A few months ago I submitted an application to be part of a fascinating research endeavour at The University of Sheffield, the Beastly Business project. The team were looking for someone to conduct an in-depth analysis of the dynamics of trafficking in European eels, paying particular attention to the role played by legitimate businesses (i.e. not otherwise criminal) in the illegal wildlife trade. I am a green criminologist with a special interest in the exploration of harms produced by powerful actors—I am, for example, drawn to the subject of corporate crime—which is why I thought my profile fit the call, but I had never studied wildlife-related issues so I was sceptical about my chances. A few days later I was very pleasantly surprised by an invitation to interview. The idea of embarking on this project was thrilling, not least because of the novelty of the topic: up until then my only experience with eels was watching them connive with the sea-witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid.
I officially started my post on the 1st of July and, as you may have guessed, my first order of business has been to expand my knowledge of the species beyond Disney films (which, by the way, would not have taken me very far because Ursula’s moray eels are not the type of eel I will be studying in this project. All that Disney knowledge, squandered). To say that I have warmed up to these animals in these past weeks would be an understatement. It only took a few days for this amazing creature to find a place in my heart. This was somewhat surprising because, let’s be real, when it comes to which animals humans find lovable, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others (with apologies to George Orwell). Eels are no match for, say, the panda in our social imaginary. Pandas are cute and silly and endearingly clumsy with their endless tumbling about. Who hasn’t enjoyed videos of baby pandas rolling around on the ground like black-and-white balls of furry delight? Eels, on the other hand, are twisty and slimy. Interesting eel traits, such as the ability to swim backwards, are not particularly entertaining to watch and you’d be hard pressed to find people who replay a video of eels backing up over and over again, forwarding it to all of their friends and family in an attempt to brighten their day. The species, it is believed, lacks a trait that is key to rally conservation efforts—what conservationists call ‘charisma’.
The Beastly Business project examines the illegal trade in three species with three different degrees of charisma: songbirds, bears and eels. Surprisingly, I found that the prospect of studying the highly uncharismatic eel was very appealing to me. Not because I disagreed with the ‘uncharismatic’ verdict (I did not feel strongly either way about eels at the time), but because I thought it would be interesting to explore why we had arrived at this verdict, and the kind of repercussions that this perception of charisma has on eel conservation efforts. Why is it that we empathise with some types of living beings more than with others? I probably owe my fascination with this type of questions to my critical criminological background, which has often led me to explore ideas such as the ‘ideal victim’ and the ‘archetypal perpetrator’, as well as what informs such conceptualisations. And so I am curious to find out what why is it that we dedicate less financial, legal and emotional effort to the conservation of species that are not perceived as charismatic, such as the eel.
On a related matter, what are eels? That is, how do we as humans categorise and make sense of these animals? Are they food? A scientific mystery? A profitable commodity? Our understanding of the essence of eels, I suspect, mediates our relationship with them. I wonder to what extent we could learn to relate to the eel in a different, more sustainable way if we were able to adopt a more compassionate and rounded understanding of their essence.
PS: I have become very aware of the prevalence of puns in the eel community, or, should I say, the, ahem, communitEEL, but have not yet decided how I feel about it. Is it endearing or exhausting? I can’t decide. So, in the interest of helping me reach a decision, I am going to collect and rank all the eel puns I come across for the duration of this study. I doubt that the project funders will be interested in this kind of research output but, hey, I’ll just do it for kicks.