in order to save other forms of life. With my analysis of Mata Haris and throughout the article, I use the concept of care not as a way out of moral, political, and ecological complications, but, on the contrary, as a tool to fully explore them. I am aware of the unsettling consequences of this choice—for my readers as well as for myself.

To care, as the term’s etymology reminds us, is to grieve.1 In an intervention in which hundreds of thousands of animals died and ways of life faced extinction, caring as grieving is an important piece of the story. But caring for the life and death of a species is both a practical and ethical terrain that resists the binary of moral dilemmas about killing or not killing animals. I hope my article offers a counterpoint to the important, but not unproblematic, calls for care in the time of the Anthropocene. I hope my article offers a counterpoint to the important, but not unproblematic calls for care in the time of the Anthropocene.

AED and AI: Finally, where do you hope to take your scholarship next? 

PB: To plants! I have done quite a bit of fieldwork on invasive and endemic plants, and the surprising ways they compose and exceed human and nonhuman assemblages. Another thread of my current research looks at forms of environmental religiosity on the Galápagos. Stay tuned!


1. From Proto-Germanic *karo-, “lament,” hence “grief, care”; source also of Old High German charon, “to lament,” Old Saxon karon, “to care, to sorrow.”