The Non-Human Community

Robert Carter

When you see the word community what is the first image that springs to mind? I suppose it is a human community you are thinking about. Something relatively small scale, a bucolic village, a busy market town. There’s something harmonious about the word that suggests peace and civility. The non-human community and the people community. Where do they begin to interact? There are the obvious; the daily ritual of picking up dog turd, rescuing a seagull from under the wheel of a car, feeding the ducks stale bread (which we are told we mustn’t do but continue to teach our children regardless).

For the ecologist life is a little different. The distinction isn’t as clear cut. The natural world is not something to be tamed, or thrown bread at, but to be counted, quantified, bugged and  chipped. Put under a microscope. To be an ecologist is to pay attention to what the human community has learnt to take for granted. The ecologist is somewhat of a medium, providing a bridge between the non-human and the human communities.

This exhibition by Fergus Tibbs and Freya Coursey at Hordaland Kunstsenter came at a timely moment in our non-human, human history. Lockdown restrictions and a delayed opening meant that the only visiter to an exhibition taking place behind closed doors was the neighbourhood cat. Oddly appropriate. I mean, for an exhibition with a lot of birds in it, why wouldn’t the cat feign an interest?

There is plenty of speculation as to how we arrived at this predicament. As I type officials from WHO are beginning their enquiry in China into the origins of the virus. It started with a bat maybe? And now the frozen squid’s got it too? Uncertainty and suspicion abounds.

As the news stories piled up, one in particular exposed an industry that many of us until then had been blissfully unaware of – mink farming in Scandanavia. So often held up as a beacon of progressive society, it came as a bit of a shock to learn that Denmark supplies 40% of the world’s appetite for mink fur. All of a sudden, life ain’t so hygge (it hasn’t been for a while now let’s be honest).

In 1889 in a suburb of Manchester known as Didsbury, Emily Williamson founded the RSPB – the Royal Society for Protection of Birds. In its earliest days, the society consisted entirely of women and membership cost twopence. The rules of the society were thus:

  • That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of birds and interest themselves generally in their protection.
  • That lady-members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.

The society was in effect, founded to combat a worrying trend for feathers adorning hats which resulted in a number of bird populations drastically decline. Fashion, it turns out, is just as ruthless as Mother Nature herself. But the second point is important here, ‘not killed for the purposes of food’.

I found it hard to put my finger on what exactly the images of thousands of mink corpses being dumped in trenches meant for humanity. So much factory farmed life brought to an abrupt end. Who was this fashion empire built for? Do the RSPB’s founding principles and distinction between how we consume food and fashion still hold weight?

After news reached the UK I received an unexpected phone call from from my Dad. I think he was calling to check I was safe, as he will forever mistake me for living in Denmark. I reassured him I was fine and reminded him I lived in Norway where there are no mink farms I was aware of. I told Dad I couldn’t think of a more fitting end to humanity – death by Fashion.

In three years time Kopenhagen Fur will close its doors for good. The company website reassures us not to worry, there are still enough fur pelts to go around over the next couple of years. Renowned for their quality, will the last haul of Danish furs fetch a higher price at auction now the supply is being cut short? Or has all the media attention damaged the reputation of the brand beyond repair? Will it even be deemed safe and sanitary to export them?

The minks won’t care for narratives of ecological retribution against humanity. So instead I ask that we spare a thought for the last of its lineage, bred and held captive at Kopenhagen Fur. And in a way, for the workers on the front line who now have to find employment elsewhere. This may well be a blessing in disguise. I mean what are the perks of witnessing so much death for a living? Do employees get offered discounted fur coats? It’s hard to imagine, and besides, who wants to wear their uniform outside the workplace.

Further Reading:

Breaking News: Norway Bans Fur Farming

Ye olde illustration of a Danish mink farm

Gucci Fall 2015 Collection

History Lesson

Family Tree