Academic journal article American Studies

ENTERTAINING ELEPHANTS: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus

Academic journal article American Studies

ENTERTAINING ELEPHANTS: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus

Article excerpt

ENTERTAINING ELEPHANTS: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus. By Susan Nance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2013.

Entertaining Elephants narrates the history of circus elephants in the US, from the importation of the first two Asian elephants in the late 1700s to the births of the first US-born elephant babies in the 1880s and their subsequent deaths in the early 1900s. Integrating cultural history, business history, and contemporary animal science, Nance shows how elephants and their human captors co-created the nineteenth-century circus as both a speculative, profit-driven venture and an arena for the constitution of American consumer identity. She argues that the circus elephant helped citizens develop personal and patriotic identities by spending on entertainment, while introducing Americans to a mode of capitalism linked to expanding human supremacy over other animals. This is a fascinating but gruesome history, replete with injuries and deaths suffered by both elephants and humans as they struggled, with unequal degrees of power, to sustain the circus industry amidst the growing complexity of American capitalism.

Key to this story is Nance's distinction between individual agency, which elephants possessed, and human social and political power, which they lacked; "this was the crucial fact that made their captivity possible" and enabled circuses to become enormously popular forms of entertainment (9-10). Nance shows that elephants, though "domesticated" by the circuses, were often unable or unwilling to submit to the conditions of confinement, deprivation, and human domination that defined their existence. Elephants exercised agency when they submitted to human commands, which they did most of the time, but also when they refused to perform tricks, broke out of their shackles, and occasionally attacked or killed their owners and trainers. …

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