Unraveling the Wild: A Cultural Logic of Animal Stories in Contemporary Social Life
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AbstractThis dissertation is about the stories people tell about animals when they don’t do what they are expected to do in contemporary social life. More specifically, it examines three case studies where “wild” animals unexpectedly challenge, transgress, or blur socially defined boundaries in public spaces. Drawing on cultural and interactionist studies of animals and environment, I explore popular animal stories written in news media, social media, and enacted in situ. Each qualitative case study illustrates a moment in time/space where the surprising movements or presence of wild animals causes the cultural categories of wildness/order to breakdown and destabilize. These “surface breaks” of social expectations provide an occasion to tell “animal stories.” Animal stories help people explain how the lives of animals can be allegorical strategies modern people use to communicate and enact moral lessons about the social world. In the first chapter, I analyze news stories that emerged after Terry Thompson, an eccentric and estranged war veteran, released 54 exotic animals from his private 73-acre farm near Zanesville, Ohio. I suggest that when wild things challenge our taken-for-granted reality, people turn to mythical stories of fantasy to distract themselves from the more obvious social issues at hand. In the second chapter, I reconstruct the story of one feral Rhesus Macaque monkey whose adventure through Tampa Bay inspired extensive reporting in both social media and traditional news media. I suggest that the monkey’s story was akin to a mythical tale of American heroism. As an emblem of “good ol’ American Freedom,” his glorified feats of escape inspired a monkey loving populace to elevate his status to a celebrity-hero, with big government as the evil villain hunting him down. In this way, public debate surrounding the monkey’s life story beckons us to reflect on the role of liberty and repression in American discourse. Lastly, in the third chapter, I draw on ethnographic field notes to show how animals are understood and talked about by visitors in a Manatee Viewing Center in central Florida. I examine how animals challenge social expectations in everyday life situations, and how these breaches lead to situational storytelling and coordinated social activity. I suggest that animals can become messengers of a sacred nature, which is celebrated in the social performance of wildlife viewing. In conclusion, I follow Levi-Strauss (1966) to argue that animals are “good to think with” because they provide people with an “animal mirror” to look at themselves (Haraway 2008). Furthermore, I indicate that hidden meanings in animal stories inform how people think, feel, and act towards animals in different social contexts, and are thereby reinforced through cultural, institutional, organizational, and personal practices. Animal stories have power because they are often translated into modes of activity and used to realize people’s hopes and fears. In other words, animal stories are alternative forms of wildlife management that act to segregate animals from particular social activities, and designate them to appropriate places in society. Findings from this dissertation are not limited to animals, and may be applied to various cultural logics and socially defined boundaries.