Monday, March 18, 2013

Susan Nance's "Entertaining Elephants"

Susan Nance is Associate Professor of US History at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada and affiliated faculty of the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Entertaining Elephants is actually a pretty honest snapshot of the book as a whole. It discusses the ways nineteenth-century circus audiences were turned off by performances of trained horses and dogs in which spectators could see fear or discomfort in the animal performers. And it goes on to discuss industry wisdom about artistic reasons for not terrorizing one's dog and horse performers, even if many people ignored that wisdom.

I'm pretty proud of this page because it exposes the complex, technical production of trained animal acts for us to really scrutinize. One of my main goals for the book was to peel off all the circus glamour and mystery in order to convey the actual, often miserable and exhausting, lived experience of circus people and circus elephants in order to problematize it. So, I needed to document the day to day hands-on management of elephants in American circuses and use it as a case study of human attitudes toward and uses of animals in the 19th century United States more broadly. I employed horse and dog examples here and there to connect with the reader's experiences of living animals in their own lives (such as I guess it to be) and make the elephants I document hopefully less incomprehensible. Equally important, I was determined to show how animals experienced human activity and how human and nonhuman behaviour consequently existed in symbiosis. So, my discussion of squealing horses and cringing dogs, and the audiences made angry by them, is right on point. That is, it answers the big and provocative question I impose on the historical profession with the book: Does animal experience matter to history? My answer: yes, yes, yes. The page also gets across why elephants were a special case, which is something I had in mind on every page. In this instance, the issue was that elephants didn't show pain, fear or other discomfort in ways audiences could read. Most Americans, who might know how to read horse or dog behaviour in that way, had no idea that the elephants they saw were often completely broken down mentally or in terrible health. And circuses banked on that fact for many decades.
Learn more about the book and author at Susan Nance's website.

Writers Read: Susan Nance.

--Marshal Zeringue