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Wildlife in the City: Challenging the Nature-Culture Binary

Janny Li CAORC AIIS elephant

Janet Armitage (left) and Janny Li (right) on a sunrise elephant ride to Amber Fort in Jaipur.

In this essay, Janny Li, a 2019 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to India, discusses the many and sometimes surprising ways in which animals are integrated into the rhythms of everyday life in India’s megacities.

I live in Los Angeles. I rarely think about wildlife. Once I saw a mange-ridden coyote eating out of a neighbor’s trashcan and thought I saw a Chupacabra—that’s right, my first thought was that I encountered a mythical vampire-like beast rather than a hairless and starving canid.

When I was selected to participate in CAORC-AIIS’ “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities” faculty development seminar, I expected to see waste management projects, cottage industries, and grassroots NGOs grappling with the challenges of a growing population.

Janny Li CAORC AIIS pig

The unofficial garbage collector of Jaipur.

What I did not expect to see were cities so conducive to wildlife—cows, pigs, monkeys, water buffalo, elephants, antelopes, cobras, camels, goats, horses, and mules—just to name a few. I knew about the cows. It is one thing to read about cows in India. It is another thing however, to try to get off a bus with a one-ton bull standing in your way. Close encounters with wildlife in our many walks around Jaipur, Mysuru, and Bengaluru were incompatible with the nature-culture divide that defined my understanding of what counted as “urban” and “rural.” “Why are some dogs wearing vests?” I would ask Sandy Freitag, one of our program leaders, during bus rides. “What do the pigs do?”

Janny Li CAORC AIIS cow

Cows have the right of way in Bangalore.

These animals, as it turns out, do many things. Cows eat food waste that can’t be recycled. Pigs eat what the cows don’t eat. Dogs eat what the pigs don’t eat. Cow dung is collected and sold as fuel in the informal economy. Cows are also objects of worship bringing good luck to folks who greet them by touching their forehead as a sign of respect. Some dogs are stray. Others are pets (as evident by the vests their owners lovingly put on them in cold weather). Water buffalo, horses, and mules act as draught animals transporting supplies alongside car traffic. Elephants and camels transport tourists to palaces and forts. Cobras work alongside their charmers to entertain passersby by swaying drunkenly to the tune of the punji. Temple monkeys eat popcorn and bananas sold by vendors to worshippers. These animals elicit emotions from people ranging from indifference to reverence.

Janny Li CAORC AIIS snake

Snake charmers and their cobras in front of the Hawa Mahal or "Palace of Winds" in Jaipur.

Human-animal relationships in India enriched my understandings of urbanism in profound ways. First, it challenged my notion that cities were devoid of “nature.” Urban ecology, to me, is no longer limited to rats, pigeons, and the many small terriers that roam my neighborhood. Cities can oftentimes be ideal habitats for wildlife because they enjoy a higher survival rate with more readily available food and protection from predators. With two-thirds of the world’s population, according to the UN[1], set to live in cities in the upcoming decades, it seems imperative to develop new understandings of urban ecology that recognize it is humans who are encroaching upon the habitats of wildlife. It is not the wildlife that comes to cities. It is the cities that come to them.[2]

Second, it taught me that animals are agents in the cities that they live in. City dwellers in India provide an example of how humans and animals act as partners helping each other survive in an increasingly globalized environment. New understandings of urbanism would seem incomplete if they fail to pay attention to the many roles that wildlife plays in shaping the form and function of cities.

[1] United Nations. 2014. World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas.

[2] Patrick Barkham. 2017. Urban beasts: how wild animals have moved into cities. The Guardian.


CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to India was organized with the American Institute of Indian Studies and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in South Asian Studies: Columbia University, Cornell University, Syracuse University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, Austin, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Author

Janny Li Taj Mahal

Janny Li is Associate Professor of Anthropology at East Los Angeles College in California.

She was among the 16 faculty participants in the seminar “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in India from January 2–18, 2019.

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