Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2014

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Mike LeDuc '14, three-time national champion in track and field, with his teammates. Clockwise from top right: Mike LeDuc '14, botany major from Canton, Conn.; Ian Rathkey '14, East Asian studies major from Old Lyme, Conn.; Ben Bosworth '17, economics major from Dorchester, Mass.; Niall Williams '16, economics major from Niskayuna, N.Y.; Daniel Burns '16, government major from Alexandria, Va.; and Aaron Samuel-Davis '14, classics and dance major from New London, Conn. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

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Extraordinary Animal Acts

Extraordinary Animal Acts
Professors Michelle Neely and Ginny Anderson view a collection of camel memorabilia at Becker House. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

What we consider 'entertainment' has changed over time


Over time, humans have been fascinated by animals in the wild, animals as trained performers and animals as pets. What we consider “entertaining” about animal acts has changed from Shakespeare''s time, when people watched bears chained to posts being taunted by dogs. Today, for example, not all of us are comfortable watching whales perform stunts at SeaWorld or seeing once-wild animals parade in circuses.

Two first-year professors at Connecticut College say humans'' views on animals tell us a lot about a culture at any given time.

“One of my research interests has been the history of the circus, and the history of animals in popular entertainment as a whole, whether it''s a character in literature or on the stage,” says Ginny Anderson of the theater department, whose primary research addresses theater and the AIDS epidemic.

Michelle Neely of the English department says she has been fascinated by the relationship between humans and animals. “How we conceptualize animals is directly related to how we imagine what it means to be a person, a family member, a citizen or a [literary] character.”

“One current belief is that animals humanize you,” says Neely. Animal Planet''s hit show “Pit Bulls & Parolees,” for example, uses volunteers and parolees to acclimate fearful dogs to the loving care of a human.

Anderson points out that Michael Vick, once the highest-paid player in the National Football League, became a symbol of animal cruelty when he pled guilty to running an illegal dogfighting operation.
?After bankruptcy and prison, Vick is now an anti-dogfighting ambassador for the Humane Society.

Animal cruelty has been redefined through the ages, agree Neely and Anderson. Today, popular entertainments such as The Big Apple Circus emphasize their use of positive reinforcement to coax performances out of dogs and horses, versus wild animals like lions or tigers.

The kinds of animal acts we want to watch have changed over time — as demonstrated by the following 10 examples from Neely and Anderson.


1. The Lion King: Isaac Van Amburgh

Isaac Van Amburgh (1811-1865) was famous as “The Lion King” — decades before the debut of an unrelated Disney movie and Broadway show. Van Amburgh began his career cleaning cages for a traveling menagerie. But considering his knack for working with wild animals, his bosses bought him a Roman toga, and Van Amburgh entered the cage to perform with the animals. Nathaniel Hawthorne described witnessing a lion tamer''s performance (most likely Van Amburgh''s) in 1828 and marveled that thousands of people literally held their collective breath while the performer''s head was in the lion''s mouth. Van Amburgh called his act a Christian spectacle illustrating the “dominion” over animals granted to humans in Genesis. Today, the methods he used to extract his lion''s “tame” displays of subservience would be considered cruel.

2. P.T. Barnum's Happy Family

Ubiquitous websites, PBS documentaries and YouTube videos allow humans to smile and shed a few tears over remarkable friendships between owls and dogs, hippos and tortoises, and other animals. Long before the advent of video, however, the Connecticut-born showman Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810-1891) was offering such spectacles. Traveling in Scotland, Barnum visited an exhibition called The Happy Family, with 200 birds and animals, including predators and prey, supposedly living in harmony in one cage. Charmed, Barnum bought the exhibition and installed it in his American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York. The Happy Family implied that love really could conquer all — even the food chain. Though at the time, the newly formed American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reportedly raised objections to the museum''s public feeding of live rabbits to snakes.

3. Sackerson the Baited Bear

Shakespeare mentions bear-baiting in several plays. In “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the character Slender brags to Anne, “I have seen [the bear] Sackerson loose 20 times, and have taken him by the chain; but, I warrant you, the women have so cried and shrieked at it … they are very ill-favored rough things.” Bear-baiting would strike modern audiences as unspeakably cruel, but it was one of most popular entertainments in 16th- and 17th- century Europe, beloved by kings and commoners alike. A bear chained to a post would attempt to defend itself against mastiff dogs trained to attack. One of the most popular bear gardens or arenas in London was located around the corner from Shakespeare''s Globe Theatre. Some especially tough, long-surviving bears rivaled actors in their celebrity. Bear-baiting was finally banned in England in 1835. Yet Sackerson''s fame lived on into the 20th century, as he makes a brief appearance in James Joyce''s novel “Ulysses.”

4. Toby the Sapient Pig

“The only scholar of his race in the world,” boasted posters for the 1817 London performances of Toby, a supposedly “sapient” or wise pig. He could seemingly spell, do arithmetic and even read minds. Around the same time and in other major cities, audiences marveled at the intellectual feats of learned dogs, cats, birds and at least one goat. Were 19th-century animals catching up to humans intellectually? Probably not. Toby and his ilk had merely been trained to respond to subtle cues from their trainers and conjurers that tipped the animals off as to which card to pick up or how to answer in some way. Their trainers found that often no conscious signals were needed to prompt a correct answer; the animals had become attuned to involuntary cues in the body language of the trainer, or even cues from audience members yearning for the animal to get an answer right. This phenomenon has since become known as the Clever Hans effect, named for an early 20th-century horse. He tapped out answers with his hoof.


5. Astley's Horses and “The Circus Ring''

Retired British cavalry officer Philip Astley developed “The Circus Ring” as we know it back in 1768. Astley discovered that the centripetal force generated by horses cantering at a constant speed in a circle 42 feet in diameter allowed him to perform seemingly impossible physical feats while standing astride them. He created a comedic act titled “Billy Button, or the Tailor''s Ride to Brentford,” in which he combined clowning and equestrian virtuosity. Recognizing lucrative possibilities, Astley added to his circus ring a variety of entertainments, from juggling to acrobatics, though equestrian feats were always paramount. He closed off the ring except for one entryway and, for a single admission price, spectators seated above the ring viewed the modern circus.

6. L. Bertolotto's Flea Circus

Most people imagine a flea circus as no more realistic than a white-elephant sale with pale pachyderms in inventory. In fact, the flea circus was a genuine form of entertainment that flourished in the 19th century. Classic flea circuses featured actual living fleas pulling tiny coaches and other objects, tethered to them by fine thread or even flea-size chains with links. The props were often crafted by watchmakers expert in miniature metal fabrication. The celebrated flea circus of L. Bertolotto of Regent Street, London, boasted of performing for the crowned heads of Europe. In his Journal of Anomalies, the sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay explains that the feats performed by circus fleas were imaginative extensions of natural behavior. A flea that appeared to be rolling a ball on its feet, for instance, was really a glued-down flea trying to kick away a ball coated with a chemical repugnant to fleas. Although some classic live-flea circuses still exist, modern-day versions are more likely to consist of tiny see-saws, carousels, carriages and other moving objects powered by hidden mechanisms.

7. Lassie

Baby boomers know Lassie as the heroic TV collie who could rescue children or animals from burning barns or wildfires, or even ask for help with a series of emphatic barks. Eric Knight''s novel about a poor mining family forced to sell its family collie was later made into the 1943 MGM movie “Lassie Come Home.” The “Lassie” TV series ran from 1954-1973. Both the Lassie film and TV series presented “a hyper-romanticized vision of post-World War II America,” says Anderson. During World War I, the German shepherd Rin Tin Tin became a positive symbol as he was rescued from a European battlefield by an American soldier. The Lassie character lives on today as the mascot of a pet-food line and as co-host of the PBS reality show “Lassie''s Pet Vet.” Social scientists credit Lassie with changing people''s perceptions of dogs; once simply work animals, now they had become full-fledged family members.


8. Shamu the Killer Whale

Shamu, a young, 14-foot-long, 2,000-pound orca or killer whale, was captured in Puget Sound in 1965. Although the original Shamu died in 1971, her trademarked namesakes perform today at SeaWorld. Trainers use hand signals to prompt whales to leap, twirl, wave to and occasionally soak audience members seated in the “splash zone.” The shows are an example of the enduring appeal of projecting human qualities onto animals. In 2010, an experienced trainer was pulled underwater during a live performance at SeaWorld and drowned. The incident was the focus of a 2013 documentary shown on campus this spring: “Blackfish: Never Capture What You Can''t Control.” More than 80 students attended a panel discussion with Neely as well as Robert Askins, the Blunt Professor of Biology, and Derek Turner, associate professor and chair of the philosophy department. The event was organized by Katie Surrey-Bergman ''14 and Sarah Schnitman ''14, co-heads of Oceana, the first college chapter of this international organization. “As an aspiring wildlife conservationist,” Surrey-Bergman says, “I personally believe that captivity has its place in conservation, but not when profit and entertainment are the primary goals.”

9. Gargantua the Great

The skeleton of one of the most famous — and most misunderstood — circus animals of the 20th century can be viewed at Yale''s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Between 1937 and 1949, “Gargantua,” a 460-pound gorilla, was aggressively marketed by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a terrifying, ferocious, untamable beast capable of bending bars and wreaking havoc. The circus proprietors knew what they were doing, as the film “King Kong” had premiered in 1933 and remained tremendously popular. An advertising campaign featuring Gargantua worked, preventing bankruptcy for the struggling circus as millions of people across the country flocked to see the circus headliner. Gargantua was not fierce in reality. Orphaned when he was a month old, he had lived with missionaries in Africa until he was sold to a sea captain. A disgruntled sailor attacked the young gorilla with nitric acid, producing a physical feature later marketed as a threatening sneer. A woman named Gertrude Davies Lintz bought him, named him Buddha (or Buddy) and tenderly nursed him back to health before offering him to the circus.

10. Jumbo the Elephant

One of the greatest animal stars of the Victorian age, Jumbo the elephant continues to inspire the imagination. According to one account (promoted by Barnum), he died as a hero trying to push a younger circus elephant to safety from the track in the face of an oncoming locomotive. After Jumbo''s death, Barnum toured his skeleton before donating it in 1885 to Tufts University (then Tufts College), where Barnum served as a trustee. To this day, Jumbo serves as the university's popular mascot.

Professor Anderson has collected animal-act ephemera, encouraged by her Tufts mentor, Laurence Senelick. The day she received her doctorate (right), she was photographed next to a statue of Jumbo the Elephant.


Michelle Neely, assistant professor of English, specializes in pre-1900 American literature and culture. Her research and teaching interests include literature and the environment, animal studies and food studies. She is currently working on a book titled “The Antebellum Animal,” which examines literary, philosophical and popular representations of animal life during the 19th century to show how the period''s changing conceptions of “the animal” helped reshape American understandings of personhood, kinship, race and literary character.

Virginia (Ginny) Anderson, assistant professor of theater, specializes in theater history and culture. She directed the musical “On the Town” at the College this past winter, a collaboration spanning the theater, music and dance departments and representing the contributions of nearly 100 students, faculty and staff. Her current book project, “Beyond Angels: Broadway Theatre and the AIDS Epidemic,” grew from years of research concerning creative, social and political representations of the AIDS epidemic. Additional research interests include the history of the circus as an embodied index of changing cultural values.


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