The cross-border mobility of Ukrainian companion animals and European state responses to receiving and accommodating these animals alongside their human companions demands further scrutiny from scholars working at the intersections of refugee and border studies. This is even more important considering the critical and ever-growing interest in what has come to be known as humanitarian borders and humanitarian borderwork. This work acknowledges the risks to life posed by restrictive mobility regimes and hardened borders and examines the humanitarian responses aimed at saving lives and relieving suffering that result, while also being critical of the ways such humanitarian interventions work to (re)produce borders through the expansion of possibilities, spaces, and times interception through the aim of saving lives and relieving suffering.
As someone who has been researching the dynamics of humanitarian borders and more specifically humanitarian borderwork the phenomenon of what Kristin Bergtora Sandvik has recently called ‘pet exceptionalism’ is especially provocative but also challenging in that it demands further thinking from the ‘humanitarian borders’ community.
My intervention here is an initial attempt to respond to this demand. I write this intervention as someone with a research interest in not only humanitarian borderwork, but also the ongoing calls for envisioning and practicing a decolonial humanitarianism, the interrelated role of race and racism in the production of the humanitarian subject, and the challenge of climate change in unsettling the humanitarian subject of care. The intervention consists of several interrogations and explorations of the (re)bordering effects and (re)production of state-based citizenship generated by the reception of companion animals, human-animal binaries, as well as the uncomfortable recognition of where our societies choose to draw the boundaries of life in relation to care giving.
Work on animals in border studies has acknowledged the role they play in both challenging borders through their mobility and the concomitant role they play in reproducing borders. Animals are both stateless and holders of statehood depending on the context: their species designation, the forms of mobility they exercise, and their relationship to humans as ‘wild’ animals, as livestock, or as companion animals (pets). Wild animals and the active facilitation of their mobility in otherwise heavily policed border spaces are often held up as an oppositional avatar to humans whose mobility is tightly controlled and the subject of a range of state interventions. Livestock especially — but not exclusively — are subjected to a range of biosecurity controls designed to protect the food chain and human health. Pets are also subjected to such controls, but through their ‘petable’ relationship to humans have come to have a complex relationship to mobility and border crossing, as the discussion around ‘pet exceptionalism’ makes clear.
The current European ‘pet mobility regime’ provides companion animals with passports, designating their ‘nationality’, their veterinary history of vaccinations — especially anti-rabies vaccinations — and their identity number through a microchip or visible skin tattoo. These pets are therefore made legible to the sovereign gaze of the state. The ‘pet exceptionalism’ afforded Ukrainian companion animals may appear to extend mobility privileges violently denied to many humans to Ukrainian pets. And yes, it does, but we also see dynamics of (re)bordering through how the mobility of companion animals is governed that are similar to what we see in humanitarian borderwork. The use of such passports for cross border movement demonstrates how the state’s need for a valid and translatable animal identity reproduce borders, making clear the roles that borders play in designating and demarcating identities, and governing differential mobility access, while reproducing the state as the sovereign arbiter of ‘citizenship’. Therefore, even as it appears that ‘Ukrainian’ companion animals have privileged mobility status because of their ‘Ukrainianness’, they do not unsettle the fundamentals of the sovereignty-territory-citizenship relationship, even when their mobility and their ‘nationality’ is contingent on their relationship to humans. The nationality of Ukrainian pets is dependent on their relationships to their human ‘owners’.
Therefore, it is worth noting bluntly that the exceptionalism of Ukrainian pets is fostered in the context of European reception of those fleeing the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian pets are exceptional because Ukrainian humans are in a global mobility regime that has produced such differential access to cross-border mobility. Ukrainian humans have visa-free entry to Europe, the realities of which have led to the pragmatic responses of European states aimed at preventing cross-border pet smuggling and attempting to maintain biosecurity. At the same time these relations (re)produce hierarchical binaries of humans and animals, where animals’ subjecthood, life and well-being are conditioned by and through their relationships to humans.
Scholars who work on humanitarianism generally and humanitarian borderwork specifically have spent time discussing the hierarchies of humanity that are created through the saving of lives. These sensitivities play a role in some of the criticisms of Ukrainian pet exceptionalism, where hierarchies of humanity are also at play in the creation and exercise of such exceptionalism. At the same time such a critical lens should also enable us to consider the production of other hierarchies of life, such as those between animals and humans.
This is a difficult discussion to navigate, as scholars of racism have highlighted the ways certain posthumanist moves suggest that all humans are accorded full human subjecthood, invisibilising continued racial hierarchies as a result. Alongside other work on the role of proximity to nature in the historical construction of race, such conversations are fraught with tensions. However, fraught as they may be, they are still conversations worth having. It should be possible for us to be aware of how refugees’ relationships to their ‘pets’ works as a (re)humanising move and to expand our horizons of life in need of care. As the now well-known meme says: ‘why not both?’
Finding a space to recognise the role of race in, and the racialising moves of, the production of hierarchies of humanity and to think beyond anthropocentrism and to hold these in tension is especially important as we are faced with calls for decolonisation and the challenges of climate change. For instance, human/nature binaries are evidence of a particular Eurocentric approach to life that is unsettled when confronted with Indigenous relational ontologies that reconfigure Eurocentric thinking around interspecies and planetary ecological relations. Thinking of the human-nature relationship differently in order to centre planetary life-connections offers an important intervention for how we can think about vulnerability and care giving going forward.