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Uncivilized Behaviors: How Humans Wield “Feral” to Assert Power (and Control) over Other Species

In: Society & Animals
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Kristine Hill University of Exeter Devon United Kingdom

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Michelle Szydlowski University of Exeter Devon United Kingdom

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https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4747-3257
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Sarah Oxley Heaney University of Exeter Devon United Kingdom

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Debbie Busby Faculty of Business and Law, Manchester Metropolitan University Manchester United Kingdom

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Open Access

Abstract

This paper examines the use of the term “feral” as a form of control over other animals. The concept of this “power word” is explored within the context of what it means for those who find themselves labelled as such. As a prefix, “feral” is used by various interest groups to justify the treatment of subpopulations of species, particularly with regards to wildlife conservation. The “feral” label differentiates animals that are perceived as being out of place or out of control from those who are kept as companions or commodities. “Feral” is most often used to describe an unwelcome presence or noise, and can be contrasted to alternative words, such as “wild” or “free-living” that control how these presences are perceived by humans.

Abstract

This paper examines the use of the term “feral” as a form of control over other animals. The concept of this “power word” is explored within the context of what it means for those who find themselves labelled as such. As a prefix, “feral” is used by various interest groups to justify the treatment of subpopulations of species, particularly with regards to wildlife conservation. The “feral” label differentiates animals that are perceived as being out of place or out of control from those who are kept as companions or commodities. “Feral” is most often used to describe an unwelcome presence or noise, and can be contrasted to alternative words, such as “wild” or “free-living” that control how these presences are perceived by humans.

Language is a social experience; therefore, the meanings of words woven into discourse bend and flow around humans as they share social encounters (see Conley et al., 2019; Epstein, 2008; Mol, 2014). Within academia, professions, and everyday life certain words take on power when they are, sometimes forcibly, applied to others. “Stray,” “aggressive,” “domesticated,” “wild,” “tame,” “endangered” and “feral” are all terms used to identify varying distances between nonhuman animals and human animals (see Ingold, 2000). These degrees of separation give humans a sense of power over animals. Szydlowski (2021) termed these labels “power words” as a nod to Foucault (2008), an idea of language as a form of control. By naming objects, concepts, and persons, we begin to define them and impose normative definitions of what that label confers. Foucault describes our continuing use of societal power to form and manipulate children into socially acceptable beings; how the written word, wielded only by “intellectuals” prior to mass education, gave the wielder power over the masses (Foucault, 1984). Words have the power to promote or to repress. In the case of the word “feral,” humans are given the power to define the rights of animals to hunt, procreate, or even exist in certain situations.

Scientific definitions of feral animals are intrinsically tied to Darwinian ideas of domestication as a biological process whereby multigenerational genetic selection for traits renders organisms better suited for life with humans (Bidau, 2009; Ingold, 2000; Wilson et al., 2018; Zeder, 2015). As such, feral animals are those who for whatever reason are no longer living under human control. However, the term is far from benign. Colonial-era usage renders “domestication” itself a contentious word; owing to its association with those who practiced animal husbandry, “domestication” became synonymous with “civilized” and antithetical to “savage” (Anderson, 1997; Russell, 2007). Domesticated animals who subsequently live apart from humans, or animals who exist beyond human control are further degenerated by being deemed “feral” (Wilson et al., 2018). However, not all domesticated animals who live independently of humans are deemed feral. For example, “wild” and “feral” are applied interchangeably to free-roaming horses, depending on whether their presence is welcomed by humans (Bhattacharyya et al., 2011). Functional definitions of “feral” are applied to understand or control individuals. In the case of cats, “feral” is commonly used to define individuals who missed a developmentally defined window of opportunity to become socialized to humans (McCune, 1995). However, the term is also applied to cats who, regardless of their socialization status, currently live independent lives (Slater, 2002). Conservationists apply “feral” to animals deemed not to belong to the “natural” landscape (Wilson et al., 2018; Bonacic et al., 2019). Conversely, “feral” implies a wildness and has been framed by Monbiot (2014) as a return to a more natural state by defying the orderliness imposed by modern societies.

When asked, “What does ‘feral’ mean to you?” respondents on animal-interest social media platforms articulated a diverse range of interpretations (Hill, 2021). Alternating between noun and adjective, “feral” was used to both express a sense of desperation and one of freedom. More often than not, “feral” had negative connotations, used synonymously with “wild” or “vicious” and occasionally applied as a derogatory term for certain humans. However, some respondents embraced “feral” as simply the identity or state of being outside of established norms. “Feral” is a fluid term reliant on both its user and the situation in which it is used to derive meaning. Insight into the colloquial uses of words and how meanings are constantly evolving can be gained from observing how they are used in casual social media interactions. The top definition for “feral” in the Urban Dictionary (2019) is, “A word that basically means you went insane and acted like a feral animal might.” This definition alludes to an action built upon the idea of a feral animal being one that is out of control. “Feral” is a subjective term, and a domesticated companion animal may behave in a manner considered “feral” (such as hissing and hiding from humans). This could be a contingent reaction to certain humans or circumstances, or the more generalized “wild” behavior of a maladjusted individual (Gering et al., 2019).

Throughout this paper we use the term “animal” to refer to all nonhuman animals. We recognize that this is a problematic convention, and that the distinction between human and nonhuman animals underlies division, power, and anthropocentric privilege (Stanescu & Twine, 2012). We are not applying the term “animal” to imply an inferiority to humans, but rather using it in place of “nonhuman” or “more than human” due to the implications they carry (Beirne & South, 2015; Murphy et al., 1998; Probyn, 2016.) Language that uses terms like “human” and “nonhuman” serves to elevate the human above other animals. Conversely terms such as “feral” are used to demote “other” animals, including humans (Wilson et al., 2018). This paper examines how “feral” is used by different human-interest groups to justify their treatment of subpopulations of species.

The Death Sentence for Australian “Feral” Cats

With respect to protecting endangered species, science indicates that predation by free-living domestic cats (Felis catus) is a serious problem in certain ecosystems (Doherty et al., 2016; Marra & Santella, 2016; Woinarski et al., 2015). Wildlife conservation ethics are a complex subject that are beyond the scope of this paper (for further discussion see: Hampton et al., 2019; Van Houtan, 2006). Here we are concerned with how words like “feral” and associated language are used to devalue members of a particular species and render lethal conservation strategies more palatable. Conservationist literature and policy invariably uses the prefix “feral” to refer to free-living cat populations (Wilson et al., 2018). For example, the Australian Government implemented a public polic