As a multispecies scholar and environmental anthropologist following Phelsuma day geckos around Germany and the Indian Ocean, my quest is to understand how these small lizards tie into large webs of human-nature relationship, globalization, technological progress, and ecological crisis. Besides the scientists that I interviewed in German labs, Mauritian universities, and island nature reserves, the geckos themselves are protagonists of my ethnographic multispecies field research.1 But geckos are shy research partners. A single careless movement of my hand, maybe to keep strands of hair from falling into my face, easily sends geckos jumping away in panic. One has to learn how to approach them.

Protocols are central for politely encountering gecko others, and quite possibly all kinds of others, particularly those that are small and vulnerable. Protocols are discussed here in two ways: as an object of ethnographic research interest, and as a research practice or ethnographic tool.

The term protocol is mentioned by Haraway in the context of interspecies politeness.2 Protocols of encounter are rhythms of practice that develop in repeated embodied encounters.3 They create reliability and are particularly significant in contexts of power asymmetry, when one party is at considerable risk of injury or death. Protocol thus addresses issues of ethical interspecies interaction, or, in other words, how to behave around other animals.

The notion of difference lies at the root of the need for protocols in interspecies encounters. If we, as researchers and humans, accept that our lives are entangled in many ways with trees, bacteria, fruit, worms, cows, and cats, and if we recognize these others as significant living beings with their own claims and ways, then how do we encounter them? How do we approach this difference, this otherness?

I, for one, have learned to approach geckos slowly. In Manapany-les-Bains, the home of the microendemic Phelsuma inexpectata on La Réunion’s south coast, I shared a small seaside garden apartment with geckos, trees, cats, and crabs. I tuned into the geckos’ rhythms, their fears, their interactions with other species, their vulnerabilities. I learned to keep my arms steady by my side and refrain from rash movements. I learned to slow my breath, keep my head still, and look for small movements with my eyes. There are always more geckos than one thinks hiding between the roots of large pandanus trees.

Politeness in an interspecies context means to be open and attentive toward the needs of another, and to put attentive respect first, no matter how sophisticated or simple a life form.4 The greeting is central: reciprocity can develop in a polite encounter, when a shared sociality is established. No one remains neutral or uninvolved. The scientist—she (me)—is a social being just like the gecko and cannot ignore the presence of her body in a shared space. Where politeness emphasizes this first attention, protocol develops from there. It leads to rhythm and reliability, both temporal and bodily.

During my field research in Manapany-les-Bains, I created a protocol of encounter with one little Phelsuma gecko living on the back of my garden door. Over repeated encounters, I learned to open the gate slowly enough to not scare “Oskar” away. I moved my body in consideration of his presence. With the difference in size between humans and geckos comes a stark difference in power. I could easily squeeze Oskar and kill him. He was right to be wary. But despite this blatant power asymmetry, our meetings grew longer. A rhythm developed: Approach the door, stop. Stand still, move your eyes. Is there a gecko on the gate? If there are geckos, give them space, move slowly. Open the gate slowly. Take a step. Stand still, move your eyes. Are there geckos on the other side of the gate? Give them time to adapt. Pass slowly.

I saw Oskar almost every day, and through his reactions to my body and my bodily adaptations to his reactions, a protocol developed that allowed us to keep being in each other’s presence in our shared garden.

The body is an important tool and site for polite interspecies encounters. This concerns not only encounters in close proximity but also, as Metcalf shows, the physical distance necessary for each other’s safety.5 Bell and colleagues, for example, have described their practice of “engaged witnessing” in multispecies research, where the researcher’s bodily movements are orchestrated with nonhumans moving around in a park.6 Politeness, thus, also means to be attentive to the impact of your body. Protocol takes this practice one step further, focusing on repeated encounters and the establishment of interspecies relationships.

Politeness creates an opening: a potential for mutual learning and response-ability, if one follows an ethical standpoint in meeting animals, as Warkentin demands.7 Feeding on theories of embodiment, Warkentin argues for an “interspecies etiquette,” in which the body is central and ethics always come first. The body is both research tool and object. She argues for an approach that emphasizes “attending with the body as a situated researcher and attending to the bodies of humans and other animals.”8

Over time, through polite attunement and mutual learning in repeated interspecies encounters, a protocol can develop. Behnke’s “practice of peace” in four steps is an example of how bodily consideration, politeness, and interspecies etiquette can shape a meeting between species.9 She describes how she used her body to mediate potential conflict in an encounter between two cats. Her “practice of peace” includes four steps: “letting my weight settle; experientially ‘inhabiting’ the kinesthesia of my gaze; opening my heart; and not-knowing what is going to happen next.”10 Protocols can develop from such situations. They imply the temporal ordering of an intercorporeal situation over repeated encounters between the same individuals of different species.

Protocols can emerge in interspecies encounters, and as both research object and research tool, they can reveal much about interspecies entanglements, values, and power relations. I suggest here that protocol refers to a protocol of practice in interspecies encounters, which is, when taken as an ethical stance, especially important when facing power asymmetries that exacerbate vulnerabilities. A protocol can create reliability in interspecies encounters across difference: It can create openings that allow for a variety of mutual responses. It takes both individual preferences and taxonomic characteristics into account. In a way, a protocol is like a prolonged greeting, established reciprocally in intercorporeal interspecies settings.


This research has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and supported by the inhabitants of Manapany-les-Bains, the NGO Nature Océan Indien, and the IG Phelsuma.



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This is an open access article distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).