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1/2 idea No. 30: Airports as differential animal filters

By Jon Agar, on 11 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

Think of this one as Animal Studies meets History of Technology.

Specifically, think how our technological infrastructures are experienced differently by humans and other animals.

Take an airport. It is an extraordinarily carefully designed infrastructure that sorts, stops and moves humans. To a rat an airport is a place for food, shelter or accident. In the 1970s how a rat could move around an airport depended on what species it was. The National Archives file MH 148/888 contains instructions and debate about what to with rats found on aircraft and airports. Generally they were killed, if found, and incinerated. But if a rat was suspected to be a Ghana or Gambian Multimammate Rat (Mastomys natalensis) then it would be differentially sorted, packaged up and sent to Porton Down for analysis. The reason was concern about Lassa fever. 

The authorities even produced this pictorial guide to distinguishing species or rat and mouse, although I’m not convinced it would have helped.

Other big technological infrastructures have also been designed with animal movements in mind. The Channel Tunnel for example has fences not just for humans but also for stray dogs and foxes. The concern in this case was rabies, which had, and has, a distinctive cultural history of fear in Britain.

So the thought is: what would history of technological infrastructures look like from an animal studies perspective?

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