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Do Some Circus and Zoo Animals Dream of Freedom and Revenge Against Their Masters? One Author Says Yes

Translating the revolutionary consciousness of voiceless animals is no more silly than doing the same for human beings.

 Reviewed: Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, by Jason Hribal, CounterPunch/AK Press, 153 pages, $15.95

Jason Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance will be ignored, dismissed, and mocked. Published by the tiny and idiosyncratic AK Press and written by an obscure semi-academic, it proposes an argument that will make anyone other than the fiercest PETA activists smirk. Yet it should be required reading for all social scientists and political activists, because it perfectly demonstrates a central and enduring problem of modern left-wing political discourse: the tendency to speak on behalf of those who have not spoken.

Hribal argues that for more than two centuries, animals in zoos, circuses, and marine amusement parks not only have been “oppressed” and “exploited” but have been conscious of their oppression and exploitation, waging an intentional “struggle” for “control of production,” “autonomy,” “revenge,” and the “dream of freedom.”

It’s not difficult to dismiss Hribal as a Marxist Doctor Doolittle or his social science as cartoonish. After all, he ascribes political consciousness to creatures whose thoughts cannot be known. But his claims of knowing the thoughts of animals are no more arrogant or absurd than the claims countless academics and activists continue to make about the consciousness of people whose ideas are also inaccessible. 

Most of Fear of the Animal Planet is an impressively thorough catalog of animals refusing to perform tricks, escaping their cages and enclosures, and attacking handlers and audiences. Unlike his descriptions of animals’ minds, which of course are impossible to substantiate, Hribal’s accounts of their behavior are supported with verifiable evidence (usually multiple eyewitness accounts). They certainly show that many animals have not done what they were trained to do.

We learn about the unruly behavior of Jumbo, a 19th-century African bush elephant who was the first animal celebrity. At the London Zoo in Regent’s Park, Jumbo frequently rammed the iron doors of his exhibition cage and slammed his trainer to the floor. After he was sold to P.T. Barnum’s circus in the United States, for several weeks Jumbo refused to enter the shipping container, despite numerous proddings and stabbings by trainers. These events are well-documented and difficult to dispute.

But in determining the meaning of events, Hribal, like most of the Marxist scholars who inspired him, becomes a ventriloquist. Jumbo “did not see himself as a machine,” Hribal writes, and “resistance was his new thought.” Another unruly circus elephant, named Janet, “hated” her trainers. Mary and Tory were not just pachyderms that walked out of a circus ring; they were “two disgruntled employees.” Writing as if he had read Tyke the elephant’s manifesto, Hribal claims this most infamous of circus animals crushed her trainer to death during a performance in Honolulu because she “was tired of being leased out to circuses and carnivals,” “sick of the dismal and dangerous working conditions,” and “through with the untreated injuries and wounds and the lack of basic healthcare.”

Not only does Hribal ascribe specific ideas to his elephant “rebels” but, like communitarians who speak on behalf of masses of people, he also casts them as a part of a collective, global, trans-historical consciousness. The behaviors of Jumbo in London in 1882, Janet in Florida in 1992, Tyke in Hawaii in 1994, and Mary and Tory in Wisconsin in 2002 were all “part of a larger struggle against oppression and exploitation.”

According to Hribal, the “larger struggle” crosses not just time and space but also species. Like their pachyderm comrades, the monkeys and apes that escape from zoos “know what freedom is and they want it.” Likewise, the sea lions, dolphins, and orcas in marine amusement parks share this “dream of freedom.” Their occasional refusals to obey commands from trainers are “strikes” that are part of “the battle over the control of production.” The Sea World orca named Tilikum who in 2010 dragged his trainer to the bottom of a tank and held her there until she drowned was actually presenting “a clear, pronounced demonstration of his dislike of captivity and all that it entails: from the absence of autonomy to the exploitative relations to the ever-increasing work-load.” Marine biologists do believe that orcas communicate with one another, but I doubt that any scientist has heard revolutionary jargon in their clicks and whistles.

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