Humans and Companion Species

Updated: Oct 18, 2018

By Martine Hoff Jensen.


«Ours is indeed an age of extremity».[1]

- Susan Sontag


When I was a child I loved to watch the TV-cartoon The Animals of Farthing Wood. I watched it with a mixture of excitement and fright, most of the time my father had to watch it with me. The story is simple: the animals have to flee the woods because of human destruction. They cut down all the trees, fill the pond with debris, which again stop the river from flowing. In the first episode they call a meeting of all the animals of the forest. To be able to survive, they need to find another forest. At the meeting the hare asks the fox: «Are you telling me that we plant eating animals are to travel with our natural enemies, like birds of prey?». He is not happy. The solution, suggested by the badger, is to reinstate the old animal forest oath, by which the animals promise not to scare, terrorize nor eat each other. They then appoint the fox as their leader, plan to meet by the big oak at midnight and head off to find the nature reserve, where humans protect animals and where they can continue their life in animal peace.

This is an idealized, romantic solution to a very real problem. Humans are destroying the environment where animals naturally live, and are killing them for their fur, horns, teeth or meat. Animals are forced to leave their habitats and move elsewhere, but where? Men are everywhere. Fortunately, there are a few people who live for the animals, that would sacrifice their own life for the wellbeing of the animals, and that guard big national parks to keep the animals safe. In the Netflix documentary Virunga we meet some of them. In the documentary we follow the history and struggles of the country of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the national park of Virunga, both extremely rich in natural recourses, which have always been a cause of conflict. Amongst rebels and national soldiers lurking in the area, there are forest rangers, whom have sworn to protect the national park and the last remaining mountain gorillas. The gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains’ side, a range of extinct volcanoes that border the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. There are only about 800 gorillas left in the world, and they are threatened daily by poaching, war, habitat destruction and disease [2].

Norwegian Congolese artist Sandra Mujinga was born in Goma in DRC in 1989, but grew up in Norway. She is an multi-artist, creating music, videos, photographs, installations, performances, clothes, and so on. Before her exhibition Real Friends at Oslo Kunstforening in 2016, she went back to her mother country and visited the gorillas in the hillsides of Virunga. In the exhibition Mujinga displayed amongst other artworks, huge close-up portraits of the gorillas she met. The photographs are framed in highly reflective glass, intentionally [3]. Looking at the gorillas our own human presence and gaze become visible in the artworks, just like how it is in reality. The artworks were called Humans, On the Other Hand, Lied Easily and Often (1-3). The line is borrowed from the book Dawn from 1987 by Octavia E. Butler, the first in a trilogy called Xenogenesis. The protagonist, Lilith, is one of few human survivors on earth after a nuclear war, which left the earth inhabitable, and she is taken by an alien race. In their view, humans’ biggest flaw and the cause of the earth’s destruction, is the need for hierarchy and intelligence. We put ourselves above all other beings. Perhaps by seeing our own reflection in Mujinga’s pictures, we can spot our own flaws in the double image.

In the movie Jane, we follow the life story of British chimpanzee researcher Dame Jane Goodall. She dedicates her life to study the apes as a way of better understanding human behavior, thinking that we are very much alike. Along the lifetime she spends with the animals, she also finds out that we have very many differences, but the likeness is overwhelming to her. During her time in Gombe, Tanzania, the flock of chimpanzees close to her institute goes from living in a friendly environment to becoming hostile, separated and aggressive when the mother figure, the chimpanzee Flo, dies. A few weeks after, her youngest son Flint dies too, from grief. Donna Haraway uses a quote in her book about the relationship between animals and man, The Companion Species Manifesto, which goes: «And somehow in order for all the species of this ‘band’ to thrive, we have to learn to understand and respect those beings.»[4] Even though her book focuses mostly on dogs, the thoughts about animal treatment can translate to most beings. We must remember to respect the animals, to understand them and to protect them from harm and ourselves. Sometimes we forget that humans are also a part of nature, and that we, like all other living beings, must learn how to co-inhabit the earth. Especially since we have crowned ourselves as the superior species.


The animals of Farthing Wood managed to resolve their problems by themselves. But they are only a cartoon. In real life, the responsibility rests on the human shoulders. The paradox of the mountain gorillas in Virunga is that they are living in a nature reserve protected by humans, mostly from other humans.


Notes

[1] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, 224.

[2] Worldwildlife, «Mountain Gorilla.»

[3] Weber, «Sandra Mujinga.»

[4] Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto, 37.


References

Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC, 2015.


Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.


Weber, Eleanor Ivory, «Sandra Mujinga,» Frieze. 09.10.18. https://frieze.com/article/sandra-mujinga.


World Wild Life Org, «Mountain Gorilla.» 09.10.18. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/mountain-gorilla.

OSLO FORM LAB 2018