Review of Decolonising Animals, edited by Rick de Vos

Over eight chapters, Decolonising Animals launches an ambitious project across a series of essays from diverse disciplines, continents and cultures. Spanning animal agency, colonial and Indigenous worldviews, decolonisation and the preservation of the natural world, the authors explore what it might mean to decolonise animals, as well as contend with cognate questions beyond colonialism. Decolonising Animals is a useful collection for any reader interested in Indigenous scholarship, environmentalism, decolonial practice, animal studies, literature and archaeology. Nevertheless, it is, as the editor acknowledges, a ‘beginning’ that ‘defers questions of radical change’ (16). What it does offer, however, is vital context for particular histories, experiences and ongoing conflicts around animals that are often narrated aculturally but are in fact embedded in distinct colonial frameworks. There are two key ways that Decolonising Animals highlights the cultural and historical circumscription of animal studies: by continually drawing on a shared human place in the animal kingdom, within which non-human animals have their own agency, and foregrounding the colonial lens that overlays histories of and approaches to animals in the twenty-first century.

A peculiar sense of impropriety often accompanies the grief around lost connections to the natural world. Whether the loss relates to the removal of a much-loved tree in a familiar street, or the dwindling of a known species, the illegitimacy associated with this grief is one such cultural experience. In ‘Solastalgia’, Glenn Albrecht articulated the melancholy and nostalgia felt by humans (at least) as a result of environmental loss: ‘the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive solace from, the present state of one’s home environment. Solastalgia exists when there is recognition that the beloved place in which one resides is under assault (physical desolation)’. Unlike many neologisms, the term has arguably resonated because many settler cultures have limited social, linguistic and philosophical tools to account for our ties to – and loss of – nature. Decolonising Animals explores the role of colonialism in this void, alongside its place in limiting the agency of Indigenous cultures in expressing and honouring their own relationships with the animal kingdom and natural world.

Approaches to and disputes about animals can function as a wind vane for colonial and Indigenous relationships, highlighting cultural divisions, ontological differences and the shared place of humans as fauna. Far from arcane or theoretical, decolonising animals is a quotidian and geopolitical issue. Alongside the abovementioned affective relevance to our everyday lives, colonial approaches to animals underpin various ongoing political disputes. For example, in 2020, tensions between Mi’kmaw and commercial-settler fishermen in Canada culminated in raids of Indigenous harvests in Nova Scotia. The destruction of property, arson and police intervention highlight some of the empirical consequences of animal colonisation. The Canadian constitution, alongside signed treaties, protects the rights of Canada’s First Nations to earn ‘a moderate livelihood’ from the land (Supreme Court of Canada). The dispute ostensibly turns on how such livelihood is defined. In 2023, tensions between the two groups remained, with headlines across the country reporting a ‘string of attacks on harvesters’ (Cecco) and warning that ‘tensions’ are set to ‘rise again’ (Withers). The fishing crisis in Canada illustrates one of the key ideas throughout Decolonising Animals: here, settler fishing represents ‘benign pastoralism and bucolic normality’ (De Vos 7) while ‘Indigenous animal practices, such as hunting and fishing … are highlighted as barbaric and threatening biodiversity’ (7). Of course, the shared readiness to end animal life is one of the larger questions that this collection acknowledges but understandably postpones.

As a book that aims to be foundational – a springboard from which such bigger questions can be addressed systematically – Decolonising Animals primarily focuses on narratives around animal histories and to whom those histories belong. In the first two chapters, by Kelsey Dayle John and Rowenna Lennox, respectively, the authors contrast settler histories of the horse and dingo with those of different First Nations groups. Chapter 3 is the only distinctly literary chapter in the collection. Here, Susan McHugh offers a ‘critical methodology for literary animal studies’ (11), using the literature of Toni Morrison ‘as a case study for charting convergences of critical race with animal studies that model decolonisation of scholarly aesthetics’ (75). Over the next few chapters, Katarina Gray-Sharp brings interdisciplinarity and polyvocality to the topic of avifauna in Aotearoa, and Rick de Vos considers what accounting for animal perspectives might mean, exploring how their being might elude colonial structures and understanding. In a continuation of this recentring of non-human animal perspectives, in Chapter 6, Danielle Taschereau Mamers moves ‘away from conventional critiques’ of settler colonialism to foregrounding Bison (14) – embracing ‘disobedient readings of settler archives to emphasise non-human beings as co-creators of worlds’ (179). The final two chapters extend this animal-centred approach, with Ana Paula Motta and Martin Porr using the case study of the jaguar in South America to explore the potential of decolonising ‘human-animal relationships’ in archaeology (185). The concluding chapter by Kirsty Dunn explores human-animal shapeshifting in Māori Pūrākau or narrative, foregrounding ‘human-non-human kinships and relationships’ and the way that narrative can ‘require us to remember our obligations’ to non-human kin (239). By engaging with history, literature, aesthetics, and philosophy, Decolonising Animals provides footing for Animal Studies to encounter its own culpability and potential as a discipline.

Decolonising Animals is about more than the differences between Indigenous and colonial understandings of the animal kingdom and the natural world. The topic also relates to expanding perception beyond cultural circumscription and anthropocentrism. As many contributors to Decolonising Animals observe, this is no small or straightforward feat. For a human being to step beyond their cultural conditioning is difficult enough, but adding to this the invitation to move beyond a point of view that foregrounds human subjectivity could be deemed impossible. Yet the pursuit itself, as this collection demonstrates, is deeply valuable. In Chapter 6, Danielle Taschereau Mamers asks, ‘what does it mean to end a world’ (176). These kinds of critical engagements demand attention that is academic but also ethical. Climate change platforms often promote the human interest in preserving the planet against environmental loss, but collections like this are a timely reminder that ending a world is about more than humanity. And perhaps the problem cannot be understood -- much less solved -- without at least the attempt to move beyond the idea that Western homo-sapiens are the benchmark for and arbiters of reality. Decolonising Animals is one such attempt, and precious for it.

Published 18 December 2023 in Volume 38 No. 3. Subjects: Animals, Colonisation of Australia, Postcolonial criticism, Animal Studies.

Cite as: Burrows, Lianda. ‘Review of Decolonising Animals, edited by Rick de Vos.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.b6368db56f.

  • Lianda Burrows — Dr Lianda Burrows is an independent academic with research interests in Australian landscape literature and health humanities.