Leopard In A Box
I have a leopard in a box. I’m not sure what to do with it.
I could take it to my office on campus. Would that cause an upsurge or reduction in office-hour attendance? I could keep it in the living room. It would probably help start dinner party conversations. Or end them. Perhaps it could take up residence in my three-year-old’s bedroom? It could protect her from monsters, a duty currently undertaken by a black-footed ferret. Maybe someday, once we buy a house, I’ll have an actual home office. The leopard could live there, and I could read it drafts of my conference papers and bits of my next book. We could talk over my many brilliant ideas. It seems like a patient listener.
I am talking about a real leopard. It has spots, teeth, claws. It just doesn’t have bones, blood, or viscera. Or its original eyes. It had all those things once. It wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. It also wouldn’t be here if it did. Properly speaking, one might say that what I actually have is not a leopard but a leopard skin, but putting it that way doesn’t quite seem to do it justice. Though dead and dismembered, the leopard remains leopardly. I think it’s the head that does it.
My great-grandfather, a medical missionary in India, shot my leopard in the early 1920s. His handwritten initials appear on the bottom of the skin, like an artist’s signature. He was an avid hunter, and this was one of his many trophies. He was also a conservationist, active in the formation of India’s first national park, which became the Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Refuge. The park is named for a famous hunter of man-eaters, whose books (all of which remain in print) were international bestsellers and my bedtime stories—often appended with the reminder that my great-grandfather once hunted with Jim Corbett.
To many contemporary environmentalists, the twinned impulses of hunting and conservation seem odd, even hypocritical, essentially arising out of a ‘save some animals for us to shoot’ mentality by elites intent on preserving their fun. Hunting itself is often dismissed as an exercise in hyper-masculine domination and sadism in ways that gloss over the affective complexity, and even trauma, of killing. Taking seriously the congruence between hunting and conservation means acknowledging that conservation is at least in part an attempt to preserve “wildness” of a very different species from the cuddly or the cute—something much darker, fraught with terror.
It is hard to imaginatively recover what big cats looked like in the days before they became icons of vulnerability. In some sense, conservation is the ultimate act of domestication: delimiting the space within which Nature red in tooth and claw is still allowed to shriek its ravine against modernization’s creed. It is little wonder that those who live in close proximity to large predators often view them as quasi-supernatural beings. That sublime register is difficult to recover in a post-natural world, unless perhaps encountered in the toxic landscapes of the industrial sublime associated with Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of “manufactured landscapes.” And yet it is in a sense preserved in the face of my leopard, its snarling visage offering an unmistakable memento of its own violent death.
My grandfather (known to me as Bapu) grew up surrounded by animals. As a baby he was almost carried away Mowgli-style by a she-wolf who had lost her cubs. His sleeping ayah (nanny) woke up and drove the wolf out of the tent by throwing a pith helmet at it. Yes, that really happened. I wouldn’t have included the pith helmet if I’d made it up. He and his elder brother John had an anteater as a pet. Much later in his life, Bapu lamented that learning to read the jungle had been the one passion of his youth—the single skill to which he had devoted his mental energy. This was a lament because the jungles are gone. It had become a lost skill, devoid of the context that had given it meaning.
My daughter is growing up surrounded by animals. A baby beluga whale accompanies her to school in the bike wagon each day. The hippos are her favorite at the zoo, though she also loves the poison arrow frogs. She sleeps with a crane, the aforementioned ferret, two owls, several bears, a lion, three puppies, a possum, two bunnies, and a yeti. If one turns to her literary landscape or wardrobe the biodiversity becomes truly staggering, spanning multiple geological epochs and the bestiaries of numerous mythologies, ranging from the ancients to global capitalism. Animals, animals, everywhere, and not a one that breathes.
What is the difference between the imagined menagerie that pervades my child’s childhood and my grandfather’s boyhood immersion in the jungle? One is inclined immediately to say that that difference is profound: his animals were real and hers are not. But how and where exactly do we draw those boundaries? Perhaps more importantly: how do we latecomers, we dwellers in the afterglow of nature’s end, find meaning in our encounters with its remnants? My leopard poses the problem of how to care for, touch, speak to, address and otherwise live with a relic, a trace both of a life and a world that has passed away.
When I touch my leopard, I touch an entangled knot of personal, ecological, and imperial history. I touch an animal form, a work of art, an artifact. I also touch an animal—not a picture, a model, or a copy but the actual substance of a once-living being. I stroke hair that once shed monsoon rain in the Himalayan foothills. I touch death, both the commemoration of its visitation upon the animal, and its weird suspension in bodily preservation. Taxidermy is a deathly art, wrought to arrest decay. Had the leopard merely lived and died it would have passed out of existence. It wouldn’t have left this leopardly trace that continues in its uncannily un-dead way to reproduce its kind amongst the forms of the world. As historical artifact, the leopard skin becomes an ongoing inscription of the wild, not in spite of its death, but because of it. The leopard has been wrested from life into the object world of art, becoming an embodiment of what Robert Pogue Harrison calls the “afterlife of the image,” whereby living mortals become a repository for the dead.
The leopard skin is unsettling not simply because I have no desire to shoot a leopard myself, but rather because it highlights the degree to which that objection is historical, rather than an abstract moral judgment. I cannot honestly look the creature in the eyes and say: “I’m sorry. If I was there, I wouldn’t have killed you.” Because if I was there in the jungle in the early 1920s, I’m sure I would have shot the leopard. Why wouldn’t I? I would have been a different person and it would have been a different act. Indeed, it would have been a different animal. Leopards were once classed as “vermin.” Contrasting them to tigers, Corbett felt compelled to apologize for leopards’ propensity to be “scavengers.” Leopards have never commanded the cultural cache or royal panache of their black and orange brethren. On the other hand, leopards have perhaps the greatest chance of any of the big cats to survive the 21st century, being far more adept than tigers, lions, or jaguars at adapting to the disrupted habitats and novel ecosystems of the Anthropocene. Ultimately, it may be the vermin and scavengers who inherit the Earth.
What I encounter in my leopard is not just history, but history as it becomes legible in death: history by way of animal sacrifice and history as it passes into my hands through inheritance, as part and parcel of the work of mourning. When I touch my leopard, I am put in touch (literally) with the historical past as potentially lived experience, highlighting the weird incommensurability between historical time and the arc of a life. My daughter and my grandfather will never meet in this world. Her “Bapu” is a different person, one who is still around to take her on adventures. The leopard makes the lived quality of history particularly visible because it is not only the record of a death, but also the vestige of a life. It is the literal substance of a living being. This animal, which retains its individual markings and continues to exude a sense of palpable vitality, died at the hands (or more accurately bullet) of my biological forbearer, without whose body I would not exist and who lives in me in mysterious ways. Perhaps the leopard can smell a family resemblance?
It is tempting to read the discomfort produced by my leopard’s undead stare as a kind of environmental enlightenment—evidence that admiring such creatures is no longer bound up with killing them. But that isn’t quite true. Our discomfort with animal skins may actually be the ultimate insignia of extermination. We kill many, many more creatures than any generation before us. We exterminate entire species, often without even acknowledging their existence let alone preserving their corpses or paying them the respect of acknowledging the loss. Most extinction (indeed most animal slaughter) now occurs out of sight, out of mind. The blend of discomfort, disgust, and fascination I expect that my leopard would elicit if I were to display it publically would present itself as concern. But I wonder if it might actually be a symptom of lost wildness. I don’t mean wilderness in the sense of nature in its most pristine, purest, untrammeled or majesty form, but the wildness of lived encounters with a radically nonhuman world. What I touch when I touch my leopard is, in some sense, my own domestication.
Part of living amidst the sixth extinction is trying to figure out what to do with the bodies. How do we commemorate the death of species, not as a problem in the abstract, but as embodied, memorialized, loss? These questions also help understand just what it is that conservation efforts hope to save: how are we to understand the relationship between a living animal and a taxidermied specimen? Between genetic material stored in a freezer, from which it now appears possible to re-create a living individual (as advocates of “Pleistocene re-wilding” suggest with the woolly mammoth)? Between a species that survives in the wild and one raised in captivity? Between an animal that lives in a national park, and one that takes up residence in the backyard, an abandoned school, or the subway system?
Environmentalists may bristle at the question of how to memorialize extinct species as amounting to little more a white flag of surrender. Why mourn what we can still defend? Why commemorate when we can save? To dwell with the dead is to abandon the living. Or is it? We retain the remains of species deep within both our biology and our mythology. Our stories and our DNA are composed of what our predecessors have left behind. We inherit because we mourn, and mourn because we inherit. To memorialize the dead is not simply to lament the past but also to curate the future, creating the conditions for ongoing existence in an evolved and ever evolving world.
This weekend I will probably take my daughter to the zoo. I will read her books in which animals read books, birds befriend robots, and the Wild Things dance. We will also fold up the cut-out-origami passenger pigeon included in a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine as part of a participant art project commemorating the centennial anniversary of the extinction of the species. We will hang it from a string in her room, or perhaps perch it on her window. For the time being, the leopard seems happy enough in his box. Waiting. Quietly waiting. As leopards do.
In addition to Robert Pogue Harrison’s eloquent meditation, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago, 2003), Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and John Berger’s classic essay “Why Look at Animals,” some of the works that have been on my mind while writing this piece include: Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minnesota, 2008); Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (Penn State, 2012); Jon Mooallum, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (Penguin, 2013); Jamie Lorimer, Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature (Minnesota, 2015); Emma Marris, The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury, 2011); and Ann Hamilton’s remarkable exhibition The Common Sense at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.
Jesse Oak Taylor received his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. His book The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press in 2016. He is also co-author, with Daniel C. Taylor and Carl E. Taylor, of Empowerment on an Unstable Planet: From Seeds of Human Energy to a Scale of Global Change (Oxford, 2011). Contact.
Beautiful new essay, Professor Taylor.
Thank you for this thoughtful meditation on our relationship to wildness and memory; I’m sharing it with a number of friends and colleagues.