Animal Actors: The “Trained” Savage

A 1901 article I found on animals in the circus is on the training of wild animals. As opposed to the “easier” animals like dogs and cats that I previously blogged about, “wild beast training” was a daring feat of (human) mind over (animal) brawn:

“That man is the lord of creation is generally understood, but comparatively a few of us know how to assert our sovereignty in the presence of a savage animal.

“Physically, man is but poorly equipped when it comes to a struggle. His muscular power is as nothing when compared with that of a lion, an elephant, or even a stubborn horse….

“If this were all, man would be the puppet rather than the lord of creation. But there is another factor…. mind is incomparably stronger than matter….. Brute force is of small avail when matched with the powers of resource and calculation and the quick wit that man has at his control. This is the secret of the mastery which the trainer has over his savage performers.”


The sheer human arrogance is unabashedly on display here: I am lord! The opening of this article moves from a shameful litany of human weakness (“A tiger can worry him as a cat would a mouse. A single blow with a lion’s paw or an elephant’s trunk will put an end to his existence…. man would be the puppet”) to our glorious redemption via practices of animal training. While “taming” is easy (it is, the article says, mere “docility”—as of animals considered tamed, such as dogs), “training” requires the “habit of obedience” from a “savage nature” that “is never really eradicated.”

“This makes the trainer’s mastery over his animals all the more wonderful. Every performance is a genuine victory. It is the triumph of the trainer’s will over that of the animal.”


             In effect, the practices of training are not as important as the public performance of human mastery. “Every performance is a genuine victory…. the triumph” which we must reenact again and again.

This idea of performance is a self-problematizing one: the article refers to these animals as “performers,” as “actors,” and this language is slippery. Yes, we can get wild animals to “act” against their natures, well-done-us! blah-blah. And yet, is it not the actor—rather than the actor’s coach—the one to be applauded for its feat of convincing dissemblance?


Source: F.Z.S. “Animal Actors: The Wonders of Wild Beast Training.” Harmsworth Magazine 6 (Feb.-July 1901). London: Harmsworth Bros.

For more information on wild animal training, see Eric Ames’ Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments and Hagenbeck’s own book (Hagenbeck was a celebrated wild animal trainer, who is profiled in the 1901 article I cite). Also see Peta Tait’s Wild Animals and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circus.

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