Elevate Difference

Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance

You may already know (and I hope you do) that zoos and circuses aren't good places for animals. But how do we know? Jason Hribal's Fear of an Animal Planet argues that we only need listen to what the animals themselves are telling us. He fills the pages with story after story of animals who "misbehave": who escape, who refuse to perform and reproduce, who attack (and often kill) human handlers. After twenty years of circus life, Tyke the elephant kills one of her captors and runs wild through the streets of Honolulu. Kumang the orangutan grounds a hot wire surrounding her enclosure and climbs out using the porcelain insulators as hand-holds. None of the orca Corky's calves survive past forty-six days, apparently victims of maternal neglect. And so on.

Key themes emerge. One: captive animals are exploited, in the full-on Marxist sense of the word. Whether performing circus stunts, entertaining zoo visitors, or breeding the next generation of performers, they create value for their human owners, value the benefit of which the animals themselves never own. Sea World is a multimillion dollar business. But it isn't using those profits to feast its whales on tuna, expand the chlorine-saturated pools, or—most assuredly—release marine animals back to the ocean.

Two: other animals can resist exploitation and slavery very much like human workers, through refusals to work, sabotage, escapes, and physical attacks. If we dare to see past species difference, and accept that animals' actions have intent, we recognize these tactics.

Three: through their resistance, animals are agents in their own history. When Tyke, for instance, was fatally was shot by police after her escape, footage of her death spurred human witnesses into activism. Two established the Hohenwald Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where elephants roam unchained and unsupervised. Protests, lawsuits, and investigations into the animal contracting company that leased Tyke followed, and most significantly, some of Tyke's fellow performers were released into the care of sanctuaries like Hohenwald. None of this could have happened without Tyke's actions.

Hribal is a student of the historian Peter Linebaugh (co-author of The Many-Headed Hydra), whose approach he shares. Instead of accepting official narratives, he inverts social hierarchies and tells history from the perspective of the oppressed and dispossessed. Here, we're seeing circuses, zoos, and aquariums from the animals' side. Alas, the accounts—taken, according to the prologue, from newspapers, government and legal documents, online databases, institutional archives and a handful of earlier histories—are not individually sourced by foot- or endnotes, which strikes me as sloppy scholarship, surprising considering the author's background. It's also a criticism I'm sure Hribal's opponents will raise.

The author also makes a brief mention of alcohol use among circus trainers. In the next breath, he describes the industry as morally bankrupt. He seems to mean that circus management is utterly irresponsible in letting intoxicated handlers have contact with animals, but the phrasing is easily misunderstood to blame alcoholics ("drunkards," he says) for their addiction. I hope later editions can amend these flaws.

I want these later editions because I want nothing to detract from the challenge Fear of an Animal Planet offers its human readers. Like the best scholarship, it invites us to reject standard narratives. Instead of chalking up their behavior to mechanistic instinct, to adolescence, gender, playfulness, or high spirits, Hribal asks us to take animals' actions seriously: to see deliberate and eminently understandable resistance to conditions that the animals themselves find unacceptable, and to recognize them as fellow sufferers in a profit-driven economy.

Written by: Charlotte Malerich, March 10th 2011

Great review, Char! I wonder if the fact that many of the handlers are heavy drinkers is to counteract their feelings about what they are doing to the animals. Self-medication.

that's my suspicion. a good topic for further research! thanks for the kind words. :)