Mobilities and the Multinatural

A Test Case in India

in Transfers


This article examines whether the mobilities paradigm could be more sensitive to recent debates about the more-than-human (animals, plants, and insects) and indeed the inhuman (geological, planetary, and biophysical). Many possible examples spring to mind: the forced movement of people due to “natural” catastrophes, the annual migrations of birds across vast distances, the accidental and intentional spread of invasive weeds. “Multinatural mobilities” are at present both inside and outside of the paradigm’s core themes. Can mobilities go beyond transportation, migration, urban development, the hypermobility of the few, and the comparative immobility of the world’s majority of people to encompass everything that moves? Or does this risk diluting the novelty of the paradigm? By presenting a test case of a potential research theme on wild animals in India’s urban spaces, this article argues that by thinking multinaturally progress can be reached in applying the rich mobilities framework to problems in mobility systems.

A flock of Canada geese causes a crash because the geese encounter a jet’s turbines.1 Japanese Knotweed makes its destructive way through the housing stock of Surrey, England.2 Kangaroos pose a real threat to Australian motorists.3 Perhaps most bizarrely, Emirates Airlines accept “some falcons” for transit via Dubai as cabin baggage.4 All these examples drawn from the media would constitute just pit stops in conventional accounts in the mobilities literature and its overt preoccupation with technological, infrastructural, and the human-made world. But could they instead be the centerpieces of mobilities research?

A deeper question here is: Beyond incidental and circumstantial encounters with humans as they move, how can mobilities scholars fruitfully engage with the more-than-human or “multinatural” way of thinking about the world?5 Attention to the “multinatural” in the same manner as the “multicultural” could feasibly have the same impact on mobilities as the concept of “multiculturalism” did on sociology. The mobilities optic that places center-stage transport technologies or migration systems—whether moving by road, rail, air, or sea—at the same time ignores the rest of nature: the “more-than-human” world.6

Most simply, the research focus in multinatural mobilities turns from humans to animals. “Animal mobilities” is a recognized emerging theme: “animals (dead or alive) also move.”7 Beyond moving, animals also engage with and are indeed a part of mobility systems. In this article a test case is presented that considers how animals interact with infrastructure and society in India. What is required in studies of this sort is a different perspective on the world, not only by mobilities scholars but also by those systems and agents they try to talk to and with: transport and urban planners, passengers and commuters, policymakers and engineers, and designers. The mobilities paradigm, in recognizing that there is more in play than just humans, technologies, and societies, is in a prime position to off er counsel on a multinatural perspective through its research choices.

Mobile Life in the North and South

Animals and other more-than-human subjects move in very different ways from humans: insects, pollen, and bacteria move faster than people; trees move at a much “slower” biological time; and even those things that appear inert except over swaths of geological time have their own sense of movement: rocks, metals, and fossils. Furthermore, animals and insects have “globalizations” of their own that overlap with humans to varying degrees.8

Yet in mobility systems of the Global North mobile life beyond humans is constrained and interrupted. The lack of free movement in proximity to humans in the spaces they frequent the most (cities), means that other life is normally understood as a resource to be used—whaling 9—or as a disruption—roadkill.10 A multinatural perspective informs us that animals do integrate with human mobility systems in some cases. Much mobility has path dependencies on animals—whether it is as food (milk, beef, chicken, eggs) or clothing (leather for shoes, jackets, and watches) or as various infrastructural products (glues and car seats). Extending this optic to include ancient life and its role in energy systems (coal, oil, gas) pushes this example very far back in time.

In the major megacities of the Global North,11 animals are not a part of mobility systems beyond those that fly (pigeons) or come out at night and go unseen (foxes) or both (bats). Wilderness and rewilding in the urban commons has become a concern for those thinkers who problematize “nature” as always incompatible with cosmopolitan modernity.12 In some instances in the Global South, however, there are numerous examples of urban mobility systems that must live alongside animals and tolerate their different tempos of mobility.

A Test Case in India

So what might multinatural mobilities research look like in a research optic? In India, public space is shared with wild and semidomestic animals that have their own mobilities, and mobility systems adjust accordingly. The unplanned autonomy of mobile life in India is recognized in urban planning, which must adhere to cultural, political, and spiritual beliefs alongside the neoliberal demands for commuter efficiency and business development. Wild things commingle with motorized traffic and pedestrians in complicated ways with many nuances.

The mobilities paradigm is fine-tuned to recognize that the systems that aff ord movement through the world are made up of many different elements including technologies, infrastructures, energies, cultures, social practices, and norms. While transport and urban policymaking and planning take into account some of these inputs, generally animals and the “rest” of nature are seen as external to mobility systems: inconveniences, disruptions, or simply irrelevances.

The interactions of humans and animals in India’s public spaces are often seen as evidence of infrastructure shortfalls and inefficiencies overseas. However, such a perspective belies the important interactions that go on in the context of spirituality and culture. Sacred cows (Figure 1) feeding on refuse and rubbish are a common traffic hazard posing the threat of collisions and disruptions. In India, cows are perceived as being a part of the automobility complex, rather than exterior to it: they are fully accommodated by drivers who must work to the cows’ perception of time and not their own.13 In cases where collisions or accidents do occur, bystanders more often than not support the cows rather than the motorists and the animals are aff orded legislative protection through antislaughter laws.14

Similarly, in public sacred sites such as temples, monkeys are tolerated, with care, due to their affiliation with the god Hanuman. Monkeys’ “right to the city” is on a par with tourists, worshippers and passersby’s right,15 and the apostrophe for ownership in this sign seems intentional (Figure 2). Even when monkeys come directly into contact with government bureaucracy, they are for the most part tolerated. India’s government buildings in New Delhi are often invaded at night by holy rhesus macaques and the government has enlisted another type of monkey, langur monkeys to fix the problem. The langurs

Figure 1
Figure 1

Sacred cows block the road near Lonavala (image copyright Thomas Birtchnell)

Citation: Transfers 6, 2; 10.3167/TRANS.2016.060209

Figure 2
Figure 2

Monkeys on a Mumbai temple site (image copyright Thomas Birtchnell)

Citation: Transfers 6, 2; 10.3167/TRANS.2016.060209

and their owners, langur wallahs—who carry them on bicycles—deter the macaques. Otherwise the monkeys raid food cupboards, shred paper files, and even bite bureaucrats: in one case, a deputy mayor even fell to his death after an attack.16

The tolerance of animals’ right to mobility in the city also has consequences for the risk society in India and this is particularly obvious in regard to stray dogs (Figure 3). These dogs are culturally neither companion animals nor pests in Indian society, despite concerns about rabies, they have a different life in India compared to countries where dog mobility is strictly governed.17 Dogs in India are free ranging and coresident, but also victims of accidents and abuse, governed by their own biopolitics and territories.18

In the cities of the Global North, free-to-range wild or semidomesticated animals are met with mistrust, fear, and disgust, or are the focus of exploitation or cruelty. As the images above show, in India multinatural mobilities are very different and require a unique research optic. The deeply held beliefs in India about animals and their spiritual relationship with humans means that government policies are often on the side of the animals in disputes and legislative frameworks. People are also aware that their own mobilities around the built landscape require negotiation and confrontation with other mobile lives attuned to different tempos and with often incomprehensible agendas.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Stray dog near school children on a Mumbai street (image copyright Thomas Birtchnell)

Citation: Transfers 6, 2; 10.3167/TRANS.2016.060209


So India’s animal urban residents have their own mobilities and are part of the story of modernity in the Global South alongside automobiles, the emerging middle class, and shopping malls. Animal mobilities will surely be a growth area in future research on the multinatural. Such an optic illuminates that human systems, which include both transportation infrastructures and built landscapes, are far from secure in the face of a restlessly dynamic planet.19

Depending on the timescale, all of nature is mobile and in no way reliably benevolent to humans. For policymakers, politicians, and planners to think that people and society are somehow insulated from, or in control of, “nature” is negligible as animals are a part of societies too. So efforts to control the climate and insulate people from nature that includes animals inside airplanes, cars, trains, airports, stations, tunnels, and other infrastructures is in the long run futile and can never be reliable in the face of a restless, dynamic nature.

Multinatural mobilities go beyond the often too narrow research blinkers that make research subjects of the migrant, the passenger, the commuter, and the globally mobile. Research projects that highlight the multinatural and its interweaving with the infrastructural and social are flagged as promising efforts toward such progress. Opening up mobilities to animals and the more-than-human raises problems too. What kinds of methodologies are available to mobilities scholars who cannot rely on interviewing or ethnography when their subjects are not human? What kinds of ethical frameworks are needed when there could be issues around safety and hygiene? How can the all-too-human notions of society and culture adapt to encompass those generally assumed to have no, or a very limited, place in the built environment? These challenges might encourage some to leave them to the natural sciences: biologists, entomologists, and zoologists.

This article suggests that by opening up mobilities further, the paradigm will arm itself to be able to critique the neglect of multinaturalism in urban planning, policymaking, and development; transportation systems; and use (and misuse) of land and sea for human-centric endeavors. However, the onus is on mobilities scholars to engage critically with these pending themes in their research and to get up to speed on the most recent debates on a restlessly mobile, multinatural world.


Lee S. Langston, “Birds and Jet Engines,” Mechanical Engineering Magazine, December 2012: 51, neTurns12BirdsAndJetEnginesDecember2012.pdf (accessed 23 July 2014).


Heather Driscoll-Woodford, “Can Surrey Gardeners Be Blamed for Knotweed Invasion?” BBC News, (accessed 23 July 2014).


Agence France-Presse, “Kangaroos Are Menace to Aussie Drivers,” Cosmos 26 August 2009, (accessed 23 July 2014).


Jamie Lorimer, “Multinatural Geographies for the Anthropocene,” Progress in Human Geography 36, no. 5 (28 February 2012): 593–612, doi:10.1177/0309132511435352.


Sarah J. Whatmore, “Political Ecology in a More-Than-Human World: Rethinking ‘Natural’ Hazards,” in Anthropology and Nature, ed. Kirsten Hastrup (London: Routledge, 2013), 79–95.


Tim Cresswell, “Mobilities III: Moving On,” Progress in Human Geography (April 2014), 4, doi:10.1177/0309132514530316.


Nigel Clark, “Mobile Life: Biosecurity Practices and Insect Globalization,” Science as Culture 22, no. 1 (March 2013): 16–37, doi:10.1080/09505431.2013.776366.


Anders Blok, “Mapping the Super-Whale: Towards a Mobile Ethnography of Situated Globalities,” Mobilities 5, no. 4 (November 2010): 507–528, doi:10.1080/17450101.2010.510335.


Claudia Bell, “Colliding Human–Animal Trajectories (Road Kill!) on a Tasmanian Journey,” Critical Arts 26, no. 3 (July 2012): 272–289, doi:10.1080/02560046.2012.705457.


Gebhard Wulfhorst, Jeff Kenworthy, Sven Kesselring, and Martin Lanzendorf, “Perspectives on Mobility Cultures in Megacities: How Cities Move on in a Diverse World,” in Megacity Mobility Culture, ed. Institute for Mobility Research (IFMO) (Berlin: Springer, 2013), 243–258.


S. Hinchliff e, M. B. Kearnes, M. Degen, and S. Whatmore, “Urban Wild Things: A Cosmopolitical Experiment,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23, no. 5 (2005): 643–658.


Tim Edensor, “Automobility and National Identity: Representation, Geography and Driving Practice,” Theory, Culture and Society 21, nos. 4–5 (2004): 101–120, doi:10.1177/0263276404046063.


Marvin Harris, “The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle,” Current Anthropology 33, no. 1 (1992): 261–276, doi:10.2307/2743946.


David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27, no. 4 (2003): 939–941, doi:10.1111/j.0309–1317.2003.00492.x.


Ben Arnoldy, “Monkeys Protect Indian Government Officials,” Christian Science Monitor 18 May 2011, (accessed 23 July 2014).


Adrian Franklin, “‘Be[a]Ware of the Dog’: A Post-Humanist Approach to Housing,” Housing, Theory and Society 23, no. 3 (September 2006): 137–156, doi:10.1080/14036090600813760.


Krithika Srinivasan, “The Biopolitics of Animal Being and Welfare: Dog Control and Care in the UK and India,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38, no. 1 (2013): 106–119, doi:10.1111/j.1475–5661.2012.00501.x.


Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (London: Sage, 2010).

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Contributor Notes

Thomas Birtchnell is a senior lecturer at the Australian Centre for Cultural and Environmental Research at the University of Wollongong. His research interests lie at the interface between sustainable development and grassroots innovation. His most recent work has been on technological innovations such as 3D printing and the mobilities of talent and knowledge to and from the Global South—in particular, India. See


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies

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    Sacred cows block the road near Lonavala (image copyright Thomas Birtchnell)

  • View in gallery

    Monkeys on a Mumbai temple site (image copyright Thomas Birtchnell)

  • View in gallery

    Stray dog near school children on a Mumbai street (image copyright Thomas Birtchnell)