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Multispecies entanglements in a land of fire
By Zoei Sutton
Posted: 2020-08-19T20:07:00Z
Authors: Gavin JD Smith, Zoei Sutton & Eleanor Armstrong

A land of fire

Australia, of course, is no stranger to bushfires and dryness. However, the sheer scale of the 2019-2020 ‘Black Summer’, certainly the most devastating and extensive on record with some 18.6 million hectares of land burnt, drew far more national and international attention than other years, with an enhanced emphasis placed on how nonhuman animals were impacted. A recent preliminary report produced by 10 Australian scientists and commissioned by the Worldwide fund for Nature estimates that approximately 3 billion animals (including mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs) were either killed, displaced or adversely influenced, by this socio-ecological catastrophe. Of course, this focus on animal victimhood should not overlook the tremendous and far-reaching ecological damage caused by the fires and corresponding ash/smoke pollution to the delicate flora, waterways and environmental atmospheres, and of course, to the health (broadly defined) and profile of the nation. While the long-term ecological implications on both nonhuman and human animal lives won’t be known for some time, as sociologists working on multispecies research, there are some notable patterns emerging around the dynamic relationality of the various non-human entities and agency that constituted this crises: in terms of the interconnectedness of carbon emissions, mineral extraction, land clearing and urbanisation, capitalism, fire, smoke, drought, nonhuman animals and Internet-driven mediatisation. Rather than focus on the politics and circumstances of fire causality, we will instead look at some of the salient biosocial troubles and implications arising from the Australian bushfires as they relate to the condition, status and figuring of fire-entangled non-human animals.


Increased attention to nonhuman animals

One of the blog authors and co-convenors of the TASA Sociology and Animals thematic group, Zoei Sutton, is currently working on a media analysis with Janette Young that indicates a significant increase in news articles discussing nonhuman animals in the fires (to be presented at the upcoming ISAZ conference). Nonhuman animals’ experiences have been more meaningfully included in this news coverage, including articles such as this widely shared piece by Danielle Celermajer that centre nonhuman animals, emotions and experiences of loss in a way not usually seen in mainstream media.


Despite this enhanced attention to nonhuman animals’ experiences of bushfires, we are still seeing objectifying attitudes towards ‘killable’ species prevailing. This is evident in the reporting of ‘farmed’ animals, which largely reinforces their commodity-like status by massifying them as ‘stock loss’ and focusing exclusively on human (emotional and socio-economic) experiences of these losses. Such attitudes have also shaped discussions around ‘culling’ animals, with the killing seasons of kangaroos, koalas and other ‘hunted’ species pursued even alongside reports of devastating loss of life among these species. This is unsurprising, given the significant discursive work done by Australian print media in making these animals killable in the first place (as explored in this pre-bushfire research undertaken by Zoei Sutton and Nik Taylor). Importantly, it highlights the complex and contradictory relations between humans and animals in Australian society that place limits on the extent to which – or indeed whether – humans extend care to certain animals.


Human heroes and the popularisation of caring for other animals

Another interesting feature of the fires was the public outrage and collective sense of grief surrounding the visual depiction of smoke and fire affected wildlife appearing in many news broadcasts and social media posts (most iconically represented in the plight of the koala and other marsupial species). Distressing footage continuously circulated depicting burnt and scorched, dehydrated and famine-struck, and displaced, disorientated and fleeing animals desperately seeking refuge. Yet at the same time, other images rendered into a public feel-good spectacle the actions of human ‘heroes’, who either watered or rescued some of the nonhuman animals in and around the fire zones. This phenomenon stimulated a much-needed discussion about the need for safe, appropriate animal-centric care following the publicised death of Arnie the koala, whose accidental if tragic death was linked to his being encouraged to drink straight from a water bottle (a practice widely perpetuated as a consequence of similar acts being shared on social media during the fires). This graphic and repeated encounter with mediated suffering, we would contend, stimulated record financial contributions to various wildlife, community and volunteer charities/agencies (including the rural fire service) from globally dispersed onlookers/benefactors, while also inspiring citizens into taking their own forms of conservational eco-action in response to the perceived needs of surviving animals positioned on the edges of the fire, drought and smoke fronts.


One of the blog authors, Eleanor Armstrong, a Sociology Honours student at the ANU, is conducting a case study on one of these splintered, and de-institutionalised eco-movements: the Water our Wildlife Canberra Facebook group, who became connected not only through their shared sense of grief, concern and angst about the predicament of ‘their’ local wildlife, but also through their capacity to interact, share and celebrate their caring work through the medium of Internet-enabled digital technologies. For Armstrong, this group showcases the interrelatedness of social, technological and biological elements situated within an environmental network of care and crisis. Frustrated by what they saw as inadequate and slow bureaucratic processes, thousands of individuals mobilised to strategically erect and distribute temporary water stations around suburban Canberra. Such a strong connection to the animal ‘other’ was fostered not only by recurrent encounters with mediatised spectacles of suffering, but also motivated by a need to escape from existential dread and a profound sense of situational impotency. The land around them was literally and metaphorically on fire, and this was their micropolitical and microethical way of dousing the flames, and repairing a socio-ecological order that appeared out of reach and beyond control.


Snakes as passengers and harbingers

Another of the blog authors and co-convenors of the TASA Sociology and Animals thematic group, Gavin JD Smith, who spends his free time ‘rescuing’ elapid snakes from adverse, often lethal, encounters with humans and their companion animals (of both the domestic and now more-than-domestic sort), noticed an increase in snake removal calls during the fire and drought periods, particularly for snakes that seemed to be exhibiting quite anomalous – and for them, risky – behaviours. For example, during the recent snake ‘season’ (i.e. in the warmer months) a number of non-endemic species appeared in the Canberra region, possibly as a result of escaping burning habitat and construing the car or truck as a vehicle of safety for a hitch-hiking journey. Moreover, a number of our endemic local snake species presented in what are quite peculiar places, the most notable two examples being a highly venomous red-bellied black snake making a refuge in a woman’s work boot (see picture on left) and 19 hatchling eastern brown snakes, one of the world’s most venomous terrestrial species, turning up inside a Canberra home. Another interesting consequence of the firescape was the slightly more sympathetic, dare we say compassionate, response these creatures generally received from members of the public, presumably as an upshot of the apocalyptic conditions and their perceived ecological victimhood. At this intense and unsettling time, errant snakes were seen as ‘unbelonging’ not as an effect of their slithery and malign agency (as is usually the case), but rather as a product of their being displaced by the environment’s destructive agency. And yet, while the public focus during this time was overwhelmingly on the predicament of fire-affected birds and mammals, that is, on totemic and anthropomorphic wildlife that appeal in aesthetical, symbolic and spiritual terms to the majority of people, the single worst victim of the flames was undoubtedly Class Reptilia, with an estimated 2.46 billion reptiles either losing their lives or habitats to the fires, when compared to 143 million mammals and 180 million birds. As a result of his interest in and care for these biosocial creatures, Gavin is hoping to complete some pilot telemetry research in the upcoming snake season to track how certain species of elapids (specifically eastern brown snakes) use and move through contrasting sub and peri-urban landscapes.


Staring down the fire

We have seemingly witnessed a heartening increase in concern for the plight of nonhuman animals and landscapes in what has been a devastating socio-ecological period. It is encouraging to see that concern be translated into grass roots conservation, but also political, action. What is also interesting – and potentially cheering – is the primacy that certain members of the public are increasingly putting on having access to uncontaminated and flourishing green spaces in our COVID dominated society. Yet, at the same time, we now need ask ourselves how we can better make sense of, conceptualise and confront the insecure position of many creatures in what might be thought of as troubled and disturbed environments. This, of course, is going to require significant interdisciplinary work and community/stakeholder dialogues, as well as education, advocacy and further conservation action/politics on the ground. It is also going to necessitate massive social and cultural transformations in how we, as a diverse population, live, consume and work.


These matters are the stuff of the sociological imagination and of sociological investigation, but also of an applied or public sociology: better understanding the biosocial basis of our society, while also formulating nuanced analyses of and practical ways to counter the forms of oppressive power that threaten the stability of ecosystems, and the integrity of more-than-human animal lives and socio-ecological relations. We are now in the regrettable, if still resolvable, position of needing to urgently consider how we can best provide a platform and safe refuge for animal species and other living entities situated in and dependent on what are currently denuded and precarious habitats, both in the wake of the recent bushfire trauma and beyond. Sociology – and sociological knowledge and practice more specifically – has much to contribute to this vital endeavour, especially if its practitioners retain an openness to developing innovative interdisciplinary and inter-agency collaborations with various professional and community stakeholders in what is a paramount, if politically and socio-ecologically volatile, space. That is to say, sociology needs to inform but also be informed by precisely the kinds of epistemic and environmental turbulences, struggles and transformations that mediate and are mediated by ecospheric agency.