They don’t wanna be your beasts of burden
Review by Sam Adams
Fear of the Animal Planet
AK Press / CounterPunch
Are captive animals consciously revolting?
An alcoholic circus trainer with a bull-hook spears a disobedient elephant. The elephant gets pissed, digs his tusks into the trainer, throws him through the air and goes rampaging off. The elephant rushes past terrified onlookers, leaving a wake of chaos, and is eventually cornered by an armed militia. Poor Babar is riddled with bullets and collapses in a bloody heap.
With character and species variations aside, this—repeated ad nauseam—is pretty much the narrative substance of Jason Hribal's Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance.
Starting with Tatiana the tiger, who scaled a 12-foot wall and mauled three people at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007, Hribal explores seemingly every captive animal attack and escape over the last century. He argues that these instances were not merely isolated acts of unpredictable instinct, but rather, ongoing, deliberate measures of revolt. "Captive animals have used their intelligence, ingenuity, and tenacity to overcome the situations and obstacles put before them," writes Hribal. "Their actions have had intent and purpose. ... They are choosing to fight back."
Most of us, aside from a small, enlightened sector of the population—namely horse whisperers and pet psychics—have no idea what’s going through a chimp's head. Especially when he decides to go all apeshit on a trainer. (Literally. There are a lot of unhappy primates flinging their feces here.) And it's doubtful that Hribal knows much more. But he does present some interesting questions: Why did that tiger circle the crowded park for half an hour, attacking no one but three teenagers who taunted her? Why have so many escaped circus elephants passed through crowds of innocent onlookers only to single out and gore abusive trainers? Why do most acts of animal defiance occur after a certain age?
Starting with Tatiana the tiger, who scaled a 12-foot wall and mauled three people at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007, Hribal explores seemingly every captive animal attack and escape over the last century.
The number of events that Hribal has unearthed is dizzying. And because of their volume and monotonous similarity, Fear of the Animal Planet is a much duller read than what one might expect from 153 pages of retributive carnage. But in the end, this method of hitting readers over the head continuously with the same story does deliver a message: The same violent absurdities have transpired more times than could be coincidental. And the circumstances behind them are, indeed, reprehensible. Regardless of what’s really going through the minds of animals in captivity, a crowning achievement of Hribal's book is it’s comprehensive history of their actions under such circumstances.
That said, the impression that you’re reading the ramblings of an underground radicalist publication, more devoted to ideals than accuracy, at times come through. The body is littered with typos. A lengthy introduction written by the author's editor runs the topical gamut from medieval bestiality trials to out-of-context quotes from every great thinker of the last millennium. And for a book that is presented like a sociology text, the lack of citations and sourcing raises some questions. It all becomes comical when the author can't help but indulge himself as he cheers on his animal brethren: "Only the fictional Hannibal Lector [sic] garnered as much concern and technological ingenuity as that imposed on Diamond," Hribal writes of one tortured creature. "Ironically, like Lector [sic], this elephant too would get his revenge."
The end result is part pulp-academia, part Michael Moore meets Ric O'Barry (you know, that badass dolphin liberationist dude from The Cove). The bias is obvious, and Fear of the Animal Planet might not exactly stand up as a scientific document (is the phrase "kicked the crap out of" common in the zoological lexicon?). But it’ll make you think twice about taking your kids to SeaWorld.
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