In the spring of 1457, a gruesome murder took place in the French village of Savigny-sur-Etang. A five-year-old boy had been killed and his body partially consumed. A local family was accused of this frightful crime by local residents who claimed to have witnessed the murder. The seven suspects, a mother and her six children, were soon tracked down by local authorities, who discovered them still stained by the boy’s blood. They were arrested, indicted on charges of infanticide and held in the local jail for trial.
The defendants were indigent and the court appointed a lawyer to represent them. A few weeks later a trial was convened in Savigny’s seigneurial court. Before a crowded room, witnesses were called. Evidence was presented and legal arguments hotly debated. The justices considered the facts and the law and rendered a verdict and a sentence. The mother was pronounced guilty and ordered to be hanged to death by her legs from the limb of the gallows tree. Her six children, however, received a judicial pardon. The court accepted the defense lawyer’s argument that the youngsters lacked the mental competence to have committed a crime in the eyes of the law. The orphaned children were sent into custodial care at the expense of the state.
This is an interesting case to be sure, featuring important lessons about the legal rights of the poor and the historic roots of juvenile justice in western jurisprudence, lessons that seem entirely lost on our current “tradition-obsessed” Supreme Court. But here’s the kicker: the defendants in these proceedings were not members of our species. They were, it must be said, a family of pigs.
The Savigny murder case, even in its ghastly particulars, was unexceptional. In medieval Europe (and even colonial America) thousands of animals were summoned to court and put on trial for a variety of offenses, ranging from trespassing, thievery and vandalism to rape, assault and murder. The defendants included cats, dogs, cows, sheep, goats, slugs, swallows, oxen, horses, mules, donkeys, pigs, wolves, bears, bees, weevils, and termites. These tribunals were not show trials or strange festivals like Fools Day. The tribunals were taken seriously by both the courts and the community.
Though now largely lost to history, these trials followed the same convoluted rules of legal procedure used in cases involving humans. Indeed, as detailed in E. P. Evans’ remarkable book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906), humans and animals were frequently tried together in the same courtroom as co-conspirators, especially in cases of bestiality. The animal defendants were appointed their own lawyers at public expense. Animals enjoyed appeal rights and there are several instances when convictions were overturned and sentences reduced or commuted entirely. Sometimes, particularly in cases involving pigs, the animal defendants were dressed in human clothes during court proceedings and at executions.
Animal trials were held in two distinct settings: ecclesiastical courts and secular courts. Ecclesiastical courts were the venue of choice for cases involving the destruction of public resources, such as crops, or in crimes involving the corruption of public morals, such as witchcraft or sexual congress between humans and beasts. The secular and royal courts claimed jurisdiction over cases where animals were accused of causing bodily harm or death to humans or, in some instances, other animals.
When guilty verdicts were issued and a death sentence imposed, a professional executioner was commissioned for the lethal task. Animals were subjected to the same ghastly forms of torture and execution as were condemned humans. Convicted animals were lashed, put to the rack, hanged, beheaded, burned at the stake, buried alive, stoned to death and drawn-and-quartered. In 14th century Sardinia, trespassing livestock had an ear cut-off for each offense. In an early application of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, the third conviction resulted in immediate execution.
The flesh of executed animals was never eaten. Instead, the corpses of the condemned were either burned, dumped in rivers or buried next to human convicts in graveyards set aside for criminals and heretics. The heads of the condemned, especially in cases of bestiality, were often displayed on pikes in the town square adjacent to the heads of their human co-conspirators.
The first recorded murder trial involving an animal took place in 1266 at Fontenay-aux-Roses (birthplace of the painter Pierre Bonnard) on the outskirts of Paris. The case involved a murder of an infant girl. The defendant was a pig. Though the records have been lost, similar trials almost certainly date back to classical Greece, where, according to Aristotle, secular trials of animals were regularly held in the great Prytaneum of Athens.
Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, written in 1269, is in part an attack on Aristotle’s ideas and his “radical acolytes” who had infiltrated the universities of thirteenth century Europe. In the Summa, Aquinas laboriously tried to explain the theological basis for the trials of animals.
While most of the animal trials, according the records unearthed by Evans, appear to have taken place in France, Germany and Italy, nearly every country in Europe seems to have put beasts on trial, including Russia, Poland, Romania, Spain, Scotland and Ireland. Anglophiles have long claimed that England alone resisted the idea of hauling cows, dogs and pigs before the royal courts. But Shakespeare suggests otherwise. In “The Merchant of Venice,” Portia’s friend, the young and impetuous Gratiano, abuses Shylock, comparing him to a wolf that had been tried and hanged for murder:
Thy currish spirit
Govern’d a wolf, who, hang’d for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And, whilst thou lay’st in thy unhallow’d dam,
Infus’d itself in thee..
Even colonial Brazil got in on the act. In 1713 a rectory at the Franciscan monastery in Piedade no Maranhāo collapsed, its foundation ravaged by termites. The friars lodged charges against the termites and an ecclesiastical inquest soon issued a summons demanding that the ravenous insects appear before the court to confront the allegations against their conduct. Often in such cases, the animals who failed to heed the warrant were summarily convicted in default judgments. But these termites had a crafty lawyer. He argued that the termites were industrious creatures, worked hard and enjoyed a God-given right to feed themselves. Moreover, the lawyer declared, the slothful habits of the friars had likely contributed to the disrepair of the monastery. The monks, the defense lawyer argued, were merely using the local termite community as an excuse for their own negligence. The judge returned to his chambers, contemplated the facts presented him and returned with a Solomonic ruling. The friars were compelled to provide a woodpile for the termites to dine at and the insects were commanded to leave the monastery and confine their eating to their new feedlot.
A similar case unfolded in the province of Savoy, France in 1575. The weevils of Saint Julien, a tiny hamlet in the Rhone Alps, were indicted for the crime of destroying the famous vineyards on the flanks of Mount Cenis. A lawyer, Pierre Rembaud, was appointed as defense counsel for the accused. Rembaud wasted no time in filing a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the weevils had every right to consume the grape leaves. Indeed, Rembaud asserted, the weevils enjoyed a prior claim to the vegetation on Mount Cenis, since, as detailed in the Book of Genesis, the Supreme Deity had created animals before he fashioned humans and God had promised animals all of the grasses, leaves and green herbs for their sustenance. Rembaud’s argument stumped the court. As the judges deliberated, the villagers of Saint Julien seemed swayed by the lawyer’s legal reasoning. Perhaps the bugs had legitimate grievances. The townsfolk scrambled to set aside a patch of open land away from the vineyards as a foraging ground for the weevils. The land was surveyed. Deeds were drawn up and the property was shown to counselor Rembaud for his inspection and approval. They called the weevil reserve La Grand Feisse. Rembaud walked the site, investigating the plant communities with the eyes of a seasoned botanist. Finally, he shook his head. No deal. The land was rocky and had obviously been overgrazed for decades. La Grand Feisse was wholly unsuitable for the discriminating palates of his clients. If only John Walker Lindh had been appointed so resolute an advocate!
The Perry Mason of animal defense lawyers was an acclaimed French jurist named Bartholomew Chassenée, who later became a chief justice in the French provincial courts and a preeminent legal theorist. One of Chassenée’s most intriguing essays, the sixteenth-century equivalent of a law review article, was titled De Excommunicatore Animalium Insectorium. In another legal mongraph, Chassenée argued with persuasive force that local animals, both wild and domesticated, should be considered lay members of the parish community. In other words, the rights of animals were similar in kind to the rights of the people at large.
In the summer of 1522, Chassenée was called to the ancient village of Autun in Burgundy. The old town, founded during the reign of Augustus, had been recently overrun by rats. French maidens had been frightened, the barley crop destroyed, the vineyards placed in peril. The town crier issued a summons for the rats to appear before the court. None showed. The judge asked Chassenée why he should not find his clients guilty in absentia. The lawyer argued that the rat population was dispersed through the countryside and that his clients were almost certainly unaware of the charges pending against them. The judge agreed. The town crier was dispatched into the fields to repeat his urgent notice. Yet still the rats failed to appear at trial. Once again Chassenée jumped into action. Showing tactical skills that should impress Gerry Spence, Chassenée shifted his strategy. Now he passionately explained to the court that the rats remained hidden in their rural nests, paralyzed by the prospect of making a journey past the cats of Autun, who were well-known for their ferocious animosity toward rodents.
In the end, the rats were spared execution. The judge sternly ordered them to vacate the fields of Autun within six days. If the rats failed to heed this injunction, the animals would be duly anathematized, condemned to eternal torment. This sentence of damnation would be imposed, the court warned, regardless of any rodent infirmities or pregnancies.
Few animal trials were prosecuted as vigorously as those involving allegations of bestiality. In 1565, a man was indicted for engaging in sexual relations with a mule in the French city of Montpelier. The mule was also charged. Both stood trial together. They were duly convicted and sentenced to death at the stake. Because of the mule’s angry disposition, the animal was subjected to additional torments. His feet were chopped off before the poor beast was pitched into the fire.
In 1598, the suspected sorceress Françoise Secretain was brought before the inquisitional court at St. Claude in the Jura Mountains of Burgundy to face charges of witchcraft and bestiality. Secretain was accused of communing with the devil and having sex with a dog, a cat and a rooster. The blood-curdling case is described in detail by her prosecutor, the Grand Justice Henri Boguet, in his strange memoir Discours des Sorciers. Secretain was stripped naked her cell, as the fanatical Boguet inspected her for the mark of Satan. The animals were shaved and plucked for similar examinations. Secretain and her pets were put to various tortures, including having a hot poker plunged down their throats to see if they shed tears, for, as Boguet noted in his memoir:
“All the sorcerers whom I have examined in quality of Judge have never shed tears in my presence: or, indeed, if they have shed them it has been so parsimoniously that no notice was taken of them. I say this with regard to those who seemed to weep, but I doubt if their tears were not feigned. I am at least well assured that those tears were wrung from them with the greatest efforts. This was shown by the efforts which the accused made to weep, and by the small number of tears which they shed.”
Alas, the poor woman and her animals did not weep. They perished together in flames at the stake.
In 1642 a teenage boy named Thomas Graunger stood accused of committing, in the unforgettable phrase of Cotton Mather, “infandous Buggeries” with farm animals in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Young master Graunger was hauled before an austere tribunal of Puritans headed by Gov. William Bradford. There he stood trial beside his co-defendants, a mare, a cow, two goats, four sheep, two calves and a turkey. All were found guilty. They were publicly tortured and executed. Their bodies were burned on a pyre, their ashes buried in a mass grave. Graunger was the first juvenile to be executed in colonial America.
In 1750, a French farmer named Jacques Ferron was espied sodomizing a female donkey in a field. Man and beast were arrested and hauled before a tribunal in the commune of Vanves near Paris. After a day-long trial, Ferron was convicted and sentenced to be burned at the stake. But the donkey’s lawyers argued that their client was innocent. The defense maintained that the illicit acts were not consensual. The donkey, the defense pleaded, was a victim of rape and not a willing participant in carnal congress with Ferron. Character witnesses were called to testify on the donkey’s behalf. Affidavits calling for mercy were filed with the court by several leading citizens of the town, including the head abbot at the local priory, attesting to the benign nature and good moral character of the animal. The abbot wrote that the four-year-old donkey was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honorable creature.” Here the court was compelled to evaluate matters of volition, free will and resistance. In short, did the donkey say no? After an intense deliberation, the court announced its verdict. The donkey was acquitted and duly released back to its pasture.
What are we to make of all this? Why did both the secular and religious courts of Europe devote so much time and money to these elaborate trials of troublesome animals? Some scholars, such as James Frazer, argue that the trials performed the function of the ancient rituals of sacrifice and atonement. Others, such as the legal theorist Hans Kelsen, view the cases as the last gasp of the animistic religions. Some have offered an economic explanation suggesting that animals were tried and executed during times of glut or seized in times of economic plight as property by the Church or Crown through the rule of deodand or “giving unto God.” Still others have suggested that the trials and executions served a public health function, culling populations of farm animals and rodents that might contribute to the spread of infectious diseases.
Our interest here, however, is not with the social purpose of the trials, but in the qualities and rights the so-called medieval mind ascribed to the defendants: rationality, premeditation, free will, moral agency, calculation and motivation. In other words, it was presumed that animals acted with intention, that they could be driven by greed, jealousy and revenge. Thus the people of the Middle Ages, dismissed as primitives in many modernist quarters, were actually open to a truly radical idea: animal consciousness. As demonstrated in these trials, animals could be found to have mens rea, a guilty mind. But the courts also seriously considered exculpatory evidence aimed at proving that the actions of the accused, including murder, were justifiable owing to a long train of abuses. In other words, if animals could commit crimes, then crimes could also be committed against them.
The animal trials peaked in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, then faded away. They came to be viewed through the lens of modern historians as comical curiosities, grotesquely odd relics of the Dark Ages. The legal scholar W. W. Hyde succinctly summed up the smug, self-aggrandizing view of the legal scholars of the 20th century: “the savage in his rage at an animal’s misdeeds obliterates all distinctions between man and beast, and treats the latter in all respects as the former.”
Of course, the phasing out of animal trials didn’t mean that the cruel treatment of domesticated animals improved or that problematic beasts stopped being put to death in public extravaganzas. While the trials ceased, the executions increased.
Recall the death warrant issued in 1903 against Topsy the Elephant, star of the Forepaugh Circus at Coney Island’s Luna Park. Topsy had killed three handlers in a three-year period. One of her trainers was a sadist, who tortured the elephant by beating her with clubs, stabbing her with pikes and feeding her lit cigarettes.
Tospy was ordered to be hanged, but then Thomas Edison showed up and offered to electrocute Topsy. She was shackled, fed carrots laced with potassium cyanide and jolted with 6,600 volts of alternating current. Before a crowd of 1,500 onlookers, Topsy shivered, toppled and died in a cloud of dust. Edison filmed the entire event. He titled his documentary short, “Electrocuting the Elephant.”
Topsy received no trial. It was not even imagined that she had grievances, a justification for her violent actions. Topsy was killed because she’d become a liability. Her death was a business decision, pure and simple.
So what happened? How did animals come to be viewed as mindless commodities? One explanation is that modernity rudely intruded in the rather frail form of Renè Descartes. The great Cartesian disconnect not only cleaved mind from body, but also severed humans from the natural world. Descartes postulated that animals were mere physical automatons. They were biological machines whose actions were driven solely by bio-physical instincts. Animals lacked the power of cognition, the ability to think and reason. They had a brain but no mind.
At Port-Royal the Cartesians cut up living creatures with fervor, and in the words of one of Descartes’ biographers, “kicked about their dogs and dissected their cats without mercy, laughing at any compassion for them and calling their screams the noise of breaking machinery.” Across the Channel Francis Bacon declared in the “Novum Organum” that the proper aim of science was to restore the divinely ordained dominance of man over nature, “to extend more widely the limits of the power and greatness of man and so to endow him with “infinite commodities.” Bacon’s doctor, William Harvey, was a diligent vivisector of livinganimals.
Thus did the great sages of the Enlightenment assert humanity’s ruthless primacy over the Animal Kingdom. The materialistic view of history, and the fearsome economic and technological pistons driving it, left no room for either the souls or consciousness of animals. They were no longer our fellow beings. They had been rendered philosophically and literally in resources for guiltless exploitation, turned into objects of commerce, labor, entertainment and food.
Conveniently for humans, the philosophers of the Industrial Age declared that animals had no sense of their miserable condition. They could not understand abuse, they had no conception of suffering, they could not feel pain. When captive animals bit, trampled or killed their human captors, it wasn’t an act of rebellion against abusive treatment but merely a reflex. There was no need, therefore, to investigate the motivations behind these violent encounters because there could be no premeditation at all on the animal’s part. The confrontations could not be crimes. They were mere accidents, nothing more.
One wonders what Descartes would have made of the group of orangutans, who stole crowbars and screwdrivers from zookeepers in San Diego to repeatedly break out of their enclosures? How’s that for cognition, cooperation and tool use, Monsieur Descartes?
In 1668, Jean Racine, a playwright not known for his facility with farce, wrote a comedy satirizing the trials of animals. Written eighteen years after the death of Descartes, “Les Plaideurs” (The Litigants) tells the story of a senile old man obsessed with judging, who eventually places the family dog on trial for stealing a capon from the kitchen table. The mutt is convicted and sentenced to death. Then the condemned canine’s lawyer makes a last minute plea for mercy and reveals a litter of puppies before the judge. The old man is moved and the harsh hand of justice is stayed.
Racine’s comedy, loosely based on Aristophanes’ “The Wasps,” bombed, playing only two nights before closing, perhaps because the public had not yet been convinced by the solons of Europe to fully renounce their kinship with natural creatures. Revealingly, the play was resurrected a century later by the Comedie-Française to packed houses. By then public attitudes toward animals had shifted decisively in favor of human exceptionalism. According some accounts, the play has now become the most frequently performed French comedy, having been presented in more than 1,400 different productions.
Contrast Descartes’ sterile, homocentric view with that of a much great intellect, Michel Montaigne. Writing a mere fifty years before Descartes, Montaigne, the most gifted French prose stylist, declared: “We understand them no more than they us. By the same token they may as well esteem us beasts as we them.” Famously, he wrote in the “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”. Montaigne was distressed by the barbarous treatment of animals: “If I see but a chicken’s neck pulled off or a pig sticked, I cannot choose but grieve; and I cannot well endure a silly dew-bedabbled hare to groan when she is seized upon by the hounds.”
But the materialists held sway. Descartes was backed up the grim John Calvin, who proclaimed that the natural world was a merely a material resource to be exploited for the benefit of humanity, “True it is that God hath given us the birds for our food,” Calvin declared. “We know he hath made the whole world for us.”
John Locke, the father of modern liberal thinking, described animals as “perfect machines” available for unregulated use by man. The animals could be sent to the slaughterhouse with no right of appeal. In Locke’s coldly utilitarian view, cows, goats, chickens and sheep were simply meat on feet.
Thus was the Great Chain of Being ruthlessly transmuted into an iron chain with a manacle clasped round the legs and throats of animals, hauling them off to zoos, circuses, bull rings and abattoirs.
Karl Marx, that supreme materialist, ridiculed the Romantic poets for their “deification of Nature” and chastised Darwin for his “natural, zoological way of thinking.” Unfortunately, Marx’s great intellect was not empathetic enough to extend his concepts of division of labor, alienation and worker revolt to the animals harnessed into grim service by the lords of capital. By the 1930s, so Matt Cartmill writes in his excellent history of hunting, A View to a Death in the Morning, “some Marxist thinkers urged that it was time to put an end to nature and that animals and plants that serve no human purpose ought to be exterminated.”
Marx liked to disparage his enemies by calling them baboons. But what would Marx have made of the baboons of northern Africa, hunted down by animal traders, who slaughtered nursing mother baboons and stole their babies for American zoos and medical research labs. The baboon communities violently resisted this risible enterprise, chasing the captors through the wilderness all the way to the train station. Some of the baboons even followed the train for more than a hundred miles and at distant stations launched raids on the cars in an attempt to free the captives. How’s that for fearless solidarity?
Fidel Castro, one of Marx’s most ardent political practitioners, reinvented himself in his 80s as a kind of eco-guerilla, decrying the threat of global warming and advocating green revolutions. Yet Castro likes nothing more than to take visiting journalists to the Acuario Nacional de la Habana to watch captive dolphins perform tricks. The cetaceans are kept in wretched conditions, often trapped in waters so saturated with chlorine that it burns ulcers in the skin and peels the corneas off the eyeballs. Cuba captures and breeds dolphins for touring exhibitions and for sale to notoriously noxious aquatic parks throughout South America. The captive dolphins in Havana are trained by Celia Guevara, daughter of Che. There, as in other dolphin parks, food is used as a weapon in the pitiless reconditioning of the brainy sea mammals. Do the trick right or you don’t get fed. Is it any wonder then that many captive dolphins have chosen to bite the hand that starves them?
In this respect, at least, Adam Smith comes out a little more humane than the Marxists. Although he viewed animals as property, Smith recoiled at the sight of the abattoir: “The trade of a butcher is a brutal and odious business.”
Through the ages, it’s been the poets who have largely held firm in their affinity with the natural world. Consider the Metamorphoses composed by the Roman poet and political dissident Ovid around the time of Christ’s birth. In the final book of this epic, where humans are routinely transformed into animals, Ovid summons the spirit of Pythagoras. The great sage of Samos, whom Aristotle hailed as the father of philosophy, gives the most important speech in the poem. But the author of the famous Theorem forsakes the opportunity to proclaim that mathematics is the foundation of nature. Instead, Ovid’s Pythagoras denounces the killing of animals for food and asserts the sanctity of all life forms.
“What evil they contrive, how impiously they prepare to shed human blood itself, who rip at a calf’s throat with the knife, and listen unmoved to its bleating, or can kill a kid goat to eat, that cries like a child, or feed on a bird, that they themselves have fed! How far does that fall short of actual murder? Where does the way lead on from there?”
Where indeed. To hell, perhaps? That’s what John Milton thought. Milton’s God advises Adam that animals have the power of cognition and indeed they “reason not contemptibly.”
Crusty Robert Burns tells a frightened field mouse:
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge expressed similar fraternal sentiments to a donkey chained in a field:
Poor Ass! thy master should have learnt to show Pity–
best taught by fellowship of Woe!
For much I fear me that He lives like thee,
Half famished in a land of Luxury!
How askingly its footsteps hither bend!
It seems to say, “And have I then one friend?”
Innocent foal! thou poor despised forlorn!
I hail thee Brother — spite of the fool’s scorn!
And fain would take thee with me, in the Dell
Of Peace and mild Equality to dwell…
Lord Byron objected to angling, saying it inflicted unnecessary pain on trout, and ridiculed Izaak Walton for debasing poetry in promotion of this “cruel” hobby. His Lordship would, no doubt, have been outraged by the inane past-time of “catch-and-release” fishing.
Byron’s arch-nemesis William Wordsworth wrote a stunning poem titled “Hart-Leap Well,” tracking the last moments in the life a mighty stag chased “for thirteen hours” to its death by a horse-riding knight and his hounds. The ballad closes with a stark denunciation of hunting for sport:
“This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
His death was mourned by sympathy divine.“The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.
“One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide,
Taught both by what she [ie. Nature’ shows, and what conceals;
Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.”
The great, though mad, naturalist-poet John Clare openly worshipped “the religion of the fields,” while William Blake, the poet of revolution, simply said:
For every thing that lives is Holy,
Life delights in life.
And, finally, there is the glorious precedent of Geoffrey Chaucer, who reveals himself to be an animal liberationist. In the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes the Prioress as a woman who cannot abide the abuse of animals.
But for to speken of hir conscience,
She was so charitable and so pious
She wolde wepe, if that she sawe a mous
Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smaule houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tender herte.
Later in the remarkable “Tale of the Manciple,” Chaucer goes all the way, arguing forcefully against the caging of wild songbirds. The English language’s first great poet concludes that no matter how well you treat the captives, the birds desire their freedom:
“Taak any bryd, and put it in a cage,
And do al thyn entente and thy corage
To fostre it tendrely with mete and drynke,
Of alle deyntees that thou kanst bithynke;
And keepe it al so clenly as thou may,
Although his cage of gold be nevere so gay,
Yet hath this bryd, by twenty thousand foold,
Levere in a forest that is rude and coold
Goon ete wormes, and swich wrecchednesse;
For evere this bryd wol doon his bisynesse
To escape out of his cage, whan he may.
His libertee this brid desireth ay.”
It would take the philosophers nearly six hundred years to catch up with Chaucer’s enlightened sentiments. In 1975, the Australian Peter Singer published his revolutionary book Animal Liberation. Singer demolished the Cartesian model that treated animals as mere machines. Blending science and ethics, Singer asserted that most animals are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain. The infliction of pain was both unethical and immoral. He argued that the progressive credo of providing “the greatest good for the greatest number” should be extended to animals and that animals should be liberated from their servitude in scientific labs, factory farms, circuses and zoos.
A quarter century after the publication of Animal Liberation, Peter Singer revisited the great taboo of bestiality in an essay titled “Heavy Petting.” Expressing sentiments that would have shocked Grand Inquisitor Boguet, Singer argued that sexual relations between humans and animals should not automatically be considered acts of abuse. According to Singer, it all comes down to the issue of harm. In some cases, Singer suggested, animals might actually feel excitement and pleasure in such inter-species couplings. Even for the most devoted animal rights advocates this might be taking E. O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia a little too literally.
In Fear of the Animal Planet, historian Jason Hribal takes a radical, but logical, step beyond Singer. Hribal reverses the perspective and tells the story of liberation from the animals’ points-of-view. This is history written from the end of the chain, from inside the cage, from the depths of the tank. Hribal’s chilling investigation travels much further than Singer dared to go. For Hribal, the issue isn’t merely harm and pain, but consent. The confined animals haven’t given their permission to be held captive, forced to work, fondled or publicly displayed for profit.
Hribal skillfully excavates the hidden history of captive animals as active agents in their own liberation. His book is a harrowing, and curiously uplifting, chronicle of resistance against some of the cruelest forms of torture and oppression this side of Abu Ghraib prison.
Hribal takes us behind the scenes of circus and the animal park, exposing methods of training involving sadistic forms of discipline and punishment, where elephants and chimps are routinely beaten and terrorized into submission.
We witness from the animals’ perspective the tyrannical trainers, creepy dealers in exotic species, arrogant zookeepers and sinister hunters, who slaughtered the parents of young elephants and apes in front of their young before they captured them. We are taken inside the cages, tents and tanks, where captive elephants, apes and sea mammals are confined in wretched conditions with little medical care.
All of this is big business, naturally. Each performing dolphin can generate more than a million dollars a year in revenue, while orcas can produce twenty times that much.
This is a history of violent resistance to such abuses. Here are stories of escapes, subterfuges, work stoppages, gorings, rampages, bitings, and, yes, revenge killings. Each trampling of a brutal handler with a bull-hook, each mauling of a taunting visitor, each drowning of a tormenting trainer is a crack in the old order that treats animals as property, as engines of profit, as mindless objects of exploitation and abuse. The animal rebels are making their own history and Jason Hribal serves as their Michelet.
Hribal’s heroic profiles in animal courage show how most of these violent acts of resistance were motivated by their abusive treatment and the miserable conditions of their confinement. These animals are far from mindless. Their actions reveal memory not mere conditioning, contemplation not instinct, and, most compellingly, discrimination not blind rage. Again and again, the animals are shown to target only their abusers, often taking pains to avoid trampling bystanders. Animals, in other words, acting with a moral conscience.
So let us now praise infamous animals.
Consider the case of Jumbo the Elephant, the world’s most famous animal. Captured in eastern Africa in 1865, Jumbo would become the star attraction of P.T. Barnums’ Circus. Jumbo earned millions for his owners, but he was treated abysmally for most of his brief life. The giant pachyderm was confined to a small compartment with a concrete floor that damaged his feet and caused his joints to become arthritic. He was trained using unspeakably brutal methods, he was shackled in leg-chains, jabbed with a lance, beaten with ax handles, drugged and fed beer to the point of intoxication. He was endlessly shipped back-and-forth across the country on the circuses train and made to perform two shows a day, six days a week. At the age of 24 Jumbo was finally fed up. He could tolerate it no more. On a September night in Ontario, Jumbo and his sidekick, the small elephant called Thom Thumb, broke free from their handlers and wondered away from the tent and towards the train tracks. As P.T. Barnum later told the story, Jumbo pushed his pal Thom Thumb safely off the tracks and tried to ram an oncoming train. After Jumbo died an autopsy was performed. He stomach contents reviled numerous metallic objects that he had been fed over the years, including keys, screws, bolts, pennies and nickels–his reward for entertain hundreds of thousands of people.
Tatiana the Tiger, confined for years in a small enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo, finally reached her limit after being tormented by three teenaged boys on Christmas day 2006. She leapt the twelve-foot high wall, snatched one of the lads in her paws and eviscerated him. She stalked the zoo grounds for the next half-hour, by-passing many other visitors, until she tracked down the two other culprits and mauled them both before being gunned down by police.
There is Ken the Orangutan who pelted an intrusive TV news crew with his own shit from his enclosure at the San Diego Zoo.
Moe the Chimpanzee, an unpaid Hollywood actor who, when he wasn’t working, was locked in a tiny cage in West Covina. Moe made multiple escapes and fiercely resisted his recapture. He bit four people and punched at least one police officer. After his escape, he was sent off to a miserable confinement at a dreary place called Jungle Exotics. Moe escaped again, this time into the San Bernadino Mountains, where’s he’s never been heard from since.
Speaking of Hollywood, let’s toast the memory of Buddha the Orangutan (aka Clyde), who co-starred with Clint Eastwood in the movie Every Which Way But Loose. On the set, Buddha simply stopped working one day. He refused to perform his silly routines any more and his trainer repeatedly clubbed him in the head with a hard cane in front of the crew. One day near the end of filming Buddha, like that dog in Racine’s play, snatched some doughnuts from a table on the set. The ape was seized by his irate keeper, taken back his cage and beaten to death with an ax handle. Buddha’s name was not listed in the film’s credits.
Tyke the Elephant was captured in the savannahs of Zimbabwe and shipped to the United States to work in a traveling circus, where she was routinely disciplined with a sharp hook called an ankus. After 20 years of captivity and torture, Tyke reached her tipping point one day in Honolulu. During the elephant routine under the Big Top, Tyke made her break. She smashed through the railings of the ring and dashed for the exits. She chased after circus clowns and handlers, over-turned cars, busted through a gate and ran onto the streets of Honolulu. She was gunned down, while still wearing her rhinestone tiara.
Then there is the story of Tilikum the orca. When he was two, Tilikum was rudely seized from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic off the coast of Iceland. The young killer whale was shipped to Vancouver Island, where he was forced to perform tricks at an aquatic theme park called Sealand. Tilikum was also pressed into service as a stud, siring numerous calves for exploitation by his captors. Tilikum shared his small tank with two other orcas, Nootka and Haida. In February 1991, the whales’ female trainer slipped and fell into the tank. The whales wasted no time. The woman grabbed, submerged repeatedly, and tossed her back and forth between the three whales until she drowned. At the time of the killing, Haida was pregnant with a calf sired by Tilikum
Eight years later, a 27-year-old man broke into the aquatic park, stripped off his clothes and jumped into the tank with Tilikum. The orca seized the man, bit him sharply and flung him around. He was found floating dead in the pool the next morning. The authorities claimed the man died of hypothermia.
In 2010, Tilikum was a star attraction at Sea World in Orlando. During an event called “Dining With Shamu,” Tilikum snatched his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and dragged her into the pool, where, in front of horrified patrons, he pinned her to the bottom until she drowned to death. The whale had delivered his third urgent message.
Tilikum is the Nat Turner of the captives of Sea World. He has struck courageous blows against the enslavement of wild creatures. Now it is up to us to act on his thrust for liberation and build a global movement to smash forever these aquatic gulags from the face of the Earth.
This essay is adapted from the introduction to Fear of the Animal Planet by Jason Hribal.