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Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation

Juno Salazar Parreñas (2018) Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation is an ethnographic example in which affect as intensity, not emotion or different from emotion, as Brian Massumi theorizes, is beautifully demonstrated. Parreñas (2018) explains this difference between feelings that tend to be associated with attempts to look inwards one’s mind and soul and affect that is only locatable within a space between bodies through the work of care, and ideologies that surround that work of care her research participants like Layang and ‘Kak, and foregin volunteers like Eva and Tom do or attempt to do for orangutans in Sarawak. She describes, “the shaky sensations wavering between potential joy and potential worry are not merely embodies emotions, for this is where we feel the affective rush of sensation that stirs not from within the body, but between bodies, in the moments before they become emotion, if they become anything at all” (emphasis added, 17). These intensifying feelings are the ones that attract foregin volunteers from afar to come and do “something” (and subsequently make “some things”) about the possible extinction of the orangutans--regardless of their colonizing desires or (if I may use the term guilt) (see Chapter 2). This embodied intensities or affect are also the reasons why certain forms of care such as “ape motherhood” or “tough love” and “forced copulation” are considered appropriate for extending the survival of orangutans (see Chapter 2 and 3).

The space at which the affective relations between human and non-human bodies occur are not merely in thin air, but also very much tangible across time and space. She situates the space in four timescales: affective encounters between earthly bodies happening from every microseconds to over the years and decades, stretching across spatial scale of oceans and seas, and lastly across geologic time (8). Only by situating the space bearable of affective intensity, Parreñas (2018) reaches at theorizing what it means to decolonize extinction, not just of orangutans, but for any endangered species on our planet. In the case of orangutans, the author outlines in detail the dilemma of the caregivers at the Lundu Wildlife Center between the desire for orangutans’ independence or bebas and the much needed captivity and “enclosures” for that bebas. The concept of “semi-wild” is thus prevalent. Although the author herself seems to be left with open-ended questions at the end of her fieldwork and research about the possibility of reconciling the dilemma, I take a hint at the author’s suggestion or call for consideration of interdependence, not independence, between the caregivers and the orangutans, in her discussion on “force-feeding” or “forced copulation” (see chapter 3) and the “arrested autonomies” of the human caregivers like Barbara Harrison’s Sarawakian helper Dayang or the “orangutan nanny” ‘Kak’s gendered affective relationships that are closely tied to wage-labor (see chapter 1 and 5). “To decolonize extinction is to resist definitively saying what should be or ought to be” (7).

Poignantly, the author shows that this work of care for orangutans itself becomes an act of futility at the end. The staff member at Lundu Wildlife Center Nidim’s use of passive construction about prepubescent female orangutans like Wani’s and Ti’s fear for subadult male orangutans like Efran, “forcing themselves to get raped” (91) simultenously points to the nature of intervention for extinction as a work both violent and natural. When the intervention for extinction only considers reproduction as the cause and therefore a solution, sexual violence like death in Wani’s case becomes justifiable. Or, when the intervention for extinction is an act only executable by the human agency, the survival of wildlife inevitably happens at the risk and/or the disposal of the caregivers themselves. In the process of “saving” wildlife from drowning in the Bankun Dam project (180), the Forestry Corporation employee Layang died from contracting Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria. As Layang notes the degree of futility in his work of care for orangutans and their survival, “what matters” (Lutz 2017) at the end is the space at which the affective co-presence and even co-death in the case of Layang and Layang occur (see Conclusion). Perhaps, instead of being “free but living in fear” (134), only in death and in extinction, are we all bebas--”to have relations of interdependence, to have the possibility of movement under constraint, and to empathetically live [or die] with differences, distinctions, and potential risks” (154)? This is a question we would never be able to answer.

© 2023 By Lion with a Flowing Mane.

All Myanmar Image Courtesy by Chu May Paing.