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?

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