"Do They Bite?"
An Anthropological Study of Man-Animal Interactions on Galapagos
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen 2000
Article based on the Master Thesis The Last Paradise: Man-Animal Relationships on Galapagos
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Animals as Actors
In this article I will examine what could be labeled transgenic social relations between humans and other animals on the Galapagos Islands. A central argument will be that animals as actors in interactions with humans also have an influence on these relationships. People perceive themselves and other species through various cultural and physical processes, but they don't interact with representations: beyond the representations of animals as this and that, are real and ultimately mystical (in the sense of little understood) life-forms that have their own ways of perceiving and orienting themselves in their environment, and whose movements and emotional expressions have to be interpreted by and related to by the human part of the interactions. Thus, exploring classification systems and symbolic representations of animals is not enough if our aim is to understand the relationships between humans and animals in a more complete way.
The relationships between different life forms on this planet are probably still poorly understood. When scientists make studies that aim to investigate the relationships between nature and culture, or between animals and humans, they are from the outset caught up in a web of metaphysics that reflect a fundamental way of understanding processes of life. As among others Marilyn Strathern has pointed out, terms like nature and culture are not necessarily meaningful outside a western context (Strathern 1980:177). Even within western discourses, these terms are often ambiguous. Nature is sometimes used to include and sometimes to exclude humanity. In environmentalist discourses the term is frequently used to refer to what anthropologist Roy Ellen calls ”the space which is not human” (Ellen 1996:110). It is in this use nature becomes the contrast-point to culture, which is what most people like to think separates us from other animals. Humans are different because we have culture: ways of taming, repressing, tempering, rationalising and understanding the powerful and mystifying thing we think we have inside us and around us and that move all things- that we call nature (Wagner 1981:140). At the same time, nature makes, shapes, causes, influences and motivates the elusive culture that is the sole possesion of human beings.
This distinction between nature and culture, animals and humans, has proven to be a formidable adversary in attempts at developing a methodological framework that is symmetrical, i.e. not grounded in the assumption that humans are so fundamentally different from other animals that they require totally different sets of theoretical and methodological considerations. Traditional scientific understandings hold it that animal behaviour is biologically programmed. Animals are in many cases considered to lack consciousness of their own existence, and to function in accordance with instincts and genetic patterns. They have no intentionality, they don’t learn, and they don’t have a language. Norwegian ethologist Per Jensen writes for instance that "animal behaviour is governed by strong rules, like programs, that are decided by the genes" (Jensen 1993:8, my translation). It has been suggested that actions that would have been characterised as intentionally motivated and culturally made, if they had been made by humans, would be characterised as the automatic outcome of an internal, genetically determined nerve-mechanism, if they were made by animals (Ingold 1988:6). In natural sciences, anthropormorphisations of animals are also strongly criticised, and comparisons between animals and humans that do not confirm our differences are taboo (Dreyer 1997, de Waal 1996).
In the social sciences a basic pattern in the study of animals is revealed, where psychologists generally have been occupied with pets and their effects on humans, specifically from a clinical perspective; sociologists have studied professions that have to do with animals, for instance in a slaughterhouse, at the race-tracks, or in biomedical laboratories, without really investigating the particular man-animal relations in themselves; and anthropologists have traditionally focused on respectively "good to eat" and "good to think"- aspects of animals, that is, the use and function of animals in non-industrial societies and how these societies create animal-related symbols (Arluke 1993). Humans' relationships with animals have been studied in anthropology with the primary aim of a better understanding of humans' relationships with other humans. Meanings assigned to animals, ways of classifying them and ways of using them- whether as food, stores of value, commodities, signs, scapegoats or stand-in humans, have been the major topics for researchers (Mullin 1999). Animals exist in anthropological literature, but there is a general tendency to regard them as raw material for human action (especially economic) and human thoughts, plus a tendency to represent them as passive objects (Noske 1989, Rowan 1991). That is: the active role of animals in their relationships and interactions with humans has so far been the subject of few, if any, empirical investigations made by anthropologists. (See Mullin 1999 for a full review of sociocultural studies of human-animal relationships).
There have certainly been attempts at overcoming the asymmetry in science caused by the dichotomy between nature and culture, by for instance studying humans from a biological point of view (as in the sociobiology of Edward O. Wilson, or the popularised ”naked ape” analogies of Desmond Morris), or by developing models that make no apriori distinctions at all, whether between humans and animals, animate and non-animate, or nature and culture (as in the actor-network theory of Latour and Callon). But these types of approaches tend to be heavily critizised, either because of their reductionist point of departure, or in the latter case because they fail to explain, with a sense of clarity, how these distinctions effectively could be substituted with other non-dichotomical terms. The heart of the matter seems to be that terms like nature and culture are not merely scientific analytical tools, but also integral parts of peoples ontology. Being fundamental to the way we understand ourselves and our relationship to other life forms on this planet, the terms are not easily replacable. This however, does not change the fact that the dichotomical model of science and reality has prevented us from looking into many important aspects of relationships between humans and other animals which could help us a little on the way to understanding these relationships in a better, albeit not complete, way.
Given the common scientific perception of animals as non-intentional and animal behaviour as being genetically programmed, scientists have taken it for granted that only humans can be granted the status of actors in interactions. There has been a remarkable lack of empirical studies that acknowledge the active involvement of animals in relations to humans. On the theoretical side of the matter, anthropologists like Adrian Franklin have started to use terms like transgenic, ordinarily a biological term used to describe practices in genetic engineering such as cloning of different species and implanting human genes in animals, to approach a whole range of ways in which animals and humans negotiate and practice a sort of cultural domain that is not species specific. (Franklin 1999: personal communication)
Bruno Latour is another anthropologist who has made major theoretical contributions in this field. In "The Pasteurization of France" (1988), he tried to show how Pasteur was not merely a talented scientist in terms of cold rationality and ability for scientific distancing, but that he quite contrarily had a good ability to handle microbes, almost like people that are good at handling animals. What Pasteur achieved, and that nobody had managed before him, was to move the microbes in a collaboration. The microbes became his allied. In this way, Latour has attempted to break down the methodological distinction between humans and non-humans, where only the former are usually seen as actors. To Latour, an actor, or actant as he prefers to call it, is “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general. An actant can literally be anything provided it is granted to be the source of an action” (Latour 1997). In other words, actors are simply any entity that does things, that in one way or the other generates some kind of effects in the world that could not simply be reduced to the effects of human parts involved. It is in this sense Latour can speak of Pasteur’s microbes as actors, as the collaboration between the scientist and the microbes was only possible by the fact that the microbes did “move” at all. With this way of concieving both human and other animal actors in mind, general methods and theories that have been developed by anthropologists to study interactions between humans can become very useful even in the study of transgenic interactions.
Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth has for instance tried to develop models that accept that human actions are not predetermined, but a product of an interplay of influences and circumstances that are individually interpreted, and that social life for these reasons show a considerable degree of disorder, and that any pattern is floating and in change (Barth 1994:15). Barth makes a distinction between the terms event and action, where the first refers to the outer aspects of behaviour (the objective and measurable data of positivism), and the latter to the intended and interpreted meaning of behaviour. To put it simply, an event is an action by virtue of being intended and understandable, Barth claims. The action can in this respect be traced backward to the intentions of the actors, and forward to the actors’ interpretations. The actors’ goal-orientations can be simultaneously both instrumental and expressive (for instance in regard to the actors’ mood). If we trace even further backward we find plans and strategies, and eventually claims of identity, values and knowledge that shape goals and means. When these types of intentions are translated into movement and sound, they become objective events, but events that for the actors themselves have the qualities of the action.
In the other direction of the action, the interpretation of it finds place. A spectator makes a diagnose of the actor’s intentions. The results of the action indicate what type of action we witnessed. In order for a second actor to make this kind of interpretation, a significant wealth of information must be brought forward. Our interpretations of actions (both our own and those of others) are embedded in the person as experience. With distance, knowledge and values are synthesised from this basis - something that in turn influences future plans and intentions as well as future interpretations of actions. Interpretations and re-interpretations are often revised collectively in a process of conversation and retrospection with a third party. Barth refers to this process as "discursive reflection" (Barth 1994:21). The result is a level of convergence between understanding, knowledge and values among the engaged, as well as an influencing of the actors' orientation towards reality.
Most often then, the interpretation will seldom converge with the intention. The event as an action can always be disputed and to a certain extent converted. The social consequences of the event are in no way exhausted in light of its interpretations. Social actions generate actions and chains of consequences that can be recognized, and that can provoke new comprehensions: the events are not only meaningful inside a framework of culturally constituted intentions and interpretations, but enable us to transcend our understandings and knowledge as well as reproducing it (Barth 1994:21). Barth concludes that we must realize that actors with completely different understandings, values and intentions can be united in interaction (Barth 1994:30).
Immortalized by the great Charles Darwin and located just below the equator some 1000 kms into the Pacific Ocean as you travel west from Ecuador, the Galapagos islands are known to the world as an animal paradise, often described as one of the last places on this planet that has been left relatively undisturbed by man's actions. The archipelago consists of 13 major and over 100 smaller islands out of which only five are sparsely populated by humans. The islands initially got their name from the famous giant tortoises: Galápago in Spanish refers to a type of saddle that is similar to the shape of these longeval tortoises’ carapaces, and they are indeed so huge that it is possible to ride them. As on other islands, there is a high rate of endemism on Galapagos, which is one of the factors that makes it important to protect these islands. A great number of the animal species that can be found on Galapagos can be found nowhere else on this planet. 97 % of the archipelago is today declared a National Park, and it is considered a Mecca for scientists and eco-tourists alike. In order to protect endemic animals and natural areas, visitors are not allowed to venture into National Park area without a formally licensed naturalist guide, and even then there are laws that for instance prohibits touching the animals or feeding them. The naturalist guides are educated at the Charles Darwin Research Station by a professional international staff who besides scientific research and public education, work on special breeding programs for threatened species such as land iguanas and giant tortoises. These animals are kept in special pens or corrals inside the station area, and when the eco-systems of the animals’ respective islands are considered safe enough for the animals to return, they are reintroduced there. However, animals whose species for various reasons are impossible to decide, will most likely never be reintroduced to their islands. These individuals live in other types of pens where tourists can walk about freely, making interesting transgenic interactions easily observable.
In 1999 I conducted a six-month fieldwork on the Galapagos Islands. The following excerpt from my field notes is based on a transcription from a tape-recording made in the tortoise corrals at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island towards the end of March 1999.
Sign saying: "For your own safety: Do not touch or feed the tortoises. Do not step on the feeding-platform as it can transmit diseases."
[Male guide scratches giant tortoise on the neck with his fingers, pats his head. The tortoise goes up on all four so that it has his carapace above the ground and the long throat stretched forward so that the nose points towards the sky and eyes closed.]
Guide [in broken English, to the tourists]: Come here! There's a show for you!
Female tourist: Oh beautiful! Oh [laughs]
Guide: This is like natural reaction [inaudible]... A wild...when a Darwin finch comes to remove the ticks they take that position. And also because of people touch.
Female Italian tourist [in broken English]: Is allowed to touch? Is allowed to touch?
[Everybody have their cameras out, in a circle around the tortoise, making a lot of sound, several laughing and missing the opportunity to take a picture before the tortoise lays down again. Guide repeats the scratching of the throat, after which the tortoise gets into the same stance again]
Guide [to the tortoise]: another picture, okay?
[To the tourists]: He's going to do another 10 seconds.
[The tourists move around with their cameras, some of them stepping onto the feeding platform for a better angle]
Guide: Ten seconds, that's all!
Female tourist: He's good!
Guide: Don't step on the platform okay?
North American Female tourist [to her husband]: You wanna get in the picture?... you wanna be in the picture, honey, just behind him, okay, look at me honey
North American Male tourist: Okay
Female tourist [about the tortoise]: He enjoys it!
Guide: I'm not saying you cannot touch. That... these animals never go back to the natural habitat, because they are the hybrids I talked about.
Male tourist: So these are the hybrids?
Guide: Yeah. That's why we are here.
Female Italian tourist: He looks kind of snobby with his nose up in the air like that. Do they bite?
Now, the actors in the interaction above are the male guide, the international group of tourists, the giant tortoise, and also, to a lesser extent, the sign representing National Park rules, as it kept the tourists from stepping onto the feeding platform. In accordance with Barth’s methodological framework as outlined above (Barth 1994), one could say that the main stages of this interaction are: 1) Male guide scratching giant tortoise. 2) Giant tortoise changing it's posture 3) Discursive reflection between male guide and tourists.
1) The male guide scratches the neck of the giant tortoise. His main goal-orientation is to manipulate what he considers a "natural reaction" of the tortoises so that the tourists can shoot some interesting photos. On Galapagos, birds such as Darwin finches have a special arrangement with tortoises for removal of ticks. In order for the finches to remove ticks in spots that are otherwise impossible to access, tortoises go into a special position. Finches sometimes climb up and down their necks to remove ticks as well, and this is why the guide scratches the neck to make the tortoise move into the special position. As he scratches the neck, he explains to the tortoise, in English, that it is for a picture and asks if it's okay.
The guide's plans and strategies involve being a good guide. It is possible to see the guiding of the tourists around Galapagos as a performance, in which the guide needs to use all his experience and knowledge to set up interactions between tourists and endemic animals. At the same time he needs to make sure the National Park rules are respected, and that the tourists have enough variation so they won’t get bored. (Some guides have actually gone so far that they have used red balloons to attract female frigate birds for the benefit of tourists) It seems that the guide in this context identifies first and foremost as a conservationist naturalist guide. When it comes to his values, a possible conflict between National Park rules which state that it's illegal to touch all animals, and his wish to provide a good photo-opportunity for the tourists by touching the tortoise in a special way, is apparently resolved by the fact that this particular tortoise is a "hybrid" which will "never go back to the natural habitat". This is expressed later in the discursive reflection between him and the tourists. There is a possibility that these animals may be hybrids between different species of giant tortoises, which is another reason for keeping them in the pens, since they are no longer "pure" species belonging to different islands where they have evolved "naturally". All this is translated into movement and sound, which becomes the objective event of human touching animal.
2) This event has the qualities of an action for the giant tortoise, which makes some kind of diagnosis of the male guide’s movements and sounds, and either reacts instinctively or interprets him exactly the way the guide intended. As far as the tortoise knows, being scratched in this way means getting rid of ticks, or possibly it’s past experience as a pet for humans has made it recognize this type of movement. These are of course all guesses on my part, the point is that in one way or other it reacts to the guide's movements by adjusting its position. In a strange way there is a level of convergence between understanding and knowledge among the engaged.
3) The discursive reflection between the guide and the tourists reveals more information on the human side of the interaction. After they've shot their photos, the tourists interpret the tortoise's expression: "He enjoys it!” The guide explains why he could touch it in the first place, that it all has to do with the fact that they will never go back to the "natural", so it's apparently not as important. Nevertheless, the tourists are not allowed to touch, or step on the feeding platform. The female Italian tourist who wanted to touch the tortoise in the beginning of the interaction now interprets his expression as "snobby", and asks if he’s dangerous - obviously not very knowledgeable about the harmless, slow, but giant tortoises.
As Barth points out, the interpretations seldom converge with the intentions of the engaged. The event as an action can always be disputed and to a certain extent converted. The event is not only meaningful inside a framework of culturally constituted intentions and interpretations, but actors with completely different understandings; values and intentions can be united in interaction. Perhaps the tourists learned something new about giant tortoises from that interaction, and perhaps they reproduced an idea that humans are smarter than animals and are able to manipulate them. But the most interesting aspect is the social relation that is made between the engaged human and animal parts. The interaction here is not necessarily reducible to discourses that are mobilized when the guide was dealing with the tortoise. Rather, like Latour argues about Pasteur and his microbes, he moved the tortoise, but in a collaboration. The tortoise became his allied. It's a full transgenic situation where both the movements and sounds of the human and the animal are interpreted and have social consequences. An interesting observation in this respect, is that the social interaction between the finches and the tortoises, as observed by humans, have generated social consequences that must be said to be, to some extent, unpredictable. It underlines Barth's point about the emergent qualities of interactions that an ancient social relationship between two animals (finches and tortoises) would some day be interpreted and converted by another animal (humans) into what I have just described.
The following account is from a similar interaction between guide, tourists and giant tortoises in the same corral, which found place some months later. By this time, I'd learned the names of the tortoises and some of their individual characteristics, which made me see the interactions as more complex than I had thought at first. A North-American tour group consisting of 10 adults comes down to the corral led by a guide. The guide is a Galapageño and has worked with these tortoises before, in his youth, so he knows them, their names and some of their histories. "Let's go down to these big ones here!"
He explains to his group that there are six male and one female giant tortoises in the corral. “These had become pets before the Park was established, and people forgot where they came from. They're still taking DNA tests to find out which islands they belong to. This is important because they will never be repatriated to the islands of their origin until that place has been discovered”, the guide reveals. The Station and the Park are very concerned not to introduce foreign species to islands, but it has happened that even scientists have done this (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1965). These giant tortoises are probably more than 100 years old, and have had much contact with humans during their lifetimes. As the tourists approach them, some of them are lying in a small pool.
Female tourist #1: "Do they like this water even though it's so filthy?"
Guide: "This... yeah, to relax themselves, because they are very heavy, so... they rest here..."
Female tourist #1: "But they like it filthy like that?"
Guide: "I know, the water is not very clean... [addressing the tour-group:] All of them got names... we have Popeye... this one... and this is Cesar... Popeye were, was living in the navy base in Ecuador... and he got two shots... You can see the holes..."
Male tourist #1: "They go in?"
Guide: "No, just in this second layer... their real shell... so... the giant tortoises and the blue whales are probably the most primitive creatures on the earth... they don't have good senses... Here, I want to talk with Cesar, [to the tortoise, in a firm voice]: Cesar come up!"
[The guide has approached one of the tortoises in the pool and is carefully knocking the carapace with a stick, and the tortoise is looking at him.]
Guide [to the tortoise in a firm voice]: "Cesar... Cesar... arriba [Sp. up] Cesar..." [Cesar stretches his neck up and the guide strokes it with his stick. The tourists go "Ooooooh!" and snap photos.]
Guide: "Five minutes, Cesar, for pictures..." [The guide walks away and female tourist #1 takes his place to pose for a photo]
#2: "Will this be your Christmas card photo?"
Female tourist #1: "Maybe!" [To Cesar:] "Thank you!" [The tortoise lowers his head again].
Guide:"Talk with him and he will to rise again."
Female tourist #1: [with a childish voice:]"Come up there... come up..."
Female tourist #2: "So this one [Popeye] won't do that, huh?"
Female tourist #2 [to Popeye, in a childish voice]: "Are you lazy?... Are you lazy?... That's the problem?..."
Male tourist #1: "He got shot!" [laughter]
Female tourist #3: "They aren't very afraid, though."
[The guide starts to explain a scientific theory about the size of the giant tortoises, that they originate in the Amazon jungle where the vegetation is very dense, while on Galapagos there is another environment. In the meantime he's switched places with the female tourist again. Cesar hears his voice and stretches his neck again. The female tourist had not managed to make him do it.]
Female tourist #1: "He knows you!"
Guide: "Yeah... he hear me..."
Female tourist #4: "So pretty..."
Guide: "Yeah, and then... [to the tortoise in a firm voice]: Cesar come up... I'm talking with you... come up... [to the tourists]: and then they grow to be big ones.... [The tortoise gets back in the special position, and the guide continues explaining the scientific theory, using the word evolution as often as possible. Then the whole group proceeds down to two other tortoises in the corral: Antonio and Alfredo.]
Guide: "You can see here, the front legs looks like elephant"
[One of the tourists comments that Steven Spielberg came to Galapagos to get ideas for E.T., the guide said he'd read the same thing. They repeat the photo-trick with Alfredo. He moves his head backwards like a flamingo and rests it against the carapace while he's being scratched. The tourists are amazed by the pose, and are commenting it when the head suddenly falls down: he'd fallen asleep! Then he starts walking away but stops after a meter or two.]
Male tourist #2: "That's it?" [laughter]
Female tourist #4: "Seriously?"
Female tourist #2: "Tortoise aerobics!"
Female tourist #3 [childish voice]: "A little more... come on... [He stops to eat a leaf] What can we get you to eat?"
Female tourist #1: "It's not a very nice leaf... I don't think it's very nice."
Again, the guide collaborates with the tortoises for the benefit of the tourists. This time the technique is different. The guide has found a clever way of going around the no-touching rule: he uses a stick. In a way, the "trick" seems very similar to the sort of interactions you'll find between trained animals and their human trainers in circuses. It is not entirely correct that in circuses, animals are mainly instructed by means of rewards or punishments. Animal trainers also use scientific knowledge and experience to manipulate both the audience and the animals. For instance, it is generally assumed that a lion-tamer keeps the lions back with the aid of a whip and a chair. In fact, the lions are fed and sedated before they enter the arena, and have no reason to attack anyone. The procedure is that the lion tamer steps forward, entering the lions’ personal territory, making them issue a warning, upon which the lion tamer wisely steps backward again. With a snap of his whip he makes it look like he’s the one keeping the lions away. Like Latour’s Pasteur and his microbes, one could say that what the audience experiences, is a collaboration between man and animal of some sort.
Here, on Galapagos, the guides use scientific knowledge and personal experience to "trick" the animals into doing something. The guide explains that giant tortoises and blue whales "are probably the most primitive creatures on the earth". Although this certainly is not a scientific evolutionary fact, it is his explanation for the reason it’s so easy to manipulate this animal. Following scientific theories about animals being controlled by instincts, he "triggers" one of them. And for one reason or the other, the animal responds as the guide thought it would. The fact that Popeye, the other giant tortoise in the pool seems to be immune to this sort of triggering of instincts is not taken into account. But in fact, individual differences between tortoises are important in these interactions. The guide had learned some of their individual characteristics through his experience with them in his youth. Perhaps, as one of the tourists points out, Popeye who had actually been shot by someone in the Ecuadorian navy, had become more sceptical towards humans. Whatever the reason, this tortoise refused to collaborate with guides for the benefit of tourists. The guide was unable to make the same social relation with him. Another interesting observation is that the female tourist who was given the instructions by the guide on how to make the tortoise get into the photogenic position, didn't manage to make it collaborate. It seems Cesar recognizes the guide's voice, at least that's the guide's own interpretation, although he'd just pointed out how primitive and bad their senses were. The scientific discourse is overshadowed by experience from past interactions. It is not my point to say that one explanation is more correct than the other. I'm merely following the turns and twists of the interactions as I interpret them.
It's possible that the differences in audio frequency between the guide's voice and the female tourist's voice play an important part. Charles Darwin writes:
"The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf; certainly they do not overhear a person walking close behind them. I was always amused, when overtaking one of these great monsters as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then, upon giving a few raps on the hinder part of the shell, they would rise up and walk away; but I found it very difficult to keep my balance." (Darwin 1995:16)
Additionally, whereas the guide spoke in a firm, friendly, but commanding voice; the female tourist made her voice even softer and more high-pitched when addressing the tortoise. This is another observation that could be pursued.
Since it can be assumed that the lexical content of what people say to the animals is not interpretable by the animal, the intonation, force, feeling and audio frequency put into the utterances are of key importance. This is something I gradually became aware of by listening to and transcribing the recordings I made with my small tape-recorder. I agree with anthropologists that call for "a need to resisuate our visual bias and tune into the dimension of sound in ethnographic work" (Stoller 1996:168). Zuckerland suggests for instance that sound can be organized into melodies, rhythms, meters, and most of all into forces. The meaning of a sound "lies not in what it points to, but in the pointing itself" (Zuckerland 1958:68). The referential content of the utterances in an interaction or conversation is of course important, but so is the form (Briggs 1996:99). Paul Stoller writes that "[w]ith our ears fully tuned to the existential nature of sound, we can better appreciate the intangible and can cross thresholds into the deep recesses of a people's experience" (Stoller 1996:169).
On Galapagos, the characters of the social relations people make with animals are both in part formed and expressed in the way they talk to animals. To begin with I was very surprised by discovering this fact, that people constantly talked to animals in interactions with them. Not only tourists, but guides, scientists, locals and even myself directly addressed animals with speech in encounters with them. Not only did this make it a lot easier methodically to find out how people interpreted the animal's movements and sounds, as they simply verbalized them; but gradually I also became aware that the form of these utterances was important. For instance, most tourists altered the pitch of their voice when addressing animals, speaking as many pet-owners do to their pets, or as adults speak to small babies. They used an exaggerated friendly, protective and childish voice, and used very simple lexical meanings, often repeating the same words: "Are you lazy? Are you lazy? That's the problem?". Or they would instruct the animals as they would instruct a small child, using the same high-pitched, gentle voice:” a little more... come on... what can we get you to eat?". As anthropologist Constance Russel (1995) writes about American ecotourists' constructions of orangutans on Borneo, scientific discourses focusing on the animals as threatened, rare, wild and untouched by man; and the image of them as children, were dominating. This perception is reflected in the social relations that are made with the animals on Galapagos as well, and in the way people alter their voices when talking to them. In a way, what the female eco-tourist is expressing when she asks the around 100-year old giant tortoise (they reportedly live as long as 200 years) “What can we get you to eat”, is in a sense also: “You are a little child, and I am your protective mother!” Although this strategy certainly raises more funds for protection of endangered species, it is observably unsuccessful when it comes to making actual social relationships with real individual animals. In contrast, the guides who used their knowledge about transgenic relationships between the giant tortoises and finches, as well as about the individual differences between different animals, were able to communicate with the animals on another level: there was some level of convergence between the guides’ intentions and the animals’ interpretations.
During my fieldwork on Galapagos (Guribye 2000), I observed transgenic interactions between humans and a whole range of other animals on a daily basis. Some of these interactions were far more complex than the ones I have analyzed here, set in a context of social conflicts, gender issues and other cultural processes in both the animal’s and the human’s life-worlds which would be too lengthy to go into here. Nevertheless, even the interactions I have described here reveal that there is no one-to-one correlation between people’s perceptions about animals and what goes on in actual interactions with them. Differences between individuals of the same animal species clearly play a part, as much as anything due to differences in the individuals’ life-experiences. There is an internal dynamics inherent in these transgenic interactions, which is expected when we take into account the differences in the social worlds of the engaged. However, with experience the engaged actors are able to interpret each other’s movements and sounds, and to a certain degree connect these movements and sounds to intentions. In itself, there is nothing new in this observation. Pet-owners and pets across the earth have been involved in similar processes for several thousand years, and have often, up to a certain point, been able to make durable social relationships across genetic barriers, among other things based on the necessary experience and understanding of individual quirks and characteristics. It is perhaps exactly genetic differences which make transgenic relationships interesting in the first place: the inherent mystery of sensing another life-form as it enters into your life-world, producing movements and uttering sounds which are interpreted in one way or the other, most frequently without grasping the intentions of the other, but nevertheless (and because of this) always leading to new unpredictable actions in a long chain of social consequences which will never become completely fathomable, but even so not less intriguing.
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