Animal Rights

Ventriloquists for the Powerless

Translating the revolutionary consciousness of voiceless animals is no more silly than doing the same for human beings.


Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, by Jason Hribal, CounterPunch/AK Press, 153 pages, $15.95

Jason Hribal's Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance will be ignored, dismissed, and mocked. Published by the tiny and idiosyncratic AK Press and written by an obscure semi-academic, it proposes an argument that will make anyone other than the fiercest PETA activists smirk. Yet it should be required reading for all social scientists and political activists, because it perfectly demonstrates a central and enduring problem of modern left-wing political discourse: the tendency to speak on behalf of those who have not spoken.

Hribal argues that for more than two centuries, animals in zoos, circuses, and marine amusement parks not only have been "oppressed" and "exploited" but have been conscious of their oppression and exploitation, waging an intentional "struggle" for "control of production," "autonomy," "revenge," and the "dream of freedom."

It's not difficult to dismiss Hribal as a Marxist Doctor Doolittle or his social science as cartoonish. After all, he ascribes political consciousness to creatures whose thoughts cannot be known. But his claims of knowing the thoughts of animals are no more arrogant or absurd than the claims countless academics and activists continue to make about the consciousness of people whose ideas are also inaccessible. 

Most of Fear of the Animal Planet is an impressively thorough catalog of animals refusing to perform tricks, escaping their cages and enclosures, and attacking handlers and audiences. Unlike his descriptions of animals' minds, which of course are impossible to substantiate, Hribal's accounts of their behavior are supported with verifiable evidence (usually multiple eyewitness accounts). They certainly show that many animals have not done what they were trained to do.

We learn about the unruly behavior of Jumbo, a 19th-century African bush elephant who was the first animal celebrity. At the London Zoo in Regent's Park, Jumbo frequently rammed the iron doors of his exhibition cage and slammed his trainer to the floor. After he was sold to P.T. Barnum's circus in the United States, for several weeks Jumbo refused to enter the shipping container, despite numerous proddings and stabbings by trainers. These events are well-documented and difficult to dispute.

But in determining the meaning of events, Hribal, like most of the Marxist scholars who inspired him, becomes a ventriloquist. Jumbo "did not see himself as a machine," Hribal writes, and "resistance was his new thought." Another unruly circus elephant, named Janet, "hated" her trainers. Mary and Tory were not just pachyderms that walked out of a circus ring; they were "two disgruntled employees." Writing as if he had read Tyke the elephant's manifesto, Hribal claims this most infamous of circus animals crushed her trainer to death during a performance in Honolulu because she "was tired of being leased out to circuses and carnivals," "sick of the dismal and dangerous working conditions," and "through with the untreated injuries and wounds and the lack of basic healthcare."

Not only does Hribal ascribe specific ideas to his elephant "rebels" but, like communitarians who speak on behalf of masses of people, he also casts them as a part of a collective, global, trans-historical consciousness. The behaviors of Jumbo in London in 1882, Janet in Florida in 1992, Tyke in Hawaii in 1994, and Mary and Tory in Wisconsin in 2002 were all "part of a larger struggle against oppression and exploitation."

According to Hribal, the "larger struggle" crosses not just time and space but also species. Like their pachyderm comrades, the monkeys and apes that escape from zoos "know what freedom is and they want it." Likewise, the sea lions, dolphins, and orcas in marine amusement parks share this "dream of freedom." Their occasional refusals to obey commands from trainers are "strikes" that are part of "the battle over the control of production." The Sea World orca named Tilikum who in 2010 dragged his trainer to the bottom of a tank and held her there until she drowned was actually presenting "a clear, pronounced demonstration of his dislike of captivity and all that it entails: from the absence of autonomy to the exploitative relations to the ever-increasing work-load." Marine biologists do believe that orcas communicate with one another, but I doubt that any scientist has heard revolutionary jargon in their clicks and whistles.

Hribal does not merely make his finned and four-legged insurrectionists speak his political language. He has them stand in for all of their caged brethren, the vast majority of whom never tried to escape their confines or stomp a keeper. In this way, again, he is no different from many historians of human beings.

In 1988 the literary theorist Gayatri Spivak published an essay criticizing a new movement among scholars of South Asia known as "subaltern studies." The movement was an attempt to replace colonialist histories of the subcontinent with "history from below," an enterprise that had been under way among left-wing historians in Great Britain and the United States since the 1960s. What Spivak found in this new approach to South Asian history I find in the "new social history" of the United States: a widespread but largely unconscious effort to place explicitly political and collectivist ideas in the minds of historical subjects who left no record of their thoughts. Spivak argued that the objective of university academics to "establish true knowledge of the subaltern and its consciousness" was essentially a new form of imperialism —an attempt to remake the world in the image of oneself. 

Try this for an exercise: Open any book written in the last 40 years on African-American history, women's history, or labor history and count the number of times Hribal's terms describing the consciousness of animals are used to describe the consciousness of people. Then look for evidence that the people themselves used those terms. Most often, you will find the self-appointed leaders of the "oppressed" and "exploited"—abolitionists, feminists, union leaders, civil rights leaders, and political radicals—standing in for their constituents and speaking the language that left-wing historians want to hear.

It is not a defense of slavery, segregation, the denial of rights to women, or poverty to acknowledge the fact that, according to the available evidence, only a tiny portion of their alleged victims clearly thought of themselves that way. Few historians mention that a majority of the ex-slaves who were interviewed held positive views of their days on the plantation (including those who were interviewed by African Americans) or, more important, that more than 99 percent of American slaves left not a single record of their thoughts. The implication of Spivak's argument, which was applied to similar treatments of Indian peasants, is that to claim a status for all slaves as "victimized" or "oppressed" is to homogenize the attitudes, behaviors, and cultures of millions of people and to make them one's sock puppet. Similarly, the total African-American participation in the organized civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s equaled roughly 1 percent of the total African-American population of the time. We also know that many African Americans, most notably black nationalists, attacked civil rights leaders for being sell-out "Uncle Toms" and cultural assimilationists. Yet in our textbooks Martin Luther King Jr. is presented as the voice of all 20 million black people alive during his lifetime.

The most egregious political ventriloquism can be found in U.S. labor history, where the socialists and social democrats who took control of some unions are used by historians to present the American working class as having a long tradition of collectivist aspirations. My 2001 book on Jimmy Hoffa, Out of the Jungle, was the first to note that anti-socialist, strictly bread-and-butter unions like the Teamsters dwarfed the combined membership of the socialist-led unions beloved by New Left labor historians.

And the views of how many women have been represented by feminist discourse since its origins in the 19th century? Jason Hribal does to dolphins what Hillary Clinton is doing to the women of Afghanistan, but with a far more consequential intention than the razing of Sea World. Clinton and a large swath of feminists are justifying the military occupation of Afghanistan by claiming that Afghan women are current or potential "victims" of Sharia law and the Taliban. Yet only a small fraction of Afghan women have been asked in polls whether they agree with this assessment of their own lives; a majority who have been asked endorse Sharia law, and a significant percentage even endorse the return to power of the Taliban. If we liberate the women of Afghanistan, we will do so against the wishes of many of the liberated.

Speaking for the subaltern is not exclusively a practice of the left. Recently two fetuses testified against reproductive rights during a hearing of the Ohio state legislature. Lying on gurneys in the hearing room, two pregnant women were scanned by an ultrasound machine as a video monitor broadcast the images and sounds of their fetuses' beating hearts. The fetuses were there to contribute their unwitting support to the "heartbeat bill," which would ban abortions in Ohio as soon as a heartbeat could be detected, except in medical emergencies.

So let us use the apparent absurdities of this book to question our own equally absurd but also imperialistic claims about the beliefs and aspirations of those we do not know. 

Thaddeus Russell ( teaches history and American studies at Occidental College. His most recent book is A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press).

Bonus video: Watch Thaddeus Russell discuss the renegades who helped make America free.

NEXT: Prairie State Debt

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  1. Get your hands off of me you God damned dirty ape.

    Someone had to say it. That line is right up there with “Coffee is for closers” and “You think I am funny” for memorable movie lines.

    1. You maniac, you blew the quote. Damn you. God damn you all to hell!

      “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape.”

        1. My dog thinks you’re an asshole.

    2. Yep. I don’t get the attitude that underlines that mentality that sees everything in terms of a fair dualism (OT it is what I also find annoying in Orson Scott Card’s fiction). I don’t give a damn if I’m right, it only matters that I’m righteous, like Charleston Heston’s character saying, ‘Get your hands off of me you God damned dirty ape.’ They could have capped him right then and there and he still would have been the baddest motherfucker they ever laid eyes on.

  2. Wow. I want back the time I wasted reading that drivel. Ugh.

    1. Perhaps you would care to outline your objections? I think it is a fair comparison: historians like to assume attitudes are the same towards a thing they view as an injustice, and that is that the “noble third-worlder” must be just as outraged as the historian-viewer, when that simply is not the case.

      1. Perhaps you would care to outline your objections?

        I thought I did.

        1. You new mexicans are all the same, throwing out criticisms without justification. Oh to have the old days again ai dios mio.

  3. The elephants also said they hate being the mascot for the GOP.

    1. We like being the mascot for the democrats!

  4. Wow, OK man this makes a LOT of sense when you think about it. Wow.

  5. free me from this wop

    1. You really need to stalk someone else, rectal. You are tiresome beyond belief. Stalk John or something (sorry John, but you had first post in this thread).

      1. Getting toward the end of the month, I see. Meds are running low.

        1. Are you implying rectal is a mental patient? Because that’s insane.

          1. No, but she always swings into a manic phase toward the end of the month. Month-to-month meds running low is a reasonable explanation for the phenomena.

            1. You make a valid point. You know from experience, right? Your mom?

              1. No, me. I take pills to cope with you being a shitty pen pal.

                1. I’m busy, OK?!?

                  1. Pay attention to MEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

                    1. Narcissists complaining about narcissists.

  6. Pets simply suffer from false consciousness. We need an npr/msnbc specifically for them. /peta

    1. There’s an ape for that.

  7. no more arrogant or absurd than the claims countless academics and activists continue to make about the consciousness of people whose ideas are also inaccessible.

    Who will speak for the lower-order beasts if not limousine liberals and enlightened academics?

    1. Who speaks for those uncounted multitudes of single cell creatures that every day are sucked into the gullets of supposedly “higher” life forms… who speaks for them huh?

      1. Every bout of diarrhea you have is our political voice! LISTEN TO US ROAR!

  8. I think another good example would be pretending that Native Americans had no idea of private property and land ownership when in fact almost all of them knew and practiced it.

    1. Had to take American history from someone who quoted Marx frequently.

      Anyways, even he spent many hours outlining tribal concepts of land rights, versus land use. They did have a ‘concept’ of private property. It is similar in that there exists the idea of property as an extension of a person’s life.

      The fundamental difference was who owned that life. ie. is your life, and its derivatives yours, or is your life, and its extensions your tribes, or more specifically, is it owned by whomever can ‘best’ utilize it, and whom ‘most need’s’ it at the time.

      1. Johnson v. Mcintosh spells it all out. It didn’t matter what the “indians” believed. The white man had arrived.

  9. “Have you a license for your minkey?”

  10. Two legs bad, four legs good.

    1. Five is best of all.

  11. I’m working on a book where I clearly demonstrate that the zoo animal resistance movement is actually more similar to the tea party movement than the labor or civil rights movement. The animals say they want freedom, but are too stupid to understand their own best interests. That orca was like Jared Lee Loughner. If anything it just demonstrates animals need to be locked up even harder.

    1. Chimpanzees have to realize that as long as they refuse to buy health insurance we can continue to lock them up.

      Commerce clause, chimp bitches!

  12. The monkeys stand for honesty,
    Giraffes are insincere,
    And the elephants are kindly but
    They’re dumb.
    Orangutans are skeptical
    Of changes in their cages,
    And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

    Zebras are reactionaries,
    Antelopes are missionaries,
    Pigeons plot in secrecy,
    And hamsters turn on frequently.

    1. An Effervescing Elephant
      With tiny eyes and great big trunk,
      Once whispered in the tiny ear,
      The ear of one inferior
      That by next June he’d die, oh yeah!
      Because the tiger would roam.
      The little one said: “Oh my goodness, I must stay at home!
      And every time I hear a growl,
      I’ll know the tiger’s on the prowl,
      And I’ll be really safe, you know,
      The elephant, he told me so.”

      Everyone was nervy, oh yeah!
      And the message was spread
      To zebra, mongoose,
      And the dirty hippopotamus,
      Who wallowed in the mud and chewed
      His spicy hippo-plankton food
      And tended to ignore the word
      Preferring to survey a herd
      Of stupid water bison, oh yeah!
      And all the jungle took fright,
      And ran around for all the day and the night

      But all in vain, because, you see,
      The tiger came and said: “Who me?!
      You know, I wouldn’t hurt not one of you.
      I’d much prefer something to chew,
      and you’re all too scant.” Oh yeah!
      He ate the Elephant.

  13. Eat me.

  14. “Translating the revolutionary consciousness of voiceless animals is no more silly than doing the same for human beings.”

    Or to put it another way, anyone claiming to speak for other people who have not explicitly agreed to allow that person to be their spokesman is just as full of shit as somebody claiming to speak for animals.

    1. I speak for the trees!

      1. I’ll speak for the highest bidder. What words would you like in my mouth?

        1. Hey Buddy.

          We’ll do the talkin’ around here.

  15. does _everything_ have to be viewed through a Marixst prism? It gets tiresome.

    1. er Marxist

    2. It’s a childish way of looking at things. Having agency–being responsible for you’re actions–terrifies the stunted academic mindset. It’s better to dismiss choice as an illusion than bear the thought of having to live with the results of poor ones.

      1. Freewill is such a bourgeois concept. How pedestrian.

        1. MNG: But – but – employers have money!

          1. Only corporations have free will, which is why they must be stopped. LLCs are okay, though.

            1. An employee or spokesman of a corporation acts however most enriches the shareholders, thereby giving up their free will. The will of profit is the will of a corporation, and they have no other ethical obligations, unlike actual human beings.

    3. No. Sometimes it can be looked at through the prism of race and sexual oppressed and oppressor.

  16. Actually reading things takes effort, so I am an accomplished skimmer. Decent point being made in this piece and it’s certainly true that it is absurd, people appointing themselves as the voice of the powerless and sharing as authoritative, their “interpretation” of the thoughts and desires of the voiceless. Funny how their interpretation typically fits hand in glove with their own wishes and desires.

  17. does _everything_ have to be viewed through a Marixst prism?

    Puny human brain craves easy explanations; order (or the appearance thereof) must be imposed.

  18. It’s even worse than Thaddeus indicates.

    After all, we aren’t just dealing with people who will invent thoughts and sentiments for people who leave no records.

    It goes well beyond that.

    The modern left is perfectly happy to take cases where people did leave records of their thoughts and sentiments and claim that those thoughts and sentiments were false and were simply one more aspect of oppression and exploitation.

    “If you deny you are oppressed, you have simply internalized your oppression! We know your thoughts and feelings better than you do!”


    1. Yeah, hegemony is the excuse for all sorts of things: You don’t know you’re being oppressed, so your denial of being oppressed is proof you are being oppressed and need to be reeducated.

  19. Not only are you oppressed, you’re deluded.

  20. I blame Dr. Seuss and the Lorax.
    “I speak for the trees!”
    Sure ya do, buddy.

  21. You know who wanted to let dogs talk for themselves?

    1. I always knew he had to have *some* redeeming feature.

  22. Translating the revolutionary consciousness of voiceless animals is no more silly than doing the same for human beings God.

    1. do you realize that God is doG spelled backwards?

      1. I speak through you.

  23. “I can haz social justice?”

    1. “Trained peepul, I has one! Git ur own!”

    2. That nearly killed me 😀

  24. fresno dan’s cat: no tuna, no peace

  25. This is obviusly a barely disguised attempt at racial hatemongering. Why don’t you just go out and explicitly say that Dr. Zira looks like Michelle Obama? Faulty parallel ur trying to make coudln’t be more obvious

  26. A very interesting article. I think it speaks to the legitimacy of a lot of the lefts ideals, which is to speak for those who do not/can not speak for themselves. They consider themselves the vanguard party of the oppressed and it is their duty to raise the consciousness of this oppressed group to realize their oppression and cast off their shackles… I am getting too tired of the moral elite trying to conduct the march of “progress” at the expense of reason.

    1. at the expense of reason.


    2. As soon as a person understands their own particular state of oppression, of course, they are subsequently branded as a “leftist”. The only way to win your game is to remain ignorant!

  27. I can’t speak for all animals, just the ones in my house, and their primary concern is equity. What one gets, they all should get. If if none of them get it, that’s fine, too. But none of them should get special privileges over any other. When that does happen, it drives them nuts. Basically, I live with little furry socialists.

    The larger issue is the person speaking for others, be they animal or human, is trying to use their (self-proclaimed) status to gain power. If some wanker speaks for the trees, you would give him more status and accord than some wanker who just speaks for himself. But unless you’re carrying a petition signed by the tress, you really are just some wanker who wants extra consideration for his viewpoint.

    Which is why you should ignore anybody who claims to speak for those with no voice: they’re lying to gain power.

  28. “The Sea World orca named Tilikum who in 2010 dragged his trainer to the bottom of a tank and held her there until she drowned was actually presenting “a clear, pronounced demonstration of his dislike of captivity and all that it entails: from the absence of autonomy to the exploitative relations to the ever-increasing work-load.””

    I warned them that if Tilikum didn’t get a 10% shift differential in his fish feedings and paid sick leave, there’d be trouble…

  29. I find it very easy to believe that captive critters could be unhappy with their situations. And that they might act out about it.

    The various cats and dogs that I have been privileged to buttle for been perfectly capable of liking and disliking the service they were getting, and has their ways of letting me know it.

    But I find it hard to believe that these feeling were coached in Marxist dialectic.


  30. “I’m not defending it, I’m just saying, how do we know those suffering under it didn’t enjoy it?”

    The writer notes almost no slaves left a record of their thoughts. Rather than connect this with brutal inhumane treatment, he believes this is an indication the slaves may well have liked slavery a lot.

    That those interviewed preferred the relative security of plantation life is no more than an indictment of the scandalous postwar Reconstruction policies that criminalized black life and continued their exploitation for work under the label criminal instead of slave.

    This review is mostly well-written but I tend to agree more with the book’s author that animals obviously hate being dominated by another species. I say mostly because I am puzzled by the references to Marx whose economic theories had nothing to do with animals. The review’s writer appears to be a typical example of a mainstream media commentator for whom PETA activists, Marxists, and anyone who has the audacity to sympathize with oppressed or suffering groups or individuals, are all part of the same big nebulous category, defined as menacing more often than unfounded. He appears disturbed by any upset in hierarchical order, just or unjust.

    I’m struck by the massive irony of grandiosely, proudly taking shots at “left-wing historians” for speaking for marginalized groups while daring to suggest in the same article that even systems of oppression now widely acknowledged as horribly unjust like slavery were not that bad for those under them. Or at least he feels we should assume so until they rise from the grave and prove otherwise, since they appear to have been silenced for some strange reason during their lives. Could this voicelessness be connected to this suffering and oppression, and an indication that if the voiceless could speak, they would be?

    The writer wonders why, if slavery was so bad, no slaves left records of their thoughts describing how bad it was. John Milton said “They who have put out the people’s eyes now reproach them of their blindness.” The writer ought to figure out that not being articulate, and being ignored if you are, is part of being oppressed. Regarding suffering parties as worthy of compassion and recognition as dignified creatures that matter is a far cry from the kind of patronising and marginalizing voices which presumptuously speak for the suffering to suggest their pain is not that bad, and for all we know they are masochists who enjoy the bottom of the hierarchy.

  31. Andrew,
    I suggest you reread the article.
    There is no suggestion that the writer knew what slaves or other oppressed groups thought.
    In fact, to think so means you missed the entire point of the article.
    The point of the article is, “We do not know what they thought”
    But to you, unless he clearly states that all slaves hated slavery, he is saying that all slaves loved slavery. The nuance of “more than 99% left no records” is totally lost on you.

    1. The implication is that it is impossible for oppressed people to ever work together to solve their problems… or perhaps, worse, that there’s no such thing as oppression. It’s a convenient fantasy if one’s goal is to maintain privilege and unearned advantages, and keep people divided and unable to fight back.

  32. I won’t begin to claim that I understand the implication of what the author of this article has to say about oppression and authoritarian control over the life of another. But it seems that he was simply making the argument, that if you want to argue for the rights of the “less-fortunate” we need to stop making assumptions about what these “less-fit” are saying in response to the way they are treated by their oppressors. On the flip side, I think it is fair to say that assigning a voice to the voiceless has less to do with interpreting what the voiceless actually have to say, as it has to do with the ventriloquist expressing what he wishes for himself. Personally, I desire greater freedom from oppression for, at least animals of my own species, because I want greater freedom for myself. Freedom from oppression is about liberating all people for the sake of yourself. (I.e. if I vote more social justice for others, I hope to receive some of that social justice myself.) Also, I know that depending on a wide variety of reasons (educational, economical, etc…) some people simply don’t have the ability to speak for themselves. I don’t believe that one has to be a ventriloquist to empathies with those who are less fortunate. Social justice & the Enlightment movement, in general, is less about giving a voice to the voiceless as it is about demanding more freedom for ones self. If all people are not oppressed, what makes us think we ourselves, regardless of how powerful we may currently be, won’t become oppressed if we don’t stand up and give a voice to the voiceless?

  33. Great stuff, Thaddeus.

    For our present time, I can’t help think of all the child savers who are attempting to save children from various horrors, all around the world – despite the fact that many of those children enjoy those horrors, and that the child savers never actually ask the children what they want.

    In fact, I recall reading one account of a court case (maybe it was an old Village Voice article) in which one of the children who had been called to testify in a case complained that although the advocacy group involved had put up giant billboards telling people to “listen to the children”, they seemed utterly uninterested in what the children actually said.

    Naturally I’m not saying that animals, children, or others have never been victimized – but sometimes it seems like the cure is worse than the disease.

  34. “Jason Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance will be ignored, dismissed, and mocked.”

    Are you familiar with the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”?

    If the book is so unworthy of consideration, why bother to even mention it, even if you bash it?

    153 pages? Is this a book, or a propaganda pamphlet?

    If you find a moron screaming ridiculous crap in the middle of the forest, it’s usually best just to walk away and leave the moron screaming.

    Even sincere, piercing criticism of idiots just promotes idiots in the end.

  35. The important thing is that each individual is atomized and isolated, eh Reason?

  36. Who is this “tiny and idiosyncratic”, “obscure semi-academic” named “Thaddeus Russell”?
    Oh, I know a pompous douche! Who is “legitimate” and writes for Reason! Wow!

    If someone begins an article with ad hominem it is pretty clear that they don’t have a leg to stand on other that arguments based on nothing more than arguing from authority.

    “I’m a real historian! That’s why I’m right when I say its true!”

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