Mario Ortiz-Robles, “Animal Acts: 1822, 1835, 1849, 1850, 1854, 1876, 1900″


What does the history of animal rights have to tell us about Victorian Britain – and how do legislative gains, specifically Parliamentary Acts, appear when read in tandem with theatrical performances and literary depictions of animals? This article reads the former category alongside the latter two, paying particular attention to how artistic representations of animals, including Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, blur the lines between human and animal behavior. In doing so, it sheds light on how animals were figured as part of a racialized discourse, using Foucault’s notion of biopower to help frame the complex ways animal rights, and animalism, were portrayed in politics and culture.

Cover of Jungle Book

Figure 1: cover of the first edition of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, illustrated by John Lockwood Kipling

The history of animal rights in nineteenth-century Britain is both a story of gradual though significant legislative gains in the fight against the mistreatment of animals by humans and a vivid reminder of the constructed character of the line that separates human from non-human animals. A series of Parliamentary Acts—the Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle of 1822 (also known as Martin’s Act), the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, which was repealed and replaced in 1849, 1850, 1854, and 1876, and the Wild Animals in Captivity Act of 1900—gave legal form to the growing political demand to face humans’ ethical responsibility towards animals. (See Ivan Kreilkamp, “The Ass Got a Verdict: Martin’s Act and the Founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1822″ and Susan Hamilton, “On the Cruelty to Animals Act, 15 August 1876.″) The political realignment of the human/animal divide was premised on the philosophical positioning of the animal as a sentient being, a formulation for moral considerability that can be traced back to Jeremy Bentham, who famously argued that consideration of animal suffering, rather than their capacity to reason or speak, ought to guide our relations to non-humans. The passage of these acts, together with the vigilant efforts and vigorous lobbying of organizations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Victoria Street Society, ensured that animal baiting, staged animal fights, unregulated animal vivisection, and other practices common to the eighteenth century were gradually outlawed or restricted over the course of the nineteenth.

But the history of Animal Acts in nineteenth-century Britain must also be understood as a gradual recalibration of human/animal relations in the course of which the figure of the animal comes to play a crucial, if less easily discernible, role in the political life of the nation. Indeed, the enactment of animal rights legislation in the nineteenth century makes visible a specific discursive mechanism that lies at the heart of a new form of political rationality that begins to take shape at the end of the eighteenth century when the fact of biological living—the status of the human as a living animal—becomes politicized at the level of population, of species, of race. According to Michel Foucault, to whom we owe this formulation, biopolitics re-inscribes biological living within the social order through the supervision of life’s processes: “propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity” (History of Sexuality 139). To suggest that animal-rights legislation makes the rhetoric of biopolitics visible is not to negate or minimize the advances made on the animal welfare front nor to suggest that the animal rights movement is wrong to pursue them; it is to suggest, however, that the animal rights movement gathers momentum as a political force at a time when the application of sovereign power makes necessary a new way of rationalizing and administering life. The realignment of the human/animal divide that occurred in the course of the nineteenth century, then, is less the result of our sudden realization that we treat animals with cruelty than of an abrupt shift in how we regard ourselves under biopower as the animals we always were. Put somewhat differently, the aim of animal-rights legislation can be understood as an attempt to normalize human-animal relations in the context of a calculated effort to administer life. Narrowly construed, the ethical treatment of animals is nothing if not salutary; broadly construed, it is part of a larger regulatory scheme in which animals become an over-determined stand-in for life itself.

In order to understand the historical imbrication of animal rights legislation and biopolitical rationality, I now turn to a very different kind of animal act: live animal performances. As is well known, the use of animals for the purposes of entertainment in the form of equestrian dramas, variety acts, zoological displays, and circus shows became a staple of nineteenth-century British popular culture. The growing popularity of staged animal acts at a time when the mistreatment of animals was fast becoming a matter of national interest is a historically significant conjuncture, but the relationship between these two types of animal acts to which these developments give rise—Parliamentary Acts against the cruel treatment of animals and animal performances—is not necessarily a causal one. To be sure, animal-rights laws had a direct impact on the kinds of uses to which animals could be put on the stage and the kinds of acts they could perform—badger baiting, cockfights, and other cruel forms of entertainment, for instance, had been banned by the 1830s even if inflicting pain on animals was still seen, in the early history of the circus, as a reasonable instrument to be used in animal training. As Nigel Rothfels notes, there was a broad consensus by 1890 that “training through kindness” was not only a more effective method for taming wild animals; it was also more palatable to an audience that had grown “increasingly uncomfortable with more violent methods of training and presenting the larger, more dangerous animals” (156). Indeed, the treatment of animals in zoos and, to a lesser degree, circuses today arguably owes much of its ethos to the implementation of humane, or at least decreasingly cruel, practices that were put in place in course of the nineteenth century. But this account of animal performance as an increasingly enlightened set of practices tends to occlude the most salient feature of animal performances in the nineteenth century: namely, the fact that animals were acting.

Removed from their natural habitats and made to act in artificial tableaux, animals were placed in performance situations that created for the audience the illusion of events and interactions that were fictional. The multiply-framed spectacle of caged animals in zoos or the finely orchestrated tricks performed by pigs, mules, horses, elephants, monkeys, seals, and big cats produce, as performance, the very concept of “animal” or “animality” that their presence on a metropolitan stage might otherwise disavow. A dancing dog or a trained seal, for instance, is an object of curiosity and entertainment to the precise degree that they do things humans might do, such as walk on two legs or play with a beach ball, things that, since dogs and seals are categorically not human, turn out to put on display only the extent to which their animality has been repressed and repurposed – which is another way of affirming their status as animals and establishing our distance from them. This performance situation creates social relations among different species that tend to blur even further that indeterminate zone or border installed between the human and the animal but only the better to justify and thereby assert the power of the former over nature. The aim of managing this indeterminate zone is not merely conceptual since, under biopower, it is also the condition of possibility of politics as such. It should therefore come as no surprise that, in the context of animal performances in nineteenth-century Britain, human domination over nature finds its thematic correlate in the politics of empire. As Harriet Ritvo and others have shown, exotic animals imported from abroad and put on public display in zoos and menageries had the effect of making visible the correlation imperial ideology makes between human domination over other animal species and of Britain over its possessions. Indeed, the taming and training of animals in the circus, as Rothfels argues, drew important parallels with missionary work abroad and the empire’s stated aim of “civilizing” its colonial subjects.

The correlation between animal domination and imperialism is not unique to Britain, of course. In the late Republic, for instance, Romans brought back exotic animals such as crocodiles, hippopotami, elephants, zebras, bears, and hyenas from their foreign campaigns and put them on display in Roman circuses, where they were normally killed. Yet, the institution of animal rights in Victorian Britain, however gradual and partial, made the correlation a virtual one, with animal acts that seemed to make the treatment of animals on stage acceptable rendering, by extension, the subjugation of peoples morally unobjectionable, if conveniently removed from the actual theater of war. Equestrian spectacles, for instance, were a popular form of entertainment in nineteenth-century Britain. Astley’s Ampitheatre, in Lambeth, produced such spectacles as Harlequin Mamluke, or the British in Egypt; The Afghanistan War, or The Revolt at Cabul; and British Triumphs in India (Myerly 145). In 1824, Astley’s staged “The Battle of Waterloo,” an enormously popular equestrian spectacle that recreated battle scenes on two contiguous stages (Assael 3). The Duke of Wellington, who was present at the first performance, returned years later in what was to become one of the longest-running equestrian shows in England. Other equestrian spectacles drew upon traditional practices to stage scenes of domestic Englishness. In 1838, for instance, a Scottish newspaper reported that one Mr. Batty, the proprietor of Batty’s Circus Royal, had presented himself in the figure of the “English fox-hunter,” managing “three horses à-la-Dacrow, with great dexterity, and introduc[ing] certainly a novelty in the ring— a live fox” (Caledonian Mercury, 25 Oct. 1838). These performances can be read as symbolic representations of British military might and, in the case of the fox hunt, of upper class privilege, but they also involve an elaborate staging of humans’ domestication of nature, with the horse featuring as the principal actor that swells the show to epic proportions.

But it was not only horses that took to the stage in the nineteenth century. Wild animals, trained to perform in all their wildness, became important actors in Britain’s circuses. The appeal of big cats, for instance, was no doubt in part attributable to their physical ferocity, becoming in captivity redoubtable symbols of humans’ domination over nature. But their appeal can also be equated with politics, since the specimens appearing on stage had been captured in British colonies, and, given the emblematic power of the lion in British history, their appearance served as a testament to Britain’s “natural” claims over others. As Brenda Assael notes: “Here as elsewhere, colonialism, politics, education, and morality combined in a complex representative structure in which the exotic animal, once subdued, became a metonym for progress” (69). In the 1830s, Isaac van Amburgh, the most famous animal tamer in Britain, came to be known as the “Lion King” for performing on stage in an unprecedented manner feats with lions, panthers, and tigers that now form part of the circus’s classic repertoire, or, what amounts to the same thing, the cultural imaginary of such repertoire. He was the first tamer, for instance, to place his head into the open mouth of a lion. Queen Victoria was a great fan of Amburgh’s and even came backstage after one of his performances to observe how he fed his cats. By the 1880s, wild cats had become a star feature of the larger circuses and, as a consequence, one of the most prized commodities in the burgeoning global market in exotic animal species. Wild animal shows became increasingly popular because, as Assael notes, wild animal species had until 1900 few of the (few) legal protections that legislators had won for domesticated species and the treatment and circulation of wild animals therefore went mostly unregulated.

Another type of animal performance involved animals that were trained to perform specific human actions—bears on bicycles, monkeys serving tea, dogs on horseback, mules playing cards, etc. The aim of this form of performance was not so much the domestication of otherwise untamable instincts as it was the deliberate staging of human actions by animals whose very animality was premised on the fact that they could not perform these actions “in nature.” These animal performances made the anthropocentric worldview of nineteenth-century audiences all the more visible by exaggerating and thus making absurd moral claims based on animals’ capacity to use reason. “Broekman’s Dog and Monkey Circus,” for instance, featured a dinner party entirely staged by monkeys, with “not alone a monkey host and monkey guests, but with monkey waiters, quick, active, silent, attentive, and, we dare swear, wanting no wages.” Another famous show featuring some of these anthropomorphic acts can indeed be described as the Victorian version of David Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks,” since they entailed not so much the recreation of socialized human actions as the creation of ever more absurd feats of repetitive or mechanical “animation,” as though the animals performing them had indeed been wound up. The dogs in Broekman’s Circus, as one newspaper report from 1876 puts it, “have been initiated into the mysteries of the skipping rope, and the globe-walking trick is to them the easiest of accomplishments.” What seems to be at stake in these acts is not, or not only, the subjugation of non-human species by humans, but, rather, the fact that “animality” can be performed as humanity.

Unlike wild animal acts, these anthropomorphic scenes offer a form of reverse mimesis in which the mechanical reproducibility of human behavior deliberately blurs the ontological difference between human and animal that the very fact of their staging would otherwise strictly maintain (Puchner 21). Brenda Assael makes a persuasive connection between the artists who performed in circuses and workers who were subject to industrial time-work discipline: as skilled workers, these performers required constant training and practice to perfect and maintain their unique talents. In Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), Assael reminds us, Mr. Bounderby makes a distinction between industrial Coketown and Sleary’s traveling circus when he tells the manager, “You see, my friend, we are the kind of people who know the value of time and you are the kind of people who don’t know the value of time” (23). Even Sissy Jupe, the circus girl in the troupe, explains that the artists “bruise themselves very bad sometimes” because of constant practice. Bounderby fails to get the point and instead barks: “Serve ‘em right. . . for being idle” (20).

From this perspective, anthropomorphic animal acts can be said to dramatize very vividly the sort of disciplinarity that we have come to associate with regulatory mechanisms that produce docile subjects. In this reading, animals can be said to be “subjectified” (Foucault’s term for the production of disciplinary subjects under Panopticism) by dint of repetitive training techniques, perhaps involving punishment, but more commonly, as Rothfels reminds us, through the self-regulatory benefits of being treated with “kindness.” But in the context of anthropomorphic animal acts, these mechanisms operate in ways that also exceed the protocols of discipline, not least because, in performing as humans, circus animals in fact make visible the animality of humanity. The theatrical effect of animal acts follows the logic of the supplement: if bears can be trained to ride a bicycle, say, this implies that bears are lacking something in “nature” that human culture provides, yet, since humans routinely learn to ride bicycles themselves, this lack must also pertain to humans, who can no longer be deemed superior to bears solely on the grounds that they are able to ride bicycles and must now be considered to have similarly lacked at origin whatever it was that bicycle riding supplements. The result is that the categorical distinction between human and animal becomes increasingly ambiguous and, to the extent that this ambiguity is made visible on stage, the distance separating natural from theatrical acts is harder to measure. In this context, it is the logic of biopower, rather than that of disciplinary power, that is at play in animal acts since it operates in that ambiguous zone of indistinction in which the human is not easily distinguished from the animal. For Foucault, biopower operates alongside disciplinary power but cannot be subsumed or reduced to a form of discipline since it involves a regulatory technology of life addressed to a multiplicity of humans rather than a technique centered on the body, aimed at producing what he calls “individualizing effects.” In Giorgio Agamben’s reading of Foucault, it is not so much that biopolitics upsets the strict ontological distinction between human and non-human animals; rather, biopolitics exploits, by making unstable, a distinction that already exists within the human between life as a physiological function and life as a social form of existence that tends towards the occlusion of the former (15).  Anthropomorphic animal acts can be said in this context to make visible as an act the internal distinction within humans such that, in addition to performing the concept of animality as the animals they already are, they also perform the animality of the human.

In order to thicken this description of performative animality, I want to turn now to Kipling’s Jungle Books. The representation of animals in Kipling’s Mowgli stories is ambiguous not only because the animals Mowgli befriends are talking animals, but also because this form of anthropomorphism is itself naturalized since the stories take place in the jungle, a “natural” setting in which animals, Mowgli included, act as humanized animals rather than as animalized humans. The stories’ central conceit—a human child nurtured by beasts—belongs to a longstanding tradition that extends from the foundational story of Romulus and Remus to Rousseau and the accounts of “wild” children that surfaced in the eighteenth century, a tradition that, as Hayden White notes in reference to the myth of the Noble Savage, fetishizes the definition of the human to serve political ends (184-5). Indeed, Kipling’s jungle is a highly socialized community that operates according to “natural” laws that follow a biopolitical logic of classification that, as we shall see in more detail below, creates racial categories by fetishizing the concept of species.

Mowgli, the human protagonist of the stories, is an ambiguous figure: he is sequentially represented as an animal, a wolf cub raised by wolves as a wolf; a hybrid species, a Man-Cub trained in animal behavior by a bear, a panther, and a snake; and a human, a man who comes to occupy his “natural” position as lord of the jungle. The first and the third categories are straightforward, though not of course unproblematic: as an animal, Mowgli has learned, as though by instinct and protected by the wolf pack to which he now belongs, to adapt to the to him “unnatural” environment of the jungle; as a human, he eventually gets to assert his claims to biological priority in what is henceforth to be considered his “natural” environment. The stories devote most of their narrative energies to the second category: Mowgli finds himself in dramatic situations that put into question but do not resolve his hybrid identity.

Mowgli’s ambiguous status as a hybrid can be usefully contextualized within the history of zoological classification in the nineteenth century. The logic of classification, as historian Harriet Ritvo has shown, not only created distinctions among species; it also separated different human groups into subcategories that were formally analogous to species. This categorical mistake, in turn, gave rise to compound or hybrid figures that came to act as symbols, or fetishes, of racialized identities. The Irish, to mention a conspicuous example, were often represented in the iconography of the period as hybrids of humans and great apes. As a consequence of Victorians’ fascination with crossbreeding, the ostensible species barrier that separated humans from animals had been unsettled, making the existence of animal-human hybrids at least notionally plausible. Indeed, the connection in the Victorian imagination between humans and what Ritvo calls our non-human “cousins” could occasion a wide variety of hybrids, many of which were the product of suggestion, representation, or resemblance. For Ritvo, the pervasiveness of hybrids suggests that “similarity remains as firmly embedded in contemporary culture as does the scientific and theological assertion of difference” (66).

The ambiguous status of Mowgli as both human and animal reverses the mimetic logic of live animal performances by showing how a human can be taught to perform as an animal, suggesting further similarities between humans and non-human species. The process of instruction whereby Mowgli learns to act like an animal may be considered as a form of discipline in that it is as unreflective as it is mechanical. His Bildung is a process of socialization whereby he learns to obey what the stories call “The Law of the Jungle.” This code, part moral, part political, is used to guarantee the survival and peaceful coexistence of the different species living within the circumscribed territory called “the jungle,” a space that has remained virtually untouched by humans, as though its borders coincided with the human/animal divide itself. Mowgli, of course, has crossed the border, and so has Bagheera, the black panther, who was born in human captivity and therefore knows the “ways of men.” Mowgli is an adept pupil and learns the Law of the Jungle together with the other wolf cubs in his pack, but Baloo, the bear who teaches the Law, realizes that Mowgli, as a hybrid Man-Cub, possesses attributes that exceed his wolfish self and must thus learn laws that pertain to jungle domains that are normally inaccessible to wolves.

The boy could climb almost as well as he could swim, and swim almost as well as he could run; so Baloo, the Teacher of the Law, taught him the Wood and Water Laws: how to tell a rotten branch from a sound one; how to speak politely to the wild bees when he came upon a hive of them fifty feet above ground; what to say to Mang the Bat when he disturbed him in the branches at mid-day; and how to warn the water-snakes in the pools before he splashed down among them. (23)

Baloo, moreover, is not shy about using corporal punishment to get his pupil to learn what he calls the “Master Words of the Jungle.” His face, Bagheera notices one day, is bruised: “Better he should be bruised,” replies Baloo, “from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance.” Mowgli’s training, not unlike Sissy Jupe’s in Dickens’s Hard Times, or, for that matter, that of Amburgh’s circus cats, involves making the body repeat, in the mechanical fashion of industrial time, a repertoire of actions premised on their reproducibility. Whatever the moral objections Bagheera can harbor regarding its practices, Baloo’s disciplinary methods are effective. Mowgli is now equipped to be a productive citizen of the jungle.

Yet, for all the rigor of Mowgli’s disciplinary Bildung, there is an unsocializable remainder that escapes the Law of the Jungle and which leads to a series of misrecognitions that complicate his full assimilation into Jungle community. Despite his great affection for Mowgli, for instance, Bagheera knows full well that he is incapable of looking him in the eye. While discipline tends to blur differences in the hybrid figure of Mowgli, misrecognitions such as these tend to establish a strict categorical distinction between human and non-human. But what is at stake in this assertion of difference, we might ask, if Mowgli’s socialization has in fact moved in the direction of its erasure? To address this question we must turn to a key scene in one of Kipling’s stories in which Mowgli is abducted by the Monkey People, or Bandar-log, a term Kipling took from Hindi, and carried through the treetops to an abandoned human city that lies beyond the Jungle’s limits. Initially, Mowgli had been curious about the Monkey People, sensing perhaps that he shared something like a species bond with them, but Baloo, who finds them uncivilized, had warned him against making too much of this new-found resemblance.

They have no speech of their own, but use stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. (26)

The Monkey People are neither part of the jungle nor part of the human world; they occupy a border zone of indefinite animality that separates them from all other species, including humans. They may well be recognizable as Mowgli’s “cousins” but they are also categorically non-human. Mowgli’s rescue, an operation that involves members of different animal species, makes visible a further distinction. While the human village to which Mowgli temporarily moves is a recognizable entity that abides by its own laws, the Monkey People inhabit an abandoned human city on the edge of the Jungle that serves merely as a backdrop or stage on which they can “pretend that they are a great people.” Indeed, the Monkey People perform a kind of humanity to which they cannot in the end aspire, since they lack their own language, have no history, and are always seeking the attention of the other animal species. They are, in other words, imperfect humans whose sub-humanity makes them not only undesirable, but also dangerous because they follow no law and exist in great numbers. Unlike Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger whom Mowlgi eventually has to punish because he has broken the Law of the Jungle by pursuing human prey, the Monkey People are categorically excluded from such Law and can only be dealt with by dint of exclusion.

The exclusionary politics that divides law-abiding citizens from uncivilized sub-humans at the edge of the Jungle cannot be explained following the logic of discipline that drives Mowgli’s Bildung. It is a politics based on a form of social difference that is construed as biological or “natural” and thus refractory to any form of discipline or adaptation. The “zone of indistinction” in which the Monkey People exist does not blur differences (between human and non-human or among primates); rather, it operates as a site in which social divisions are naturalized as biological differences. To be sure, Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa, and Akela each belong to distinct species, but they are also all equally anthropomorphic. The Monkey People, on the other hand, are excluded precisely because they are not adequately anthropomorphic, as their oxymoronic name implies. Human but not too human: this might be the best way of describing the logic whereby biopower creates divisions based on social exclusion that appear to be biological in nature. Another name for this logic is racism.

This reading of the biopolitical logic of Kipling’s Mowgli stories fits into a pattern of social evolutionism that, at the end of the nineteenth century, became a set of notions (hierarchy, struggle, selection) that conditioned the possibility of thinking about social stratification, colonization, and the necessity for wars as a biological imperative. If we go back to the live animal performances that occupy the obverse of Kipling’s treatment of human performance, we notice that to perform the animality of the human in the manner in which his characters perform it is also to reintroduce into the biological this same set of notions that fragment the social order. To be sure, this is in the realm of fiction, but consider this 1876 newspaper account of an equestrian monkey act in “Brockman’s Dog and Monkey Circus”:

Those who have hesitated long on the Darwinian theory will hesitate no longer after seeing what is to be seen here; and, humiliating as it may be, they will have to confess that after all the ape is “a man and a brother.” . . . This clever little fellow undertakes to ride the “celebrated thoroughbred pony Negro.”

That this newspaper account uses the abolitionist phrase “a man and a brother” to describe the performance of an ape acting as a human riding a horse named “Negro” all too obviously suggests that the “humanity” that is here performed is not a neutral or value-free mode of existence, but rather an over-determined animal-like social category premised on the discursive collapse of race with species. From this perspective, the cultural work performed by live animal shows involves naturalizing social difference as species difference, which is also one of basic mechanisms employed by biopower.

For Foucault, biopower institutes racism as a mechanism of internal division that sanctions the putting-to-death of the biologically vulnerable members of the polity by creating caesurae in the domain of life. According to Foucault, racism “justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger insofar as one is a member of a race or a population, insofar as one is an element in a unitary living plurality” (258). To the extent that racism is a discursive construction that is, in fact, not based on biological fact, it can also be understood as a different sort of animal act, since it is instrumentalized by means of performative speech acts. Biopower is performative in that it exerts its authority by creating a break within the biological continuum that determines what must live and what must die. It is unclear whether a causal relation can be traced between biopower’s performative speech acts, animal performance, and the parliamentary acts that put into motion the animal rights movement in Britain. The historical parallels between the three types of animal acts, however, are sufficiently striking to suggest that animals play a key role in the formation of political cultures, a role all too readily overlooked when we focus exclusively on any one of the many acts animals perform.

Mario Ortiz-Robles is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Novel as Event (Michigan 2010) and Literature and Animal Studies (Routledge 2016). He is also co-editor of Narrative Middles (Ohio 2011).


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Susan Hamilton, “On the Cruelty to Animals Act, 15 August 1876″

Philip Howell, “June 1859/December 1860: The Dog Show and the Dogs’ Home”

Ivan Kreilkamp, “The Ass Got a Verdict: Martin’s Act and the Founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1822″