Epizootics Beyond the Farm: Historical and Ethnographic Approaches

June 15 – 16 2023

The third annual conference of The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis project, convened by Christos Lynteris and Matheus Alves Duarte da Silva

Epidemics among non-human animals, in other words, epizootics, have been the concern of veterinary medicine since the end of the eighteenth century. Positioned at a pivot of the entanglement between farming and medicine, historians have shown how “cattle plagues” as well as diseases of horses played a key role in the development of veterinary science. Historians and anthropologists of herding in colonial and postcolonial contexts have also shown how epizootics in domesticated animals have played significant roles in the entanglement of the governance of human and nonhuman life in the Global South. Finally, the bourgeoning interest in emerging infectious diseases and disease spillovers from animals to humans has led to renewed attention to animal health. Nonetheless, the hegemony of the One Health agenda – which more often than not applies concepts and analytical frameworks developed with respect to domesticated animals to the full range of animal life – and its adoption in the medical humanities and social sciences risks leading to distortions of both the historical and the ethnographic record of epizootics. Indeed, epizootics beyond their locus par excellence, the farm, and farmed animals, have been disproportionally underexplored by historians and anthropologists.

This conference asks how our understanding of and approaches to epizootics may be transformed if we focused on epizootics beyond the farm and its epistemic, socioeconomic and political contours. By focusing instead on epizootics unfolding in cities, zoos, prairies, ships, homes, forests, ports, wetlands, warehouses, natural reserves, and deserts, the conference aims to explore the variety of non-human animals, and human/non-human relations involved in epizootics, as well as the complexity of the new knowledge and medical practices that emerged in those places. Steering away from and challenging the domesticated/wild dichotomy, but taking it ethnographically seriously, we are interested in exploring how a focus on epizootics in places and situations where veterinary medicine and other forms of medical and vernacular knowledge interacted, can unsettle, trouble and advance our understanding of the ways in which animal and human health have become interlinked in different historical and ethnographic contexts.

The conference will explore the following themes:

Classifying epizootics. What counts and what does not count as an epizootic? How was the concept of epizootics historically (re)-constructed? What kinds of mass death of non-human animals come under this framing and what remain outwith it? What animals are included and excluded from the framework of epizootics? What are the causes and results of classificatory frameworks of epizootics, both as regards understandings of non-human death, and the classification and hierarchy or non-human animals?

The idea that epizootics precede human epidemics. How did this idea emerge and in which ways was it developed and/or contested in different epistemic, social and epidemiological contexts? By which means has the correlation between epizootics and epidemics been achieved? What kind of medicalisation of spatialities and temporalities has this correlation fostered? What cultural practices has it pathologized in different contexts? How has the lack of epizootics in outbreaks of human diseases by otherwise zoonotic pathogens, such as Ebola or SARS-CoV-2 been made sense of? How has the existence of epizootics not leading to human epidemics been explained?  

The observation of epizootics. What were the spaces outside the farm where epizootics could be observed and studied (urban spaces, zoological gardens, non-farmed rural areas)? Who observed the epizootics? How were epizootics imagined or deducted when they could not be directly observed? How were the loci of the epizootics integrated in medical and epidemiological or public health conceptualizations that framed diseases as part of a given space? How did such approach interact with or challenge veterinarian approaches to pathogenic spaces?

The idea that epizootics form a natural self-regulating mechanism. How have epizootics of wild animals been configured into population self-regulatory mechanisms? In which have “plagues” of animals been associated to epizootics among the same species? To what extent and in which ways have such configuration been imbued by ideas of a “balance” in nature? What application has this idea (“Elton’s law”) had on the ground? In which ways have humans tried to artificially replicate this supposed natural mechanism (myxomatosis, Danysz virus etc), and what were the consequences of such anthropogenic epizootics?  

Interactions between veterinary-led ideas of epizootics and epidemiology-led ideas of epizootics. How did ideas about epizootics developed principally by veterinary scientists in response to diseases in farm animals, such as foot and mouth, rinderpest, chicken cholera or porcine plague, interact with ideas about epizootics developed principally by epidemiologists and medical doctors working in response to zoonoses, such as plague, typhus, hantavirus, or Ebola? Were these independently developed framings of epizootics ever synthesised, and how? Have the studies of epizootics in non-farming contexts, for instance in the case of plague or rabies, interacted or reshaped veterinarian knowledge? 

Ideas and practices around epizootics outside biomedicine. How has the mass illness and/or death of non-human animals been perceived and rendered meaningful or actionable outside biomedical contexts? What sort of non-human agencies have such phenomena afforded within the context of such non-biomedical approaches? In which ways has colonial medicine interacted with such approaches, and/or try to assimilate them within its own system of knowledge? More broadly, how have non-biomedical approaches to epizootics interacted with biomedical ones? 

The idea of epizootics jumping between “wild” and “domestic” spaces. How have epizootics in supposedly “wild” and “domestic” spaces become interrelated? How has this relation impacted ideas about the “origins” of infectious diseases? How have ideas of “wildness” impacted perceptions of immunity to diseases across the domesticated/non-domesticated animal divide? How has the role of humans as catalysts or even intermediary hosts of this exchange been configured in different contexts and what has the impact of such framings been for animal management and conservation?

Invasive Species and Shifting Disease Ecologies: Perspectives from the Humanities and the Social Sciences

Reframing Disease Reservoirs: Histories & Ethnographies of Pathogens & Pestilence