The Ontological Ethopolitics of Conservation

From the Series: Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction

Photo by Felix Remter.

In contemporary wildlife conservation, it is not only animal bodies, populations, and genes that are at stake but also, importantly, their behavior, subjectivity, and sociality. In the curious and conflicted multispecies practices of care through which keepers, managers, and rehabilitators assist in the reproduction of fragile nonhuman forms of life, often the very ethos of a species, its members’ learned cultural practices of survival and flourishing, is opened up as a domain of power and knowledge, intervention and production. Wildlife conservation should thus be seen as an art and a science of ontological ethopolitics: an anthropogenic apparatus tasked with maintaining animals in their very being, a cosmo-political and -ecological experiment in coexistence.

What new subjects and objects, relationships and communities, dangers and potentialities are produced by these expanding and intensifying forms of contact, interdependence, and transformation? What new multispecies communities and animalities (Lestel 1996) are generated by frontline attempts to ward off extinction? It is useful to triangulate conservation biology with cognate sciences of human-animal relations such as ethology and zoo biology. Ethology’s observations of animal behavior in the wild established the norms that other biologists sought to reproduce both in captivity and in protected areas. Zoo biology was faced with the task of inventing effective techniques of care for wild animals in captivity. With the emergence of integrated practices such as metapopulation management and reintroduction, these interspecies technologies of power and government migrated beyond the fraught ex situ space of the zoo to the differently fraught in situ spaces of conservation, blurring the difference between them in the process (Chrulew 2020).

Each in their own way, these sciences both produce and remediate unprecedented human-animal contact zones. As Isabelle Stengers (2000, 146) and others have shown, such field sciences not only ask questions of responsive nonhuman agents who are capable of modifying the traditional scientific relation between subject and object; they are at the same time “vectors of becoming” for those subjectified creatures that make of them something other. Indeed, they also—given the depth and range of their power and responsibility—can often be said to produce the very existence of their objects. They thus bring to the fore questions about anthropogenic effects—the ways in which animals are changed through encounters with human interventions. It is, of course, a particular class of expert scientific managers who wield these powers of life, death, and transformation. Bred in captivity, reintroduced into protected areas, governed and managed, tracked and trapped and tested, subjected and subjectified as they are, we must ask: who are these animals becoming today?

Each of these sciences has had to confront the question of how they transform the species they observe, exhibit or protect. Just as animal psychologists felt their laboratories to be contaminated with experimenter effects, ethologists came to see themselves as a polluting presence in the field and sought to minimize or eliminate this “disturbance.” Zoo biologists likewise came to understand their task to be the removal of “abnormal” physical, behavioral, and psychological effects of captivity. Yet their questions and answers all too often rest on a dualistic notion of human “cultural” or “artefactual” influence as fundamentally “unnatural.” The anthropological redescription of these scientific practices as themselves constituting novel human-animal relationships reveals new layers of significance. As Dominique Lestel (2003) has shown, it was the practice of building connections across species in longitudinal ethological and primatological field studies that led to the most important empirical revelations of nonhuman culture, intelligence, and tool use. One can even witness, in the way zoo biologist Heini Hediger wrote about “the catalytic effect of man,” an attempt to conceive of how animals are changed in humanized environments beyond the dualistic model of abnormal influence (Chrulew 2018). How might we problematize these anthropogenic catalytic effects today? How might we make such transformative relationships between species into objects of both empirical investigation and ethicopolitical invention—that is, into ethological experiments in the constructivist sense?

Vinciane Despret draws an important conclusion from the way anthropogenic effects of scientific questioning devices have been problematized in ethology and zoo biology. She rereads Hediger’s description of how keepers cultivate affective connections with animals in the zoo to articulate how—in contrast to laboratory conditioning experiments, in which animals become nobodies, are desubjectified, made stupid, through the refusal of scientists to respond to them—certain training practices can enable animals to become persons (Despret 2005, 94). What humans learn from animals, and how they are able to respond to us, differs fundamentally depending on the nature of the link created. This construction of proximity is further found in the way primatologists such as Thelma Rowell and Jane Goodall accepted the wager of their own transformative impact on their research subjects:

These changes to chimpanzees . . . ultimately prefigure in an exemplary way the cultural crises that await many animals, consigned to many modifications imposed by cohabitation with us. This commits me to resume my proposal for the future of ethology: to become a diagnostic science of changes in habits, of modifications of these nature-cultures. To become, in short, an ecology of social relations or, to take up Dominique Lestel’s apt formula, an ecology of hybrid communities. (Despret 2004, 70, translation and emphasis mine)

The task Despret proposes emerges today as a mandate for all the sciences of human-animal entanglement in the behavioral Anthropocene. Not only ethology, which, in seeking to observe animals without changing them, had to learn how to avoid the effects of its own observations; not only zoo biology, which, in seeking to keep animals without domesticating them, had to learn how to counter the effects of the captivity it imposed; and not only conservation biology, which, in seeking to protect animals from extinction without making them dependent, struggles to weigh the risks of its interventions against the range of other threats at hand. The post- and environmental humanities bring to bear historical and anthropological understandings of the diversity of human-wildlife relations to complicate the modern division of nature from culture that shapes these scientific practices. They allow us to see the high-stakes encounters in wildlife conservation’s contact and conflict zones in a new light: as interspecies cultural crises, and as opportunities for diplomacy, witness, and invention, where who both they and we are—and will be—is a matter of proximity and familiarity, of communication and comportment, as much as it is one of distancing and self-erasure. To see them, that is, as cosmopolitical experiments in the arts of co-existence and -becoming.


Chrulew, Matthew. 2018. “My Place, My Duty: Zoo Biology as Field Philosophy in the Work of Heini Hediger.” Parallax 24, no. 4: 480–500.

———. 2020. “Reconstructing the Worlds of Wildlife: Uexküll, Hediger, and Beyond.” Biosemiotics 13, no. 1: 137–49.

Despret, Vinciane. 2004. “Léthologie comme pratique des habitudes.” In Vers des civilisations mondialisées: De l’éthologie à la prospective, edited by Jean-Éric Aubert and Josée Landrieu, 59–71. La Tour d’Aigues: L’Aube.

———. 2005. “Portrait de personne avec fourrure.” In Les Grands Singes: L’humanité au fond des yeux, edited by Pascal Picq, Dominique Lestel, and Vinciane Despret, 75–119. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Lestel, Dominique. 1996. L’Animalité: Essai sur le statut de l’humain. Paris: Hatier.

———. 2003. Les Origines animales de la culture. Paris: Flammarion.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2000. The Invention of Modern Science. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.