A review of Adrian Franklin’s ‘Animal Nation: the True Story of Animals in Australia’

by Natasha Fijn

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In his recent book, Animal Nation, Adrian Franklin assesses human views, values and beliefs about animals in Australia, covering all animal spheres, wild and domestic, native and introduced. He states that the book covers ‘a history of Australia as reflected through its own totemic representations and ecological fantasies’ (p. 23). The subtitle of the book boldly claims that Animal Nation represents ‘the true story of animals and Australia ‘, which is clearly aimed at grabbing the attention of a popular Australian audience. His target audience and the overall style of the book is reminiscent of Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters.

The book begins with an account of the contradictory messages a tourist receives when visiting Kakadu National Park. Parks and Wildlife Service information publicises the introduced buffalo as a pest, while local Aborigines value buffalo meat as an important source of meat. This sparked my interest in the book, as I have found that there are also varying opinions about the management of introduced species in New Zealand, depending upon whether one talks to scientists, environmental groups, animal welfare groups or local Maori. Franklin, however, states that ‘this enigma is uniquely Australian but its bewildering unfolding is not merely a strange story about the fortunes of animals: it goes right to the heart of Australianness itself, what is it to be properly Australian’. In the preceding chapters he goes on to explain how animals hold a totemic status for both Aborigines and settlers in Australia, which in turn has shaped the current attitudes toward animals both wild and within the home.

I am inclined to think that this is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon, as I have witnessed these contradictory attitudes in New Zealand. I lived in Mount Cook National Park for two years and had friends who were local rangers, working for the Department of Conservation (Australia ‘s equivalent of the Parks and Wildlife Service). I was struck by the fact that a large proportion of a rangers job was destroying unwanted ‘pests’ and would joke with them that perhaps the Department of Conservation should be re-named the ‘Department of Eradication’. One issue made national headlines while I was working within Mount Cook National Park, involving the culling within the park of Himalayan thar, a large mountain goat, introduced from Nepal. A powerful environmental group in New Zealand, the Royal Forest & Bird Society, want thar eradicated, as they graze on a locally endemic daisy in Mount Cook. At the other end of the spectrum is the hunting lobby who want the Department of Conservation to restrict their cull, so that the large male thar bucks are preserved as hunting trophies. Paradoxically, the conservation group, Forest & Bird, want to kill off one species to save another, while the hunting lobby want to save individuals so that they can kill others. Meanwhile, the government-run Department of Conservation does not know quite what stance to take, instead opting for the middle ground, undertaking a yearly cull which shoots thar by helicopter. I remained unresolved about my own stance because the thar were destroying valuable habitat, yet I did not feel comfortable with the way they were regarded as a ‘pest’ in New Zealand when their status is threatened in their ‘native’ habitat of Nepal. Franklin bounded his argument in Animal Nation as a search for Australian identity and nationhood, yet worldwide there must be similar contradictory views on how, or whether, animals should be ‘managed’.

Franklin ‘s representation of Aboriginal views about animals prior to European influence is simplified to a description of Durkheim’s argument regarding totemism. Franklin succeeds in making Durkheim’s argument clear and understandable but this section does not link well with other chapters. Early academic accounts of Aboriginal attitude and practice in relation to animals, generally conveyed animals as totemic and symbolic representations of human society, but failed to engage with the actual relationships between Aborigines and other animals in a more embodied sense. Franklin follows along these lines, not treating the animals as agents in themselves. Later in the book, however, Franklin does engage with current Aboriginal ideas regarding introduced animals, explaining how Aborigines accept some introduced animals as part of ‘country’. Franklin ‘s personal account of taking an Aboriginal guided tour and finding that visitors enjoyed participation in the landscape is the most persuasive aspect of the book. ‘The Pussycat Dreaming’ of chapter seven provides a much more engaging argument. He states at the end of this chapter, ‘without in any way altering our concern for native animals, we might fully concede that the ferals are as Australian as we are, that we all, after a while, belong to country ‘ (p. 192).

Although Animal Nation addresses important questions, the book ultimately fell short of my expectations. This is not really a story about animals, as the title claims, but animals in relation to humans. The animals in Animal Nation do not feature as active agents but as symbols of human, specifically Australian, identity. Yet after reading Adrian Franklin’s book, I now feel that I am not alone in thinking that something is askew when one species is systematically exterminated to save another. The ‘management’ of animals all seems a bit too much like humans ‘playing God’, with arbitrary categorisations of wild or domestic, endemic or introduced, native or pest.


Natasha Fijn
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Australian National University

Animal Nation: the True Story of Animals in Australia was published in Sydney by UNSW Press in 2006 (262 pp, ISBN 9780868408903, $39.95)

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