In ancient Roman maps, terra incognita at the edge of the Empire were marked with the notation hinc sunt leones – “here are lions”. Specific zootopes, animal-places as places of or for animals, are always connected to certain zootropes, animal metaphors and animal images. This is also the case for unknown places, to which the Roman maps seem to attest.

People, through their historically changing material and ideological practices, are part of this complex situation – along with animals and their practices. Animals thwart not only our dreams but also our bedrooms. They populate utopias and heterotopias, are assigned to certain topologies, and transcend them. Animals are ignored and loved, segregated and caged in, but nevertheless build relationships – with humans and other animals, architectures and cities, environments and ecologies. Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams from 2010 gravitates poetically around this relationship in its search for “ecstatic truth” while dealing with the Chauvet Cave drawings in France. Dating back an estimated 30,000 years, the cave paintings are twice as old as any other visual artifacts of human history. Both the birth of man and the birth of art are depicted as one and the same act – a moment that supposedly was inextricably linked to animals and images of animals.

But more interesting is the filmic postscript: near the end of the film, the camera eye detaches from the cave parables from the dawn of history. It turns to another scenery in the immediate proximity, near a nuclear power plant. Allegedly radioactive water, discharged into the environment from the reactor’s cooling system, has created Africa-like microhabitats where mutant albino crocodiles have supposedly settled. These animals seem to be out of place – like the extinct mammoths and ice-age lions preserved as images in the nearby cave – and at the same time the legitimate, new inhabitants showing glimpses of the times to come. The power of Herzog’s associative reflections is that they de-romanticize popular notions of naturality, culturality, space, and who belongs where. These popular ideas assign certain animals that are ahistorically conceptualized (e.g. in terms of essentialist notions like “dog-ness” or “chicken-ness”) to certain natural or cultural spaces, usually accompanied by cultural pessimism.

Arguably the most important account in the history of visuality is John Berger’s famous essay, “Why Look at Animals” from 1980. 1Berger, John. “Why Look at Animals?” in About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 1-26. Here, Berger develops a powerful story of the shift in human-animal relationships in modern times. Inspired by paintings of animals in zoos made by French artist Gilles Aillaud starting in the 1950s, Berger argues that the original unity of people and animals that once existed was ruptured by the enforcement of capitalist forms of production and socialization. Through industrialization and urbanization, animals and people were spatially dislocated: the power of the horse was replaced by horsepower, the ox by the tractor, manure by chemistry, etc. Reliable, specific relationships between people and animals were increasingly replaced by visual and imaginary relationships, and in the 20th century, the cultural industry produced an explosion of animal representations. Human culture has never been so heavily populated by animal images in advertising, entertainment, and popular culture as it is today. Animals have become a sea of empty signifiers flooding human society because the real animals have disappeared from human relationships. In the institution of the zoo, animals constitute, according to Berger, monuments of their own disappearance. The stronger and more comprehensive the representational matrices rattled, the less passed through. Animals can now stand for everything, because nobody knows anymore how real animals behave.

While Berger’s essay powerfully criticizes the increasing expulsion of agricultural animals from the proximity of human subjects in capitalism, his thesis remains questionable. Of course, the number of extinct animals in the course of colonialism and capitalism is legion and the situation of animals in modern animal industries is miserable. And Berger’s argument seems substantiated when tigers advertise cornflakes and cartoon hens advertise their own eggs. The occupants of techno-scientific factory farms are indeed like deplorable caricatures of their relatively free-ranging counterparts, but still – we should keep in mind that no animal in the organic counter-industries of green capitalism is cuddled to death, nor were the small agricultural units of the past that are frequently romanticized in advertisements free of unnecessary cruelty.

Indeed, the spatio-social dialectic of industrialization could also be read along a countercurrent: it was the separation of the city and the countryside that made the de-brutalization of the human-animal relationship possible in the first place. Not being raised and integrated into the rural culture of animal killing effected a sensitization of an increasingly urban humanity that could then imagine other ways to interact with animals. And even the worst animal documentary on TV teaches incomparably more then any visit to a zoo could ever do. Above all, Berger’s argument rests on a dubious spatio-social supposition: that proximity in itself leads to an inter-subject understanding of any sort. If this is not true in the case of humans in migration societies today, why should it apply to human-animal interaction in the past?

There is an animal that every urbanist knows from first-hand experience, even if she has never met a dog or lived with a cat: the pigeon. 2See, for example, Andrew Blechman, Pigeons (New York: Grove Press, 2006). Pigeons occupy an ambiguous position between the segregated spaces of domesticated and wild animals, since urban pigeons are the feral descendants of formerly domesticated birds. They are neither the poor, over-exploited agricultural animals of animal rights activists nor the endangered, romanticized wild animals of the environmentalists, but instead occupy a third space. Improved hygiene made people more anxious about the cleanliness of windowsills and backyards. As standards of cleanliness improved in the home, more care was taken to keep the city’s outdoor spaces clean. Businesspeople and local politicians concerned themselves increasingly with the appearance of shopping areas. And while squirrels carry more diseases than pigeons, it is the latter that allegedly spread germs.

To share the same space with animals in our nearest proximity does not mean that we know anything about them. Our willingness to believe in the heavily charged image of the “flying rat” suggests an urban order that is as much symbolic as it is material. In this order, a vision of disciplined urban space and the commercial demand for clean shopping areas converge with an austere aesthetic of biosocial hygiene. Yet there is also an urban ecological perspective from which pigeons might be seen as a bastardized population that has refused to revert obediently to type. Domesticated pigeons released during the French Revolution simply joined their feral cousins: city life brings freedom, not only for people, it would seem.

Further reading:

Simon J. Bronner, “Contesting Tradition: the Deep Play and Protest of Pigeon Shoots” in Journal of American Folklore, vol. 118, no. 470 (2005): 409-452.

Andrea Dee, Eine vergessene Leidenschaft: von Tauben und Menschen (Vienna: Ueberreuter, 1994).

David Glover and Marie Beaumont, Racing Pigeons (Marlborough: Crowood, 1999).

Daniel Haag-Wackernagel, Die Taube. Vom heiligen Vogel der Liebesgöttin zur Strassentaube (Basel: Schwabe, 1998).

Courtney Humphries, Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan… and the World (New York: Collins, 2008).

Colin Jerolmack, “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals” in Social Problems, vol. 55, no. 2 (2008): 72-94.

Richard Johnston and Marián Janiga, Feral Pigeons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Horst Marks, Unsere Haustauben (Wittenberg: Ziemsen, 1971).

Eva Rose, Peter Nagel, and Daniel Haag-Wackernagel, “Spatio-temporal Use of the Urban Habitat by Feral Pigeons (Columba livia)” in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, vol.60, no. 2 (2006): 242-254.

Annette Rösener, Die Stadttaubenproblematik: Ursachen, Entwicklungen, Lösungen; eine Literaturübersicht (Aachen: Shaker, 1999).

Günther Vater, “Bestandsverminderung bei verwilderten Haustauben, Teil 1, Bilanz mitteleuropäischer Stadtverwaltungen,” in Bundesgesundheitsblatt – Gesundheitsforschung –Gesundheitsschutz, 1999, vol. 42, no. 12 (2006): 911-921.