The Urban Elephant
Updated: Sep 15
It was hot, sweltering in fact, and a couple of those old fans were attempting to limply move about the sticky air. We sat outside at a small round table with beers in hand - dressed in the disheveled way only backpackers are forgiven for. As the din of the restaurant spilled out onto the street, the urban cacophony pushed back with the hoot of scooters and the buzz of traffic. And there, between the tuk-tuks and cars, a large elephant walked up the street. This was Phnom Penh.
Like most capitals, Phnom Penh is a busy city with a striking mix of activities, buildings, people, and stories. I have many memories from my brief time there: People stretching in the park, the smell of coffee being roasted, the beauty of the Supreme Court Building, the unnerving exhibition and tragedy at Tuol Sleng, and this elephant....
Seeing an elephant anywhere is amazing, seeing an elephant walking up a busy street wedged between traffic is enough to make you forget about your beer and the stickiness of the air; it is enough of a brief encounter to leave me still wondering ten years later who that elephant was, where they where going and why they were there...
These questions - the very asking of them - tells us something about 'the urban' and the ways in which animals are thought to belong. Furthermore, underlying the questions is an implicit idea that somehow the elephant seemed out of place. And if one takes this even further one is then compelled to ask who is the urban for?
My questions are social and cultural, born of my own experiences with cities and elephants. Elephant imagery is found throughout Johannesburg (my home city) but elephants themselves are imagined as the pinnacle of nature, the bush, 'the wild' - they are not urban animals.
But the fact that the traffic didn't stop in Phnom Penh, and locals didn't gawk means that there is possibly another way of understanding elephants in the city - not as out of place but as placed with distinct stories and histories that are deserving of attention.
When we drop the veil that elephants are not urban animals and instead ask, what I believe to be a much more interesting question, how specific elephants and elephant populations are or have become urban animals we start to bring to the fore an array of interesting connections and relations - many of which should be problematized - but all of which cannot be fully unpacked without a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the social, cultural, historical, ecological, and economic entanglements that brought us to a particular urban happening.
There are many elephants in many cities - including elephants in zoos, circuses, as representations in images, there are also elephants who decide to walk into urban areas and those who avoid them. That's not to mention the elephants who are in relation with the urban - elephants who make appearances in urban movies or who live in sanctuaries/tourist sites that draw travelers into specific cites. Each of these are indicative of urban relations - each of these has the potential to tell us something about elephants, their stories, their histories, and geographies.
Urban Animal Relations
I had originally started this post with the intention of highlighting why a season of The Animal Turn focused on 'The Urban' is necessary and important - there are many other animals whose presence in the city might not have caused me to stop and wonder how animals are essentialized as in or out of place. Animals whose placements in the city I take for granted as being urban (like rats, pigeons, dogs, and cats) or whose connections with the urban might be invisiblized (like cows, pigs, chickens, and in many instances elephants). Cities are important places for humans, they are where many humans currently live and by 2050 it is expected that more than two thirds of humans will be in cities. But this should not give the illusion that cities are only human places - Cities are diverse, with multi-species relations stretching from ants in sidewalk cracks to elephants on urban streets.
And what is central is understanding these relations - how do animals relate to the urban? Work by scholars like Clare Palmer have begun to typologize these relations including avoidance relations, immigrant relations and relations of display. Some of the guests in Season 3 add different, but overlapping relations to this mix: Paula Arcari points to invisibilised relations, Nicholas Delon to relations of captivity, Krithika Srinivasan to biopolitical relations, Yamini Narayanan to informal relations, and Catherine Oliver to metabolic ones.
What each of these conversations point to is that understanding multispecies urban relations are not always obvious and involve complicated, detailed and analytical lenses. We need to resist simple narratives of an animal, like an elephant, being out of place but rather - as I mentioned earlier - start to ask how they are placed in urban relation. With some of these analytical tools in hand I am now able to wonder more deeply about the elephant - what formal/informal processes made their urban presence possible? How are they captive to the place? Where does this elephant poo and what does she eat? How has her presence in the city been framed as beneficial (or not) and for whose benefit? These concepts also help me to wonder beyond the elephant who is imprinted deeply in my memory. What of the many animals who I did not see? Who were there but who for me were conceptually absent, inconsequential, invisible?
As I continue in this season, I find my senses more open to seeing animals and noticing urban design. I see the spikes for birds and the pesticide for grass. I see the trail of bread crumbs and the cats in windows. I see the posters for exhibitions and the elephant balloons. I see the animal city and I am left asking so many more questions. This afternoon when I head out onto the streets of Vienna to walk Linus (my overly eager but oh so lovely doggo), I will likely not see an elephant. What does this absence tell me? What does my certainty say? Are elephants not urban animals in Vienna? Or have I not begun to ask the right questions?
As we walk, Linus will strain to get another whiff of a urine soaked corner, I will glance at the Danube and see the fishing lines darting in the water. I will pause to wonder about their emplacements and the many questions yet to be asked...