The Roar of Catastrophes: animals and humans in the face of (not-so-natural) disasters

By: Verónica Policarpo

Breathing in, take one. Inspiring Svetlana.  

How can we attune ourselves to the suffering of those caught by catastrophes? How much wonder can we find in their unimaginable capabilities for recovery?

These were the questions that inspired me when I first read Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices of Chernobyl, and then all her other books, as it usually happens when I get obsessively caught by an author that speaks to my deepest soul. What is it that triggers a line of restless enquiry that clings to our mind, as much as to our heart, to the point that it seems to have a life of its own? Here, I wish to reflect briefly upon what draws me to the study of catastrophes, and in particular to the experiences and suffering of nonhuman animals caught therein. I depart from Svetlana’s words, which was precisely what triggered my interest in the topic. Her books on human-made catastrophes – nuclear incidents, wars – are mainly about humans. But it strikes me how, in her narratives, she weaves the human accounts of disaster together with the non-human. May it be the forests of Ukraine or Belarus, caught in a radioactive peaceful mortal beauty. Or the innumerable animals caught in between the cruelty of such human excesses. At some point, in the preface of one of her books, she poignantly states (in much more beautiful words than those I can now recollect): one day, someone should make the History of all the animals killed in these disasters.

Like all important ideas, its simplicity hit me as fire. How come we have for so long disregarded what happens to animals in catastrophes? I am not an historian. But I am a social scientist and a human-animal studies scholar. And part of what I do is exactly to explore how to bring the non-human animals into our knowledge of social phenomena, including them as legitimate subjects of research, full co-producers of knowledge, accounting for their perspectives and interests. How could I, then, make a contribution?

Photograph taken by Author

Breathing in, take two. A country on fire.

This is how the project Liminal Becomings was born. Two years after I had read Alexievich’s work, Portugal underwent one of its most mortal wildfire seasons, during the summer of 2017. Two mega-fires, Pedrogão Grande in June, and Oliveira do Hospital, in October, swept away more than 100 human lives, and more than half a million animals (including farm animals and poultry). In between the two fires, the core ideas of what would later become this project were put together and submitted to a COFUND scholarship in Erfurt, Germany. As it happened, I was kept in a short list, but never got to the interview phase. This is how we make it, in academia as in life: step by step, more often than not, “failing” – or, as I prefer to see it, experimenting our ideas on the spot.

In the course of preparing the project, I came across a journalistic photograph in which a dog is being rescued by an entire crew of fully-equipped firefighters. The dog at the centre, humans focusing on his rescue. As many of you who followed the news back then may recall, there was something unusual in that particular media coverage, regarding animals. Animals seemed to be catching wide attention, from several sectors of civil society, and media as well. But was that actually so? And what was it that the media coverage was not showing?

These were some of the questions I asked in the project I resubmitted in early 2018, to the first CEEC call of FCT. Quite ambitiously, the project proposes an international comparison between three countries, and three types of catastrophes: wildfires in Portugal; floods in the UK; and earthquakes in Italy. The common thread is approaching what happens to nonhuman animals in these different societal contexts and types of disasters, covering the different stages of the disaster cycle: mitigation; preparedness; emergency and rescue; and recovery

Breathing out, take one. How is this project addressing the topic?

Even though literature and art have often given us rich accounts of the history of animal suffering, it was not until recently that social sciences, and sociology in particular, began to dedicate it the necessary attention. Furthermore, it was not until hurricane Katrina, in 2004, that the topic of locating animals’ experiences throughout, and following, disasters, began to be properly addressed. Since then, research on the subject has increased significantly, as illustrated by important works on the Chritschurch earthquake, or the Fukushima nuclear incident. Still, much remains to be done. This is where this project is born.

To fully understand how human actions impact the lives of nonhuman animals in this respect, how vulnerability is socially produced, we must then look at the different stages of the disaster management cycle, as well as to the different actors involved in the governance of disasters. The project addresses a polyhedron with six different types of governance actors: veterinary authorities (DGAV, ADS, OMV, local and volunteering veterinaries); political actors (borough mayors, city mayors, city councillors, members of government, members of parliament); firefighters (volunteer and professional); NGOs and civil society associations (victims, animals); police and other regulatory authorities (GNR; SEPNA; ICNF; Nature Vigilantes); civil protection (national and local).

Methodologically, the project unfolds alongside three main strategies: document and policy analysis; media and news analysis; and multispecies ethnography and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders. Because it is an individual project, with no funding of its own, I began by the media analysis, for which I had the collaboration of three other researchers. We presented the first results at the Global Animal Disaster Management Conference, in February 2021, pointing to the effective invisibility of animals in the news coverage of the fires, with only 6% of the pieces mentioning animals (article under preparation). However, the part of the fieldwork which I am absolutely passionate about, multispecies ethnography, had to be postponed, due to the Covid-19 epidemics. Elsewhere, I have written about how the pandemics impacted the team and the fieldwork, and the strategies put forward to turn the hindrances into gains.

Breathing out, take two: how to run the extra mile with the animals

To conclude, I will, once again, call upon Svetlana’s beautiful wording as a metaphor for the kind of questions, and answers, I am looking for. The kind of human-animal entanglements that have been made widely invisible, despite their pervasiveness.

“I lived with my mother, two sisters, a little brother, and a chicken. We were left with a chicken, she lived in our house, slept with us. Hid herself with us, from the bombs. She got used to follow us like a dog. As hungry as we were, we were able to save the chicken. (…) Around us, they killed. Killed… people, horses, dogs. Throughout the war they killed all our horses. All the dogs. The cats actually survived.”

This is just one of the many life stories told in her book Last Witnesses, in which the intimate connections between humans and animals are portrayed. Who’s speaking is a seven-year-old girl from Belarus, Zina, about her experience during Second World War and German occupation. Zina’s story, like many others reported by Alexievich, highlights the relational continuum between humans and animals in the experience of survival, built through daily practices, and charged with affective resonances. These are stories that follow catastrophes that, despite having human causes, bear more-than-human, global, consequences, ranging from war (World War II, Afghanistan) to nuclear disasters (Chernobyl).

The goal of this research is, thus, to attune to the multi-vocal experiences of disasters, also paying attention to the hidden or invisible actors, human and nonhuman: who they are, and how they impact on animals’ experiences. Focusing on the social conditions that contribute either to build, or to mitigate, human and nonhuman vulnerability to hazards, I also ask how all these actors are making their own stories of resilience, in more-than-human hybrid communities. In the end, the inspiration spot stands right at the core of the catastrophe: to be fully present to, and thus learn from, its extra-ordinary time, that of extreme experiences of survival.


Verónica Policarpo is a research fellow at ICS-ULisboa, where she belongs to research groups LIFE – Lifecourse and inequalities; and GiATS – Environment, Territory and Society.

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