Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance is a book about the power struggle between humans and nonhuman animals in captivity. Only when humans succeed in dominating the animals totally – sometimes by killing them -- does this struggle end.
But according to Jason Hribal, author of the book, the animals fight back.
“[T]rough my research,” Hribal writes, “the resistance became ever more evident. Captive animals escaped their cages. They attacked their keepers. They refused to perform. They refused to reproduce. The resistance itself could be organized.”
What makes Fear of the Animal Planet unique is that, in the words of Jeffrey St. Clair’s Introduction, a history of humans’ oppression of nonhuman animals, it “tells the story of liberation from the animals’ points-of-view.”
People are used to viewing nonhuman animals performing tricks and on display as cute and entertaining in circuses, zoos and aquariums. But, Hribal argues, they’re exploited workers, overworked and abused for the greatest profits of their human owners.
The animals are treated as money-making commodities instead of the autonomous beings they are. Humans force them to perform difficult, repetitive maneuvers time and again. They live under inhumane conditions, their needs neglected and they are often punished with solitary confinement even though they’re social creatures.
Jason Hribal: Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance. Petrolia and Oakland, Cal., CounterPunch and AK Press, 2010, 162 pp., $15.95
Humans, Hribal says, capture the animals through trickery and violence in their natural environments and ship them elsewhere to be trained as performers or be displayed to the public. The training is punitive, relying for its success on deliberate pain and cruelty to the animals.
The standard responses of animals’ owners, trainers and keepers to escapes and attacks on humans aims to cover up the power struggle behind them, Hribal suggests.
The first response by the keepers/owners/trainers is that escapes and attacks on humans are rare events that don’t merit investigation. As Hribal’s book shows, such resistance isn’t rare.
"The animals are treated as money-making commodities instead of the autonomous beings they are."
The second response is to “deny agency.” Supposedly, the incident was accidental, a lamentable but natural and “instinctive” act by a “wild” animal.” Hribal’s research, however, demonstrated that such incidents aren’t isolated but the produce of intentional resistance.
Whether the incident was an escape or attack, the third response is to redesign the cages with ever greater security measures.
Fourth is to “manage public relations” by controlling information about the incident. Upon questioning, a designated spokesperson states repeatedly that the facility is an “important resource for conservation and education” and reassures the public that “appropriate changes have been implemented and that the park is safe for the return of visitors.”
To escape, some animals perform extraordinary feats. Little Joe, a 300-pound adolescent gorilla, braved a moat 12 feet deep and 12 feet wide plus an electrified fence to escape. Gorillas can’t swim.
Not all resistance ends in violence by the animals, but it often ends in violence against the animals.
Tatiana was a Siberian tiger caged in the San Francisco Zoo who went on an apparently random rampage in 2007, scaling a 12-foot wall, killing one person and injuring two others critically. But it turns out Tatiana didn’t attack just anyone. She was careful to hunt down some teenage tormentors.
“Tatiana went directly after the men who had been taunting her and ripped one of them to pieces,” Hribal observes. “The other two ran. For 20 minutes, Tatiana roamed the zoo grounds. She was presented with many opportunities to attack park employees and emergency responders. But Tatiana was singular in her purpose. She wanted to find those two remaining teenagers, and she would do just that at the Terrace Café.” Police shot her to death.
"They live under inhumane conditions, their needs neglected and they are often punished with solitary confinement even though they’re social creatures."
Sometimes the escapee travels not far from her cage, simply enjoying her new-found liberty.
Hribal argues that captive animals who, in human terms, misbehave are actually resisting captivity. His evidence is incidents gleaned from national and international newspapers, government documents, lawsuits and online sources.
The book presents the evidence through individual cases, focusing each chapter on a different species of animal -- large cats, monkeys, elephants and sea mammals. What makes the book convincing is the sheer cumulative effect of the carefully documented stories.
A fascinating but harrowing read, Fear of the Animal Planet forces us to confront the ugly reality behind an illusion we’re used to taking for granted as reality. Shock and emotional discomfort inevitably accompany such an experience of disillusionment.
To Hribal, captivity is an unjust state, beginning with violence and maintained by violence, and the animals rebel when they can.
“Wild” animals are aptly named and, like nuclear power, are a force too great, complex and destructive for humans to mess with. To cease holding “wild” animals captive for any purpose is the answer.
A note on the text. The book has an unusual amount of mechanical errors, particularly near the end, which distract from the reading experience. Words are missing, commas are misplaced, and one sentence refers to “solidarity confinement.” Before the next printing Fear of the Animal Planet should receive the excellent copy editing and proofreading it deserves.
Linda Greene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.