“Where the Wild Things Aren’t: Animals in New York City” by Mark B. Feldman first appeared in issue 73-74 (2009) of the minnesota review as part of our Feral Issue. You can read the full essay via our online archive, available through Duke University Press.
On top of the cantilevered entrance to Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art, an elegant modernist box, rests an unruly eagle’s nest (Fig. 1). Made of interlocking sticks and approximately six feet in diameter, this biological artifact contrasts dramatically with the urbane form of the building it sits on. Outside the Whitney and inside in the sculpture garden there is more evidence of animal activity that might seem out of place in this vast city, often assumed to be a place where “the natural [has] ceased to exist” (Koolhaas 10). A flying squirrel nesting box surveys Madison Avenue, while in the courtyard a lattice of gourd-shaped purple martin nesting structures rises out of a stark reflecting pool, in a setting where we would expect a Calder sculpture (Fig. 2).
Are these dwellings a sign that New York City might be partly reclaimed by animals, not in an end-of-the-urban scenario, as detailed in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2006), but through a more benign mutualism, a sharing of space (Fig. 3)? For a few months at least, the answer to this question was yes. The animal homes described above were part of Fritz Haeg’s Animal Estates 1.0 project for the Whitney Biennial (on view from March to June of 2008 and extended through the middle of August), a series of model or prototype dwellings for animals that have historically resided in Manhattan. Part site-specific sculpture, part environmental education, and part habitat restoration Animal Estates aims to “provide a provocative 21st century model for the human- animal relationship that is more intimate, visible and thoughtful” (Haeg). Haeg’s project is ongoing, involving not only multiple cities (including San Francisco and Utrecht) but also many associated activities: animal-inspired music and movement, tours of the animal estates, and lectures on urban ecology. Animal Estates shares the contrarian and whimsical utopianism of Haeg’s earlier, but ongoing body of work: Edible Estates. For these projects, Haeg reclaimed the sterile anti-environmental space of the suburban front lawn, replacing grass with high-density, multi-species edible landscapes. While Edible Estates pushes us to think about the place of nature and agriculture in the suburbs, Animal Estates prompts us to consider where animals belong in the contemporary metropolis.
Haeg’s work can help us reconsider not only where we find animals in vast cities, but also how urban space might be shared more fully and what some of the effects of this sharing might be, not just in terms of ecology but also on attitudes and values. Although it is important to welcome actual animals back into the metropolis, it is equally important that we make space for certain sorts of representations of animals. My primary goal is not to describe or advocate the ways in which we might literally re-wild New York City, repopulating it with animals, although the return of hawks and coyotes, seals and owls strikes me as hopeful and important. Rather, I am concerned with how both real and represented animals can change public discourse about nature and nonhuman life in the metropolis. While it is possible to dismiss actions that merely acknowledge animals figuratively as ecologically beside the point, these sorts of interventions are valuable in their ability to change public sentiment. In other words, representations of animals can have very real effects. It is also difficult to neatly separate real animals from their representations. For example, a zoo animal is both real and representational. While I will argue that Haeg’s work can help us rethink the place of animals in the contemporary metropolis, I also have a healthy skepticism about his project and I certainly don’t think that by itself it will usher in an equitable animal-human metropolis. But environmentalism must coordinate the real and the representational so that natural and discursive ecologies work together to establish a balance between human and nonhuman life.