Controlling Animals?

Sultan the Barbary Lion, New York Zoo, 1897. Source: Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society, 1897, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tina Adcock, Jennifer Bonnell, Susan Nance, and Jessica Wang

Three weeks ago, a male Barbary lion named Cous Cous attacked and killed Dianna Hanson at a wild cat park in Dunlap, California.

While Hanson, a volunteer at the park, was cleaning an enclosure adjacent to the lions’ feeding cage, Cous Cous lifted the latch on the partly closed door separating the two spaces and leapt through. The park had numerous protocols in place to enforce such boundaries: walkie-talkies to keep employees in contact with each other, rules governing who could enter the lions’ cage, and so on. Yet Cous Cous transgressed that line all the same—and paid with his life. A sheriff’s deputy shot him as he worried Hanson’s body, unable to leave it alone. Hanson had been fascinated with big cats her whole life. Her father, Paul, told reporters, “I’ve always had a premonition this would happen. She really loved getting up close and personal with the animals.”[1]

This encounter shows how easily physical and imaginary lines that separate people and animals can be elided, smudged, or transgressed. Fascination draws humans dangerously close to wild animals. Cages are not foolproof. An intent paw can lift a latch, and a “tamed” captive lion can become uncontrollable very suddenly. We consider similar lines between species and their crossings in our ASEH panel, which deals with issues of power and agency in human-animal relations in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canada and the United States. We argue that neither humans nor animals possess full control in such relationships. Rather, both are subject to a constrained, or modified agency founded upon the circumstances and environments in which they’re located. These entangled lives act upon each other with equal, if different kinds of force.

Each panellist explores these issues within different entanglements of places, actors, and bonds. Susan Nance details the experiences and perceptions of elephants in American travelling circuses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Circus owners and animal trainers tried to “instrumentalize” these animals, turning elephants into tools capable of illustrating live natural history lessons for audiences waiting to be entertained and educated. Yet it’s impossible to force a 6000-pound animal to do something she doesn’t want to do. Increasingly violent, and sometimes fatal encounters between elephants and circus workers produced a popular discourse in which elephants were figured as inherently criminal and dysfunctional animals by the humans (and other spectators) to whom they refused to submit.

Jennifer Bonnell considers the delicate bind that entrapped beekeepers at the beginning of the last century. Honeybees are neither fully domesticated nor fully wild; they are contained in hives, yet must have the freedom to forage. Insecticides and bee diseases increasingly threatened the welfare of these insects in the fields and orchards of Ontario. Unable to limit bees’ ability to roam, beekeepers worked with their neighbours and governments to minimize environmental risks through the development of practices and laws that reshaped the landscapes through which their wards moved. New and widespread insecticides now render these landscapes more dangerous than ever. In 2007, colony collapse disorder resulted in the loss of 30 billion bees—one-quarter of the northern hemisphere’s population—in Europe and North America.

Attempts to control mammals led some humans to tread dangerously close to the species line. Tina Adcock explores normative discourses within North American fur trapping handbooks published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Practical manuals urged trappers to “know the wild animals like a mother knows her child”—to develop empathetic relationships with fur-bearers and intimate knowledge of their habits and habitats to bring them within the reach of traps. Handbooks also encouraged trappers to enroll larger nonhuman networks of distributed agency in this task. Using snow, mud, twigs, and leaves to embed traps into “natural” and “undisturbed” settings, trappers could subtly bend landscapes into configurations that enabled better human control over local fur-bearing individuals.

Jessica Wang explores the interactions of humans and domesticated animals on city streets in nineteenth-century New York. Suspected mad dogs on the run, along with free-ranging pigs, stampeding livestock, and other rampaging urban dwellers on four legs, possessed significant capacity to disrupt human notions of order and control. Wang wonders, however, whether agency has become an overly banal and clichéd way of understanding animals’ relations with humans. Might it be more fruitful, in Deweyan pragmatist fashion, simply to follow the consequences of shared urban space? If “agency” constitutes a form of description rather than an analytical device that offers explanatory value, we could also employ a social history approach that shows how domestic animals’ presence shaped the texture of everyday life in the city. The end result was small dramas of age, class, gender, and social geography surrounding what Christine Stansell once called “the uses of the street.”

The study of historical human-animal relationships continues to move closer to the centre of our field’s attention. Flip through the last year or two of Environmental History, and you’ll find scarcely an issue without at least one article featuring animals in starring roles. What you won’t find is any overarching or programmatic approach toward this topic, or the questions about agency, power, and representation that inevitably attend it. Employing the sensitive, responsive pragmatism that is the hallmark of our discipline, environmental historians have used a wealth of narrative and analytical perspectives to tease out the nuances and consequences of these relationships in ways that suit disparate times, places, and actors best.

So, if you find animals to good to think with and interesting to think about, as we do, come along to our panel. Perhaps you’ll find something useful in the specific ways we approach these fascinating, maddening, and, yes, occasionally fatal relationships in our own work.

Tina Adcock (Rutgers), Jennifer Bonnell (University of Guelph), Susan Nance (University of Guelph), and Jessica Wang (UBC) are historians presenting at the American Society for Environmental History meeting in Toronto.
Panel 8-C will be held on Saturday, April 6 at 10:30 am in the British Columbia room.

[1] Laila Kearney and Alex Dobuzinskis, “Woman killed by caged lion in California died suddenly of broken neck: Coroner,” Reuters, 7 March 2013, accessed 22 March 2013 (…).

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