by Gray Black

Mid-summer’s musk had been made corpulent by the immense humidity of the previous rains. I, too, felt heavy. With June’s hot breath on the back of my neck, I wandered towards the woods.

The afternoon’s storm had proved atmospheric for some avocational reading. Needing something a bit more meliorist, I selected an article about LEAL, an animal rights organization fighting for the protection of an incriminated bear.

Contextually, the bear—denominated “JJ4”—is a member of a bear family deracinated from their Slovenian biome by the EU-funded program, Life Ursus, to repopulate the woodlands near the Province of Trentino. Bear numbers have dwindled in Northern Italy due to poaching, car collisions, and zoonotic diseases spread from nearby animal agriculture enterprises.

After JJ4 had reportedly attacked and killed Andrea Papi, a local who had been jogging within JJ4’s Alpine nature reserve, her execution was demanded by Trentino’s Provincial President and long-time bear adversary, Maurizio Fugatti. Rome’s administrative court ruled that, until a verdict, JJ4 should be held in solitary captivity indefinitely with her space reduced to mere meters.

And so, two hours and countless follow-up articles later, a gestalt of concerns aggregated inside me as I trudged through the woods. With a thousand foliaged towers tickling twilight above me, my eyes dilated to accommodate my surroundings. All around, roots seemed to flee from the trees like latticed dendrites seeking connection amongst the dirt, moss, and centipedes. Amongst them appeared to me the idea of a thousand cities.

To be Citified

In his 1968 book, Le Droit à la Ville, sociologist Henri Lefebvre exhorts urban equity. Critiquing the competition inherent to modern metropoles, Lefebvre contends that togetherness and socioeconomic mutualism must trump capitalism and privatization. While the French ville indicates a large town where inhabitants contribute to non-agricultural labor, its etymology stems from the Latin “homestead” and is a cognate of “clan” from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Ville’s Anglophonic equivalent, “city,” is philologically built upon the PIE homonym kei, meaning “bed” and “beloved.” Both ville and city intimate belonging. Conversely, while the word “country” is more contemporarily polysemantic, its Latin root means “against” or “existing oppositely.” The essence of the Country was to frame and be framed by the City’s intragroup belongingness.

A decade after Le Droit à la Ville, psycho-philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari published their book, Mille Plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus). As a complex concatenation of post-structuralist theory, the prevailing themes address multiplicity, temporality, and interbeing. Most pertinent to JJ4 is a section titled Becoming which affirms that the state of Becoming may iterate indefinitely.

Becoming requires an instability or, perhaps more accurately, an imaginary. Becoming contests that children, women, and animals can Become through inclusion, collaboration, and growth of identity. Nevertheless, the sociocultural concepts of adults, men, and humans have solidified themselves and thus cannot continue Becoming. They have cooled and their molecules slowed, reducing porousness and possibility. The only path that does not lead to ossifications is one that maintains, builds atop, or even subverts itself by becoming something else entirely.

When synthesizing la Ville with Becoming, the notion of the modern City aligns best with what “has come” or “is.” The City amasses “investments” and is weighted so heavily by them, it maintains a solar-like centripetal pull. While we perceive the Sun as life’s sine que non, we, too, perceive the modern City—a place dependent on proximity, competition, commerce, and governance—as a blueprint for living. The modern City’s immutable paradoxes of closeness and alienation, development and decay, justice and systemic stratification are massive both in scope and in the bodies who people them. Mass increases the weight, gravity, and noticeability of the conceptual City. Its chaos is ordered, its ideal absolute, and its self unbecoming.

The concept of the Country, nevertheless, orbits the City. Its paradoxes do not occur autogenically but due to the City’s gaze; the Country is mapped but unknown, labelled but undefined, substantive but decentralized. That which is situated in relation to the polis—the axis of power—embodies changeability. Lefebvre intimated that the City’s shift to one of co-ruling includes the influence and participation of exogenous agents of Becoming, including immigrants, babies, and the internally marginalized.

The lights of my neighborhood now barely visible, I felt the country’s “againstness” deeply. The City seemed a pollutant stuck to the bottom of my boots. Into the thicket I had brought the institutionality currently shackling JJ4 thousands of kilometers away. With dusk waning and the clouds having parted, I could see above the canopy to the last beams of light—acronical pencils shading the sky. A few spots had been left uncolored where starlight intensified. Directly before me jutted the handle of the Big Dipper. Tracing it south, my fingers grazed its ladle and the radial arms of stars. Staring down at me, mid-amble, was Ursa Major: the Great She-Bear.

In that synchronicitous moment, my pain for and investment in JJ4 truly constellated. Becoming is not auto-biographizing but co-authoring symbiogenetic stories. While the tale of Ursa Major is uncannily apposite when discussing JJ4, the narrative is less important than the anthrozoological interplay creating it. Although monotoned commentaries written by the BBC, the Guardian, the NY Times and many prominent Italian newspapers abided the cold “is” of the City, one could still discern the voice of JJ4. Finding it crucial to enumerate the rhetoric of exclusivity, I invite you into the exercise of listening and, by doing so, Becoming animal.

To Be Linguistically Unalived

The names we use, verbally or non-verbally, engage and familiarize us with the very consciousness of the named being. On the other hand, labels are classifications of things or concepts and can be the exoskeleton protecting a name. When labels supplant names, however, they force soullessness upon the subject. “JJ4” is not a name. It is an item of the City, divesting a living, sentient being of their personality, background, and aliveness.

Exemplarily, the few Italophonic articles that offered JJ4 beinghood by individuating her as “Gaia” had less need to repeatedly contextualize her aliveness by repeating “the bear” (e.g., Rai News, Mediaset, Il Fatto Quotidiano) or, worse, the possessive “Fugatti’s bear.” While JJ4’s personhood was typically disambiguated by using subject pronouns and conjugations which reflected her sex, other reports juxtapositionally regarded her as a grammatically-male esemplare (“specimen”).

Worse still, nearly every Anglophonic article referred to JJ4 as “it” instead of animate pronouns such as “she,” “he,” or “they.” Ultimately implying abulia and nonautonomy, few within the English lingua franca will say, “’It’ is becoming a gate” when observing an object’s transmutation. One might instead say, “Beth makes the gate.” “It” is the second tranquilizer dart that slows JJ4’s breath.

Curiously, the same authors who objectified JJ4 primarily used “he” and “she” in other articles featuring companion animals, particularly when their “owners” expressed or legitimized those pronouns (e.g., Owoseje, 2019; Giuffrida, 2022; Armstrong, 2023). Empowering a non-human animal to personhood is seemingly only legitimized when extrinsically subsumed into human institutionality.

One article’s title advances this conceptual disempowerment by re-expressing that “it” [JJ4] was “spared death.” How an inanimate object can be spared death when it was never deemed alive?

Regardless, the illusion of a benevolent captor inhibits the Becoming needed for JJ4 to resist the City (let alone legally) whilst essentializing and recriminating her as a crude weapon to unmake. Framed by alphanumerics and inanimacy, the syntactic subordination of JJ4 braces (us for) the City’s retributivism and anti-Becoming.

To Be Vilified

Appertaining to the portrayal of JJ4, some articles styled the death of Andrea Papi as JJ4’s “act.” When compared to the term “action,” an act emphasizes a result or an outcome. Action, however, is a more motivated and trans-temporal process; it is an exemplified Becoming. Action is the how and why to an act’s what. This terminological nuance reflects the implicit judgement towards JJ4 and the assumption that her non-humanness is deterministically blameworthy. When replacing act with action, we have more room to recall JJ4’s traumatic past, consider the skills she has at her disposal to protect herself and her cubs, and to postulate how any of us would be able to maintain mutualism without education on best responses to, behaviors for, and positions around members of various species.

Some articles emphasized officials’ instantiations of JJ4’s truculence via the claim that she tampered with tracking cameras. It is well-documented by biologists that bears need unmolested spaces called “critical habitats.” Even still, how many of us, as humans, have wanted to disarm apparatuses well-associated with surveillance, manipulation, and control? And yet, using this portrayal as justificatory support for JJ4’s imprisonment is an exercise in trivializing and negating the feeling of safety we all need to survive, especially in relation to oppressive forces.

For JJ4, the legacy left by humans is one of upheaval, loss, and internment. Humans are one of many whose exposure to hardship and instability rewires our brains to trust less and self-protect more. Despite this, no discussions of psychosocial wounds at the hands of humans entered discussions on JJ4’s behavior.

To Be Illegal

Like Italy, many governments are based on the “enlightened” principles of democracy and due process. Yet, an entire administrative body has mandated multiple court trials for a bear they imported to be (have like) a bear—a species whose mentation is often more proximal to physicality than our own—whilst flouting this non-human person’s very participation in the democratic process. As one must listen to hear, a “hearing” is a complete misnomer.

If we are going to insist a bear enter the Homo sapiens justice system, we must also attempt to Become animal before attempting adjudication. Which one of the administrators so eager to murder JJ4 has stared into her fearful, frustrated eyes and communicated with her directly as “you?” By autocratically eschewing procedural democracy in favor of retributivism, functionaries of the modern City have upheld hierarchy while their reporters stoke blame and emotional remoteness.

The journalistic superimposition of jurisprudential frameworks atop JJ4 charades her capture as “arrest,” confinement as “custody,” killing as a “death sentence,” and execution as “culling.” This verbiage obfuscates JJ4’s reality, vitiates our potential to Become animal, and legitimizes the prejudicial (not to mention absurd) conduct of administrators.

Some articles underscore her “guilt” or “innocence.” While the concept of recrimination buttresses this juridical language, human-defined unlawfulness is both assumed to be superior to a non-human ontology and yet still inapplicable to any other species who possess different circumstances, life-worlds, capabilities, and outlooks. Despite the prosaic argument peddled against animal liberationists that humans must not draw a likeness to other species, JJ4’s entanglement in the legal system rests on the most unproductive, anti-social, and ecocidal forms of anthropomorphism.

Many of the same articles also defined the bear as the “suspect.” In its verb form, suspect denotes distrust. When we begin to prosecute non-human animals without context, solid evidence, or including them in the best parts of human institutions, we end up with profoundly disconcerting remarks like the one from Fugatti: “The problem is…human-animal coexistence.”

To Become Against

Apart from the farcicality that humans would indict and execute every shark, lion, snake, bee, wolf, elephant, dog, spider, donkey, bison, gorilla, whale, frog, seal, and, of course, bear who kills a human irrespective of context and intent, the most Orwellian aspect of Fugatti’s scornful comment is the self-victimization.

Those atop the throne of the modern City have made it plain: Freedom to be non-human means annihilation. Patriciates have globally merchandised toxicants such as plastic and pesticides while fostering a culture of over-production. They have butchered land for political retaliation or annexation, consumed entire ecosystems for fossil fuels, and belched fumes into the troposphere. They have normalized experimentation on living beings and forced labor upon unwilling bodies. They have extirpated coral reefs, ravaged rainforests, and blighted biomes to oblige the meat and dairy industry which immures, isolates, sexually abuses, brutalizes, and slaughters hundreds of billions of sentient beings each year. The modern City has cobbled the anthropogenic climate catastrophe unfolding before us.

For sycophants of the City, stoking a war against the marginalized is a hypocritical distraction from the City’s own crimes. More dangerously still, it clouds how we can overcome being saturnine obelisks of (hu)manhood when we ignore, accept, or are complicit in those crimes. Contextualizing, honoring, and befriending various life forms must not be a political choice but a lasting ethical imperative. A true servant of the public understands that the rights of belonging extend outwardly and uses their ability to imagine, embody, and relate more—to Become.

Gray Black is a mental health professional and an incoming doctoral researcher within the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Their scholarship—rooted in ecosophy, cultural anthrozoology, and macropolitics—seeks to serve as a matrix upon which the eco-conscious collective can nurture an anti-hierarchical and trans-taxonomic network of belonging.

Edited by Minke Hijmans and Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Bear’s Eye View by Santosh G Prabhu, Creative Commons Qatar, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.