Why I Study Animal Resistance
Updated: Jul 6, 2022
The study of animal resistance can have a strong pedagogical impact, inspiring people to think more deeply about the lives and plights of animals.
When I was eight years old, I had two guinea pigs, Thunder and Lightning. During the warm summer days, they had an outdoor enclosure that sat on the lawn. I moved this around the yard for them and they would nibble on the grass. One day I went to check on them as usual, but the pair were nowhere to be seen. As it turns out, they had dug under a wall of the enclosure and escaped. I searched the area without any luck. They had disappeared deep into the thicket.
At the time, my family lived on several acres of forested land that was bordered by a mountain. Months after the escape, the following spring, I was strolling along one of the trails about a kilometer from the house. Suddenly, to my great surprise, I saw Thunder and Lightning amongst some salal bushes. They were quite a distance, through mossy fields and tall trees, from where they had made their escape. Together, they had survived eating grass and perhaps other wild plants, such as dandelions. As soon as they saw me, they ran back into the dense bush. My eight-year-old self tried once again to capture them, but my attempts were futile.
This early encounter with the agency of the two guinea pigs taught me two things. First, Thunder and Lightning desired to exist outside of the confines they had been allotted, however lovingly my intention had been as their caregiver. They made this desire for freedom a reality. Second, they had survived for some time without human intervention, having essentially rewilded themselves and travelled through the woods. (Of course, it is not recommended to leave domesticated animals in the woods. The responsible action is to take them to an animal sanctuary.)
While I always had a deep respect for our animal kindred, it wasn't until years later, in my first semester of college, that I learned about the philosophy of animal rights. I became a dedicated vegan and animal rights advocate, and eventually embarked on the journey of studying animal resistance in the discipline of Critical Animal Studies.
One of the things that drew me to study animal resistance is that no matter what our age, it can have a strong pedagogical impact on witnesses. Animal resistance brings attention to animals' agency and plight in human dominated society.
Animal resistance has long been depicted in various mediums with both fictional and real-life representations. To give a few examples, artwork such as the rebellious horses in Géricault's Race of the Riderless Horses in Rome and literature from activist writing such as The Plague Dogs, to the numerous fictional plots about collective bird attacks, political allegories such as Animal Farm, and non-fiction writing like The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, and many more.
We can even find signs of animal resistance in relics of ancient times, such as a mosaic found in Sicily, which depicts various animals being loaded unwillingly onto a docked boat. Many individuals such as those depicted in this mosaic were taken from their homes and transported overseas to the ancient Roman Colosseum, where they would be killed in horrific hunting games. In one documented case, upon realizing that there was no way to flee the arena in which they were being attacked, a group of elephants raised their trunks and vocalized a plea for compassion to the crowd. In response, despite being accustomed to the horrors of these shows, the spectators were reportedly stunned, moved to tears, and wanted the show to end.
In modern times, new print media has often documented stories of animal resistance. The New York Times is a significant source for such stories. Unfortunately, these cases almost always had terrible outcomes for the resistors. (This is before animal sanctuaries or social media.) Another notable example is the weekly Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere, which often featured stories and artwork of animals resisting in public spaces.
More recently, animals resistance has begun to be examined in a critical social historical context. Early documentation that expressed solidarity with animals who revolt was published by anarchist periodicals in the late 20th century. In the early 21st century, scholarly documentation, art, films, and social media pages have highlighted animals’ agency and voices. One example is a powerful campaign called #stopcasteller in Italy, which is in solidarity with bears who are imprisoned in small cages in Trentino. One of them called M49 is well-known for their daring escapes and has drawn a lot of attention to this troubling situation.
Other animals communicate but humans have ignored and silenced their voices. Whether it be cooks leaving the room and setting a timer when they boil lobsters alive, and the lobsters tried to escape the pots, or the masses who continue to consume farmed animals and won’t watch footage of slaughterhouses. By acknowledging animals’ voices and agency, we acknowledge their participation and central roles in their liberation movement as well.
Take the case of a goat named Fred, for instance. In the late summer of 2017, Fred escaped from an animal auction yard in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Fred lived free for some time. He was sometimes witnessed with a herd of deer or popping up around the town including near a local train station. Now, you might think that this would be the last we would hear of Fred. But, a year later, Fred made headlines again when he was credited with freeing sixty goats and sheep from the same auction house. While this new development was unfolding, the police department confirmed that Fred had been sighted near the auction house just hours before the latest breakout. The auction manager stated that Fred was responsible because they had witnessed Fred showing up at the site the following day and proceeding to headbutt the gate which was now holding the recently recaptured animals. Presumably, because of his animal liberation action as well as ongoing sighting reports, the police captured Fred soon after this incident. By this time, Fred was viewed by some locals as the community’s unofficial mascot, and they didn’t take well to this. They rallied for his freedom in a Free Fred campaign and offered Fred sanctuary in their gardens.
In response, the livestock auction stated that it would not sell Fred for slaughter. However, instead of releasing Fred to a sanctuary that had publicly offered him freedom, Fred was returned to a farm that didn’t want to be publicly named, and that said he would be used as a breeder goat. This claim comes across as highly suspicious since Fred had been living free for a year, and was a highly resistant individual. Animal enterprises will often strategically kill those who are known to resist. Even if Fred did live for some time on this farm, it is far from an ideal outcome for him--or for the other goats and sheep who were still sent to auction.
The need for stories such as these to be heard is why I study animal resistance. They call upon us to consider what it means to forge solidarity with other animals in the struggle for liberation. And of course, not just the ones who are fortunate enough to break free and garner widespread support.
To learn more about animal resistance, see my book Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era.