Alfred Wallace’s Baby Orangutan: A Game, a Pet, a Specimen

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Abstract Summary
British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace was a freelance collector. During his expedition to the Malay Archipelago he had collected 125,000 specimens, mostly insects and birds, thousands of them previously unfamiliar to European naturalists. Wallace dried, labeled, preserved and packed the specimens and periodically shipped them to his London agent for sale. In the morning of 16 May 1855 Wallace picked up a young orangutan from a swamp in the island of Borneo, Southeast Asia. He carried the little creature home, and for a while lived with the orangutan in his “bachelor establishment.” The relations Wallace had cultivated with the young orangutan are peculiar in the context of hunting tradition. Read on the backdrop of imperial hunting, the encounter between the naturalist and the orangutan is an anomalous, a momentary breach of the hunters’ agenda. However, when re-contextualized in the history of animal experimentation, Wallace’s treatment of the orangutan joined other incidences in which scientists observed their pet animals, occasionally even subjected them to experiments. Drawing from historian of science Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1990), I’ll argue that the encounter between Wallace and the baby orangutan is of special analytical value as it is situated at the juncture of hunting narratives, per ownership, colonial bioprospecting and laboratory culture. The entrance of the baby orangutan into Wallace’s home provides an early example for the future complex attitudes towards primates in research, intertwining ideas about family life, care, use and abuse.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Organized Session
Abstract Topic
Chronological Classification :
19th century
Self-Designated Keywords :
natural history, bioprospecting, Alfred Russell Wallace, experimentation, pet keeping