Decolonizing Extinction: An Interview with Juno Salazar Parreñas

Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation

By Juno Salazar Parreñas, The Ohio State University

288pp. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. §

Colin Hoag spoke with Prof. Juno Salazar Parreñas about her recent book on the orangutan rehabilitation in Malaysia.



For Engagement readers who have not yet read your book, could you give us a short synopsis of the book’s content and argument?

I was initially driven by a question: how do social relations develop between displaced orangutans—a species famous for being the least social of all great apes—and the people who care for them at wildlife centers? As I did field research, what I experienced, witnessed, and thought about compelled me to consider a much bigger and more profound question of how do we live and die in this moment of extinction, knowing that colonialism and its ongoing legacies continue to shape contemporary lives and livelihoods for so many on this planet—whether human or nonhuman.

The book is split into three sections. The first is about relations, beginning with the colonial and gendered history of orangutan rehabilitation and how present rehabilitation efforts aspire for the same future as past rehabilitative efforts. That section ends with a chapter about affective relations that characterize rehabilitation, offering up lessons for understanding affect as generated between bodies and also on specific sites on earth. The second section is about enclosures, referencing the word given to animal exhibits in zoo-like settings and the history of land enclosure. The third chapter examines how physical limitations of space transform orangutan social relations and exacerbate the problem of forced copulation, which reveals a bigger issue about how reproduction is often considered the supreme value for conservation biology at large. The fourth chapter examines what 20th century political-economic transformations have done to the people who labor at these sites that enclose orangutans. The last section is devoted to futures as both a project of decolonization and as a form of economic speculation, specifically speculation around future demand to see up close the world’s diminishing supply of orangutans.


Could you define what you mean by “decolonizing extinction?” What forms of decolonization do you refer to?

Often, decolonization is discussed in the past tense and in reference to the decolonizing era after World War II and in relation to third world liberation. There’s an assumption that it is over. In other contexts, decolonization is discussed in the present tense and done so programmatically and prescriptively, as in, “do these things and we will achieve decolonization.” That formulation inevitably forces the person speaking to adopt a lot of certitude and authority. I espouse a third way of thinking of decolonization that embraces uncertainty. With any project of decolonization, we should ask: Whose visions of decolonization and liberation are being enacted?

When thinking about Sarawak and many other places, decolonization for me is about experimentation. It’s about a moment of deep uncertainty in which some kind of new way of living has to happen because the state of colonialism is no longer tenable, that it cannot continue as is. And colonization can take multiple forms and still be untenable, running the gamut from outright violence and expropriation to projects of colonial uplift where colonial powers justify their violence and domination through an argument that their actions of abuse are ultimately for the benefit of the colonized. Here, I’m thinking of such things as the “white man’s burden” that Rudyard Kipling wrote about; or colonial American public health campaigns that killed more Filipinos than saved them that Warwick Anderson wrote about; or the benevolent “white love” that Vicente Rafael wrote about.

Decolonizing extinction for me is about this current moment, knowing that the status quo is currently killing too many lives on the planet and that it’s in this space of loss hitherto that many are trying to find new ways of living with each other. The orangutan rehabilitation centers that I studied foster such a new way of living together, in a space of shared vulnerability in the literal spaces of colonial destruction.

This experiment of learning to live together is not an expression of the scientific method, which positions the inquisitor as the ultimate designer taking control over nature. Rather, it is experimental like art, in which finding a definitive answer might be less important than the process of figuring out other ways of doing something.

And I have to admit, my take on decolonization is informed by my having grown up as a Filipina (specifically a Visayan, which has its own relationship to the Philippines as a nation-state) in the United States (a settler colony and imperial power) as much as it was about trying to understand Sarawak, its relation to Malaysia, and how Sarawak’s past as a personal colony owned by a British family—and later a British Crown Colony, and now as a postcolonial state—affect wildlife that inhabit Sarawak’s present-day borders.


How do you situate your work in relation to extinction studies broadly within the environmental humanities?

I had the impression that environmental humanities often treated both endangered animals and the topic of extinction as abstract concepts. Such writings often either stay on the level of species or tend to think on a planetary, generalized level. For me, as an ethnographer, the scope was always multiscalar, always committed to lived experience while also connecting those experiences to bigger issues.

I am very grateful to my colleague Shannon Winnubst, who read my first full draft. Shannon pointed out that my book was obviously a feminist intervention on extinction, but that I hadn’t explicitly stated it as such. And she was right! That compelled me to step up and own that claim. I feel that ethnography written by and for anthropologists often tends to obfuscate political claims, that the ethnography is so deep and so nuanced, it’s purposely flying under radars to not alarm anyone. But we live in alarming times! We should boldly cry out to whoever will listen!


In the first chapter, you describe a transition in orangutan conservation from an approach organized around “ape motherhood” to one of “tough love.” Could you describe that transition—its logics and implications?

Ape Motherhood was the term that Barbara Harrisson coined in the 1950s as she came up with the idea and methods for orangutan rehabilitation. Harrisson’s authority mostly rested on her social standing as the wife of the Sarawak Museum Curator, Tom Harrisson, but it also relied on her education since she was one of the most formally educated persons in Sarawak at the time. The project of orangutan rehabilitation as Barbara Harrisson saw it was about finding how to instill independence in others. This is what ape motherhood meant for her. It wasn’t about tenderness or surrogacy, but about rearing dependents for imminent independence. I saw that Harrisson’s active experimentation with instilling freedom in others while still exerting one’s wishes reflected Sarawak’s political context in which it was a British Crown Colony. Among Britons and those invested in western domination, there was active discussion and debate about how to instill independence while maintaining influence.

While the very protocols invented by Barbara Harrisson remain influential, and this is across orangutan habitats in Borneo and Sumatra, an outright rejection of “mother’s love” was very common when I did fieldwork. People I met who rehabilitate orangutans preferred the term “tough love,” which had more masculine valences. I know from anthropologists Liana Chua and Alexandra Palmer that there are conflicts of vision between different orangutan rehabilitation sites and orangutan NGOs. So while not all may espouse the ”tough love” model, it doesn’t diminish the point that there was an explicit shift coinciding with the end of colonialism and the rise of new authorities.


In Chapter 2, you relate a nervy moment in which you carried Gas, a young female orangutan who seemed ready to bite you. Afterward, you push back against the notion that this interspecies relation should be described as a “choreography.” You say that, “The affective surge between us, along with the mutual vulnerability inherent in the risk of me hurting her or her hurting me, was at the core of custodial labor.” Could you talk a bit about how the embodied practice of working with orangutans shaped your understanding of the work of extinction and conservation? How were your encounters with orangutans shaped by your position as an ethnographic researcher, differently positioned than the Sarawakian workers or the European volunteers?

Orangutan rehabilitation is truly a unique enterprise, particularly for thinking about human-animal relations or multispecies ethnography. Unlike with dogs or pigs, there is no shared history of species domestication (better described as co-evolution). Human-orangutan connections are characterized by millions of years of evolutionary departure from each other. Because there isn’t that shared history of trying to understand each other, then these relations are characterized by a lot of uncertainty. And this to me was the powerful thing about working with orangutans. They’re not social like chimpanzees or bonobos or humans. The space of that relationship is a place to really understand affect. This isn’t a kind of relationship where you can project your interpretations, because it’s a place of quite distinct difference. It’s from my time spent thinking with geographers at Ohio State, particularly Becky Mansfield and Lisa Bhungalia, who got me thinking about how these relationships are truly spatialized. So the emphasis on space is what makes that book chapter different from its earlier iteration as an article in American Ethnologist. 

I inhabited the position of researcher, which was of course unique from being either a worker or volunteer. I always had a notebook and pen and my jottings entailed behavioral sampling methods, which is far more common in ethology and primatology than ethnology or ethnography. I did what behaviorists call ”focal sampling” and I focused my attention on an individual orangutan subject and wrote what they were doing in various timed intervals, usually 3 minutes. Hence, I could write with very specific details, like the texture of leaves crushed up by a juvenile orangutan’s hand and dropped onto your head, or the surprisingly heavy weight of a small orangutan’s body curled onto your leg. Because of my own positionality as a Filipina-American, who was commonly categorized as just Filipina, I feel that I was privy to different opinions than had I been a white American. I mentioned in my acknowledgements how a Bidayuh acquaintance followed up any criticism he shared by saying that it was worse in the Philippines. He said this around the time of the particularly harrowing Maguindanao Massacre that was widely covered by Malaysian news media. It took me awhile to figure out how to reach volunteers, especially since they were there for such a short time. I gained a lot of their perspectives by first asking their interpretations of archival photos that depicted Barbara Harrisson with the orangutans she raised.


In Chapter 5, “Arrested Autonomy,” you define “arrested autonomy” as a form of “inertia” in which work done to foster independence fosters dependency. Can you explain for readers how this arrested autonomy relates to Sarawakian independence as a semi-autonomous polity within the state of Malaysia—as well as how it relates to orangutan independence as semi-autonomous, semi-wild subjects of conservation administration? What exactly is the relationship between these two forms of arrested autonomy?

“Arrested Autonomy” was the first chapter I wrote when I began writing post-field research and it eventually became the title of my dissertation. I began writing about it first because I had difficulty wrapping my head around the aspiration for rehabilitating orangutans. People would describe the orangutans as “semi-wild” but the salient idea wasn’t semi-wild as much as it was semi-autonomous. At one point, it clicked for me that what was going on was a state of arrest—not a state of partiality as conveyed by the prefix ”semi-.”

This line of thinking allowed me to connect orangutan experiences to what I knew about Sarawak’s history and politics and to the opinions Sarawakian people would share with me. My thinking began with the orangutans and reached out to human experience, which is pretty much what political ecology does, which is to connect ecologies to politics and histories. I don’t think arrested autonomy is a coincidentally shared experience between humans and orangutans. It’s part of a larger constitutive process. Arrested autonomy is also quite different from dependency theory. In a state of arrested autonomy, there is an aspiration for an eventual independence and that actions meant to instill independence instead almost guarantee continued dependence. It was in a AAA panel in 2014 organized by Kevin O’Neill and with Karen Ho as discussant that got me thinking more openly about its applicability outside of Sarawak.


The sixth chapter, “Hospice for a Dying Species,” is the last before the conclusion. I found it quite moving. Regarding the status of the Lundu Wildlife Center, you ask: “What was the wildlife center? Was it a rehabilitation center or was it a zoo?” Your ethnographic subjects hotly debated this issue. Layang, for example, was emphatic that they were creating semi-wild conditions to raise autonomous orangutans—not a zoo. However, two female workers, Cindy and Lin, saw the difference between zoos and wildlife centers as less relevant than the difference between those sites and the wild. You use this disagreement to highlight the gendered nature of caring for an endangered species. Could you explain how that is so? Secondly, could you tell us where you stand on the issue? Was it a rehabilitation center or was it a zoo?

The gendering of care is all over the book, but the fight over whether the wildlife center was a zoo or a rehabilitation center especially highlighted how working with animals was shaped by gender, race (via the idea of “looking local”), and class. I did agree with the men who worked there, which was that rehabilitation required inhabiting a very vulnerable and dangerous space, but I also saw that doing so would mean that the local women doing this work were more vulnerable than their male colleagues, because of a specific orangutan’s alleged hatred of local women. I also agreed with the person who I call Cindy and her point that zoos were accessible to those unable to go jungle trekking. Part of my preliminary research entailed interning at a zoo, and I appreciate the role zoos can play in pedagogy, especially if captive animals’ needs are taken into account, for example when it comes to providing animals with hiding spaces that are unpopular among visitors.

The wildlife center was not a zoo, but it could become a zoo. And becoming a zoo wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible thing, especially if a zoo could be designed around the needs of those enclosed instead of the needs of those looking at the enclosed. Zoos of the future could perhaps do that. But then, there is also something very special about rehabilitation that would be lost if all apes’ futures were tied to the institution of zoos. What would be lost is the inhabiting of uncertainty and the embodying of vulnerability, and these are powerful feelings that I think would be radical to embrace in an era so concerned about security. Rehabilitation is not perfect and I really would love to see a new model of rehabilitation that moves away from a reproductive model and towards a welfare model. The reproductive model aspires to producing ever more babies, regardless of the conditions of the females carrying these pregnancies. By contrast, what I’m calling a welfare model would to prioritize the well-being of the presently living above their potential to reproduce a future generation. I really hope that we get to a point very soon where we can actively imagine multiple alternatives to hurtling towards immanent extinction.

This book is incredible. Thanks for writing it, and thanks for speaking with us.

Juno Salazar Parreñas is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. She researches global political economy through ethnographic and transdisciplinary research methods that pay attention to relations between human and nonhuman others. She is the author of Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation (Duke UP, 2018) and editor of Gender: Animals (Macmillan Reference USA, 2017). Her academic writing has appeared in American Ethnologist, positions: asia critique, Catalyst: feminism, theory, and technoscience, and History and Anthropology. She is currently working on an ethnographic research project concerning the emergence of animal retirement amid global concern about human retirement.