Nadia Sanger
Nadia Sanger

Ungrievable life

Aragorn was almost five years old. A few days ago, on a dark-ish evening, he was crossing the street to get to his home in Plumstead, a residential area in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. Based on the way he was found lying in an awkward position, in the street, it seems he was killed by a speeding car. The other option is that he was intentionally hurt by a brick or similar object by hateful people. This is an option that is too horrific to bear at this point.

Aragorn is/was (depending on your belief system) a cat. He was the calmest, most unafraid cat I’ve ever known. My sister was his guardian. She loved him as one loves someone you choose to live with and share your space with. She loved him more because she knows — like some of us do — that we have to work hard to protect non-human animals in a world where their lives are constructed as less grievable/ungrievable and un-mournable. How we grieve the loss of someone we love cannot logically be measured by how human they are: it has to be measured by the relationship you share, the language you cultivate as you get to know one another, and those moments when it’s only the two of you together, and you both feel safe.

Grievability and mournability as practice (and feminist Judith Butler writes about this a lot more succinctly than I can) allows for a space where we can openly be understood for the sadness we feel based on the loss of someone we love. There is a comprehension of this loss; a community that understands this loss in some way or another. When there is no such place to mourn an animal Other, we have to hide and not speak our pain as we grieve for the life we lost, and the life that was possible prior to the loss — the life we imagined, for ourselves, and for the person we were forced to say goodbye to. Speaking this loss in public spaces is often met with incredulity — “Seriously, you’re crying about a cat?” Children teach us so much about being reasonable people when they express confusion, and sometimes, horror, at the knowledge that the bird they grew close to looks like the bird their parents are cooking in the oven. Parents need to listen to this confusion.

Non-human animals’ lives are less grievable/ungrievable because people are socialised into believing that their value is solely instrumental — as food, for scientific experimentation, and entertainment, for example. For those of us who know that our relationships with other animals are about love, care, and respect, who mourn when we see horses serve as transport for humans; for horses forced to race for money; for dead cats in the street driven over and over again by motor vehicle drivers who don’t flinch as they rush along; for the dead cows, chicken, and sheep sold as “organic” animal flesh in nicely packaged containers in stores, we know what it means to “name” the loss we feel when the cat we love is killed by a speeding car. This is not merely unfortunate — it is unnecessary. How do human beings not “see” anything other than those who look like us? And even then, some lives are “seen” less and are less grievable than others — black people; black lesbians; women as a group; less-abled people, and black women, in particular. Advocacy groups keep fighting for these lives to be mourned and grieved publically. And there’s been some success, even though lots more must be systemically transformed. For the cats and dogs some of us love, there is very little societal political will for their lives to be mourned. They are the unseen; their deaths un-mournable in public space.

This piece is a tribute to Aragorn. It is an attempt to publically grieve the unnecessary loss of his life — to his short almost-five years; his daring attitude towards life; his very thick and fluffy tail, and his Batman-face. My family will mourn his absence. We love you, Aragorn. Sentimental, you may say. But say it, we must.

And then, for those cars speeding down residential roads, remember there are cats and dogs living their lives out there; running across the street to get home. Stick to the god-damn speed limit.

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