Following the award of my PhD in February, a summary of my thesis – ‘Osprey Involvements: Historical Animal Geographies of Extinction and Return’ can be accessed here.
My research interests are focussed in historical, cultural and animal (or ‘more-than-human’) geographies. My main concerns are with how humans and animals interact and become involved in each others’ lives, geographies and compositions. In particular, my research explores:
- The role of animals and other nonhumans in the production of a variety of spaces, places and environments, as well as the spatiality of nonhuman animals – or animals’ geographies. I look to expand an appreciation of animals’ geographical practices and lives by putting social theory into conversation with ecological, biological and ethological accounts.
- The meeting of humans and nonhumans in the role of each in the production of scientific knowledge production. I am also interested in the intersections between humans, animals, technologies and environments.
- The ethical status of nonhuman life and nature within different geographical, temporal, material and bodily contexts.
- Researching the historical and cultural geographies of animal-human relations and landscapes via a range of historical qualitative methods including archival research, oral history and interview methods, and ethnographic and field site visits.
Below I expand further on my doctoral research work and addition projects that I have undertaken as an academic researcher.
PhD Research: historical animal geographies of osprey extinction and conservation
In short: this PhD thesis narrates and explores the ways in which humans and ospreys in Scotland are historically intertwined.
The thesis argues that humans and ospreys in Scotland are materially, bodily and ethically involved with one another. It follows that a separate human or osprey history of species conservation is inadequate. Focused primarily through the entwined experiences of birds and people on Speyside, I examine the unfolding of osprey-human relationships with particular attention to the agency and capacities of nonhuman animals as animals: with geographies and lives of their own. Drawing on the scholarship of Tim Ingold, Giles Deleuze and Donna Haraway, I consider the dwelling, the co-becoming, and the zones of attachment between human and osprey subjects. At the heart of this project has been an investigation of the relationship between the historical and geographical conditions within which osprey life has flourished on its return from extinction in Scotland, and the possibilities for osprey nature that emerge from such conditions. I offer a ‘site ontology’ of osprey involvements, each ‘site’ comprising a material, bodily and ethical event of agency, subjectivity and composition.
The tale of the ospreys’ demise – as a result of human persecution during the nineteenth century – is reasonably well known. Accounts of their return, after four decades of breeding extinction, can have it appear that such damage has been triumphantly reversed. In the thesis, I examine a range of moral concerns around osprey life in the mid-twentieth-century, documenting the ways in which birds and humans were the co-architects of this ‘de- extinction’.
Through five stories, chronicling the militarised nest-defense of ‘Operation Osprey’ at Loch Garten (begun in 1956), as well as later initiatives to manage the birds on Speyside, I explore complex ethical questions concerning the human-animal relations that arise amidst attempts to ‘secure’, know and foster a successful species re-colonisation.
Across these stories, I draw on ideas from continental philosophy to question the boundaries between human and non-human worlds, and to challenge any notion of separable human and osprey histories. Different chapters explore the protection of the nest against human disturbance, the effects of pesticide use upon the breeding environment, the scientific observation of the birds, the construction of artificial osprey nests, and a discussion of why some sites remain empty even as the species today thrives in Scotland.
The intention of this thesis is not just to show that osprey conservation is contradictory and multifaceted; it is also to reveal how our attempts to support the survival of wild animals and ecologies deepens our ethical involvement with them. Such involvement has, as I show in the case of the osprey, a lasting effect on how such beings come to exist in the environment. In concluding, I suggest that despite the promise of restorative or ‘re-wilding’ interventions, some things lost in the environment remain so. It’s a loss that matters.
Past Research Projects
As a condition of my ESRC funding I undertook a Masters by Research in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh over the course of the academic year 2011-2012. The main focus of my research concerned the management of the Mar Lodge estate, in the South East Cairngorms. Specifically I investigated the changing means by which generations of stalkers and sporting clients accessed the slopes of Beinn A’Bhuird, a mountain within the estate’s environment, arguing that access (by which I refer to the practice of ‘getting into’ a place) should not be considered a taken for granted, or unproblematic characteristic of the hillside. Instead access is the outcome of particular networks of technologies, agencies and bodily practices. When we talk of access to a place we implicitly invoke these various ‘technologies of access’. In the case of Beinn A’Bhuird, access at different times over the twentieth century might have invoked the tacit skill of gamekeepers, the resilient constitution of the sportsman, the bulldozer and the land rover, and the highland pony. By drawing on the insights of Actor Network Theory, I sought to speak of, and problematise, access in the same sense that Bruno Latour has discussed ‘the social’ or ‘power’; not a stable entities, but as ‘active outcomes’ of networked actors and practices.
During my Masters I developed an interest in the ‘Brown Dog Affair’: the controversy and riots surrounding the aftermath of a dog’s death at the hands of Dr William Bayliss of UCL for the purpose of medical science in 1903. The National Anti-Vivisection Society decried these actions, and Bayliss successfully sued them for libel, however three years later another organisation – the International Anti-Vivisection Council – would erect a memorial statue commemorating the dog in the borough of Battersea in 1906 and denouncing vivisection. The statue drew support amidst the intersections of class, gender and animal welfare politics, whilst attracting derision and hostility from medical students and staff. These tensions came to a head in 1907 as medical students rioted and attempted to destroy the statue, which was protected by local residents, and in 1910 it was discretely removed by a less favourable local council. In 1985, however, the icon of the brown dog was revived with a new statue. This effigy sits, hidden away in Battersea Park, and enjoys a far less prolific existence.
As a story of moral and animal georpahies, I explore the plight and afterlives of the ‘brown dog’ through the lens of Donna HAraway’s concept of ‘shared suffering’. I argue that the different responses to the dog both reflect different political geographies around animal testing as well as the historically contingent nature of suffering itself. These arguments are developed in a paper published in 2015 in Social and Cultural Geography (entitled: ‘Not all dogs go to heaven, some go to Battersea: Sharing suffering and the “Brown Dog Affair”‘)