Selfish Brutes

Many have expressed reasons to envy animals; my cats, for one, seem to sleep while I work all day. 

“The life of the brute has commonly one immense compensation in its favour,” that is, “the perfection of the individual existence is so rarely sacrificed to the prosperity of the race.” In his Chapters on Animals, Philip G. Hamerton (Boston, 1877) seems to focus on the notion that one animal’s benefit need not hinge on another’s “enduring misery”: “There is much slaughter…but…little slavery,” and the killing is practically a mercy that spares the animal’s descent into sad “infirmity and age.”

It doesn’t take a lot of Discovery Channel to know that Hamerton was wrong in so many ways, but I’m particularly interested in his premise that animals are somehow deeply independent, outside of the cycles of nature, alienated even from members of their own species. In this, he suggests a more profound reason for envying the animal: their alleged selfishness. The uber-individualist animal that Hamerton proposes might not exist, but the fact that he envies this figment of his imagination is pretty telling.



Thank you for following my blog! I have been under the weather lately (a bout of bronchitis), but plan to be back on track with new posts next week or so. In the meantime, here’s another LOLcat from 1911 that well expresses how I’m feeling.


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.

Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection of Automata

Today I had the great pleasure of returning to the Morris Museum (Morristown, NJ, about an hour’s drive from NYC) where the generous Murtogh D. Guinness (yes, of stout beer fame) deposited his great collection of automata—mechanical animals, human figures, and an amazing array of music players. No photos are allowed, but this link here takes you to some of the highlights of the collection. 

They have a “walking” elephant, crocodile, peacock…. and various “monkey” aristocrats in decadent human clothing doing silly human things.

My favorite is the piece where a 2’ long figure of a repined Cleopatra dies by poison snake—over and over, bosom heaving. It really makes you think: who wants to see that over and over again? Cleopatra’s not-so-petite morte, over and over? (The automatons are not rigged to “go,” but they are still functional and have been DVD’d in action.)

If you’re in the area, it’s absolutely worth going! 

Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection of Automata