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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

We Need More Public Monuments to Animals

A good start to how we can pay homage to things that are not human.

If you’ve never been to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, I highly recommend it. As its name suggests, the museum is devoted to the history of life in—and exploration of—the North and South Poles. One of the museum’s most striking objects, however, isn’t within the building but just outside the entrance. It’s a bronze statue of a husky, made to commemorate the countless teams of dogs who contributed to exploration efforts, both by pulling heavy sleds across the ice and later, more grimly, being slaughtered for food.

The husky statue at the Polar Museum isn’t the only example of a memorial to non-human accomplishments. In London, pilgrims to the house of the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson can see a statue of his cat Hodge––“a very fine cat indeed,” according to its pedestal––in the courtyard outside. The statue comes complete with a QR code that, when scanned, plays an audio file of the cat “talking.” “I am quite the feline celebrity,” the “cat” purrs, musing about his preference for fresh oysters and his personal vendetta against James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer. Visitors to the always-crowded Shibuya Station in Tokyo frequently use as a meeting point the famous statue of Hachiko, the Akita dog who came to the station to “greet” his master for years after the man’s death. Similar statues have been unveiled at Tokyo University and in the northern Japanese city of Odate, commemorating Hachiko’s enduring status as a symbol of unwavering loyalty.

These examples stand out in my memory not only because I find them touching but because they are the exception to the rule: Though the lives of humans and other animals have been enmeshed for millennia, our urban landscapes acknowledge this bond only infrequently. This lacuna, I would argue, helps both to perpetuate an anthropocentric view of the world and to shield widespread mistreatment of animals from view. A cityscape that makes radically visible the bond between animals and humans would be one step towards the creation of a more just relationship between different constituents of the animal kingdom.

When done well, monuments act like a weight placed in the spacetime of a city. They make us move a little more slowly, make us stop. They link remembrance of the past to reflection on the present to possible resolution for future action. They can be wildly creative in form and content; they can offer space for high-energy public demonstrations or solitary, silent thought. As monuments keep both the good and the bad of history alive in the memory of the living, the choice of who and what gets memorialized––and in what fashion, and at what cost, and on what scale, and in what proximity to major population hubs and power centers––is an inherently political one that reveals the narrative and moral priorities of a society and its government. Nor is a monument’s political significance set in stone once the sculptor has laid down their chisel. Monuments can be reinterpreted, moved, or physically altered: The Egyptian obelisk colloquially known as “Cleopatra’s Needle” was originally carved on the orders of Thutmose III. 200 years later, Ramesses the Great added in his own inscriptions, and some three millennia after that, the obelisk was shipped to England to commemorate Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. In the most extreme instances, monuments can be toppled or destroyed, marking the end of an old era and beginning of a new one. It’s no coincidence that monuments depicting people are often defaced by beheading or scratching out the eyes, acts of symbolic destruction that indicate how we implicitly view these inanimate objects as, in some way, alive.

Yet the fact remains that the vast majority of public monuments we’re likely to encounter in our cities are conservative both in form and in content. When I think of public statues, for instance, the image that comes to mind immediately is that of conquering generals on rearing steeds, or else somber portraits of political leaders, their pasts littered with varying numbers of hideous crimes. Across the American South, monuments to Confederate generals––many of which were put up at the beginning of the Jim Crow era and at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement––continue to scar the built environment. In London’s Parliament Square, Winston Churchill (much-romanticized hero of the Blitz whose culpability in the Bengal Famine has somehow gone overlooked) stands on a plinth giving a bulldog glower, while not far off Oliver Cromwell (widely considered to have committed ethnic cleansing against Catholics in Ireland) looks down at viewers from his spot outside the House of Commons. As well as a readily perceptible anthropocentrism, this tendency in monument-making reveals a sadly constricted idea even of human history, one that clings, limpet-like, to the much-critiqued “great men and battles” approach but leaves little room for the victims of these public figures and their policies, or the full living texture of events as experienced by most people.

Creating monuments to ordinary life and to animals is one means of escaping this framework: It centers not the “great” but the small, challenging viewers simultaneously to accommodate these usually unrecounted stories into their conceptions of history and to reconsider the preeminence of these so-called “great men of history.” To be clear from the start, there are plenty of groups besides animals who are also deserving of memorialization and whose suffering, history, and contributions remain persistently unacknowledged. I am in no way arguing that animals deserve monuments instead of marginalized or oppressed people––quite the opposite. Instead, I see discussions of memorializing animals as a way of opening up our thinking about memorials in general: what memorials do, who they’re for, why they exist, and what they look like.

One argument for the importance of creating animal monuments is that they would make the usually unseen labor of animals visible. If there are huge arenas of human endeavor that are under-visible and invisible––and these too are deeply deserving of proper recognition, remuneration, and commemoration––then the labor of animals goes even less acknowledged. But it is impossible not to concede that the sweat, suffering, and even death of animals is inextricably bound to every human pursuit in one form or another. Animals have been used to test medicines, deliver treatments, and even serve as therapies themselves. Their fur has given painters brushes; their flesh has given painters pigment binders. Their intestines have been used to string lutes and tennis rackets alike. Their skins clothe us and bind our notebooks and provide fashionable rugs. They have carried us and our possessions for millennia; they have uncomplainingly pulled our plows and ground our flour. They have been raised in indescribable conditions for the purpose of providing non-vegetarians with protein. While many this year celebrated the first human trip to the moon, numerous animals preceded people to space, many of them never to return. This is far from an exhaustive list, but even this partial catalogue of the crucial ways in which animals have made possible human life and human achievement would seem deserving of many monuments the world over.

Another quite simple but (to me) quite compelling reason to push for such monuments is that they make the urban landscape more joyful. As art and ornament generally render public buildings and open spaces more pleasant and welcoming, so too would art and ornament dedicated to beloved species create cities whose public works are imbued with a spirit of compassion and love. The aforementioned example of the statue of Johnson’s cat may have been silly––albeit deliberately so––but several months after I saw it, it’s stuck in my mind far more firmly than the myriad strong-jawed orators whose bronze effigies I no doubt passed by during the same time period. Encouraging the creation of diverse and whimsical commemorative works would bring us cities that are more memorable, more exciting to explore, and better able to channel a sense of compassion for all forms of life.

Beyond these major collective contributions, there is also the question of individual social bonds between animals and humans. It seems unfashionable to speak openly about the love one feels for other species; it’s difficult to do so without being accused of being mushy, or softhearted, or sentimental, or (if you are a woman) a “cat lady” whose affections are both misplaced and unhinged. In pop culture, animal rights activists and vegans are frequently depicted as uptight, humorless, and ultimately wedded to foolish convictions. Yet I feel a deep and abiding love for animals and sincerely believe that they have many virtues to teach us as people. There are numerous animals––from the pet dogs who pushed me in my swing as a baby to the cats who ran to the door when I came home from school to countless wild, domesticated, and zoo animals––that have touched my life deeply and whom I feel grateful to have known. I know I am far from the only person to feel this way, and to me it follows that so positive an impact upon the arc of human existence is more than deserving of public commemoration.

It might be argued by skeptics that building monuments to animals would give humans the undeserved warm fuzzies of having Done Something when it comes to countering animal mistreatment, habitat degradation, poaching, pesticide usage, climate change, and the other myriad ways that we humans deleteriously affect––and indeed often end––the lives of animals, allowing us to feel better about our role in the world without actually materially bettering the circumstances of species we have and continue to profoundly wrong. But I would argue that a memorial is not necessarily an act of hand-washing: When executed thoughtfully, monuments can be radical, even confrontational. Building such monuments would not absolve humans of cruelties committed against animals, just as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, a gash in the earth at the heart of the American capital, does nothing to absolve the country of the sins of that war or the politicians who waged it. But they could invite precisely the conversations that—ideally—would help to ensure that such treatment ceases in the future.

But what precisely do I mean by an animal monument? Public artworks that depict animals can be divided into several categories. At one end of the spectrum lie monuments that portray animals as accessories or side characters in statues otherwise dedicated to humans. The city square statue showing an 18th-century general on a cantering horse is in no real way about the stallion (though the equine component of the statue may dwarf the human one) except as further proof of the rider’s grandeur and social status. There are also statues of animals that depict without commemorating––pieces whose sole purpose is decorative (and that defined loosely). As in the case of Australia’s Big Merino or Denver’s Blue Mustang (also called “Blucifer” due to its terrifying red eyes that glow in the night and the fact that it murdered its creator), these can sometimes be more disturbing than thought-provoking. Another category of monuments are those that focus on animals but do so only in a symbolic capacity. The bronze bees that dot Manchester are symbols of industry and evocations of the city’s history as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and mechanized textile manufacturing. The Capitoline wolf that suckles Romulus and Remus may arrest viewers with her bare-toothed grimace, but the real subject of the piece is not the she-wolf nor the babies she feeds, but the city they would go on to found. Here, animals are used as types, mined for their cultural associations rather than for their individual or collective contributions to the world. This is not to say that these kinds of sculptures are bad, per se––merely that they do not represent the kind of artistic engagement with animals that I am interested in here. 

A step further in that direction are monuments that honor animals who have benefited a human or humans in some way. This can come in the form of heart-warming stories of animal-human bonds, such as the aforementioned case of Hachiko or the similar story of Greyfriars Bobby, a terrier who stood guard by his master’s grave in an Edinburgh churchyard for 14 years before his own death. In other cases, these monuments can be collective. Both Ottawa and London have monuments to animals who died in warfare; the moving inscription on the latter reads: 

They had no choice…. Many and various animals were employed to support British and 

Allied Forces in wars and campaigns over the centuries and as a result millions died. From the pigeon to the elephant they all played a vital role in every region of the world in the cause of human freedom. Their contribution must never be forgotten.

These monuments are in certain important respects seriously flawed––any text that refers to British colonial violence as “the cause of human freedom” is supporting a deeply revisionist understanding of history––but what interests me (in a positive way) about the above example is the inclusion of the phrase “they had no choice,” which seems to ask readers to reconsider the unfairly coercive relationships between humans and animals, a dynamic that is often taken for granted when we accept humans as the pinnacle of evolution to whom the rest of the world is gifted wholesale. This kind of acknowledgment paves the way for public monuments that recognize and ask us to remember historic acts of state coercion and force that have had violent consequences for both humans and animals.

Another notable (and frankly very funny) example of a tribute to animals is the Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama. Prior to the monument’s construction in 1919, local farmers had relied on a monoculture of cotton, but the arrival of the weevils resulted in major losses. This in turn led the farmers to begin exploring different kinds of crops, which had the effect of making the soil healthier and their planting practices more sustainable. To honor the pest that inadvertently transformed the local agrarian economy, the town created the monument, a woman in Grecian dress, eyes downcast, who holds aloft a massive weevil, its signature snout drooping with great dignity. An inscription on a nearby sign reads, “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

That being said, when we look at most extant animal memorials, it’s clear that virtually all were created to recognize a service that animals have rendered to a human or humans. Monuments that recognize the animals killed in wartime, or animals tragically mourning the deaths of their owners, or animals whose owners are important historical figures, are still in some important sense attached to people. They measure the degree to which these creatures deserve public commemoration with the yardstick of their utility. What other kinds of animal memorials are possible?

A further type of monument we might imagine––one that finds increasing relevance, unfortunately, with the unchecked advance of climate change––is a memorial that mourns the loss of biodiversity and attempts to reckon with human culpability in our current mass extinction. An example that stands out is David Adjaye’s Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO), a memorial not to the animals who have died in battle but those that have been trampled, killed, and starved during the normal course of human events. When finished, MEMO will perch atop the rocky cliffs of the Isle of Portland, taking the form of a spiraling tower that calls to mind Brueghel’s vision of Babel. Each of the almost 900 species that have gone extinct since the dodo will be remembered with an individually carved stone (with space left for inevitable future additions). A bell at the center of the tower will toll solemnly with each new extinction. Tentatively slated for completion this year, the monument is arguably the most significant architectural articulation of grief and guilt for the crimes of the Anthropocene.

Another vision of the animal monument is one that honors species not merely because they have rendered a useful service to us, or because we feel awful for destroying them, but simply because they are a unique form of life deserving contemplation. The fact that the vast majority of extant animal monuments are related to domesticated species shines a bright light on our anthropocentrism, asking us which species we value and why. The species and individual animals we choose to immortalize in public sculpture reflect where our moral priorities are and how we think about ourselves in relation with other forms of animal life. Along these lines, I would push strongly for a vision of the animal memorial that does not confine itself to the cute, the cuddly, the doe-eyed, and the familiar. I would encourage sculptors and architects of such works to conceive of animal monuments that are dedicated to strange creatures, or rare creatures, or little-known creatures, or creatures that can create no possible economic value for humans. In broadening their vision of what is worth memorializing beyond not only humans but the disproportionately thought-about charismatic megafauna, artists will be challenged to bring into their sphere of moral vision an ever-greater and more diverse range of non-human species. In the same way, viewers who pass through parks and squares dotted with commemorations honoring mules, storks, spider monkeys, mantis shrimp, mola molas, dugongs, horseshoe crabs, and yes, boll weevils, would be tacitly asked to reflect upon the dignity and worth of species they may never encounter and rarely think about. In this way, animal monuments would transform not merely the physical landscape but the emotional one as well, paving the way for a city whose occupants are more empathetic and attuned to the needs of those beyond themselves. Animal monuments of this type have the potential to open up the broader question of how we can pay artistic homage to things that are not human––to forests, to rivers, to languages that have died, to the darkness of the night sky prior to the invention of the light bulb. If monuments in the urban landscape represent nodes of memory, reflection, and action, then a repertoire of monuments that consists so heavily of battle commemorations and busts of politicians not only fails to live up to the radical potential of the genre––it also largely lacks any engagement with the space around it. One element of the monuments of the future should be a foregrounding of the ways in which our cities have been made, an understanding that monuments can serve not only to pull us out of time and place but also to engage us more deeply with our surroundings, to make us contemplate the what and why and how of our cityscapes. It can include some measure of environmental offsetting as well––monuments, after all, need not come in the form of bronze statues but can also encompass memorial forests, greenways, carbon capture projects, rewilding initiatives, and other projects that seek to redress some of the grievances we as a species have committed. An urban landscape that actively remembers the trees and animals, the populations and species that have been part of its creation would pave the way for a more humane future for all forms of life.

Illustration by Skutch

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