The Call of the Tame

In the introduction to their edited collection, the  geographers Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert drew a distinction between ‘animal spaces’ and ‘beastly places’.  Animal spaces were the material and imaginative geographies that nonhuman species were put by humans. So, dogs belong in a kennel, monkeys in a zoo or the wild, goldfish in a goldfish bowl, and so on. In contrast, beastly places were geographies created by animals transgressing the space that humans expect or want them to be in. So, a rhino escaping the zoo, a pigeon in your office, or a fox rummaging through your bins. Most of the examples they give are of creatures that are supposed to reside in the ‘wild’ finding their way into ‘tame’ spaces. It is often through this type of transgression that an animal enters the historical record.

I recently came across an article in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society from 1913 describing an animal who had done just this. He was a tsaing, or Bos Sondaicus, thought to be an indigenous Burmese breed of wild buffalo. Apparently every year he appeared in the same village in the Chin Hills and hung out with the domesticated cattle. In an attempt to keep him from bullying the males and consorting with the cows, a fence was constructed. This barrier failed, as the photograph below shows.

He’s the lighter coloured animal that is larger than the others, just left-of centre. Source: Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, vol. 22 (1913), p. 190.

The author of the article went on to report how the tsaing’s yearly pilgrimage was explained by the villagers. Since he first appeared after the death of a Buddhist priest who had used ‘evil spirits’ to cure people, it was supposed that he was the reincarnation of this priest—the karmic punishment for his wayward practices. We must take this report with some skepticism. British writers often used these types of stories to represent the Burmese as superstitious and  credulous. But, if we don’t take the explanation literally, then I think it might have some purchase. The tsaing was, like the priest, a transgressor. He was acting in a way which was not normal for his kind. It is not often that we get a glimpse of non-domesticated animals as individuals in history, but from time to time they do come into view.

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