animal resistance


For the Old Mole Variety Hour , June 6, 2011.     Last week, a 200-pound black bear showed up outside Tualatin Elementary school, and another black bear was found up a tree near Clark College and a high school. This is probably not a sign of the bear market in education. "Wildlife officials say bears may be showing up in inhabited areas because the cold, wet weather has made food scarce in higher elevations. " More generally, as many have noticed, humans are encroaching on animal territory, and animals are sometimes resisting that encroachment.       

Of course as moles, we are in solidarity with all our fellow mammals, both the free and the captive, who have also been fighting back.

A Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo leaped a 12-foot high wall and mauled three visitors who had been tormenting her, killing one. A circus elephant trampled and gored a trainer who had repeatedly fed her lit cigarettes. A pair of orangutans at the San Diego Zoo stole a crowbar and screwdriver and used them to break out of their enclosure. An orca at Sea World snatched his trainer into the pool and held her underwater until she drowned.

Jason Hribal's book,Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance, "argues … that these escapes and attacks are deliberate, that the animals are acting with intent, that they are asserting their own desires for freedom." that these are not simply accidents or animals acting on instinct as the zoos and theme parks would have us believe. Instead, Hribal sees captive animals as engaging in willful resistance when they attack their captors or tormentors.

Last week, AlterNet ran a review of Fear of the Animal Planet in which the reviewer, Thaddeus Russell, claimed that Hribal made the mistake of speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. Russell admits that the actions Hribal reports are verified, but insists that drawing any conclusions about the animals' states of mind is unwarranted.

Moreover, he compares Hribal's arguments to those of left historians of labor struggles or slavery (since, he says, "99 percent of American slaves left not a single record of their thoughts"), as well as to those of US administration officials who claim to be helping to free the women of Afghanistan, or to those Republicans who tried to get a fetus to testify in support of an anti-abortion measure in Ohio.

Clearly, there are some significant differences among these examples, and some obvious points to make in rebuttal. Fetuses, for instance, are inside actual women. And women's thoughts are often expressed in language, even if they are in Afghanistan, where, for instance, the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan have been quite clear about their desire for the occupying military to leave. The existence of anti-communist labor unions hardly negates the marxian account of labor exploitation, and, aside from the eloquent records left by many former slaves, the silence of others, as AlterNet commenters note, was not unrelated to the laws against teaching slaves to read and write. Moreover, one might well draw some conclusions from the history of slave revolts and escapes.

And what about animals? Can we conclude nothing from their actions about their states of mind? Jeffrey St Clair, in the introduction to Fear of the Animal Planet, draws on E. P. Evans' 1906 book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, to describe the medieval European trials of non-human beings: the charges ranged 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.

In these cases, St Clair points out that the defendants were presumed capable of 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. 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.

When he comes to the question of how this view of animals changed, St Clair points to modernity, enlightenment rationality, and, implicitly, to the rise of capitalism to explain how "animals [came] to be viewed as mindless commodities." Rene 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."

Francis Bacon declared in the "Novum Organum" [of 1620] 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." … "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. "

"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."

"Conveniently for humans, the philosophers of the Industrial Age declared that animal[s] 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. …"

"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."

(That's from Jeffrey St Clair's introduction to Jason Hribal's book from AK press, Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance.)

One can see why this argument might not go over well with a reviewer from a site whose motto is "free minds, free markets" –AlterNet reprinted Russell's review from Reason magazine But even some of those AlterNet readers who critique Russell, who appreciate the sentience of animals, and who might agree that the disenchantment of the world coincides with the rise of capitalism, in their comments object that attention to questions of animal right and wrongs and rebellions is a distraction in a world with more pressing issues on the progressive agenda.

Another approach is taken by Yes Magazine, which focused its Spring twenty-eleven issue on the question, Can Animals Save Us? That title keeps the focus on US, of course—this is hardly a view displacing humans.

But the issue does offer reminders of some of the ways that concern for animals is not just a distraction, but an integral part of the web of progressive concerns. The welfare and health of animals raised for human food obviously bears on the health and safety of what we eat.

As Animal Rights theorist Steven Best has put it, Since the fates of all species on this planet are intricately interrelated, the exploitation of animals cannot but have a major impact on the human world itself. When human beings exterminate animals, they devastate habitats and ecosystems necessary for their own lives. When they butcher farmed animals by the billions, they ravage rainforests, turn grasslands into deserts, exacerbate global warming, and spew toxic wastes into the environment. When they construct a global system of factory farming that requires prodigious amounts of land, water, energy, and crops, they squander vital resources and aggravate the problem of world hunger.

Further, the project of extending legal rights to animal and the rest of the natural world not only promises one route to protecting the world we depend on, it also raises important questions about the nature of the human and the current limits of humanitarianism.

Moreover, the resources of the police state are increasingly directed against those who work on behalf of animals. Since 2006, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has outlawed "many First Amendment activities, such as picketing, boycotts and undercover investigations if they “interfere” with an animal enterprise by causing a loss of profits"—in short, it "equates any action that hurts the bottom line of a corporation with “terrorism.”"

As far as I am aware, no non-human animals have been charged under this law.

The Spring twenty-eleven Yes Magazine also includes an essay by Chickasaw novelist and poet Linda Hogan, who observes, "The compassion we offer to animals is the same measure of love we are capable of offering other human beings. The suffering and pain of one is universal. When there is a wound in our world, we must do our best to heal it"


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