Biopolitics of Boundaries

by Shelby Sproull

When our class took a field trip to the Creature Conservancy, we were introduced to a dingo that had come from a zoo in the Upper Peninsula. The presentation noted that the public perception of the dingo is contentious because most people see them as pests and wild dogs, when in fact they were recently reclassified as a type of wolf. This dynamic highlighted how labels can have significant consequences for all types of life, and with further consideration I chose to examine how the drawing of boundaries around human and non-human animals manifest very specific biopolitical approaches. Through research I found that boundaries, both physical and metaphorical, drawn around humans and non-humans allow these populations to be Othered, and therefore morally removed from the ‘home’.

The Dingo

A pertinent example of boundaries affecting biopolitics shown at the Creature Conservancy was when the dingo, due to both genetic and behavioral reasons, was reclassified from a wild dog to a wolf. This seemingly simple change required the Creature Conservancy to alter both the dingoes’ environment and their interactions with the public. Including raising the walls of the enclosure by a couple feet and constructing a barrier during interactions with the public, for safety concerns. While nothing inherent in the dingo changed for this new classification to take place, the label created these new regulations on how the environment has to be built around the dingo and how dingoes can interact with other organisms, such as humans. This example of human-created labels and boundaries shows a greater trend in how larger populations can be affected by this same phenomenon.

On the continent of Australia, dingoes aren’t classified as native species. Instead, they’re labeled ‘non-native’ or ‘introduced’ to characterize how dingoes were brought to Australia around four thousand years ago. Since we put moral weight on categories such as ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ and because dingoes prey on livestock of local farmers, the dingoes have been labeled as pests. Due to this, both government agencies and local farmers have created means of controlling the dingo population. The most well-known of these methods is the Dingo Fence, a fence that runs almost 3,500 miles across the continent of Australia keeping the dingoes on one side and the livestock on the other. It’s important to understand the scale of this fence, large enough to be seen from space and costing around one million Australian dollars annually to maintain, when recognizing that the labels ‘pest’ and ‘livestock killer’ had such material consequences as to cause the government to construct such a costly physical boundary between the pest and the home. This border of the Dingo Fence is also heavily policed to the extent that whenever a dingo is found on the wrong side of the fence it will immediately be killed. Contrary to these boundaries that have been created around the dingoes, however, new ecological research shows that dingoes, while maybe not native, are actually greatly beneficial to the biodiversity and endangered species within the Australian landscape (Levy 2006). Since dingoes are the last large predator in Australia, they play a very important role in controlling the population balances within the ecosystem and are predators to the destructive species such as cats and foxes they have been introduced into Australia through colonization (Levy 2006). With this evidence, dingoes have started to become a protected population, but with the active label of pest their protection becomes complicated: “In modern Australia, dingoes exist in a strange kind of conservation limbo. Depending on who you ask or which law you consult, they may be described as native or introduced, as pestiferous vermin or an integral part of the country’s ecosystem.” (Levy 2006, 468). This is exemplified by the fact that it is still common practice by both locals and government agencies to kill any dingoes they see on their property or near cities (Levy 2006). Even national parks and nature reserves, institutions whose mission it is to protect animals and ecosystems, will set poison traps in buffer zones between the park lands and nearby farmlands (Levy 2006). This dichotomy -when the dingoes are within the park they are valuable animals, but when they stray outside of these imagined borders they become an actively harmful pest-is reminiscent of a situation explained by Herzog who wrote about lab mice:

The vast majority of these mice were good mice … There was, however, another category of mice that inhabited the building, the bad mice. The bad mice were pests… The little outlaws had to be eliminated … This paradox was magnified when I discovered where the pest mice came from … Thus virtually all the bad mice were good mice that had escaped. The animal colony manager once told me, ‘Once an animal hits the floor, it is a pest.’ And poof– its moral status evaporates.”

(Herzog 1989, 220-221)

This goes to show that the politics of who’s allowed to live, who’s allowed to die, where they’re allowed to exist, and what their moral status is, can be completely dependent on the boundaries that we draw around them.

As I illustrated with the dingoes, being labeled as a pest can have great effects on how creatures are allowed to live their life and this phenomenon extends to humans as well, especially historically mistreated populations and in the creation of biopolitics we have today. Anderson explained well as to why these labels are so harmful “[Metaphors] are a crucial element in the structuring of our conceptual systems, providing cognitive frames that make issues understandable” (Anderson 2017, 15) so while Anderson investigated how these labels affect the public opinion and policy of immigration, I will first be looking at how these boundaries are affecting the aboriginals of Australia. Since the beginning of the colonization of Australia, the indigenous people have always been seen as inferior and a subhuman population that must be dealt with to create spaces for the civilized society by the British. These aboriginals were killed en masse if they didn’t comply with the British rule of the land and in 1830’s when the dingoes were being killed in large numbers for being pest to the British settlers, so too were the indigenous communities (Levy 2006). Rose, when looking into the connection between dingo and aboriginal communities found stories that were representative of times when white settlers would come into the communities lands and shoot as many of their dingoes as they could to illustrate the similarities that these two populations share in the face of extinction. In one of the stories a white police man showed up in the community and started open firing on their dogs as everyone panicked while trying to get their dingoes to safety (Rose 2012). The story made sure to point out the lack of care that was taken when making sure that none of the aboriginals were hit by the bullets. That point was then later hammered home when one of the women mentioned that these killings of the dingoes reminded her of the days when the white settlers would come on to their lands just to kill them (Rose 2012). These stories exemplify that when people are placed within the boundaries of pest, then they are allowed to be treated as such especially once the white settlers considered Australia to be their ‘homeland’ as Anderson said “When they are in the home, insects must be dealt with” (Anderson 2017, 18).

The Biopolitics of Captivity

Boissoron wrote an article about the connectedness of the oppression of black communities and animals and how black people have been racialized through animals. Much of their argument resonates with and can be used to show the biopolitical methods in which these boundaries are policed. Boisseron wrote of New York in the 90’s when the ‘tough on crime regime’ and Clinton’s “One Strike You’re Out” were beginning to be implemented, which disproportionately affected and incarcerated people from black communities. Boisseron brings up a quote from Michael B. Jordan: “Black males, we are America’s pitbull … We’re labeled vicious, inhumane and left to die on the street.” (Boisseron 2018, 18). He touches on the connection between black people and animals, the boundaries that these two creatures are put into, and the biopolitical affects those boundaries have. At the same time that this was happening, pitbulls were also facing legislation that was prohibiting them from living in public housing and even banning them from certain districts within the city (Boisseron 2018). These laws led many dogs to be put into pounds and even having many of them killed (Boisseron 2018). This practice has a lot of similarities to redlining, where major monetary institutions such as banks won’t give out loans and credit to people or businesses from low-income areas where the investment would be deemed ‘risky’. Since these low-income neighborhoods have a high portion of racial minorities, this discriminatory practice ends up affecting mostly racial minorities who now don’t have access to housing in better districts which could offer benefits such as better education and access to food. The black communities and pitbulls shared a lot of the same policing methods such as imprisonment, which led to stripping of rights, and the control of where these populations could and couldn’t live all because they were labeled as ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous’.

I want to connect these ideas of enclosure in a specific space as a form of violence in relation to reservation lands of indigenous peoples. A biopolitical parallel can be drawn between the treatment and placement of indigenous peoples in reservations by settlers and the treatment of animals in captivity. Work by Parrenas looks at orangutans in a conservatory and how different behaviors are changed in this non-natural environment. Parrenas was studying how in the limited space of the conservancy the female orangutans were subjected to much more sexual violence than they would be in the wild due to the fact the enclosed space didn’t allow them the solitude typical of them in their natural environment. It was noted that this increased sexual violence experienced by the female orangutans was due to conscious choices by human staff to not implement ‘female choice’ enclosures in which female orangutans would be able to escape from the males if they chose or not sterilizing the some of the males to lessen the burden of the female orangutans (Parrenas 2018). Parrenas did make a point to mention that, while maybe not as much as their female counterparts, the male orangutans were also struggling and suffering with this imperfect recreation of their habitat and that maybe the blame lie more with the human workers who used these animals for their own personal plans of conservation (Parrenas 2018). In the case of reservations these land parcels are greatly reduced from the size that their ancestors were able to sustain themselves off of and on these reservations these people have less access to outside food, medical care, fully-funded schooling, public transport and are more likely to be exposed to poverty, sexual assault, and addiction. These government made land plots often don’t truly respect the environment in which they’re trying to recreate. A quote that I find fitting for this comparison is “The ecosystem is dead” (Parrenas 2018, 91) which was said by one of the conservation workers who noticed the ways in which the female orangutans suffered and I also see it applying to reservation life and all the difficulties that come with it.

I will specifically explore the biopolitics and boundaries created at reservations by looking at the Oka crisis. The Oka crisis was a land dispute between the Mohawk tribe and the city of Oka in Canada in 1990 where the courts ruled that a sacred burial ground of the Mohawk tribe was actually owned by the city and could be sold, resulting in the Mohawk tribe trying to defend their land. During this protest, the police created a barricade which restricted the flow of food, medical, supplies and even human rights officials from entering the reservation due to safety concerns. The boundaries that were deeply policed in this instance and the Othering that took place to justify the biopolitical response is a great example as to how these boundaries allow certain populations to be removed from the ‘homeland’. A quote from Dhamoon and Abu-Laban’s paper on this case sums up the process very well:

In this form of foreignness, Indigenous peoples and nations were denied (and continue to be denied) self-determination of their own territory by both the British and the French. During the Oka crisis, this denial functioned through discourses of foreignness in ways that mutually reinforced the racist idea that a racially marked savage subject posed a danger to “our” security, and the myth of a benevolent Canadian nation (whose territory is defined by the standards set by settlers). More specifically, processes of racialized Othering constructed the Indigenous subject as an outlaw who posed an internal danger to Canadian law and order, even though it was the land and security of Indigenous people and nationhood that was under threat.”

(Dhamoon and Abu-Laban 2009, 176)


In this essay, I’ve explored the ways that creating boundaries around all types of populations, such as who is a pest and who isn’t, who is outside of the nation-state and who isn’t, and who isn’t part of civilized society and who isn’t has given us the biopolitics, specifically in reference to the ‘home’, that we have today. These biopolitics have caused an innumerable amount of harm to the communities that we’ve Othered in the process of creating these boundaries; so the question becomes: How can we change our boundaries? Can we as a global community, or even a nation decide to remove all boundaries so that these populations are no longer affected? These are big questions that would have wide ranging consequences into every part of our lives. Would we get rid of country borders? Which would then remove ideas of citizenship, foreignness, and perhaps ideas of native versus non-native. This would also change how we manage resources such as water, gas, and food; it would change our entire trade system and possibly the weapons and biotech programs of all territories. Would we remove the borders around our domestic spaces? This would allow us to accept more organisms within our living spaces without feeling the need to remove them. It would remove notions about private property and could open up new ways to organize communities.

In short, to remove all the boundaries that we as a species have constructed would be to completely reshape and reimagine the world that we live in. And while I believe this to be an interesting thought experiment and one that could lead to many innovative ideas as to how we can reconstruct our world for the better, the herculean material task of completely redesigning the world is one that I find not only logistically impossible, but a bit unnecessary. We as people require and use boundaries to make our complex lives and global systems more easy to understand and manage, so this idea of getting rid of all boundaries seems as though that might not be the correct solution. Instead, I propose the question should be: What mindset shift can we implement that will allow us to make better and more collectively beneficial boundaries? For this I pull ideas and concepts from Deborah Bird Rose’ book Wild Dog Dreaming where she talks about the aboriginals concept of how they care for the world around them “Interests are mutuals, and while they are not indistinguishable, they are situated in the larger dance of life which involve life and death, self and other, us and them.” (Rose 2012, 27). We should be taking this connectivity into more of our boundary making, but also Rose’s concept of turning toward instead of turning away. Rose claims that in many Western cultures our first instinct when faced with something like death is to turn away and not give it any more attention than absolutely necessary, whereas in the aboriginal communities that she studied, she noticed a turning toward these topics even when the death was caused by the person witnessing it (Rose 2012). I think this idea of turning toward and always giving attention to the boundaries that we make, and especially the consequences and harm that come from these boundaries would be beneficial because if we constantly give attention to the harm we cause, then eventually we can find ways to eliminate or at least minimize the harm.