Conservation and Society

: 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 360--361

Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene

Radhika Govindrajan 
 University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Correspondence Address:
Radhika Govindrajan
University of Washington, Seattle

How to cite this article:
Govindrajan R. Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene.Conservat Soc 2022;20:360-361

How to cite this URL:
Govindrajan R. Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 Jun 9 ];20:360-361
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Full Text

Mathur, N. Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene. University of Chicago Press. 2021. (pp. 224) Paperback (ISBN: 978-0-2267-7192-2) $27.50

Early on in this magisterial and important book, Nayanika Mathur observes that “beastly tales – stories that are populated by human and nonhuman beasts of all types and their intricate entanglements” – offer powerful new ethical and political imaginaries for life in a time of acute planetary crisis. However, the world-changing potential of these stories, she notes, is diminished by the fact that some tales, particularly the quantitative or the statistical, are distinguished from and valued over the situated and embodied narratives of marginalised people who foreground histories of power, violence, inequality, and resistance in their relationships with the nonhuman world. To unsettle this separation of different 'knowledge practices', Crooked Cats invites us to enter the fraught but rewarding terrain of what Mathur calls 'climate translation': the “transference of stories reflective of people's relationship with the world across domains that are normally kept separate – such as those of science and myth or quotidian chatter and conservationist discourse or emotions and law” (13). The book locates this larger task of opening up a fresh, interdisciplinary perspective on the Anthropocene in an exploration of a wide range of beastly tales about endangered big cats, primarily tigers and leopards, who have taken a 'crooked' path by preying on humans across rural and urban contexts in India.

Mathur explores the journeys of various crooked cats and other beings whose paths they cross across seven rich and wide-ranging chapters. Chapter One explores different genres of stories—political, biological, and climatic—that are told to account for the emergence of 'man-eaters' while Chapter Two delves into the many evolving and contested methods which are employed to identify individual big cats as crooked, a task complicated by the fact that they inhabit landscapes alongside other big cats. Chapter Three examines how assessments of the innate crookedness or innocence of big cats can sometimes hinge on affective responses to the 'cuteness' or 'charisma' of individual felines. This interest in understanding how specific big cats come to be enshrined as memorable individuals also animates Chapter Five, which examines how colonial fiction and non-fiction treated the question of felines who had strayed off the straight and narrow path. Chapter Four draws on ethnographic evidence from the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand to examine how ordinary people's petitions calling on the state to capture or kill big cats gain efficacy. Chapter Six explores the role that conceptions of space and place play in shaping people's responses to potentially dangerous big cats across Mumbai, Dehradun, and Shimla. Chapter Seven explores how the ethics and politics of 'seeing' big cats is shaped by people's emotive responses to these animals.

Crooked Cats stands out for its exemplary and nuanced interweaving of the stories that conservationists, scientists, schoolchildren, bureaucrats, hunters, elderly villagers and townspeople, and other actors tell about their encounters with and efforts to govern crooked cats, or 'man-eaters' as they are often called in official and popular parlance. Mathur's vivid ethnographic voice brings alive the humour, horror, fear, shock, curiosity, disdain, and pomposity that characterise people's imaginings of and encounters with big cats. Whether through richly textured accounts of children play-acting as man-eating leopards; adults joking about how mountain leopards will enjoy feasting on urban humans from the plains; wildlife biologists whose efforts to convince residents of a posh urban neighbourhood that there are no jaguars in India are met with scepticism; hunters who refuse to shoot suspected man-eating leopards who have confident innocence in their eyes; or leopards who wander around city parking lots before sprawling atop luxury cars for a nap, Mathur beautifully conveys the everyday textures of people's encounters with animals they recognise as threatening and threatened.

However, intimacy with big cats is not restricted only to those humans who share space with them. Mathur powerfully traces how close knowledge of animal behaviour emerges from the 'sensing' of big cats through new digital technologies, particularly CCTV footage of their peregrinations through villages, small towns, and big cities. Her revealing account of how a retired High Court judge was moved to tears by repeated viewings of video footage of a leopard eating his Pomeranian dog and then ordered the state bureaucracy to place a trap for the criminal big cat near his home reveals how technological intimacy plays a role in unsettling people's expectations of the locales in which big cats naturally belong and when they are deemed to be in violation of their rightful space. Mathur's close analysis of moments such as these reveals how beastly tales are not just a product of human imagination and experience but are also shaped by the actions and intentions of nonhuman animals. Throughout the book, what emerges from these carefully told beastly tales is a powerful sense that big cats are not passive victims of human-driven extinction, but agentive beings whose futures, like those of humans (some more than others), are constrained by bureaucratic power, capitalist extraction, colonial violence, and ecological collapse.

Mathur's methodological creativity and capaciousness allows her to cover wide-ranging terrain and merits special mention. The book moves between colonial hunting memoirs; films and television shows; petitions to the state; archival records; science and conservation journals; ethnographic fieldwork; and a discourse and visual analysis of news reports, WhatsApp messages, and memes with fluidity. This approach yields a rich and complex account of the multiplicity of human-animal entanglements in the Anthropocene. An excellent example is Mathur's fine analysis of a much-publicised incident in which a white tiger at Delhi Zoo killed a young man who entered his enclosure. Starting from public investments in establishing the tiger's faultlessness, Mathur traces the cultural, economic, and political processes through which dangerous wild animals—and the violence they enact—are rendered cutely innocent.

Crooked Cats is an outstanding and original contribution to the growing body of anthropological literature that demonstrates the immense value of ethnographic perspectives on the Anthropocene. It is a must-read for scholars, students, and practitioners of anthropology, the environmental humanities, climate science, and conservation. This beautifully written book will be of tremendous interest to undergraduate and graduate students. The book exemplifies the value of and urgent need for an interdisciplinary approach which translates across disciplines and domains.