The Ur-Box: Multispecies Take-off from Noah’s Ark to Animal Air Cargo

Nils Güttler, Martina Schlünder, Susanne Bauer

Fig. 14.1 Ur-Box (source: Kircher, Arca Noe (1675))

Species of box: aerial arks. Other names: box, chest, coffin, ark, bier, coffer, bottle, bucket, cage, can, car, case, cash box, casket, cell, container, crate, ferry, fund, jar, jug, money-box, motor, pall, sack, safe, small prison, strongbox, till, tin, trunk, urn, vessel, wealth, wheels. Family: shipping boxes. Size and shape: flexible, adaptable to various scales. Habitat: logistics buildings, cargo areas, aircraft. Origin/first observed: religious narratives, myths. Distribution: air cargo industry worldwide. Behaviour: migratory, restless, protective of its content. Migration: with air traffic, along supply chains worldwide. Status: in flux.

Keywords: protecting, saving, surviving, confining, locking up, transporting, moving, shipping, ordering, pairing, sexing, nurturing, caring, safeguarding

The Ur-Box

In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark; They, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort. And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him in. (Genesis 7.13–16)

Like many survival stories, the narrative of the deluge is as much about salvation as it is about the foundation of a new world order. This manifests in some fundamental decisions that Noah has to make about ordering life: What is a kind? How many kinds are there? What is a pair? What is sex? The re-ordering is related to a complex logistical enterprise. One could call it one of the first multispecies take-off scenarios in human history. After shutting the doors, we read, God ‘lifts’ the ark ‘up above the earth’. It would take more than a year before humans and non-humans were on terra firma again. Some accounts of the ark are very outspoken about the practical problems involved; the biblical text even mentions the challenge of ensuring an adequate food supply. Accordingly, the ark was made three hundred cubits in length, fifty cubits in breadth, and one hundred cubits in height – similar to the dimensions of today’s ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2.

Commentators have long discussed the verisimilitude of the biblical story of the ark. Athanasius Kircher, one of the most famous Jesuit scholars of the seventeenth century, dedicated a whole book to proving that the Noah myth matched recent observations in natural history (Kircher 1675). For instance, he pointed to the fact that the ark’s ratio of 6/1 between length and height was still applied in shipbuilding. According to Kircher, it was also possible for Noah to have accommodated all animals known at the time. The Renaissance scholar even published several plans of the ark (Figure 14.2).

Fig. 14.2 Kircher’s ark, floor plan (source: Kircher, Arca Noe (1675))

Kircher’s ark looks like a gigantic box that has been divided into three storeys. Each floor is parcelled out into numerous compartments – rectangular boxes – that house the animal pairs (Browne 1983: 1–31). Humans and birds live together on the top level, and all the other animals are grouped at the bottom. The middle level serves as storage for equipment and supplies (Breidbach and Ghiselin 2006: 994).

In Kircher’s pictures the ark evokes the concept of an Ur-Box, very similar to the Urpflanze that later inspired Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s botanical studies. For Goethe, the Urpflanze was an ideal form or an ideal type that lay behind every individual plant, a dynamic force allowing organisms to come into being. What about thinking of the ark as the Ur-Box of all kinds of boxes? This association still seems to be present in the range of English translations of the Latin arca. It can be translated as box, chest, coffin, ark, bier, coffer, bottle, bucket, cage, can, car, case, cash box, casket, cell, container, crate, ferry, fund, jar, jug, money-box, motor, pall, sack, safe, small prison, strongbox, till, tin, trunk, urn, vessel, wealth, wheels. Looking into the Ur-Box through the lens of Ludwik Fleck’s ([1935] 1979) temporal concept of ‘Ur-Ideen’ (or ‘pre-ideas’ as the English translation has it), provides us with an even more historical understanding of the rhizomatic development of boxes from the ark. Ur-ideas are not designed as metahistorical concepts, but rather cross the temporal fabric of history like ‘deep time’. Their movements are transversal, like heterogeneous geological formations sedimenting over time. As resources and pools for historical concepts, ideas, imaginaries, they allow specific actualisations. In a similar way, for us the ark both contains deep-time dimensions and enacts classification in terms of ideal types.

We are a group of historians and sociologists researching how life and nature are managed at airports. Our case study takes a closer look at Frankfurt airport, Germany’s largest aviation hub. Boxes and containers figure large in this environment. Everything seems to be put into boxes, be it luggage, goods, cargo freight, non-human passengers, and even humans when you take planes as a kind of flying box. When we published our first article on the history of Frankfurt’s animal terminal – the biggest of its kind in Europe – we were surprised to see that the illustrator of the science magazine associated our text with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.1 As our research continued we realised that she was not the only one to draw this connection. Obviously, God and Noah were tackling problems similar to those that modern logistics in the era of global capital are facing now – at least when it comes to questions of survival, salvation, and security. So let us take a closer look at the most recent actualisation of the Ur-Box: what does a modern ark look like in animal air transportation; how should living goods and animal passengers be contained in practice; how can they be kept alive during the journey; what kind of boxes, books, or bibles are needed to bring even fish up into the air?

Up with the Ark

‘As the war brings aeronautics to its all-time high, to-day in terms of proved and practical aeronautics there are no more really isolated people, plants or animals anywhere on earth’. This statement, taken from the article ‘The Great Crops Move’, written by journalist Charles Morrow Wilson and published in Harper’s magazine in 1943, pinpoints a crucial moment in the history of animal transportation by air: the Second World War. Whereas animals had quite rarely been transported by air in pre-war times, Wilson was astonished how busy the sky had become with ‘seed flyers’ only a few years later. American cargo airplanes seemed to be everywhere, not only supporting American troops in Europe and Japan, but also operating for economic purposes in South America and the Pacific. The new planes grew tremendously in size. Apart from all sorts of commercial goods, they carried a huge quantity of other non-human passengers: seeds and microorganisms, plants, and even livestock like ewes and rams, chickens, and insects. The dawning American Empire, as Wilson envisioned it, would be based on multispecies logistics.

The massive expansion of military air cargo during the war caused a late-modern revival of the imaginary of Noah’s ark in the public domain. In 1953, for instance, the official newspapers of Frankfurt airport – the key airbase for American troops in Europe – termed the new cargo planes ‘Noah’s ark of the air’. Just a few years earlier, Frankfurt had served as a base for the Berlin airlift – an instantiation of the Ur-idea of salvation by (flying) arks, but also a crucial test case for Cold War logistics. The presence of a new class of non-human travellers, however, also encompassed civilian passenger aircraft. As it is still the case today, many such planes transported animals in their belly, mostly invisible to the human travellers. The ark has ever since become a widely used icon of animal transportation, and not only airborne transportation. We can find it in the advertisements of shipping agencies, and it also features in many ground facilities of animal transportation.

Border officials at London Heathrow refer to the room where the border control temporarily houses illegal or smuggled animals as ‘Noah’s Ark’ (Morris 2014). JFK Airport, in turn, is currently building a new animal terminal that will be named ‘The Ark’ (ARK Development, LLC, 2012–2016). Frankfurt’s animal terminal, called ‘Animal Lounge’, welcomes the visitor with a huge model of a Boeing 747. Parts of the cover are open, and inside we see several boxes containing horses – each box features the biblically correct number of one pair of each kind in the different modules (Figure 14.3).

Fig. 14.3 Model of a cargo plane in the entrance to Frankfurt Airport’s Animal Lounge (source: photograph by the authors)

During one of our site visits, we had the opportunity to enter a cargo plane that was parked in the area of the former airbase. Climbing into the empty aircraft before the boxes and modules were loaded, we were struck by the wide open space, which seems incredibly vast compared to a common passenger cabin. The space is geared to be compartmentalised through a system of preinstalled hooks and rails. In twenty-first century logistics, the belly of the aircraft – the interior of the ‘ark’ – is a highly managed space. As each cubic centimetre is utilised for storage, it is a space that economises as well as – in the case of animal air cargo – minimises the ecologies of its human and non-human travellers.

The Humanitarian Ark

Autumn in Germany – the time when birds are heading south. On 18 October 1974, about 2000 swallows arrived at Genoa Airport from Frankfurt aboard nonstop Lufthansa flight LH306 (Gogné 1975). The swallows had travelled in cardboard boxes as airplane cargo, and even in the cabin – avian passengers as it were. Members of several nature conservation groups had collected them for the ‘Flight South Campaign’ (‘Aktion Südflug’) (FAZ 1974). Already in 1957, newspapers had reported that exhausted swallows had been rescued and brought to Cairo (FAZ 1957). Yet seventeen years later this had grown into a concerted campaign in Germany as well as in Switzerland and France; newspapers mentioned similar airlifts in which 100,000 birds were flown from Mulhouse to the French Riviera on one day. Volunteers had gathered the swallows, as they considered them too weak for their annual migration. Three major airlines and the German railways assisted the campaign. After placing the swallows in boxes, volunteers handed them in at local train stations. From here they were brought to Frankfurt Airport’s freight terminal and flown south (Figures 14.4a, 14.4b).

Figs. 14.4a, 14.4b Salvation of swallows in ‘Aktion Südflug’ (source: Ruge (1975: 5–8))

The airlift was one of the major species protection attempts in German history. It carried more than a million swallows to Northern Italy and Southern France. Whether the assisted take-off on behalf of nature conservation would help the survival of the swallow populations was controversial among ornithologists. The logistics of these airlifts were relatively low-tech: common household items were easily transformed into animal boxes. A conservation newsletter stated: ‘For matters of transport, cases the size of a shoe box (or slightly bigger) have proved themselves in practice. Newspapers turn out to be the best underlay. Only avoid sawdust as it will suffocate the swallows’ (Ruge 1975). West German environmental movements made the planes into temporary arks to rescue swallows. ‘Helping nature’ through technology resonates with Cold War understandings of development aid and modern logistics. It was a side usage of the still-new technological infrastructure, enacting a kind of surplus to technological progress. Moreover, aircraft helping out delayed avian travellers fitted smoothly into the marketing and charity campaigns of the airlines.

The widespread invocation of the ark in nature conservation and animal cargo is closely related to issues of security and safety, responding to the brutal practices that are usually associated with animal transportation on the ground. Compared to economy class, most animals fly quite comfortably, as airlines classified them as ‘V.I.P.’ cargo from the 1950s onwards. Yet still, in the first half of the 1970s nearly twenty per cent of all animals arrived at Frankfurt Airport as so-called ‘D.O.A.s’ (Dead on Arrival) (Anonymous 1976). Although this number has decreased to less than one per cent since the early 1990s, the aviation industry is still keen to avoid bad news, and to establish positive associations – for instance, a successful swallow airlift.

Regulatory Bible

Do you remember your last take-off? Wasn’t it a bit awkward? You wondered why the plane took off at such a flat angle. Why it took longer than usual to reach the cruising altitude. Why there was no news from the flight deck beyond the weather forecast. It was all business as usual. You didn’t know, but probably there were a number of horses among your fellow travellers, deep down in the belly of the aircraft. They can’t cope with a steep angle during take-off. The captain had to sign off a special load notification form beforehand. She knew. That’s why she modified the angle. The NOTOC (special load notification to the captain) is part of the LAR, i.e. Live Animals Regulations. First published in 1969 by IATA, the trade association of all major world airlines, the LAR manual has developed over the last decades from a one-hundred-page black-and-white booklet into a volume of almost 500 pages, resembling a metropolis telephone book. IATA claims that LAR are the global standard and the essential guide to transporting animals by air in a safe, humane and cost-effective manner: ‘(…) a must for transporting animals humanely and in compliance with airline regulations and animal welfare standards’ (IATA 2016b).

Live Animals Regulations (LAR) are concerned with practical problems. They provide in minute detail container requirements for the whole animal kingdom: stocking densities for specific species; tables with the acceptable ambient temperature ranges for animals; calculations of animal heat and moisture load during transport; a common description and size of adult animals; the colour, size, and exact placement of stickers on the containers. The regulations also specify incommensurabilities regarding aircraft loading. They state, for instance, where animals should not be loaded (for example, in the proximity of food or natural enemies). They also detail the minimum distance of separation from dangerous goods, and specify what kind of animals should never be accepted for transport: pregnant mammals, sick or injured animals, a nursing mother with young, an unweaned mammal (IATA 1994: ii–iv, 10; IATA 2011: iii–vi, 21). In contrast to Noah’s mission, on which the future possibilities of life’s generation and reproduction depended, the modern ark is more pragmatically attentive to mundane troubles.

LAR draw together all kinds of knowledge that is needed for a multispecies take-off and its logistics. In common with regulatory advice more generally, they come in the form of guidelines; in fact, they are an assemblage of lists, tables, graphs, enumerations, box sketches, numbers, and statistics. They are the core of animal air cargo operations, from the labelling of boxes to the specific handling of animals in and outside the boxes (Figure 14.5).

Fig. 14.5 Animal Lounge, Frankfurt Airport (source: photograph by Skúli Sigurdsson)

God provided Noah with some basic rules, and his ark was perfectly built for one long trip whose aim was to guarantee the survival of living creatures. LAR, in contrast, works as a regulatory bible that guarantees that the ark’s modern version never comes to an end. The journeys of the ‘logistical’ ark are not designed as single or unique trips. They are ‘units’ in an endless loop of stops and take-offs. No longer just a material box, the logistical ark now consists of a sophisticated network of boxes and flows whose paths are by no means unknown but rather controlled and predictable. While Noah at the end of his journey sent out two birds in order to test whether it was safe to disembark, the economical version of the ark is imbued with a culture (a cult) of security. LAR, for instance, is updated after annual meetings of committees that assemble experts from fields as diverse as logistics and conservation biology.

The inventories and boxes needed for the handling of animal air cargo are largely box practices, both in terms of creating and applying categories to contain the animal world, and in the very mundane sense of packaging the animals for their journeys. Without lists and regulations like the LAR, large scale work such as the shipment of animal cargo would be impossible to coordinate. Lists and regulations help to accelerate the circulation of goods through global supply chains; they draw things together, establishing new connections, which in turn become traceable and reproducible.

Since the 1960s, the increasing number of animal take-offs has been accompanied by a logistics take-off, resulting in a burgeoning of regulation, documentation, and bureaucratic procedures in the animal air cargo business. In turn, the resultant standardisation, and the labour of adapting the classifications, has facilitated an industrialised multispecies take-off, setting and calling for an infrastructure of business models. The distributed ark of logistics is also an economic agencement – a French term for logistics corporations. Unlike Noah’s mission it is not the survival of living creatures that comes first, but instead the survival of the company in the rough weather of neoliberal competition.

Fish Can’t Breathe

Fish have no use for the ‘breath of life’ provided by Noah’s ark (Genesis 7, 15–16), but birds do need assistance when being conveyed by air. High altitude is a detrimental environment to all terrestrial and aquatic animals. At cruising altitude, with a stratospheric temperature of around minus sixty degrees Celsius, and low atmospheric pressure, even those species comfortably inhabiting the deeper layers of the atmosphere need technological assistance and managed cabin conditions. Catering for their needs requires maintaining miniature arks within the aircraft – as minimal ecologies in which they are able to survive for the duration of their transport. Animal air haulage also involves optimising the routes taken by travelling animals, to reduce travel time and the stress that results from these minimised ecologies. While maintaining minimal ecologies seems possible at a low-tech level (for small animals like most pets, smaller birds, or laboratory mice, for example), it becomes a challenge when dealing with large animals such as horses, many zoo animals, or large fish and sea mammals.

In terms of quantity, tropical fish are the largest freight of water animals shipped by air; they are traded globally and sold for private aquariums. But even dolphins, pelagic sharks, and whales have been transported in planes. Aquatic mammals and large fish cannot easily be transported in simulated habitats; some require assistance, such as being sprayed with water, or provided with temperature-controlled water tanks or other special equipment to ensure their suspension in the water (Figure 14.6). Take the example of sharks as air passengers. Sharks were only first included in the LAR in 2011, which revision specified transportation requirements for pelagic sharks of forty to one hundred centimetres in length (Figure 14.7). For ‘the shipment of larger fish or the bottom dwelling species, such as the pelagic sharks, that need to swim constantly […] specially designed transport containers’ and equipment, as well as an accompanying attendant, are required (IATA 2011: 303). Air cargo operators already see markets for sharks with the development of large-scale public aquariums, especially in Asia and the Middle East. Current efforts in relation to IATA regulations are striving to expand their scope and to develop standards for the transportation of pelagic sharks in closed water tanks as well (Air Cargo News 2015; Air Cargo World 2013). Many such minimal ecologies are precarious rather than comfort zones; they are hardly habitat simulations but have been reduced to vital factors for bare survival.

Fig. 14.6 Transportation of a killer whale (source: Anonymous 1975: 78)

Transporting animals – including humans – by air demands technological solutions to the problems posed by an inhospitable environment. Managed cabin conditions provide at the most an extended spacesuit for survival. Often providing only the most vital requirements to the animals, those minimal ecologies in the air also require time management, i.e. reduced flight time. Here, the LAR with its container requirements, not unlike Noah’s ark (Figure 14.2) with its miniature cosmologies and container species for the entire animal kingdom, catches the cosmos by means of a box.

Fig. 14.7 Container requirement 55, for dolphin and whale species (source: Live Animals Regulations, 37th Edition (IATA 2011: 306))

Out of the Box!

‘Cat in the belly!’ is an emergency call-code in the tightly scheduled and meticulously planned world of logistics. Something has happened; a box has broken, an item – in this case a living one – is out of control. No matter how many experts have been engaged in the construction of the apt and perfect box, and no matter how much effort has been put into securing the cat container correctly in the belly of a cargo-liner, be sure that there are always creatures who have but one idea: how to get out!

Replace the cat with any other animal that is brought up into the sky and then down to earth and you know why Frankfurt Airport maintains a special animal protection unit, located at one of the fire stations. First the belly has to be shut to keep the uncontrolled item in a more controlled space, confined from the airfield. There is always the next box waiting to be dispatched behind the one just stored away. Logistics work after the principle of the Russian doll or Chinese boxes. But the flow of boxes can be disrupted. It can take hours to catch a cat. In this case, everything has to be closed and shut down. No operation is possible. The ark cracks.

When it comes to questions of survival, salvation, and security, God and Noah were tackling similar problems to those faced by modern logistics in the era of global capital. The collaboration between God and Noah lifted species from the water currents. Yet twenty-first-century logistics align animal passengers with flows of goods and capital, and catches the animal kingdom within an all-encompassing regulation where the ark features in everyday life, self-descriptions, and material box practices. As much as through the freight terminals of our global airports, the Ur-idea of a box cuts transversally through history. The ark, as Ur-idea of the box, possesses a religious, military, humanitarian, beastly, economic or, in times of climate change, ecological function. What might be its future actualisations and proliferations? In what ways will it continue to confine, draw boundaries, include, exclude, or crack?


1 See illustration by Lauren Weinstein, picture at the end of the text (Bauer, Blacker, Güttler, and Schlünder 2013).


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