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Entertaining Elephants

Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus

Susan Nance

Publication Year: 2013

Consider the career of an enduring if controversial icon of American entertainment: the genial circus elephant. In Entertaining Elephants Susan Nance examines elephant behavior—drawing on the scientific literature of animal cognition, learning, and communications—to offer a study of elephants as actors (rather than objects) in American circus entertainment between 1800 and 1940. By developing a deeper understanding of animal behavior, Nance asserts, we can more fully explain the common history of all species. Entertaining Elephants is the first account that uses research on animal welfare, health, and cognition to interpret the historical record, examining how both circus people and elephants struggled behind the scenes to meet the profit necessities of the entertainment business. The book does not claim that elephants understood, endorsed, or resisted the world of show business as a human cultural or business practice, but it does speak of elephants rejecting the conditions of their experience. They lived in a kind of parallel reality in the circus, one that was defined by their interactions with people, other elephants, horses, bull hooks, hay, and the weather. Nance’s study informs and complicates contemporary debates over human interactions with animals in entertainment and beyond, questioning the idea of human control over animals and people's claims to speak for them. As sentient beings, these elephants exercised agency, but they had no way of understanding the human cultures that created their captivity, and they obviously had no claim on (human) social and political power. They often lived lives of apparent desperation.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Animals, History, Culture

Cover, Title Page

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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-viii

As I was working on this project, my Mum would occasionally ask me about my progress by inquiring, “Are the elephants out of the barn yet?” For six years I could answer only that I was trying to get the elephants out of the barn but that it was proving slow and difficult. Now that the elephants are out (since the book is finished), I am very...

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Introduction: Turning the Circus Inside Out

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pp. 1-14

Consider the career of an enduring if controversial icon of American entertainment: the genial circus elephant. A being beautiful and carnivalesque in appearance, she is physically powerful but judicious and kind to humans. In a whimsical costume with trunk raised in a salute to the viewer, she is so glad to entertain her human audience...

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1. Why Elephants in the Early Republic?

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pp. 15-38

In 1796, an elephant came to the United States. The children and grandchildren of those who knew her called her Betsy or Old Bet. In her own time, people simply referred to her as the Elephant. She became so famous that many competing biographies emerged to tell her story. It is from them that we learn that her legend goes something like this...

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2. Becoming an Elephant “Actor”

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pp. 39-69

One night in 1820, a small traveling menagerie made its way along the road leading to the village of Plymouth, Vermont, where it was scheduled to give a show in the barn beside the Lakin Hotel. Caged animals, keepers, and horses in tow, the small wagon train also included a young male elephant. The next morning...

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3. Learning to Take Direction

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pp. 70-103

American animal shows offered consumer-friendly narratives mingled with naturalistic and biographical information about their elephants, all of it contextualized with a glamorous Orientana celebrating the power of the show business entrepreneur. As they could not speak in human language, performing elephants did not explicitly quarrel with these...

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4. Punishing Bull Elephants

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pp. 104-137

Before elephants arrived in the United States, Americans were in a position to envisage them as mysterious beings able to be or do just about anything. Elephants were essentially a “rhetorical animal,” an imaginary creature that served as a carrier of cultural ideals and moral values.1 Once elephants began touring the United States...

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5. Herd Management in the Gilded Age

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pp. 138-174

George Wilbur Peck once recorded an improbable story told by the young son of a circus manager, a man identified only as “pa.” As the story went, one year the animals at the circus went on strike. Trouble began at Pittsburgh, where the Teamsters, who loaded and unloaded the show’s wagons and equipment from the circus train...

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6. Going Off Script

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pp. 175-207

In 1900, impresario August Kober pondered the great irony of circus history. The ambition of man’s domination over beasts had long been a theme in circus advertising and performance, he said. Yet, circus people everywhere knew they relied upon animal power they controlled only through systematic confinement and an ability...

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7. Animal Cultures Lost in the Circus, Then and Now

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pp. 208-233

The genial circus elephant was a powerful mascot for the menageries and circuses in selling experiences of animal celebrity to a broad consumer audience in the nineteenth century. She was flexible, too, morphing from wonder of nature into various characters, some glamorous, some villainous, which served different venues...


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pp. 235-275

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 277-288

Although there is an abundance of historical evidence documenting circuses and animals in the United States, like many primary source bases, it offers great detail with respect to some favored topics, people, and practices while obscuring many of the workaday realities, experiences of people, and actions of animals that were equally crucial to what the circuses were...


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pp. 289-294

E-ISBN-13: 9781421408736
E-ISBN-10: 1421408732
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421408293
Print-ISBN-10: 1421408295

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 20 halftones
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Animals, History, Culture
Series Editor Byline: Harriet Ritvo, Series Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 834604123
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Entertaining Elephants

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Elephants -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Animal welfare -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Circus animals -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Circus -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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