Wild palm civet. Image by Adobe Stock Image
Jes Hooper, Anthrozoology PhD candidate, University of Exeter
February 2020; Lewes, UK.
It’s a bright beautiful morning as I stand outside a local coffee roaster off the cobbled high street in the Sussex town of Lewes. It’s my first visit to this café which has been suggested to me by a friend who only recently moved back to the area from travelling abroad. Quite unassuming from the outside, I peer through the window where I immediately see a hustle and bustle of activity. Groups of friends, solo visitors, and couples occupy each table, and multiple floor spaces and laps are taken by four legged friends. As I step through the threshold, I find my senses are awash with smells and sounds of my new surroundings. My hearing adjusts, there is comfort in the blend of background noises, the mechanical grinding of beans, the steaming of milk and the chatter of conversation. I inhale deeply as the scent of coffee envelopes my nostrils. It’s like entering another world. A world which is oddly familiar for a first encounter. Indeed, it is this sense of familiarity offered by coffee shops all over the globe which anthropologist Catherine Tucker (2017: 8) argues makes coffee shops universal in their cultural significance, as places where people go to feel connected whether they are in company or alone. With choices from South America, Africa, and Asia, I settle for a “Latino blend” that combines predominantly Peruvian beans with a selection from Africa. The result is a fruity and smooth taste, certified by the rainforest alliance and prepared as a flat white made with oat milk. Pleased with my selection, I find my friend sitting at the back of the shop where he is darning a hole in a woollen jumper. He tells me he has purposefully selected a deep blue wool for a light grey knit, to demonstrate that an item’s journey is just as beautiful as the product itself.
Darned jumper. Image by Jes Hooper
Whilst I sit listening to the stories that he and his favourite jumper made on their global travels, I find myself becoming mesmerized by the grey knit intertwining with the blue. Suddenly, where just moments ago there was absence itself, now there is a bolder, stronger relationship. I think about what Haraway (2008: 219) dubs as the multi-species contact zone, the space in which two interactants meet and where new forms of communication and possibilities arise from their moment of encounter. Where each blue thread crosses over and meets with the grey, new possibilities are formed, new products are shaped. Just as this coffee shop is a contact zone of human, animal and plant encounters, so too are our bodies as we consume traces of the coffee bean’s journey (Tucker 2017: 32). From the nutrients in the soil which helped it grow, to the Sussex water which now releases it’s taste, our bodies imbibe a flavour which is as unique to it’s place of origin as it is to it’s destination. I wonder about the many lives and processes which have interconnected to bring me this delicious cup of coffee. I think about what Marcus (1995: 97) calls the “threads of cultural processes”, the myriad of entanglements that join people, places, and things.
Latino blend flat white with oat milk. Image by Jes Hooper
As the conversation moves on to my newly started PhD project into the trade of live animals, I explain the web of connections involved in my own multi-sited and multi-species research. How today I sit in Lewes, but in only a couple of months I will sit in cafés in Bali, overlooking rice paddies whilst tasting traditional tea and coffee. I think about the people I will meet, the sights I will see. I envision taxi rides and long hikes, stopping to write up my observations, to note down quotes from my informants, my hostel room littered with papers, bus tickets and receipts. I wonder what it will be like to encounter the species I have been researching, the elusive Asian palm civet, the creator, the founder, the producer of the world’s most acclaimed, most expensive coffee; kopi luwak, one of the threads I will follow in my trans-species ethnography of global connections.
February 2021; Lewes, UK.
Twelve months on, and I am standing outside the same coffee shop, the pebbled streets of Lewes underfoot. There is a low hum of muffled chatter, the air is crisp. Looking up at the coffee shop sign I breathe in deeply, but no coffee smell enters my nostrils today, no sound of coffee grinding can be heard. I look through the window where I see crowds of people. Yet this time the crowds are in the reflection, for the room itself is dark and empty. The reflected crowd is also different, their formation is a line. A queue of people, all 2m apart, their conversations muffled beneath expressionless masks. There are people in front and behind me, close but far, in one single file line that stretches up and down the street. One queue, for one purpose, to buy a takeaway coffee, issued by gloved hands through an open window. We are here to purchase one of the remaining threads of normality left that connects us to the wider world during the covid-19 global pandemic. I collect my coffee and return home to my laptop, where I virtually observe my human and animal interlocuters in Asia whilst I remain in a different time zone, a different country.
March 2020 to the Present Day; Nowhere and Everywhere.
Unable to travel, my research into global civet trades had to take a methodological shift in line with the rest of the world. How does one conduct multi-sited research when restricted to one place, in social isolation? As with many other academics, my research went online. Where I once viewed the contact zone as a physical experience, now I see the value in virtual contact zones, as social media platforms offer unique and oftentimes intimate perspectives of the lives of humans and animals involved in globalized trade. Indeed, the internet has been described as offering researchers an accessible data set (Jones 1999) unbounded by the geographic and economic limitations so often synonymous to traditional ethnographic methodologies (O’Connor 2010). Through virtual ethnography I have been able to document the trade of civets for the coffee, pet, tourism, and conservation industries whilst keeping myself and others safe from the virus.
Unable to walk amongst the Balinese coffee plantations in person, I turned to the world’s largest tourist review site, TripAdvisor, to gain insight into tourist perceptions of kopi luwak (coffee made from partially digested coffee beans that have been consumed and excreted by civets) and civet encounters. There, I found civets in cages and drugged as photo props for tourists to pose with. Where I had aimed to visit exotic pet pageants and social gatherings to meet with civet pet owners, I turned to online community forums via Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. There, I found civets changing in response to selective breeding, their body and behaviour becoming domesticated. Where once their ears were pointed and their noses long, their bodies slender and their pelage a mixture of dappled and striped browns, now their ears are soft, their noses snub and pink. Their bodies are now round with rolls of fat, and their fur is white with patches of grey. Where I hoped to work with and observe civets in zoos and sanctuaries, I’ve held online participant interviews with keepers, and I’ve retraced the footsteps of animals entering ex-situ conservation programs by following their zoo records.
Pet civet in human home. Image by Anon, Instagram
Through virtual ethnography I’ve been able to bring in the animal into my research by accessing human-civet encounters which would otherwise be hidden from view. Via webcams and wifi I have entered people’s homes, I’ve sat on their beds and looked into the eyes of their pet civets as they doze on their backs being hand fed and photographed by their owners, their engorged bellies on display, vulnerable yet safe. I have walked around people’s backyards, I’ve counted the number of caged civets, I’ve seen cross breeding, I’ve seen veterinary treatment, and I’ve watched people mourn the loss of their companions. I’ve sat with them whilst they water flowers on their friend’s grave. This is not the world I would have seen had I overlooked the virtual contact zone. The year 2020 was a year of virtual encounter, of global shift in communication away from physical touch and towards expansive metaphysical connection. For this I am grateful, for whilst the virtual realm has opened doors to witnessing intimate human-animal encounter on a scale unlikely to be achieved in person, the virtual divide and ocular-centric medium of virtual witnessing has liberated me from being overwhelmed by my other senses. I have not smelt nor heard animal suffering, I have not walked amongst my study site or touched the environment which I see. Perhaps this limits my understanding of these encounters, or perhaps I would have been overwhelmed by the immersive nature of in person witnessing. I believe the reduction of senses in the virtual contact zone has allowed me to focus, for it must be said that despite the distance from which I witness, my virtual research has also brought about a significant emotional burden of compassion (Hooper 2021). Through my virtual contact zones I have encountered hundreds of animals in conditions far from adequate in their ability to meet individual or species-specific needs. I can but imagine how much more overwhelming my research might have been were I to bear witness in person, were the animal to see me looking back at them. Yet, regardless of the differing levels of accessibility and intimacy held in the virtual contact zone, as a researcher interested in contemporary global relations, it is important that my research reflects the current times within which I and my interlocuters are situated.
Captive bred palm civet, known as mosaic morph. Image by CivetFarmIndonesia, Instagram
Amidst this monumental shift in global and local landscapes it is the coffee bean that keeps me grounded. Although but one thread to my research, the coffee bean offers reflection on the ways in which we have remained rooted to each other through globalized commodity chains. Daily consumables, which were once the norm, are now even more valued for their perceived luxury, a luxury dictated by nothing more than their mere presence in the continuation of daily life and routine. That is why week on week I return to my local coffee shop, and I drink my coffee whilst entering the virtual realm. Whilst we are unable to sit side by side in a coffee shop, to be part of the local hum of busy chatter, we can continue to indulge in the taste of our favourite blend from our favourite coffee shop, to be part of place and part of process. Simultaneously we queue together and at a distance, simultaneously we reminisce and look forward to the future, all the while finding comfort in the familiarity of the cultural processes that have brought us our favourite coffee, those that have brought us together.
Jes Hooper is an Anthrozoology PhD student with the University of Exeter and a member of Exeter’s Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) working group. Jes’ current research focuses on human-animal encounters within the trade in exotic wildlife for the pet, coffee, tourism, and conservation industries. Jes’ PhD project, The Civet Project, follows the stories of Viverridae species entangled within live animal trade, with encounters viewed through a trans-species lens. Jes’s work actively engages with interdisciplinary scholarship including collaborations with visual artists, critical tourism academics, conservationists, zoo keepers and fellow anthrozoologists. Jes lectures part time on two undergraduate programs in Animal Behaviour, Welfare and Conservation at Plumpton College, Sussex, and blogs under the name Shilo & Patch.
Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Haraway, D.J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hooper, J. (2021). The Emotional Burden of Compassion. Shilo & Patch [online]. Available from: https://jesshooper73.wixsite.com/shiloandpatch/post/the-emotional-burden-of-compassion [Date Accessed: 01/04/2021].
Jones, S. ed. (1998). Doing Internet research: Critical issues and methods for examining the Net. Sage Publications.
Marcus, G.E. (1995). Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual review of anthropology, 24(1), pp.95-117.
O’Connor, P. (2010). Managing a hotel’s image on TripAdvisor. Journal of hospitality marketing & management, 19(7), pp.754-772.
Tucker, C.M. (2017). Coffee culture: Local experiences, global connections. Taylor & Francis.