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Animal Agency: Resistance, Rebellion, and the Struggle for Autonomy

Animal Agency: Resistance, Rebellion, and the Struggle for Autonomy

January 25, 2011

by Steven Best, Ph.D

"In a war between humans and bears. I'd take the side of the bears." John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club

The most interesting front in the multifaceted war of position to influence the outcome of the future for the planet -- in the most tempestuous and consequential struggles of the day involving the politics of nature -- as it becomes ever-clearer to elephants, primates, and birds that human aggression and invasion has reached crisis proportion, awakening survival instincts and precipitating vengeance.

Giving this dynamic the sustained attention it merits, Jason Hribal's essays and recent book, Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, chronicle acts of rebellion, defiance, resistance, and revolt within the animal kingdom against their human oppressors.[1] A systematic study of anecdotal reports, Hribal goes beyond the established facts of mental, emotional, and social complexity among animals to argue that they have agency. One finds numerous accounts of animal personhood and agency in the field of animal studies, but Hribal takes this disciple to task as well for its abstract and one-dimensional treatments that ignore the political dimension of animal action and the pervasive phenomena of resistance to oppression and slave rebellion.

In an earlier essay, "Animals, Agency and Class: Writing the History of Animals from Below," Hribal describes the various forms of slavery nonhuman animals are subjected to, such as endured by urban transport animals:[2]

In the cities, the production situation was even more precarious. Animal-powered carts, wagons, carriages, cabs, street-cars, and omnibuses filled the streets of the 19th century -- For urban horses and mules, it took two years to become properly trained for this type of work. For coachmen, it took three years. Shifts lasted on average eight to 14 hours per day. The work week ranged from six to seven days. As populations continued to grow, traffic and congestion increased. By the early 20th century, the number of horses and mules working in American cities stood at approximately 35 million -- an increase of six-fold from the beginning of the previous century. There were more and more vehicles on the road. The intensity and volume of work continued to accrue -- more emphasis on speed, more night-work, greater distances, more routes, fewer breaks, longer shifts, heavier loads, and more starts and stops.

In the 17-19th centuries, with the agricultural and urban exploitation of animals, humans could see domination of animals in its sordid tyranny and ubiquitous evil:

Over the course of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, an ever increasing number of animals were working. Humans witnessed this agency everyday. Some participated in it -- as fellow laborers. Some profited from it -- as farm, factory, or market owners. Few, if any, could ever avoid dealing with it. Oxen, bulls, cows, and goats were producing the leather industry. Sheep were producing the wool industry. Cows were the ones who produced the milk, cheese, and butter industries. Chickens produced the egg industry. Pigs and cattle produced the flesh industry. This was the labor of reproduction: feeding, clothing, and reproducing a continuously growing number of humans with their skin, hair, milk, eggs, and flesh.

On the agricultural farms, it was oxen, horses, mules, and donkeys, as well as the occasional cow, ewe, or large dog, which pulled and powered the plows, harrows, seed-drills, threshers, binders, presses, reapers, mowers, and harvesters. In the mines, they towed the gold, silver, iron-ore, lead, and coal. On the cotton plantations and in the spinning factories, they turned the mechanical mills that cleaned, pressed, carded, and spun the cotton. On the sugar plantations, they crushed and transported the cane. On the docks, roads, and canals, they moved the carts, wagons, and barges of mail, commodities, and people. In the cities, they powered the carriages, trams, buses, and ferries. On the battlefields, they deployed the artillery and supplies, they provided the reconnaissance, and they charged the lines. This was the labor of production: producing the power necessary to propel the instruments of capitalism. Indeed, the modern agricultural, industrial, commercial, and urban transformations were not just human enterprises.

The history of capitalist accumulation is so much more than a history of humanity. Who built America, the textbook asks? Animals did.[3]

As political agents, animals did not just labor and suffer mindlessly and helplessly, rather they frequently refused work and exploitation, at least past a given limit, and subsequent labor had to be negotiated in some way and to varying degrees. Increased production only meant increased resistance, especially notoriously stubborn and rebellion-prone animals such as donkeys. Hribal adds to an already rich account of animal resistance to human oppression, describing a wide range of animal resistance tactics from intentional sabotage and property destruction to revenge killing and popular violence.[4]

Faking ignorance, rejection of commands, the slowdown, foot-dragging, no work without adequate food, refusal to work in the heat of the day, taking breaks without permission, rejection of overtime, vocal complaints, open pilfering, secret pilfering, rebuffing new tasks, false compliance, breaking equipment, escape, and direct confrontation, these are all actions of what the anthropologist James C. Scott has termed "weapons of the weak"--Hence, while rarely organized in their conception or performance, these actions were nevertheless quite active in their confrontation and occasionally successful in their desired effects. For our purposes, these everyday forms of resistance have not been historically limited to humankind -- as each of the above listed methods have been used by other animals.

Donkeys have ignored commands. Mules have dragged their hooves. Oxen have refused to work. Horses have broken equipment. Chickens have pecked people's hands. Cows have kicked farmers' teeth out. Pigs have escaped their pens. Dogs have pilfered extra food. Sheep have jumped over fences. Furthermore, each of these acts of resistance has been fully recognized by the farmer, owner, driver, supervisor, or manager as just that: acts of resistance.

During the 1850s, the United States government introduced 75 camels into military service. Their primary duties were to provide transportation for equipment and human personnel. This was, however, a short-lived experiment. For the camels resisted. They refused to cooperate and obey orders. They were loudly vocal in their complaints. They spat upon their fellow soldiers. They bit their fellow soldiers. Their fellow soldiers learned to both hate and fear them --The U.S. army stopped employing camels, and the horse and mule returned to full service in these units. The camels, in truth, were the ones who made their labor an experiment. In other words, this was no experiment. The U.S. Army actively sought to turn camels into soldiers. They failed.[5]

Thousands of acts of resistance against human exploiters have been documented, involving a variety of responses to different kinds of danger and threat posed by humans. Not uncommonly, for instance, elephants and tigers turn against their trainers, suddenly snapping after years of abuse, tiring and degrading performance conditions, and discipline enforced through fear and punishment. On August 20, 1994, in Honolulu Hawaii, for instance, Tyke the elephant killed her trainer, bolted from the circus, ran frightened through the streets, and was murdered in a hail of police bullets. In October 3, 2003, during a Siegfried and Roy performance in Las Vegas, a white Bengal tiger, after being struck with a microphone for refusing to lie down, turned on Roy Horn and nearly mauled him to death. On December 25, 2007, enraged by the taunting of three visitors, Tatiana, a 243 pound Siberian tiger, jumped a 12 foot high wall at the San Francisco Zoo and attacked them, killing one.

On February 21, 1991, during the day's final performance at Sealand of the Pacific aquarium in Victoria, British Columbia, three killer whales -- Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum -- were going through the motions of their usual routine. When a young female trainer mounted one whale's back, "entertainment" turned to tragedy. The trainer fell into the water and tried to climb out, but one of the orcas grabbed her foot, pulled her underwater, and all three repeatedly dunked her, stopping only when she was dead. The aquarium insisted that the whales were playing a game and killed her unintentionally, but this is implausible given the coordinated efforts of the attack and their concerted efforts to keep her from grabbing a flotation ring thrown by another trainer to save her life, Nootka, moreover, had a prior history of attacking trainers, and Tilikum, after being transferred to San Diego's Sea World, held in captivity and exploited for profit for 26 years, killed another trainer through forced drowning.[6]

Quite likely, these human deaths were not accidents caused by over exuberant orcas but rather revenge killings, and whale attacks on trainers are as common as elephant attacks on their circus handlers. While certainly elephants and whales are victims of sadistic cruelty at the hands of sick individuals, their very conditions of captivity, however "kind" their trainers and treatment, are inherently oppressive. Orcas never attack humans in the wild, only in captivity, only after being kidnapped from the wild; separated from their families; held in a sterile, narrow, concrete enclosure; and forced to perform up to 8 times a day, 365 times a year. The slow-burning anger that explodes into a deadly rage is protest against an institution not an individual, but only the latter die until the former is closed down, one prison at a time. The alienation, oppression, degradation, and misery animals experience in captivity is represented in stark and tactile form every time a monkey in a zoo throws feces at human gawkers. Like donkeys and mules, the slaves held in circuses, zoos, and aquariums, the guards and wardens of the "entertainment" gulag system are forced to negotiate with fractious and angry prisoners in order to extract their labor and box office profits.

Animals will also attack humans in retaliation for injury or death caused to a family or community member. In the Khamis Mushayt region of Saudi Arabia, a driver struck and killed a monkey, then fled, but didn't get away. For on the return route, a group of monkeys who witnessed the killing recognized the car upon approach, jumped on top, and smashed the windows with their fists. A similar act of vengeance and vigilantism happened in the Penang Botanical Gardens near Kuala Lumpur, when a pack of 60 monkeys commenced attacks on joggers and tourists wearing yellow shirts, hoping to exact revenge on the youth in similar clad who the day before stoned to death one member of their community and taunted others.

Animals also rebel, riot, and attack in self-defense when humans colonize or encroach into their territory. Upset that humans had usurped their nesting grounds to build golf courses, ring-billed gulls bombarded a course in suburban Columbus, Ohio, forced shocked golfers off their turf, and reclaimed the grounds for nesting. Distraught over the intrusion of roads and traffic into their grounds, a troop of baboons fought back by pelting passing cars with a fusillade of rocks, along a liberated zone they defended from all the way from Cape Town to Johannesburg. On January 7, 1997, police engaged the baboon warriors in a battle of stones in a bid to drive them away. On February 21, 2003, after her calf was knocked down by a Bangladeshi locomotive, an incensed elephant blocked the next train that passed, and banged her forehead against the engine for 15 minutes until she incapacitated the train and walked back into the jungle. Whether feeling a threat from human intruders or acting out of sheer malice toward a perceived enemy, something drove stone martens in Germany and Switzerland to attack. With confounding regularity, flocks began gnawing the ignition cables and coolant hoses of cars in Switzerland and Germany, at great expense to insurance companies. In April 1989, one lone stone marten rampaged through a Munich car park, damaging 100 cars in a single night, just a fraction, however, of the 10,000 cars Audi reports the birds sabotage annually.

In still other cases, animals aware of growing incursion to their land and threats to their lives engage in prolonged warfare with humans. In Sri Lanka, North Bengal, and South Africa, for instance, where elephant populations are in precipitous decline as human numbers swell rapidly, there is a protracted war to control the land. With one sided armed with sharp horns and sheer mass and power, and the other armed with rifles and runs, there are hundreds of casualties on both sides every year. In retaliation for the intrusions and usurpation of their traditional lands, elephants are trampling gardens and farms, taking lands back, destroying human property, and chasing humans down, often killing them. Those humans stupid and cruel enough to torture elephants are later tracked down, identified, ambushed, and killed. "What's happening today is extraordinary," says Gay Bradshaw, elephant expert and director of the Kerulos Center for Animal Psychology and Trauma Recovery, "Where for centuries, humans and animals lived in relatively peaceful co-existence, there is now hostility and violence."[7]

Responding to different threats, using different methods and tactics, in different times, locale, and conditions, animals resist, rebel, revolt, fight back, attack, destroy property, attempt to escape, and kill their human enemies. Some launch lethal offense attacks against those humans they regard as a threat, menace, or deadly opponent. Thus, animals may respond suddenly when rage and resentment against their tormentors overwhelms them, in acts of vengeance, or more deliberately to a human threat they feel is imminent and growing. Foucault's maxim that power breeds resistance applies to animal slaves and victims of oppression as much as to their human counterparts. Such as true of circus and zoo captives, and the tigers, elephants, chimpanzees and other animals who resist their handlers and slavemasters in many ways on a daily basis, and who do so even in deliberate choices when they know their insubordination will be met with beatings, food rationings, and other forms of punishment, thus showing animals' capacity for deliberation and ability and desire to put pride at whatever cost over the humiliation of passivity. The animal world has its own Harriet Tubmans, Nat Turners, and John Browns.

Hribal insists that animals are slaves in capitalist society (as earlier in history), and goes so far as to bring them into the categories of "working class" and "proletariat." He thereby transforms what is indeed the largest and most exploited group of slaves in history into an organized, politically self-aware (in the ideal Lukacsian sense) economic class, such as the terms "class" and "proletarian" imply, which conflates human and nonhuman oppression and entails absurdities such as horse unions and donkey parties. While individual nonhuman animal slaves belong to distinct species, are oppressed and exploited, have complex emotions, social lives, and thought processes, and often rebel, resist, and seek vengeance against their oppressors, their faculties do not manifest in human language and political activity. Here I would agree with leftists like Murray Bookchin or Takis Fotopoulos that there is a conflation of "first" and "second" nature in some sense, for unlike humans animals do not collectively organize against their oppressors, or certainly at least they do now form unions, parties, and justice movements, all being formal organizations and institutions held together with promises, oaths, authority, laws, and so on, which are unique to human animals. This is simply to note that resistance unavoidably takes different forms among nonhuman and human animals, and clearly is devoid of the speciesist deduction that, therefore, humans are more intelligent, evolved, and their lives have more worth and value than other humans. Yet, all qualifications aside, there can be no regression to a Cartesian reduction of animals to instinct machines or simple organisms, without emphasizing what ethology has demonstrated incontrovertibly, namely that nonhuman animals across a wide range of diversity have complex thoughts, feelings, and social lives of their own.

Yet against mainstream animal studies, we must emphasize with Hribal that the category of agency is thin and abstract unless extended to include the myriad ways animals resist human oppression and the value of freedom in their lives. In the 19th century, white racists in US argued that slavery was not wrong because Africans did not seek or need freedom, and lived better with than without chains; human supremacists similarly argue that freedom is an alien or impossible value and condition for nonhuman animals. But the latter argument is as ludicrous as the former. Hence, one key problem with contemporary pseudo-abolitionists appropriating and eviscerating the politically-charged anti-slavery movement in the nineteenth century, is that the term "abolitionism" carries heavy speciesist baggage in failing to emphasize that animals have not only negative wants, to be "free from" confinement, torture, suffering, and oppression, but also positive needs, to be "free to" move, sleep, eat, play, rest, and socialize as they please. Animals do not just shun pain, they have an array of positive goods they seek and enjoy.[8]

In light of the overwhelming evidence of nonhuman animal rebellion against human exploitation and control, humanists and leftists cannot, without embarrassment, persist in reducing them to the status of objects while restricting the discourse of intentionality, rebellion, autonomy, and liberation to human actors only.[9] Aristotle got it wrong: humans are not the only political animal. In addition, "animal advocates" will have to check their own historical biases and speciesist distortions upon learning that moral progress and the animal ethics paradigm shift was not brought about solely through their own campaigns. Progressive change is also driven by nonhuman animals themselves in their revolt against their captors and in the evolving awareness in human society their resistance precipitates.

Unfortunately, as fascinating and chronic as their self-liberation struggles have been throughout the world -- in zoos, circuses, and other exploitative institutions -- their defiance to human supremacism cannot amount to a revolution without the organized radical politics of enlightened and militant sectors of humanity. The fate of nonhuman animal species continues to hang on whether or not humans can overcome the violent proclivities of their own animality and dismantle systems of hierarchical domination and the omnicidal machines of global capitalism.

This in no way warrants, however, the patronizing, arrogant, and speciesist discourse nearly ubiquitous among all aspects and orientations of the animal advocacy movement, in which people claim to be "the voice of the voiceless." Animals cannot represent themselves in human courts, speak to the media, or narrate accounts of their suffering and struggles. They cannot liberate themselves from the prisonhouses, gulags, and concentration camps of global capitalism. Yet they speak on their own behalf to the media, they emote and communicate to us in a startling myriad of ways; they tell us unequivocally that they are suffering, unhappy, and oppressed; and they resist, revolt, and rebel in numerous ways, ranging from slowdowns and disobedience to killing. On many occasions, they are perfectly capable of defending themselves against predatory and murderous human beings, but they cannot possibly stand up together against the human Reich in its massive numbers, its invading armies, its powerful technologies of killing and destruction, and its enormous and ubiquitous manifestations and tentacles, from powerful purveyors of mass death emanating from factory farms, slaughterhouses, whaling operations and fisheries to every human being, rich or poor, nearly seven billion in number, who fan out across this planet like locusts and who live to kill and kill to live.

[1] Jason Hribal, Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance. AK Press/CounterPunch Books, 2010.

[2] "Animals Are Part of the Working Class: Interview with Jason Hribal, November 28, 2006, Animal Voices (

[3] Hribal, "Animals, Agency, and Class: Writing the History of Animals from Below" (, p. 5.

[4] For examples of sites listing animal attacks on trainers, handlers, tourists, and various types of people, see "International Exhibited Animal Incidents," BornFreeUSA ( a1a_exhibited_intl_animal_incidents.php); "Animal Rampage," Pigdog Journal, (; and various installments of "Animal Antics," Do or Die (e.g.:,,, and Also see Mat Thomas, "The Ultimate World War: Animals Against Humans," September 21, 2008, AnimalRighter (

[5] "Animals, Agency, and Class," p. 106.

[6] See Jason Hribal, "Orca Resistance at Sea World: The Struggle of Nootka and Tilikum," February 25, 2010, Counterpunch (; and "When Animal Resist Their Exploitation," December 14, 2006, Counterpunch (

[7] Bradshaw cited in Mat Thomas, "The Ultimate World War."

[8] See Steven Best and Camille Marino, "Not Abolitionists -- We're Liberationists," April 11, 2010, Negotiation is Over (, where we argue that passivists have co-opted, depoliticized, and appropriated as their own the framework of "abolitionism," almost never mentioning the pluralist and radical nineteenth century US social movement that paved the ground for animal liberation. Here we effected a shift from "abolitionist" to "liberationist" discourse not only because we felt it was irrevocably corrupted by people whose strategy for "abolition" is to attack fellow activists rather than corporate exploiters, but also to underscore the positive dimension of animal subjectivity, defined not only by the negative desire to be free from pain and torture, but also the positive interest in being free to live a satisfying existence. I give greater attention to these points and terminological shift in my forthcoming book, Animal Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[9] This is the essence of the reply to my essay "Rethinking Revolution: Animal Liberation, Human Liberation, and the Future of the Left" ( vol2_no3_Best_rethinking_revolution.htm) by anarchist-libertarians John Sargis and Takis Fotopoulos, in their article, "Human Liberation vs. `animal liberation'," The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Volume 2, Issue #3, June 2006 ( vol2_no3_Takis_Sargis_animal.htm).

Reviving a long-discredited Cartesian mechanism and behaviorism, they effectively reduce animal subjects to the status of objects, and claim that the phrase "animal liberation" is an oxymoron because animals are incapable of having wants, desires, and needs complex enough to have any degree of autonomy. On this archaic model, animals can be neither slaves nor free beings, no more than can chairs or tables, for in typical; left-speciesist fashion, they reserve the realm of thought, choices, subjectivity, and freedom for human animals alone. For my response to this argument, see Steven Best, "Minding the Animals: Ethology and the Obsolescence of Left Humanism," The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 2009 ( vol5_no2_best_minding_animals.htm).


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