Animal resistance: Expressions of agency and free will

What if non-human animals fought back, individually or collectively, against their human oppressors? What if they repeatedly stated through acts of resistance that they do not consent to be treated as living property?

Representations of “animal resistance” have long been present in human society – we just need to look at books such as The Birds, Day of the Animals, Jaws, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Zoo as a few examples. It’s also a theme of cinema, art, photography and more.

Fictional and artistic depictions of animal resistance reflect the knowledge we share as humans that our conduct towards other animals is often cruel and tyrannical and that a day may come when our animal kin decide enough is enough.

But the thing is that animal resistance is not a fictional phenomenon. It’s already happening.

Throughout history, there have been countless incidents of non-human animals escaping their cages or certain death at a slaughterhouse; refusing to work, eat or reproduce; or attacking humans who have abused them in some way.

When these events happen, the humans who profit from exploiting the individual animal are quick to write off their actions as those of an animal “gone wild (or bad)” or “acting on instinct”. They present animal resistance as an aberration or a knee-jerk reaction carried out without thought rather than as an individual expressing their free will.

But some of us see a very different picture – non-human animals have not given their permission to be held captive, forced to work or used publicly for profit and they use a variety of means to communicate this.

Some examples of animal resistance

In his book Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, historian Jason Hribal (alongside journalist Jeffrey St. Clair in his extensive introduction to the book) carefully documents the real-life resistance struggles of individual animals and groups of animals, primarily in the entertainment industry.

Below are just a few of the powerful examples:

·         Jumbo

Jumbo was a young African elephant captured around 1861 and sold in the markets of Cairo. By 1865, he was the “property” of London Zoo where he remained the main exhibit for 17 years.

Although Jumbo was a small and sickly elephant in his youth, he grew in stature as well as fame. When he hit adolescence, the combination of hormones and the stress of captivity, brutal training methods and resulting injuries, and his desire for freedom meant Jumbo’s behaviour became increasingly difficult for his human captors to control.

He would fly into terrible rages and throw his whole body against the bars of his enclosure in an effort to escape, once injuring himself so badly that he needed surgery.

In 1882, London Zoo sold Jumbo to PT Barnum because they felt the elephant was becoming dangerous. But the move hit a snag when Jumbo refused to enter the shipping container to be transported, laying down instead. Barnum brought in one of his trusted handlers, a brutal man who put Jumbo in leg chains and stabbed him with a lance to make him move. Eventually, though, it was Jumbo’s previous handler who lured him into the container where the elephant fought with all his might to break free.

Three years later, Jumbo died after being hit by a freight train. Some eyewitnesses claimed he panicked and accidentally ran onto the tracks, while others swore that his final act of resistance was to run headlong into the oncoming train.

·         Mary

Mary was a female elephant captured in South East Asia and sold to a circus in the US. Between 1889 and 1916, she was forced to help erect the Big Top, walk the midday parade and give two daily performances of tricks trained using brutal methods.

Occasionally, the elephants in the circus would be taken for a recreational walk to stretch their legs between train journeys. On one such walk, Mary saw some watermelon rind on the ground and stopped to eat it. A man called Red Eldridge was riding on her back at the time and was seen prodding her behind the ear with a bullhook to make her walk on. Onlookers are said to have watched with amusement as Mary ignored Eldridge and continued to eat the watermelon. Sadly, the crowd’s laughter enraged the man who struck Mary around the head as retribution.

The elephant snapped. Using her trunk, she lifted Eldridge from her back and hurled him through the wall of a nearby shack before walking over and stepping on his head.

It is said that she was then instantly calm and didn’t attempt to harm anyone else. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to save her. The public was baying for “Murderous Mary” (as the press dubbed her) to die.

On 13th September 1916, Mary was hanged by the neck from a crane. The chain broke and Mary was so hurt by the fall that she was unable to fight when she was lynched for a second time.

It’s notable that lynching was a common punishment for anyone who resisted the power and privilege of the white man. Some eyewitness accounts from the day claim that one or two African American men were hung at the same time as Mary.

·         Topsy

Topsy was a captive Asian elephant who killed a circus spectator in 1902 after he taunted her, blew sand in her face and burnt the sensitive tip of her trunk with a cigar. After this event, Topsy’s circus-owning captors made a huge fanfare about their “killer elephant”, claiming she had also killed two of her handlers, although there is little evidence to support this.

Her reputation as an elephant “gone bad” drew huge crowds and massive profits. However, when Topsy lifted up and threw another spectator who was taunting her, the circus decided it was time to sell her. The reputation they’d crafted for her made her a liability.

Topsy’s circumstances went from bad to worse. In October 1902, the elephant refused to pull an amusement ride at Luna Park – a peaceful act of resistance – and was stabbed with a pitchfork by her handler who then set her free into the streets of Coney Island. When the terrified elephant was recaptured, it was decided she should die.

On 4th January 1903, she refused to cross the bridge to the planned site for her public execution, even when brutally hit with a bullhook. In the end, her executioners had to come to her, poisoning, strangling and electrocuting Topsy to death in front of 1,500 spectators.

·         Janet

Janet was an elephant from Southeast Asia who was held captive by the Great American Circus. Here, her main job was to give rides to children and adults.

One day in 1992, Janet reached breaking point. While forced to carry a group of school children on her back, she began resisting her trainers. After successfully pushing down the barriers that surrounded the circus ring, she saw the opportunity to attack the handlers who terrorised her on a daily basis.

At one point, temporarily surrounded, she let officials take the schoolchildren from her back to safety before she went in single-minded pursuit of the men who had made her suffer. After lifting and tossing two of the men, she took the bullhook that was so often used to beat her and smashed it repeatedly against the wall of her trailer until it broke.

Tragically, Janet was shot 47 times before she was killed – her punishment for resistance.

·         Tatiana

Tatiana was a four-year-old Siberian Tiger held in captivity at San Francisco Zoo. On Christmas Day 2007, three inebriated teenagers were witnessed taunting Tatiana and possibly throwing things at her (several items such as pine cones were found in her enclosure after the event). In her agitation, Tatiana successfully scaled the 12-foot wall separating her from the public and set about finding the young men. Investigators after the event noted that she ignored members of the public, zoo employees and even potential prey animals such as warthogs while in pursuit of her tormenters.

She caught up with the teens outside the locked Terrace Café, killing one and injuring the others before she was shot and killed by armed officials.

The official response

In his introduction to Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet, Jeffrey St. Clair highlights that whenever a non-human animal resists in a way that makes the news (as with all the cases above), the human institutions involved invariably frame the event with a four-step response:

  1. They say non-human animal attacks and escapes are very rare and there is nothing for the public to worry about.
  2. They use three keywords: “accident”, “wild” and “instinct”. A typical statement will say something like, “The trainer was killed by accident by a wild animal following their instinct”.
  3. There is a public pledge that steps will be taken to stop an incident like it from happening in the future. This might mean changing the design of an enclosure, for example, or increasing the amount of staff training.
  4. Finally, there will be maximum effort to control the information and present the institution in which the incident occurred as a vital resource for conservation and education. The institution will often be portrayed as the victim of an “animal gone bad”.


Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era

In her book Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era, author Sarat Colling shows us that there are numerous cases of farmed animals who have escaped from a slaughterhouse or other places of confinement and torture and, in doing so, have spoken for themselves and their will to live.

·         Emily

One famous example is Emily the cow who, minutes from death and watching the cows around her being murdered, jumped the five-foot gate of a slaughterhouse in Massachusetts and spent 40 days on the run. Local people helped Emily to evade capture and, on a number of occasions, she was spotted running with a herd of deer, perhaps for company and safety in numbers. Emily was eventually captured but a local couple – Meg and Lewis Randa – convinced the slaughterhouse to sell the cow to them for a dollar.

The Randa family-run Peace Abbey, a foundation dedicated to interfaith peace movements, human rights, and advocacy. This is where Emily lived peacefully for the next eight years of her life until she died of cancer in 2003.

·         Queenie

Queenie is another cow whose act of resistance showed millions of people that farmed animals have feelings.

In 2000, Queenie was being held at a so-called “meat market” where customers could choose which animal they wanted butchered while they waited. After hearing the screams of other animals being murdered, the young cow made her break for freedom, running through the streets of New York City to escape.

Although she was recaptured, hundreds of people contacted the Centre for Animal Care and Control, as well as the slaughterhouse, to demand that Queenie be allowed to live out her natural life in a sanctuary.

She was taken to Farm Sanctuary where she lived happily but with an ongoing distrust of most humans for the next 19 years. Queenie died peacefully, surrounded by her friends, in August 2019.

Her act of rebellion in 2000 not only won her freedom but also that of 150 neglected chickens who joined her at Farm Sanctuary. In addition, the market where Queenie had been slated to die was investigated and closed.

It’s said that Emily and Queenie both helped to give vegetarianism and veganism a face.

Anthropomorphism or individuals with a moral conscience?

What is evident is that our animal kin carries out acts of resistance, even when they know they’re likely to be beaten, starved, put in solitary confinement or even killed for rebelling.

Jeffrey St. Clair says this can be “understood as a true form of resistance”. The individual is “rebelling with knowledge and purpose. They have a conception of freedom and a desire for it”. In other words, they have agency.

Of course, there are many people that say this is anthropomorphising non-human animals, attributing them with human feelings and behaviour for reactions that are little more than a wild, gut instinct.

This is a speciesist viewpoint, that humans are somehow set apart from the rest of the natural world and the only living beings capable of intentional behaviour and recognising its potential consequences.

But as Jeffrey St. Clair points out, most of the animals known for their acts of resistance are “far from mindless. Their actions reveal memory not mere conditioning, contemplation not instinct, and, most compellingly, discrimination not blind rage. Again and again, the animals are shown to target only their abusers, often taking pains to avoid trampling bystanders. Animals, in other words, acting with a moral conscience”.

We’ll be talking more in future blogs about animal resistance and what it means for the animal rights movement, as well as more examples of non-human animals showing they do not consent to be treated as living property.

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