Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Animal Planet

Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance (Counterpunch)
Fear of the Animal Planet:  The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, by Jason Hribal

On May 5, 1922, in the small town of Sedro-Wooley, Washington, an elephant named Tusko escaped from the Al G. Barnes Circus ("famed throughout the country" according to promotional posters) and went on a rampage through town.  At least that's the way the papers described it. 

Tusko had thrown his trainer and stormed from the animal tent half an hour before show time, while he and other Barnes elephants were being cleaned. His leg irons had been removed in the process. Rumors at the time suggested that the inspiration for his escape was either a severe beating or an aromatic heap of fermented moonshiner’s mash that the hungry Tusko had infiltrated. “At once,” the Courier-Times reported, “two other elephants were mounted and a score of keepers and attendants went after the big brute.”  (J. Kingston Pierce, essay number 5270)

Tusko was pursued by circus folk on other elephants and by townspeople "tipping back bottles of ripe 'moon' to heighten the excitement.  Differing accounts suggest that Tusko's escape was set off by either an unusually severe beating or a "heap of fermented moonshiner's mash" that Tusko got into.  Or both.  Either way, he raised quite a ruckus, scared many of the town folks and became one of the most colorful pieces of folklore the small town of Sedro-Wooley can lay claim to.

Beneath the folksy retellings and funny anecdotes, however, the story also offers us a glimpse into what the life of an elephant with a traveling circus -- of which there were hundreds in the early part of the twentieth century -- must have been like.  And what we glimpse is not pretty. (You can see my previous posting on elephants in entertainment "Tears For Elephants" here.)

There are many stories like Tusko's (he escaped several times in his career, until it was finally deemed too risky to keep him in the circus, and he was sold to a zoo).  And they aren't just historical.  Try Googling "tiger escape zoo" and you'll be surprised by how often this happens.

In his ambitious new book Fear of the Animal Planet, historian Jason Hribal has collected a lot of these stories -- ranging from recent events like the escape of Tatiana the tiger at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007 to historical accounts of the life and death of the famous elephant Jumbo, who lived in a zoo in England before being acquired by P.T. Barnum.  What the stories have in common is they all concern escapes and attacks -- "fighting back" in Hribal's view.  His book is subtitled "The Hidden History of Animal Resistance" and if it did nothing more than collect these stories it would be an incredibly persuasive book.  The details of these animals' lives, outbreaks, and deaths have a power that is hard to ignore.  (Tatiana was supposedly being taunted by several young men at the zoo who threw things at her, and despite being loose in a zoo full of people for twenty minutes or more, she seemed to go after only those specific targets, ignoring everyone else.)

Unfortunately, that's not all that's in Fear of the Animal Planet, and I'm sorry to have to say that the book as a whole is deeply flawed.  I wanted to love it and I am in sympathy with its basic idea.  But the presentation is marred by dogmatism, philosophical sloppiness, lack of documentation and a persistent tendency to attribute thoughts and feelings to other creatures as if they were facts in situations where it is simply impossible to know what they were actually thinking.  And above all, I think the whole project is crippled by an unnecessary anti-scientific bias that robs it of its richest vein of support and credibility.

Hribal asserts -- you can't really say he argues, because the book doesn't present an argument in any sustained sense -- that these behaviors can be seen as acts of conscious resistance, and that they are comparable to the kinds of resistance that humans mount against oppressive and abusive circumstances.  I, personally, think that's a defensible position, but defending it effectively would take either a lot more or a little less than Hribal does in this book.

Fear of the Animal Planet doesn't present an argument -- it takes its own position as axiomatic -- because ultimately it is neither history nor philosophy -- it's a political polemic.  And as such, it becomes two dimensional and ineffective.  Those who already agree with Hribal don't need the book, and those who don't will be so turned off by his flat rhetoric that they won't respond to the book's most effective element:  the stories themselves. 

To start with, there is almost no documentation or attribution of sources.  There is a brief paragraph at the end of the prologue that spells out, in a general way, the materials that were consulted.  But this purports to be a work of history and the lack of detailed documentation and citing of sources is a serious flaw. When one is dealing with little known events and burdened by a controversial thesis, it's best not to give critics another reason to not take you seriously.

Let me look at just one passage that I think represents fairly well my problems with the book.  This is from the story of Jumbo, a world famous elephant who eventually became the star attraction of P.T. Barnum's circus.  Hribal does a very good job of recounting Jumbo's life and showing us how he became the best known captive animal in the world. 

Modern biologists call this developmental period: musth (Hindi word for madness).  And they define it as a phase of glandular secretion, higher testosterone-levels, and heighten sexual arousal.  In other words, this is a case of over-active and uncontrollable hormones; otherwise known as "heat".  One would have hoped the fields of natural science would have moved beyond the 17th century and biological determinism.  But to no avail.  Non-physiological factors -- such as captivity, poor labor conditions, brutal training methods, or the grind of the entertainment industry -- do not matter.  Intellectual maturity and independence of mind are not considered.  Rebellious attitudes and vengeful emotions do not exist.  Freedom, or the desire for autonomy, is something an elephant could never imagine.  Agency is a non-concept.

There's so much wrong with this paragraph that it's almost impossible to know where to start.  In general, it sets up a straw-man labeled "science" and whacks away at it without ever once addressing real scientists, real studies or real points-of-view.  The recognition of the effects of adolescence is not "biological determinism" -- we recognize all those factors, for instance, in human adolescents -- we even take them into account in explaining their behavior -- and yet we still hold them culpable and responsible for their actions.  We recognize both the physiological effects of puberty and "intellectual maturity" (not usually a condition of adolescence), "independence of mind" "the desire for autonomy" and agency.  In fact, understanding the effects of biology on behavior is no more determinism than recognizing environmental effects of "poor labor conditions" "brutal training methods" and so on.  Apparently social sciences are okay, but biology is too totalitarian.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Penguin Classics)
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin
The fact is that the image of science that Hribal sets up throughout this book is just wrong.  It might be true that a hundred years ago (or as he says in the 17th century) the view he is attacking was the prevailing view among scientists -- although as far back as Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, to name just two, there were prominent scientists who were interested in the thought and emotions of animals.  Darwin wrote a whole book about it. It certainly isn't true today.  The study of animal cognition and animal emotions has exploded in the last couple of decades, and scientists now openly debate questions of intention, thought, desire, and agency when discussing non-humans.  Just off the top of my head I could suggest half a dozen (or more) scientists and philosophers -- Mark Bekoff, Jane Goodall, Roger Fouts, Temple Grandin, Irene Pepperberg, Daniel Dennett, Frans de Waal -- who's work bears directly on these questions.  Not all of them would agree with Hribal, for sure, but all of them hold a much more nuanced and receptive view of non-human intelligence than Hribal allows for anywhere in his book.  And all of their work -- and much more from this rich vein of scientific inquiry -- could have been used to bolster and support Hribal's thesis.  But he never even tries.

Let me go on a little bit with the story of Jumbo from the book:

But Jumbo was no scientist, and he certainly did not see himself as a machine.  Resistance was his new thought.  He flew into terrible rages.  He tried repeatedly to escape.  He hurled himself against the enclosure.... [Italics added by me]

The problem with this passage -- and it's common of the technique throughout the book -- is more subtle, but also more dangerous.  I have written a lot about point-of-view in fiction -- and how traditional points of view can and cannot accommodate non-human consciousness.  I think anyone who has read anything I've written in this blog knows I believe in animal agency and consciousness.  But Hribal is not writing fiction here, he's writing history -- a serious historian simply does not attribute thoughts and feelings to a subject where no decisive documentation exists.  To say that Jumbo's actions strongly imply those kinds of feelings is fair.  To just insert them into the story as facts is intellectual dishonesty.  Speculation (or mind reading) should be clearly distinguished form historical fact.   

Consider it in another context.  A historian writing about George Washington would be scrupulous not to attribute thoughts or feelings to the man where they couldn't be supported.  And would likely be even more careful when writing, for instance, about someone from another culture whose ideas and preconceptions were likely to be very different.  But Hribal, writing not just about another culture, but about other species, feels free to gives us their thoughts and feelings in declaratory sentences with no qualifications and no objective support.  Not just as a writer -- but as a lover of animals -- I find that very disturbing.

Hribal draws no distinction between the responses to captivity of a highly social herbivorous creature like an elephant and a mostly solitary predator like a tiger.  He attributes exactly the same motives, thoughts and reasons in each case.  He doesn't seem to be interested in how their unique biological and evolutionary history shaped their different kinds of perceptions and responses.  (This, I guess, is "biological determinism".)  A tiger's view of the world would be as different from an elephant's as an elephant's would from a human's.  This is similar to a historian writing about incidents in widely divergent societies and times as if everyone involved shared the ideas and perceptions of the dominant culture. When we do it to humans, we call it imperialism.  It is, ironically, the very failure Hribal  attributes to science -- not trying to understand different species and animals as individuals, but simply projecting our own values, responses and feelings on them.   

I don't usually write negative reviews. I prefer to focus on books that are worth praising.  But Fear of the Animal Planet is too important a book to ignore.  When I first received it from the publisher, I was excited.  I was hoping for a book that would really engage in an intelligent, thoughtful way with the complex questions it raises.  

Sadly -- despite the importance of the stories it collects -- this is not that book.

1 comment:

  1. It is incredibly difficult to write an honest, critical review, even if it is a 'negative' one.

    I think this is still an in-depth view of the book, and honestly your frankness is refreshing.