I was not looking to fall in love. But I must have.
Towards the end of 2018 I signed up for a generic certificate in animal studies. I did not know where it led, only that I wanted to be led. That summer I arranged my practical placement at a public reserve. I started working there as a volunteer before classes began.
The park has a captive population of native animals for its education and conservation programs. There are walk-through aviaries and enclosed paddocks, as well as facilities for threatened species. It used to have a spotted-tail quoll, a scrappy little auburn thing that pushed at the margins of her lifespan. The wetlands draw wild birds, including those that have been at the edge of extinction in Victoria, such as Cape Barren and magpie geese.
The place is called Serendip, a name that can be traced to the classical Persian name for Sri Lanka, as told in a tale about three princes. The story was published in Italian in 1557 and then in French and English. In 1754 Horace Walpole coined the word ‘serendipity’ in reference to the princes of Serendip, who were ‘always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.
Before I understood what I was feeling, I was putting my body into how I felt: raking, washing, weeding, putting out food, picking up poo. I am not much of a morning person but was there by 8 am every Thursday.
That autumn I helped contain a bush stone-curlew to collect a few feathers for DNA sexing. Afterwards I helped weigh the spotted-tail quoll. I noted the date when I got home. By winter, I was also volunteering at a private conservation property. The words from Basque priest and visionary Pedro Arrupe came to feel like a tease:
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
I could only try to catch up to those who are themselves coming in late to a field of knowledge so deep and broad that it had transmuted to Culture. I would drive across flat, open country, noting the concrete layer being pulled over former pasture that remains ever Wadawurrung land.
It suddenly seemed to me that loss is not just a measure of death but the scale of life. I learn that bounties had swept away native herbivores and carnivorous marsupials in the tens of millions—treated as pests in their own habitat by emerging industries.
I could not help but examine (first in myself) sensations associated with animals. I felt the shape of my ignorance. The thrill of proximity did not seem enough. I start tucking away things for pondering: a tourist stroking the side of a wild wombat at a national park; a student reaching out to touch a quoll. Callouts for fieldwork volunteers having to emphasise that these are not handling opportunities. Why should our impulses be so tactile?
In 2019 a wildlife management expert at an international conference on penguins remarked on a loss of respect in human–animal encounters. In the age of smartphones and drone cameras, there is social capital in recorded contact. The phenomenon alarms ecologists, who caution against interfering with natural behaviours in pursuit of the Instagram-perfect shot. Ours is an extractive gaze: we subtract from the thing that draws us near in drawing near.
Could you love from a prudent distance? It feels strange to make a distinction between love and respect, where respect proves more demanding than love. But there could be virtue in leaving things alone. I am reminded that breeding-recovery programs for threatened species have protocols to minimise the chances of imprinting. Proximity is a different experience for wildlife than it is for us; they could lose themselves.
Yet beauty in nature does induce love—or love-adjacent feelings such as admiration, curiousity and delight. Does this make it accurate to say that collectors love animals? A man in Perth once helped himself to 15 endangered cockatoos. ‘There are plenty of them around,’ he told wildlife protection officers. ‘Why can’t I have one?’ Taking abundance as licence for freewheeling extraction: that is the colonial paradigm. In a settler state with some of the worst records of extinction, ‘plenty’ is an inherently problematic calculation to make.
Consider the species we take for granted as common, such as possums and wombats. The first European arrivals regarded bandicoots, bettongs and bilbies as common, too. The average Australian now could spend a lifetime never having seen a bettong in person. ‘Common’ masks the reality that these animals continue to endure settlement—as do the First Peoples who have known them the longest.
Close to home I see people toss bread at Pacific Black ducks or leave mixed seed, despite local council signs saying not to. I watch a video of a man offering water straight from a bottle to a koala in a bushfire-razed area. (I learn later from the RSPCA that this is inadvisable, as it puts the animal at risk of taking water into their lungs).
The compulsion to connect, the instinct for care: there is underlying wiring there. It would be ungracious to find fault. But then I am far less interested in motive and sincerity than the nature of love. We know from our own relationships that claims of love can become compromised in objectifying, possessive, well-meaning ways. It seems the case with animals too.
Over the course of that first year I listen in on strategies to protect species as seasonal temperatures that regulate biological rhythms are destabilised. I meet people who value native wildlife who also believe that pet cats and feral horses should be left to roam. I hear a story about a family who moved from the city to a coastal region (presumably for its natural charms) who proceeded to take down trees on their property. The yellow-tailed black cockatoos went away.
Something falls through the gap when love runs on parallel lines like this. More seems asked of us than finding things cute or dispensing freedom, especially when we have made the wild a precarious place for wildlife to be—even as we shrink such spaces. What is ‘wild’ anyhow but a binary term from the imperial age, permission to dominate and tame?
So what do Australians mean when they say they love animals? In the 1970s various endemic mammals were designated as state emblems: the koala (Queensland), the platypus (New South Wales), the Leadbeater’s possum (Victoria), the southern hairy-nosed wombat (South Australia) and the numbat (Western Australia). Their numbers have only declined in the decades since. What kind of love is this?
I think about icons in concept and recognise a hollow veneration: native wildlife as flat images in a cold, dim hall. Mere ornaments in passing until they slip beyond perception. I stand there wondering about a more loving way to be.
• • •
I remember the moment I first laid eyes on an eastern barred bandicoot. The pink nose at the end of a long conical snout. The glistening black eyes and high slender ears. The small clawed forepaws. The eponymous bars on its furred rump.
I note the short forelimbs and learn that most of its physiology is adapted for digging. I look up what it eats and read that foraging provides a service to its environment: aerating the soil and facilitating water retention and decomposition of leaf litter, which in turn sustains microhabitat for the invertebrates and fungi that it counts as food. The fungal networks facilitate nutrient absorption in trees, which shed organic matter. On it goes.
The bandicoot lives a regenerative life, as do many of the other terrestrial marsupials that evolved on a mostly harsh continent. It has more of a right and the skill to be here than I do.
It takes a lot to push it to the brink of extinction. Female bandicoots mature at four months and can produce up to five litters a year, bearing one to five young at a time. In 1988 the future of their population came to rest on 19 individuals that had been taken from the wild for captive breeding.
I come across a map of their former range. It spans 3 million hectares from the western plains of Melbourne and into a small corner of South Australia. These are of course new and superficial borders. I reflect on the soil conditions that had made it possible for people of the Kulin Nations to reliably harvest murrnong when its season came. I realise that my house sits on an estate degraded by introduced hoofstock.
What would it mean for me now, after all that, to claim that I love bandicoots? When we say we love this mammal or that bird or that tree, should that not extend to the conditions that make it possible for them to exist and even to thrive? Could a love of Australian fauna, flora and their unique ecological communities even operate without meeting the Indigenous aspirations to which they are linked?
I am confronted at every turn by the inescapable context in which native wildlife persists. The more I learn about these animals, the more I feel implicated: in the drift towards a sterile homogenisation as global biota becomes a flat band of livestock and pets, the centrality of consumption in the way we engage natural systems and the persistence of waste. These are the isotopes by which we detect colonialism.
I take in the granite peaks that break the western plain as I drive towards another day of husbandry. What if love is a decolonial project?
It does not take long for me to realise that in husbandry spaces, even among those I seriously call my people, I am too often the only person who is not white. Once you pick up what’s missing, it becomes hard to miss.
I live in a highly diverse municipality where local council elections usually feature at least one candidate who frames sustainability as a population issue. Yet I don’t doubt that migrants and refugees care about nature and wildlife. The compulsion to connect, the instinct for care—these responses are broadly human, and not the exclusive domain of white people and their institutions. It bears saying because the scale of ecological crisis calls us all in.
In any age the worst aspects of human behaviour have always been confronted by those seeking the more loving thing. British anti-slavery abolitionists such as William Wilberforce were also advocates for animal welfare. The civil rights movement in the United States coincided with an environmentalism spurred by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
The latter two concerns have always converged, manifesting when Native American water protectors and Black Lives Matter campaigners hold polluters to account, as well as in protests against the destruction of ancient heritage sites on Djab Wurrung country and Juukan Gorge in Australia.
Environmental racism is a contemporary term that captures the ongoing incompatibility between the Western extractive mode and traditional engagements of care. The permanence of death on one hand and regenerative life on the other. Colonialism versus decoloniality. In an address to world leaders, including the presidents of nine Amazonian countries, Waorani activist Nemonte Nenquimo says:
In all these years of taking, taking, taking from our lands, you have not had the courage, or the curiosity, or the respect to get to know us. To understand how we see, and think, and feel, and what we know about life on this Earth.
I won’t be able to teach you in this letter, either. But what I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense, as reverence. This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning. And you are taking all this away, not just from us, but from everyone on the planet, and from future generations.
In 2019 I let myself be led by love. It has involved lending my body in service of a future in which wildlife thrive. It has taken up what I read, who I know and how I see. I hold the view that conservation is a radical act of hope—and thus of love.
Is the nature of love to interrogate itself? I do not know how else to arrive at the more loving way to be. All who truly love want to be authentic in it. The paradox is that love is inversely proportionate to the self: an intentional decoloniality in which love is able to take up room once we leave the centre.
Most of all there should be joy—one that animates the will for the flourishing of another. The thrill of proximity may not be enough. But it can propel things. •
Note: This essay was developed with support from the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.
Fatima Measham is a Filipino Catholic writer based on Wadawurrung Country. Her recent work focuses on nature and wildlife. She is also a conservation volunteer.